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RENTAL SAVVY

It's up to the tenant to insure personal possessions

May 25, 2003|H. May Spitz | Special to The Times

In a perfect world, earthquakes would be scheduled and theft nonexistent. But life is imperfect and unpredictable. When tragedy strikes, many tenants assume their personal possessions will be replaced or repaired by the building owner's insurance policy. Unless tenants have their own policies, however, they may be out of luck -- and without their favorite clothing, stereo or furniture.

Owner's insurance is for the building and other specific items relating to the property in case of disaster. The structure itself, common areas and liability on the grounds are typical items covered by this insurance.

Insuring the contents of a rental is up to the tenant. About 27% of renters across the country have insurance coverage, according to the Insurance Information Institute. The institute estimates the average renter's policy, which protects personal property and provides some liability coverage, costs less than $200 nationally and $300 in California. Visit www.iii.org for links and other insurance information.

Is it violating the law not to have renter's insurance? If the tenant owns a waterbed, yes. California Civil Code Section 1940.5 requires proof of insurance for tenants owning waterbeds. How much? No less than $100,000 of coverage, plus replacement value, including loss of use, is specified by the code. For details, visit www.leginfo.ca.gov.

Tenants should check their leases to see whether renter's insurance is required. If no stipulations exist, it's the resident's choice.

To decide, start by making a list of possessions and their replacement cost. Is the cost of insurance worth the coverage?

Factor in possible liability too. As a tenant, you can be sued if someone is injured at your residence. For example, a friend is at your place for dinner and slices a finger while cutting tomatoes for the salad. Who pays for the trip to the emergency room plus stitches? You do. If you have a renter's policy that specifies loss due to injury, you may have coverage for the incident once the deductible is met.

Coverage comes in hundreds of variations. For personal items, replacement cost is generally considered best, since it reimburses for the value of the item at current market cost.

Check the policy for limits of reimbursement. Most have a maximum they will reimburse for any given item. Specialty items, such as artwork or prized heirlooms, can have special additional "riders" included in the policy, which will define and declare extra coverage for any object of exceptional value. Exotic or unique items should be documented and insured to your replacement satisfaction.

Regardless of the coverage, documentation should include photographs of the apartment address and entry, plus a room-by-room tour.

Proof of the date is a good idea. Include the front page of the newspaper in the photos or video, and keep it in the file too. Scale can be defined for some items with the newspaper in the photo.

Videotape and/or photographic images should clearly show the items and any special feature that distinguishes the pieces, such as size, color or manufacturer.

Policies usually cover such disasters as fire, smoke damage, lightning, break-ins and vandalism, riot or civil commotion, windstorms or hail, falling objects, plus explosion or electrical surge damage.

Keep in mind that virtually all policies have a deductible, which adjusts the premium accordingly. The higher the deductible, the lower the premium.

When selecting an agent and plan, be sure to read the actual policy carefully and determine that all promises made orally are contained in the policy.

Double-check the coverage and deductible amount. Coverage details, such as maximum benefits payable and exclusions, should be noted. Most policies can be transferred if you move to a new address, but check for transferability.

Be sure you have adequate insurance for a potential loss. If you decide to have renter's insurance, choose a plan that suits your needs.

H. May Spitz is a Los Angeles- based freelance writer. Reader comments may be sent to hmay spitz@aol.com. No attachments, please.

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