Don't let your stuff crash like your hard drive.

In June, 2011, my friend, Anthony (his name has been changed), and I were attending an opera with one of our professors at the University of Michigan. We were barely 15 minutes into the opening act when Anthony's phone exploded with calls and text messages imploring him to return to his apartment immediately. There had been a fire. Two bedrooms and part of the kitchen of his four-bedroom apartment were touched by the flames. The building, which had been constructed only two years before, had a fire suppression system. All of the rooms, even those untouched by the fire, were positively saturated with water.

Laptops, flat screen TVs, furniture, textbooks, appliances, and a number of other valuable possessions were either charred, smoke damaged, soaked with water, or some combination of the three. None of the four college students who lived in the apartment unit had renter's insurance. Their unit was condemned and all four had to move out immediately. Anthony spent the next two weeks sleeping on my couch while he looked for a more permanent living arrangement.

college student, laptop, college books, electronics, rent, apartment, renters insurance, apartment fire,

I saw firsthand the carnage that a disaster like a fire can wreak on a person's life. I probably spent a total of 12 hours at a laundromat with Anthony sorting through his clothes, washing the same items multiple times before finally tossing most of them because the smell of smoke simply would not come out. His MacBook Pro, which was crucial to his coursework, looked like it came straight out of a Salvador Dali painting. He had no warranty (not that it would've covered such damage) or insurance from Apple on it. Several textbooks were either completely consumed by the fire or so damaged as to be rendered unusable. His academic life became immediately more difficult.

Anthony was lucky; his father was very successful in his business and was able to replace many of the most important items rather quickly. But since Anthony had no renter's insurance, his dad had to lay out substantial amounts of cash to do so.

In January, Princeton Survey Research Associates International conducted a survey of Americans aged 18-29. Only 12% of the millennials surveyed said that they held a renter's insurance policy. A shocking 60% indicated that they were "confident" that they could "absorb the financial impact" of theft, fire, water damage, or liability claims.

I'm skeptical of that confidence. I used the Know Your Stuff tool offered by the Insurance Information Institute to get a rough idea of the replacement value of the contents of my life. I was surprised to see that my "stuff' is worth almost $30,000; I have exactly 0% confidence that I could absorb the financial impact of a fire or other disaster ruining my Stuff.

Apartment dwellers like Anthony and me lose everything in a fire. Renters in our age bracket very seldom carry renter's insurance and are rarely in a position to replace all of our possessions, so such a loss can be catastrophic.

Renter's insurance policies can cover routine weather events like heavy wind, rain, snow, and lightning in addition to fire, smoke damage, vandalism, and theft. Policies do not cover "acts of God" like flooding above street level, but they do protect your stuff if your upstairs neighbor's washing machine leaks into your apartment. They also provide liability coverage; if someone is injured in your apartment and sues, your legal fees and any award can be covered, up to a limit. Coverage often includes living expenses if you're forced to move out because of, say, a fire. Such coverage could help you avoid several miserable weeks of couch surfing like my friend Anthony.

Anthony never bought a renter's insurance policy because he was living in a brand new, high-end building and assumed that his landlord's insurance would protect his stuff. But this is not the case. Your stuff may be protected only if damage is done when the landlord is fully aware of a hazardous condition and does not correct it within a reasonable amount of time. The fire in Anthony's apartment was started by accident, not through some negligence on the part of the management company.

Covering your exposure to all of the scary risks facing your stuff is can be quite cheap. On average, it costs only $12 a month to adequately protect your things. There is some fine print to be aware of, however. If you've got jewelry, guns, computers, cameras and other tech items, or silverware in your apartment, you may need to seek a professional appraisal and will want to consider attaching a "floater" or an endorsement to your policy to specifically cover the replacement value of such items.

There other things to consider, too. What about the person who generates all that hilarious content you read on BuzzFeed? They probably use their own computer to write posts. I also work from home managing a website. Both of these situations complicate matters: The standard limit for work equipment is $2,500. But I use my laptop for running my business and for posting Facebook updates and Tweets. My laptop is both a personal and a professional device. And what if my laptop is stolen or damaged while I'm traveling?

aftermath of a fire, burned, scorched, apartment fire, renters insurance

Your life and your Stuff are complicated and precious. Anthony and I never thought we would bear witness to burn marks running from floor to ceiling, but we did. Nobody ever plans for a disaster to strike their Stuff, but it can happen. Having a brief conversation with your insurance­ agent or broker can help you understand the sorts of risks facing your Stuff and how to best protect it. After all, I back up all the content of my Digital Life multiple times. Why shouldn't I protect my physical Stuff, too?


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