Dorm life 101: Renters insurance can be invaluable

Posted: Oct 06, 2008 12:01 AM
Dorm life 101: Renters insurance can be invaluable

It was a spectacular fall Sunday afternoon when I got a call from my daughter, who was sobbing and upset.

There had been a dorm-room accident.

She lives on the first floor of a college dormitory. Six floors up, the plumbing had backed up, sending sewage and other filth into her room and an adjoining suite.

Normally, my 19-year-old is not squeamish, but this was not a pretty picture.

After she reassured me that no one had been hurt and that the university was on the scene to start the cleanup and to find temporary housing for the four girls, the insurance questions starting popping into my head. Was my daughter's laptop damaged, or any other electronics? What about clothing and other personal possessions? And given the nature of the plumbing problem, was the university on the hook to cover personal property damages?

Even though my daughter's personal losses, thankfully, turned out to be minimal, I learned a valuable lesson: Don't assume that your homeowner's policy will provide the best protection on your children's dorm room or off-campus apartment possessions. It might be a better idea to purchase a separate renters policy with a low deductible of $50 or $100, and a relatively inexpensive premium of $200 or so.

Until the dorm-room disaster, I had no reason to second-guess covering my daughter's dorm possessions on my homeowner's policy. Same with my oldest child, who recently graduated from college.

But after alerting my insurance agent to my daughter's plight, I was reminded of my policy's $2,500 deductible, which is the amount I would have to absorb in the event of a claim. Ouch. I would not have been happy shelling out $1,000 or more to replace a waterlogged computer or ruined wardrobe.

Renters insurance is like so many other things that you never think about until there's an emergency. Now I'm taking steps to purchase a renters policy that will become my first line of defense.

The good news is that basic coverage with a low deductible is relatively easy and quick for parents to obtain.

Standard policies cover losses from a long list of perils, including theft, vandalism, damage caused by fire or lightning, smoke and, yes, even faulty plumbing.

Many policies also cover additional living expenses in the event the dorm room or apartment becomes temporarily uninhabitable.

On the flip side, many policies limit or exclude coverage for jewelry, bicycles, artwork, collectibles and other expensive items prone to theft. In these cases, you might need to purchase a rider that provides additional coverage.

When it comes to paying for losses, policies pay either "cash value coverage" or "replacement cost coverage." You want the latter.

With replacement cost, for example, the insurance company will reimburse you as much money as it would cost to purchase a new, comparable item. Cash value takes depreciation into account and will provide only the value of the property at the time of loss.

The best place to start your research and obtain quotes is with your agent and on the Internet, especially your son or daughter's college's Web site.

One of the nation's largest providers of student personal property insurance is National Student Services Inc., which markets its products at more than 1,600 colleges and universities.

For example, the company offers a basic personal property plan providing $2,000 of "replacement cost" coverage with a $25 deductible for on- or off-campus students. The cost: $55. National Student Services sells up to $20,000 in additional coverage. The company also said its policies cover property for students traveling abroad and for items in storage or at home.

Before purchasing a policy, check on whether processing fees are tacked onto the price, how long the policy is in effect, and what you need to do at the end of the school year to either cancel or extend the policy.

To ensure quick compensation, insurance agents recommend that students take inventory of their valuables, such as computers, TVs, MP3 players and the like. The inventory should list each item and include its value, receipts and serial numbers. Document with photos and store in a safe place.

Honesty counts, too. If a claim is filed and your student tries to help a roommate by including his damaged computer, you run the risk of having the claim denied and the policy canceled.

One other important consideration: In the residential housing agreement that students must sign prior to registering for classes, there's probably a footnote that specifies whether the school is responsible for loss of or damage to personal property. Read it carefully.

My point -- don't expect the university to reimburse you for losses.

If there was an upside to my daughter's dorm mess, it was that I think she, too, now has a better appreciation for renters coverage.

And if the plumbing ever blows again, she'll be cooler and calmer about getting her stuff off the floor and getting out of the room.

(Questions, comments, column ideas? Send an e-mail to srosen(AT) or write to him at The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108.)