Just in case

Illustration by Eachean Edmundson

Cell phones, laptops, MP3 players, DVDs and TVs: For many students, going to college means bringing a trunk full of pricey gadgets.

What many don’t pack is a renters’ insurance policy to cover belongings in case of theft, fire or other damage.

It can be a costly mistake.

In the past month, a malfunctioning sprinkler system flooded a residence hall at Lander University in South Carolina, forcing 150 students to relocate.

A fire at a Lincoln University dorm in Missouri left 172 students temporarily homeless.

Closer to home, more than $250,000 worth of electronics got lifted on the University of Washington campus last year, according to campus police.

Fires, natural disasters and water leaks happen at college, just like at home. People steal and double-tall lattes land on laptops. Stuff happens.

So here is the 101 on renters’ insurance for students and their moms and dads.

The first thing parents and students need to know is that they may not need to buy more insurance.

College officials often hand out brochures for insurance companies that specialize in providing coverage to college students. Filling it out can feel mandatory, and these policies may be a good decision. But students have other options, said Claudia McClain, owner of McClain Insurance Services in Everett.

For no extra cost, most parents’ homeowners policies will extend some coverage to a student living in a dorm, apartment or rented home near campus.

Policies vary and insurers are getting pickier about what it means to be a student. Some companies extend coverage only if a student is younger than 24 and enrolled full time, McClain said.

Students should buy their own insurance policy if their parents’ policy carries a hefty deductible or mom and dad have made a number of claims, she said.

If a student’s parents are receiving a big discount on the cost of their home insurance because they’re claim-free, a student should probably get his own.

If students choose to stay under their parents’ homeowners insurance, McClain recommended developing a plan for which losses the family will pay out of pocket.

Even if the parents have a $500 deductible, it might not make sense to file a claim for a $650 stolen bike because of the increased cost to the policy over time, she said.

Students who decide to get their own coverage can figure out how much they need by tallying how much it would cost to replace everything in their dorm room or apartment at retail prices, McClain said.

“Most people never get close to adding up everything they own,” she said. “They think about the big-ticket items and estimate that they need only $10,000 or $15,000 in coverage. I’ve never seen an apartment that could be fully furnished with new items for that amount.”

A typical renter’s insurance policy offered by an agent can vary widely than the type marketed directly to college students.

It pays to read the fine print. Most renters policies limit the amount of coverage on jewelry, cash and guns. Policies that cost less may also not cover high-risk items such as electronics and jewelry.

“Some policies may not cover the bad things that happen to a laptop,” McClain said. Like a power surge that fries the hard drive or that late night cup of coffee spilled on the keyboard.

Students also should examine whether a policy covers the full cost to replace an item or only its depreciated value. The best policies allow students to replace damaged or stolen items with new.

Companies such as CSI Insurance Agency Inc. and National Student Services Inc. specialize in providing personal property insurance to college students.

These policies generally cost less and have smaller deductibles, appealing to students concerned about stolen textbooks and cell phones The downside is these policies can provide less protection.

A typical policy through National Student Services costs $125 a year, provides $5,000 in coverage and carries a $50 deductible, said Aimee McCracken, a business manager at the company. Most of the claims the company pays are for $500 to $700, she said.

Reporter Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or dsmith@heraldnet.com.

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