Renters insurance: What you need to know

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Renters insurance is widely considered the best buy for the money.

Many tenants assume a landlord's insurance will cover their belongings after a catastrophe, but that's incorrect. Renters insurance typically covers not only your belongings but your liability in many cases, plus things like living expenses if you're homeless after a fire.

Enter your zip code in our quoting tool to the left to see carriers that offer renters insurance and bundling in your area.

Here are some common questions:

• Why do I need it?
• How much does it cost?
• How do I buy it?
• What isn't covered?
• Can I bundle it with my auto policy?

What renters insurance covers

The technical name for renters insurance is an HO-4 policy and it's specifically designed to protect people living in apartments. These policies protect your belongings from loss or destruction, but coverage is limited to 16 specific perils.

While specifics can vary from policy to policy, almost all HO-4 policies cover the following events:

1. Fire or lightning
2. Windstorm or hail
3. Explosion
4. Riot or civil commotion
5. Damage caused by aircraft
6. Damage caused by vehicles
7. Smoke
8. Vandalism or malicious mischief
9. Theft
10. Volcanic eruption
11. A falling object
12. The weight of ice, snow or sleet
13. Accidental discharge or overflow of water or steam from within a plumbing, heating, air conditioning, or automatic fire-protective sprinkler system, or from a household appliance
14. Sudden and accidental tearing apart, cracking, burning or bulging of steam or hot water heating system, an air conditioning system or an automatic fire-protective system
15. Freezing of plumbing, heating, air conditioning or automatic fire-protective system, or of a household appliance
16. Sudden and accidental damage from artificially generated electric current (does not include loss to a tube, transistor or similar electronic component)

Many HO-4 policies will also cover additional living expenses, which means that if your apartment is destroyed your policy will cover your living expenses.

"Additional living expense on an HO-4 would cover costs associated with hotels, meals, laundry, and other expenses that the tenant incurred while their apartment was being repaired. It could also cover costs associated with moving should the apartment not be inhabitable for an extended period," says Travis Biggert, chief sales officer with Hub International.

It's important to remember that renters insurance never covers flooding or earthquake damage, so you will be on the hook for the cost to replace all of your possessions if they are destroyed by a flood or earthquake.

If you live in an area that is prone to flooding or earthquakes you will need a separate policy. Flood insurance is available from the National Flood Insurance Program and earthquake coverage can usually be added as a rider to your renter's insurance policy.

How renters insurance liability works

A renters insurance policy not only covers your possessions, but it also has a liability component that will protect you in the event someone is injured in your apartment due to your negligence.

The financial ramifications of a lawsuit by an injured party can be devastating. Luckily, the liability portion of your policy will protect you (and your assets) from bodily injury and property damage claims as well as damages you or your family members accidentally do to others.

As an example, if you have a party at your apartment and serve alcohol, you can be held liable for any damage or harm your intoxicated guests do to other people or their property. The liability portion of your renter's insurance policy will cover the cost of any bodily injury or property damage claims.

Dog bites are another liability issue that an HO-4 policy will cover. If your dog bites a visitor or neighbor, you can be on the hook for hospital bills or find yourself on the wrong end of a lawsuit.

Some insurance companies exclude dog bites from coverage, and other insurers may exclude certain breeds of dogs so be sure to check with your insurance agent if you own a dog.

In most cases, renters insurance will cover costs related to legal representation due to a lawsuit as well as any damages that are awarded, up to your policy limits.

It's up to you to choose your liability limit on an HO-4 policy. Liability limits for renters insurance usually start at about $100,000 and can go up to $500,000. "We recommend $300K in liability coverage minimum. If the person is more financially established, we recommend an umbrella policy of at least $1million," advises Tom Austin with Bungalow Insurance.

Finally, most HO-4 policies also include no-fault medical payment coverage. Angi  Orbaan, second vice president of personal insurance at Travelers explains this coverage. "If someone gets hurt in your home, he or she can submit medical bills directly to your insurance company. This way, expenses can be paid without a liability claim being filed against the renter. It should be noted that this coverage does not pay the medical bills for the renter's family." Guest medical coverage of $5,000 is what is recommended.

Replacement vs. Actual Cash Value

When it comes to renters insurance, you will have to choose between "replacement cost" and "actual cash value" policies. This refers to how the insurance company values your property and the difference between these two policy types can be important.

Replacement cost: These policies will cover the actual cost of replacing your possessions. As an example, if your TV is destroyed, your insurer would replace it with a brand new TV of a similar size and quality, regardless of how old it was when it was destroyed. These policies ensure that you will receive the full cost to replace your possessions.

Replacement cost polices tend to be more expensive than actual cash value but offers the peace of mind that your possessions will be replaced.

Actual cash value:  Insurers take depreciation into account when calculating the value of your possessions so your insurer will only pay out the value of the belongings at the time of the loss. This means that if you have a 10-year old TV, the payout amount will be for the value of a TV that is ten years old. In most cases, it will not be enough to cover the cost of a new TV.

These policies are less expensive but remember that you will have to cover the difference between the amount your policy pays and the cost to replace your possessions with new ones.

It's important to note that some item values are capped. High-value items such as jewelry, artwork, furs, firearms and other collectibles can be subject to a value cap. The cap amount can vary, but in general, most policies put it at around $1,500. If you have items that fall into these categories and the value is more than $1,500 you can purchase a policy rider that will increase coverage levels.

Do I need renters insurance?

Yes. Because bad days happen. Sometimes they're your fault. Sometimes they just come at you.

Renters insurance is much like homeowner's insurance. It pays for your personal property that's damaged or stolen. And it provides liability protection for any damage or injuries caused by you, your household family members or your pets, either in or outside the apartment.

Sometimes called apartment insurance, it will also help pay hotel expenses if your unit is temporarily unlivable, say due to fire or water damage.

It differs from homeowners insurance in that it does not cover the structural damage. This is also why it's much cheaper.

"Everything that you brought on to the structure is your responsibility," says Mike Barry of the Insurance Information Institute (III). "The landlord's responsibility, when it comes to insurance, is limited primarily to the structure."

How much does renters insurance cost?

Not much. Basic policies can cost the equivalent of one or two six-packs a month. Surveys show that most renters think it costs more than it does.

"I think a lot of people, they look at how cheap it is and they think I'm just trying to add $15 a month to the bill like it's not important," says Ryan Scruggs, a Farmers Insurance agent in the Phoenix area.

Scruggs sells basic apartment policies for $12 to $20 a month, and home rental policies for $20 to $30 a month. That covers $25,000 in personal property, $5,000 for loss of use, $100,000 of liability, and $1,000 for guest medical.

Rates vary based on coverage amounts, the renter’s credit history, and where he or she lives. Arizona's prices are about average. Mississippi's are the highest, according to a 2012 survey by the III, at $244 a year. South Dakota's are the lowest, at $118.

The national average is $187, or $15.58 per month. Homeowner's insurance, by comparison, averages $1,034.

You may need to pay extra to add flood or earthquake coverage, or to add expensive items that exceed individual limits, such as for jewelry or antiques. These endorsements typically add a few dollars per month.

Will it cover my laptop in my car?

Yes. It covers your personal property even if it's in transit, like in a moving van, or just parked outside the gym.

The catch is that the limit for loss outside the home is typically just 10 percent of the total personal property limit. So if you have $2,500 in personal property coverage, you'll only be reimbursed up to $250 for items stolen from your car.

That still beats what your auto insurer would pay: nothing. Car insurance covers only vehicle components -- a built-in GPS or CD player -- not a bike or laptop you've put inside.

How do I buy it?

Could you, right now, name your possessions and the cost to replace each? Agents say this is what most stymies tenants and it's Step 1 before purchasing a policy: calculating how much insurance you need.

"I think a lot of people if they stood back to take an inventory of their property, would be surprised by the value," says Charles Caruso, president of the Professional Insurance Agents of New Jersey.

The III’s free KnowYourStuff app can help you create a home inventory and store it online.

Once you know how much you need -- in property and liability -- you can compare policies. Be careful to consider what each cover. Don't just go by the base rate. Some companies advertise policies for as little as $50 a year with a multiple-policy discount, but they provide low medical limits.

Will the insurer cover damage by your pet? Your $10,000 engagement ring? Your roommate's things, too? Damage due to flood insurance? New York City tenants lost a lot when Hurricane Sandy flooded basement storage units.

Your current car insurance company is a good place to start, as most of them also sell renters insurance and offer some bundling discount.

How to compare renters insurance coverage and policies

The absolute best way to save money on your renter's insurance is to shop your policy on a regular basis. It's important that you are comparing apples to apples when shopping policies. Here are a few items you should check when looking for a new policy:

Coverage levels

All renter policies have coverage levels for both personal property and liability coverage. It's very important that all of the policies you are considering offer the same amount of coverage.

A policy that caps liability coverage at $100,000 will almost certainly be cheaper than a policy offering $300,000 of coverage but you could end up on the hook for some major expenses if someone is seriously injured in your apartment as $100,000 will quickly be eaten up by hospital bills.

Additional living expenses

This coverage can be a lifesaver if your apartment is damaged or destroyed and becomes unlivable. It will pay for expenses related to temporary housing. Not all HO-4 policies offer this coverage so be sure all of the policies you are considering offer additional living expenses coverage.


HO-4 policies have a deductible amount that you must pay before the insurance company steps up to cover your loss. The average deductible for renters insurance is $500-$1,000. The higher the deductible, the cheaper the policy, so verify that all policies you are considering have the same deductible.

Coverage type

Replacement value policies will usually cost more than an actual cash value policy so make sure all of the policies you are considering offer the same type of coverage.

Sharing a renters insurance policy with a roommate

If you have a roommate, you probably share many of the bills associated with the apartment. However, most experts don't recommend sharing a renters insurance policy. "If both roommates have the means or if they don't know each other very well, it may be a good idea to get separate policies, advises Austin.

Here are the pros and cons of sharing a policy with your roommate:


Splitting the cost: This is the only benefit of splitting a policy with your roommate. According to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC), the average renter's insurance policy costs between $15 and $30 per month so the savings is not huge.


Sharing a claim record: All of your roommate's claims will end up on your insurance record. "If your roommate has their bike stolen and wants to make a claim, that could hurt your insurance score and impact your rates in the future," warns Austin.

Moving out: If your roommate suddenly decides to move out, can you afford the balance of the policy?

The value of property: If your roommate's possessions have a higher value than yours, a 50/50 split on the bill may not be fair. Have an honest discussion with your roommate about the value of your possessions and determine a fair way to split the cost of the policy.

This also applies to payouts if you have to make a claim. How will the claim money be divided up? Have a written agreement and a detailed inventory of your possessions in place before splitting a renters insurance policy.

College kids and renters insurance

If you have a child in college that lives on campus, they may be covered by your homeowner's policy.

College student in a dorm or campus housing

Almost all homeowners policies will extend coverage to college students living in a dorm or campus housing. "Most homeowners policies include coverage for a college student's personal belongings while they are living on campus. Typically, the student's property is covered up to 10% of the amount on the parent's policy for personal property," explains Orbann.

As an example, if the parent's homeowner policy offers $300,000 in personal property coverage, your student would be eligible for $30,000 in coverage. While 10 percent is fairly standard, the percentage does vary by policy so verify coverage levels before assuming you are protected.

"Since a dorm is considered "temporary housing" most insurance companies do not require the location be listed to afford contents and liability coverage for that location, while other carriers require a "college student" endorsement," says Biggert.

Once they move onto graduate school or just graduate into life it is probably time for their policy. "In the event, your child is a graduate student and maintains their auto policy we would advise a separate renters policy be put in place in the name of the student," continues Biggert.

What isn't covered by renters insurance?

Most of these items usually aren’t covered by the standard policy, but you can almost always buy an endorsement. Typical exclusions include:

• Roommates, unless they're named on the policy. Family and guests are covered, people you're in a business relationship with -- a subletter, an AirBnB guest -- are not.
• Expensive jewelry, antiques, collectibles, furs or other high-ticket items might be subject to the individual limit. A few bucks more can buy you additional coverage.
• Business equipment beyond a small, set amount. There are coverage limits for business equipment inside the home, sometimes to as little as $2,500.
• Certain dogs. Some insurers exclude entire breeds. Others may only include liability for a dog that's passed a behavioral test.
• Floods, in most areas. Standard policies cover accidental water damage in the building -- a broken water line or overflowing tub - but not the result of heavy rain and flooding. Check about buying a flood endorsement.
• Criminal behavior. Although insurance covers negligent acts that may result in criminal fines, insurance does not cover intentional criminal acts.
• Your medical bills. Liability protection pays other people's medical bills. Trip over your rug, and it's your health insurance that'll pay to stitch up your head.
• The difference between what your stuff was worth and the cost to buy a new version, unless you ponied up a bit extra for "replacement cost" insurance. Otherwise, you'll be reimbursed only for the depreciated "actual cost value," what that 10-year-old, used, a leather jacket would have fetched on the market today. Otherwise known as a lot less.
• Back rent. You will not be reimbursed for any rent you may owe the landlord.

Will renters insurance get me a discount on my car insurance?

Buy renters insurance from your auto insurance carrier and, yes, they'll likely cut you a break on the auto. Not because you're suddenly a better driver, but because now you're more likely to stick around, maybe long enough to buy more insurance later, too.

"Insurers know that a customer who has multiple policies with them is less likely to leave to go to a competing insurer," says Chris Hackett, director of personal lines policy for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America. The multiple-policy discount is a very common means to "reward customers for being loyal, and to try to retain them."

Farmer's insurance company, for example, will slash 10 percent off both policies, an additional 5 percent if you add life insurance, too. Other car insurance companies, like Nationwide, will discount 20 percent off the auto, to name a couple.

"If your premium on auto was substantial," Hackett says, "that companion policy discount could be pretty substantial."

Of course, discounts will vary by company and by a state.

Based on a survey of rates from six major carriers in every state, commissioned by, the average discount for bundling a renters policy with auto coverage was:



















New Hampshire




New Jersey




New Mexico




New York




North Carolina


District of Columbia


North Dakota




















Rhode Island




South Carolina




South Dakota




























West Virginia














Karen Aho's reporting and writing also contributed to this report.


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