Home Safes: A DIYer's Guide

You don’t have to keep stacks of cash on hand or be dripping with precious jewels to need a home safe.

Anyone with a Social Security card, a birth certificate, a property title, a will, tax returns, a data-backup device, a firearm or precious photos could benefit from one — provided it has the right features, is properly installed and can be opened by someone you trust. Otherwise, a burglar could steal the box, important electronic data could perish in a fire, or you could inadvertently take your last wishes to your grave.

Though you might first think of safes to guard against theft, they can also protect property from fire and flooding. Third-party testing is critical to certify how devices perform against each threat. Underwriters Laboratories (UL) is considered the gold standard, but ESL (Intertek) has grown in popularity. Manufacturers’ claims alone should not be trusted because they may not follow standard testing protocols. Many of the products marketed as small “safes” actually are classified as Residential Security Containers (RSCs) by UL and held to lower standards than “tool-tested” safes. But since the term RSC doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, we (like the manufacturers) will refer to these products as safes in this article.

An internal bolt-down kit will make even a small safe much more secure.

Fire and flood protection
Safes are fire-rated based on how long they can keep contents below a given temperature when subjected to a specified intensity of heat. To protect important papers that would char at 425 degrees, a safe’s interior temperature should not exceed 350 degrees. Older safes insulated their contents with concrete; modern fire-resistant boxes use gypsum board and intumescing seals.

Home safes aren't just for preventing theft; many provide significant protection agains fire and flood. Check the safe's ratings before you buy.

It’s important to understand what your safe will do in a fire and manage the contents accordingly. UL may rate various models to keep the interior temperature below 350 degrees for 30 minutes when subjected to a 1,550-degree fire, for an hour in a 1,700-degree fire or for two hours in a 1,850-degree fire. Many common consumer safes will only protect contents from 1,200-degree heat for 30 minutes or less. House fires tend to move from room to room relatively fast. The average residential fire reaches 1,500 degrees and lasts 20 minutes.

Some safes feature an external USB or Ethernet port that allows you to back up data to a portable hard drive inside the safe without opening the door.

Stationary safes installed in flood-prone areas should be certified for water resistance. Water-resistant safes can withstand 1,000 gallons of water spray for 15 minutes or stand in 6 in. of water for an hour. Waterproof safes can be completely submerged.

In addition to a safe's security against theft, flooding and fire, always consider what sort of storage space you'll require.

Burglary protection
No safes are burglar-proof. Given the right tools and enough time, a motivated thief can penetrate any barrier. A safe’s burglar resistance varies widely based on size and weight, locking mechanism, material thickness, hinges and anchoring. Solid-steel construction, multiple large locking bolts, relockers, pry-resistant concealed-hinge doors and bolt-down kits are best. A thief can toss a small safe into a backpack or wheel away a midsize unit on a sturdy handcart. For maximum security, stationary safes should be bolted through a concrete floor.

Large, hardened, hidden locking bolts make it extremely difficult to break into a modern safe.

Serious safecrackers may use listening devices, torches and power tools to open a safe. A UL-listed RSC is rated to survive a five-minute attack from drills, chisels and the like. A “UL Inspected Tool Resisting Safe TL 15 Burglary” label means the safe should resist entry for at least 15 minutes when attacked by hand and power tools. It also must weigh at least 750 pounds or be securely anchored and have at least 1-in.-thick steel walls and a single 1/4-in. or smaller concealed hole for an electrical conductor. Fortunately, home burglaries are most often committed by teenage boys who spend no more than eight minutes in the home. They tend to take things at are easy to carry and sell.

Picking locks
Safes may lock with keys, old-fashioned mechanical dials, modern electronic keypads or even biometric fingerprint readers. Better-quality locks feature automatic relockers that secure the door if someone tries to drill or punch the lock. Here are the basics about each type of locking mechanism:

  • Mechanical dials: Three-number, dial-operated combination locks are considered most reliable and don’t require batteries, but they are slower to open and, like your high school locker, take a little practice to master.
  • Electronic keypads: – These locks tend to be faster to open, and the larger numbers are easier to read. You can set a custom six- to eight-digit password and change it whenever you want. But keep in mind that all electronics can fail. If the circuit board or connection dies and there is no key backup, it could cost more than $350 to have the lock drilled out so you can retrieve the contents.
  • Keys: This is the simplest way to unlock a safe and often provides backup access to safes with electronic keypads. But keys can be lost or get into the wrong hands. A combination lock is considered safer than a keyed lock when securing firearms in a household with children. Biometric devices – Some locks come with fingerprint readers that enable you to open the safe by holding a finger or fingers against a sensor panel. They also can be programmed for multiple users, so you know who is accessing the contents.

There are many choices in lock technology, including keypads, biometric locks and key locks, all used on this safe.

Securing firearms
Safes are recommended to keep firearms from being stolen by criminals or accessed by children or mentally unstable family members. Safes specifically designed for weapons often feature quick, one-hand access and quiet locks so the owner can access a weapon without being overheard by an intruder. A gun safe may or may not be fire-rated. If you plan to safeguard important papers or media along with firearms in a gun safe, fire resistance is critical.

Location, size and warranties
Burglars typically start in the master bedroom, where they expect to find cash, jewelry and firearms that they can easily carry and pawn. Home offices come next, followed by formal rooms where valuables are openly displayed. As such, these rooms arguably are the worst places to “hide” a safe, particularly a small one. A lower-level interior space may be less convenient for you to use, but it is often the safest place in a fire or severe weather.

You might consider hiding a wall safe behind a painting, but not if it is the only art on the wall. In general, placing a big, heavy object in front of the safe is best. Most burglars need to work fast. Though you may think a larger safe is a no-brainer because it is more difficult to steal, keep in mind that it will also be more difficult to conceal.

Size determines how much stuff a safe can protect. To figure out the size you actually need, stack all of the things you want to protect in a pile and measure the area. Safes in the 1.2- to 4.7-cu.-ft. range are common for home use. Wall or floor safes typically are less than 0.6 cu. ft. Gun safes are taller and contain racks and pockets to hold long guns and handguns. However, reviewers warn that the boxes may hold fewer firearms than advertised, particularly if the guns are fitted with scopes.

Safes often come with adjustable shelves. You can also purchase custom-fitted lock boxes and drawers to keep selected items organized and secure even when the safe is open.

Warranties range from one year for the original registered owner to lifetime transferable protection. Pay special attention to whether the store or the manufacturer is responsible for repairs: Safes are heavy, and it would be extremely expensive to ship one cross-country to be fixed. Cannon touts the warranty on its larger safes because it provides free repair or replacement and shipping after a natural flood, an attempted or actual break-in or a fire.

Bank safe-deposit boxes are more secure than residential safes, but demand for them continues to fall as online banking increases. Safe-deposit boxes are not as accessible as personal safes. For instance, if you need $3,000 on a Sunday morning to bail your daughter out of jail, you’re both out of luck. Also, the contents of a safe-deposit box are not insured like money that is deposited in the bank (though only 18 of the more than 5,000 bank robberies in 2011 involved safe-deposit boxes).

Annual rental fees vary by box size, institution and state. Some banks offer discounts to patrons who maintain a minimum deposit in their checking accounts. If you do use a box, make sure someone else is on the account so he or she can access the contents in an emergency. And take good care of your keys; they can cost hundreds of dollars to replace.