Peace of mind worth $100 a year
The scene playing out on the evening news on Wednesday, May 26, was frighteningly familiar. As fire raced through one of the 24-unit buildings at the sprawling Sun Prairie Apartments complex in West Des Moines, frazzled renters stood in the courtyard wringing their hands as photographs, heirlooms and other prized possessions became ashes in the wind.
Some might have been mentally chastising themselves, as I was about a dozen years ago when I came home about 2 a.m. after a late night at the newspaper and discovered my apartment building was ablaze. My mind raced as flames licked through the roof and reached toward the winter sky.
I hoped that the picture of my mother, who had died more than 20 years before, was still intact. She’d passed down heirlooms from her family, and I thought of the mahogany dresser with the handkerchief drawers that my grandfather had saved from a woodpile and beautifully restored. It would probably be charred. The same with the walnut stand table with its ornate pedestal. I worried that the heat would melt the antique crystal Mom only used on special occasions. And what about those thoughts I’d jotted down for more than a decade in journals that someday would become the basis for a novel?
A woman I didn’t know well had stopped to observe the commotion. She slipped her arms around my shoulders, speaking in hushed tones reserved for tragedy. “They’re just things, dear,” she said. “They can be replaced. You can’t.”
Something in my reaction prompted her next question. “You do have insurance, don’t you?” she asked, emphasizing “do” and “don’t you.”
“Well, no,” I admitted sheepishly.
She looked at me incredulously, as if I wasn’t as smart as she thought.
I didn’t feel very smart, either. The truth is, I didn’t buy renter’s insurance not because I couldn’t afford the relatively inexpensive policy, but because I foolishly thought that as long as I didn’t do something careless, like leave burning candles unattended or smoke in bed, the chances of fire were slim. I took a risk I didn’t calculate carefully enough. Faulty wiring, not tenant negligence, was determined to be the cause of the fire. I couldn’t have controlled it.
I was more fortunate than the other tenants in the building, a house converted into a three-unit apartment building. My unit was an afterthought, a finished porch separated from the main part of the house by a brick wall, which, as luck would have it, acted as a firewall. My possessions were still intact, but covered with soot. The smell of smoke permeated everything, from my clothing to my toothbrush. Anything plastic had to be thrown out. I tossed other things as well after calculating the cost to have them cleaned and realizing that without being able to turn in the losses on an insurance claim, I’d put too big a dent in my savings account.
I bought a rental policy the day I signed the lease for my new apartment. It cost a little more than $100 a year to insure my possessions. I never made a claim, but $100 a year bought a lot of peace of mind.
Beth Dalbey is editorial director for Business Publications Corp. E-mail her at email@example.com.