What the best home or gun safe has
- Clear information on the packaging. Don't assume that every safe can protect against fire and water -- or that every fireproof or waterproof safe is created equal. Look for these features to be spelled out on the safe's packaging or specs list, with clear guidelines about what fire temperatures it can withstand for how long, and how long it can withstand immersion in water.
- UL or ETK certifications. The best home safes bear certifications from UL (Underwriters Laboratory) or ETK (Intertek), independent companies that verify the manufacturers' claims of theft-, fire- and water-resistance. Some experts warn that some Chinese-made safes may bear counterfeit UL seals, so be wary of imported safes that seem like too good a deal to be true.
- Safes should be large and heavy. That's a sign that they're built well. If you see a very large safe that only weighs a couple hundred pounds, it's not built of thick enough steel to withstand determined entry attempts. If the walls or door can't stand up to burglars, no amount of fancy features will safeguard your valuables inside. The bulk and weight of a large safe -- perfect for protecting lots of electronics, a large collection of valuables or a lot of documents -- also presents a significant obstacle to criminals.
- The ability to be bolted to the floor. Although this isn't strictly necessary if all you're worried about is fire or water, bolting your safe to the floor provides an additional deterrent to would-be burglars.
- A fire rating of at least 30 minutes. ConsumerReports.org quotes Greg Bonsib, director of brand management at SentrySafe, as saying that fire protection for 30 minutes is usually adequate in a home fire -- however, you can find home safes that are rated to protect for at least an hour of fire exposure.
- A carpeted interior for fragile items. Although this isn't necessarily a deal-breaker, it does help protect your more delicate valuables, especially in smaller safes that may be picked up and carried around from time to time.
- Look for safes made in the USA. Because of problems with counterfeit UL seals, construction quality and choice of materials on imported safes, many experts recommend shopping for American-made safes whenever possible. "Made in the USA" safes tend to be more expensive than imported safes, but they're usually made of sturdier materials and to a higher standard -- which is what matters the most when you're buying a safe. With that said, we've highlighted some of the better imported safes in this report, too.
Know before you go
How much storage space do you need? For a rough gauge of how much space you need, stack everything you intend to store together. ConsumerReports.org reports that a 1.2- to 1.3-cubic-foot safe will store a 1-foot-high stack of letter-size papers.
Do you need a fire protection? If you're on the fence about whether you should buy a safe with fire protection, consider that the National Fire Protection Association says the average household will experience 5 fires in its lifetime. Most of those must be pretty small, because the NFPA also reports that the average household has "just" a one in four lifetime chance of having a fire that actually gets reported -- but one in four odds is still a surprisingly high level of risk.
Where will the safe go? If you're choosing a large safe, make sure it will fit through doorways or up the stairways in your home on its way to its final destination. Some very large and heavy safes may only be installed on a ground floor; consult the manufacturer if you're not sure where your safe can be safely put.
What do you plan to store? Electronics and media, like CDs, DVDs and photographic negatives, require a higher level of heat protection than paper documents.
What kind of lock do you want? Each lock type has its advantages and weaknesses. Keypads are simple, but depend on a power source (usually typical household batteries), and users report that the keypads on inexpensive safes often stop working eventually. Keyed locks are simpler yet, but can be picked and require you to keep track of the key, so it may be hard to give the entire family access. Many users like combination locks for their combination (no pun intended) of easy access and security.
Will you need to access items frequently? If the answer is yes, look for a model with shelves, racks or other internal organizing features that can help you quickly and conveniently retrieve what you need.
Are you concerned about aesthetics? Chrome handles and a glossy paint job are nice, but remember that ultimately, the most important measure of a safe's worth is how well it resists burglary attempts, fires and even floods. Aesthetics are even less important if you're going to hide the safe away where nobody can see it.
What's to come
In 2012, Forbes.com published an alarming article by investigative attorney and security specialist Marc Weber Tobias, which included a video of a 3-year-old easily opening four locked gun safes. The article addressed the 2010 death of a toddler in Vancouver, Wash., who was shot by one of his police detective father's service weapons, which had been locked in a department-issued safe.
Tobias maintains that several gun safes on the market are not nearly as safe as gun owners -- or retailers, for that matter -- believe, and that their locks can easily be breached with paper clips, wire or even a simple bounce of the unit. It's hard to predict what will come of this story, but increased consumer awareness of the limitation of gun safes might help prevent more tragedies from occurring. The bottom line for gun owners is this: No matter where it's located, never leave a small child unattended in a home with a gun.