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Safe deposit boxes are a core service of branch banking, with rental costs range from $45 to $425 a year or so (depending on the size).Getty Images/iStockphoto

There's one banking service that technology can't touch – the safe deposit box.

But fire and other catastrophes? That's another story.

The latest test of the safety of safe deposit boxes is the Fort McMurray fire. A check-in with several banks about their branches in the city produced a small bit of good news for clients. Safe deposit boxes in the three branches that Royal Bank of Canada and Bank of Nova Scotia each have in Fort McMurray and the two branches each for Bank of Montreal, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Toronto-Dominion Bank are secure, which means the valuables stored in them should be as well.

Safe deposit boxes are where we put things that are too valuable or irreplaceable to keep at home where they run the risk of theft, fire, flood and more. Usually, the biggest problem with one of these secure boxes is losing your key or needing access to something when your bank branch is closed.

But the Fort McMurray fire and other disasters are a reminder not to be complacent about the safety of your most precious and valuable possessions. Safe deposit boxes in North America have been destroyed in hurricanes and floods, and some were lost in the 9/11 attacks.

Do not expect the bank to cover the cost of replacing your possessions if a branch's safe deposit box vaults are damaged by flood, storm or fire. "We tell our clients that in rare incidents beyond our control, like this massive wildfire, CIBC will not be liable for any damage, delay or inconvenience that's occurred," the bank said in e-mailed answers to questions. "We do advise our clients to insure the contents of their safe deposit box, but insurance is at the client's option and expense."

If you keep valuable items in a safe deposit box at the bank, contact your insurance company or broker to discuss coverage. The Insurance Bureau of Canada's Pete Karageorgos said your policy may only cover items in your home or temporarily outside your home. Confirm that items stored permanently in a safe deposit box are covered as well.

Mr. Karageorgos suggests you also ask whether items in your safe deposit box would be covered to their full value if something happened to them as a result of a fire or other catastrophic event, or if they are subject to a limit that applies to all items in the box in aggregate, not each one separately.

How big a risk is fire damage to items in a safe deposit box? CIBC said its safe deposit boxes are fire-rated, which in the case of the two Fort McMurray vaults means they meet the industry norm of withstanding four hours of sustained fire. So you can't rule out damage in an extreme situation. Water damage is also possible when you keep items in a safe deposit box, so keep documents in sealable plastic bags if possible.

Don't expect your bank to have any idea of what is in your safe deposit box. RBC says it reviews safe deposit box rental agreements with clients at the time of purchase, and one of the issues covered is that the contents of these boxes are private. The bank does not keep a record of the contents.

Safe deposit boxes have been a core service of branch banking since forever. Rental costs range from $45 to $425 a year or so (depending on the size), with discounts available for people who have monthly chequing account packages. Despite our growing interest in banking and investing online and through apps on mobile phones and tablets, demand for safe deposit boxes remains strong. Both CIBC and RBC say demand exceeds supply at some branches, which means clients must put their name on a waiting list or use a box at a different branch.

If you've lost the keys to your safe deposit box, the bank will likely have to drill the lock. "This is usually done at a cost," TD said in an e-mail. "However, we encourage those who may have lost a key during the evacuation process to call our Fort McMurray TD Helps program (1-844-352-1423) or speak to someone in the branch to have the fee waived."

Over the years, the cost of renting a safe deposit box can be a lot more expensive than buying a safe to keep at home. But home safes can be snatched up by a burglar if they're not too large, and offer varying levels of protection against fire and water damage.

Safe deposit boxes are safer, even if they're not invulnerable.

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