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How to buy the best home safe

Protect your valuables and documents against fire and theft.

person entering code on home safe

If you have precious jewellery, documents and other items to protect from fire and burglars, then it can be worthwhile installing a home safe. And of course if you own firearms, a safe is a legal requirement. But do you need to spend big to get something worthwhile, or can a cheap safe do the job?

It all depends on what features you want and how secure you need the safe to be. CHOICE doesn't currently review safes, but in this guide we explain the features to look for, what fire and cash ratings mean, and what you can expect at different price points.

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Reasons to own a safe: theft, fire and flood, and firearms

For most people, the main reasons to own a safe are to protect valuables, documents and data from being stolen, or from being destroyed in a house fire or flood. Many safes, especially at the more expensive end, can meet all these needs. For particularly valuable items such as high-end jewellery, storing them in a good quality safe may be a necessity if you want to insure them for their full value.

Another reason to own a safe is to secure firearms, according to the law in your state. There are various requirements for the type of gun safe required, depending on the types of firearms being stored. Gun safes can be used to protect other valuables as well.

What are cash, fire and TDR ratings?

Cash rating

A cash rating is usually shown as a dollar value such as "$10,000". It's a guide to the amount that an insurance company is likely to cover if the safe is broken into and the contents stolen. The cash rating is an indication of the quality of the safe: the higher the rating, the better the safe. 

Very cheap safes usually have no cash rating at all, so an insurer won't usually consider these sufficient to protect important valuables.

The cash rating may be a claim by the safe manufacturer based on their own tests, rather than an independently verified rating, and different brands may test their safes to different criteria and with various levels of rigour. So you should treat cash ratings as a guide rather than an absolute guarantee, unless you can see independent verification of the rating by a credible third party such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL).

Ratings are usually from $2000 all the way up to $500,000, but the final rating of a safe by an insurance company also depends on other factors. A professionally installed safe in a home with a monitored alarm ("back to base") can have a much higher cash rating than the same safe in a less secure home. 

If a high level of security is important for you, talk to your insurer before you buy a safe to see what cover they'll provide and any specific requirements they have regarding the safe and its installation.

Fire rating

A fire rating indicates how long you can expect the safe to protect its contents when subjected to heat and flame. Fire-rated safes have a lining of material or insulation that helps keep the contents cool and stops them drying out. 

As with cash ratings, the fire rating should be treated as a guide, since different manufacturers might test this in different ways, and might not have the rating independently verified.

The minimum rating is 30 minutes, but for best results, aim for a fire rating of one hour. House fires can vary significantly in heat and duration, but a good quality one hour-rated safe is likely to be more than enough.

Sometimes the stronger a safe is for resisting break-in, the worse it can be for fire resistance. This is due to the thick steel construction creating more mass to absorb heat in a fire, which in turn means more heat and damage to the contents. This is why some safes have a good cash rating but no fire rating. To have a fire rating, a safe must be specifically built to resist fire.

Torch and drill resistant (TDR)

For top-level theft protection, you may need to consider a TDR safe: torch and drill resistant. These safes are especially strongly built to resist oxy-acetylene torches, power drills or grinders, and even explosives. The door only might be TDR, or the whole safe, depending on the model. Insurance policies for highly valuable items might specify that a TDR safe is required.

Most such safes have many other protective features as well, and as you'd expect, they're more expensive. Expect to pay at least $2000, and usually a lot more.

Installing a safe

When you're choosing a safe, you need to think ahead about where it will be located in your home. Is there a good spot where the safe will be accessible without being obvious, ideally with concrete or brick to fasten it onto?

Features to look for

The lock – key, combination, or both?

  • A key lock is simple and easy to use, but of course can be a problem if the key is lost or falls into the hands of the wrong person. Key locks can also be picked by a skilled thief.
  • Digital combination locks, with a keypad and display, offer more flexibility and are generally the easiest option for home safes. You can set the combination you want and change it from time to time as needed, and you don't need to add another key to your key ring. They can also include other features such as a time out after too many failed attempts to enter the code. On the downside, codes can be forgotten, and electronic locks can fail if the battery dies or the electronics are poorly made.
  • Dial combination locks are the old-school mechanical version of the above, and are usually very reliable. But you can't program the code yourself, and as above, codes can be forgotten.
home safe access types

Keypad locks are the most popular, but mechanical dial locks are still a reliable alternative.

With some models of safes you have a choice of which type of lock you want, while others have both a key and a combination for extra security.

None of the above lock types are necessarily better than the others – the lock is just one component of the safe, and there's no point having a great lock if the safe's walls are flimsy or the locking bolts are weak.

Weight and construction

Good quality safes will have steel walls and doors several millimetres thick, and even a small one can weigh 15–20kg. Larger safes will weigh much more, for example 40–80kg is common for good mid-range safes, while a larger or high-security safe may weigh 200kg or more.

The regulations for gun safes often specify minimum wall thicknesses.

Cheap safes are commonly only a few kilograms in weight, due to their thinner walls and generally weaker construction.

Keep it secret, keep it safe

A good safe will provide great protection for your valuables, but it can still be defeated by a professional burglar. If they can't break into it on site, they might actually rip it out of the wall or floor and carry it away to break it open elsewhere. And the bigger and more robust the safe, the harder it will be to conceal. 

Major burglaries usually occur when a thief has scoped out the neighbourhood and targeted your property, and especially when they know that no one will be home. So:

  • try to not publicise the fact that you have a safe – the more people that know it exists, the more chance it will become a target
  • if you're going to be away from home for an extended period, don't announce it to the world, either in person or online
  • if you're going away for a while, consider putting your most valuable items temporarily into a safe storage facility at a bank or storage company. 

Alternatives to a safe

If installing a safe is too difficult in your home, then you can consider depositing your valuables with a bank or storage company.

Industry tips from the experts

We spoke to two people in the home safe retail industry for their advice: Mark Irvine from City Safes in Sydney, and Katie Eggleton from Bunnings.

How much do safes cost?

Very basic safes, which in many cases are really just lockable storage containers, cost between $40 and $200.

Good quality home safes recommended by professionals start at about $200: Mark Irvine from City Safes suggested the Chubb Air laptop safe as an example of an economical and compact home safe. The price goes to $700–800 for a safe with good cash and fire ratings and capable of storing a moderate amount of valuables. 

High-end safes start at about $1500 and go to over $2000 for TDR safes.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.