More Americans Stashing Cash in Home Safes

In a time period marked by financial turbulence, safes have become a popular commodity with sales increasing as much as 40%. There has been a growing need for investors to "protect what they have" and by purchasing safes and storing their valuables they are doing just that.

By CHARLES PASSY
MAY 3, 2012, 2:29 P.M. ET
Smart Money

When Carlos Felipe decided to shop for the ultimate night's sleep, he headed to the New Jersey showroom of Hollandia, an Israeli manufacturer that creates custom beds running as much as $35,000. And sure enough, Felipe, a sales representative, found plenty of appealing features and options, from the adjustable bed frame powered by German-made motors to the hypoallergenic, antimicrobial latex mattress (the cover is "treated with aloe vera for a soft feel," Hollandia boasts). But the accessory that most caught Felipe's eye was designed to help him rest easy in a different way. It was a small safe, good for holding a few valuables or gold coins, ingeniously built into the base of a bed -- a modern-day answer to the idea of stashing your savings under a mattress. A duly impressed Felipe plans on using it to store his wife's jewelry and some extra cash: After all, he asks, what thief would look for such valuables in the frame of the bed itself?

In an era marked by financial turbulence, it's probably not surprising that safes have become a popular commodity, with some manufacturers, retailers and installers reporting sales increases of as much as 40 percent from a few years ago. But the bigger eyebrow-raiser is what has happened to those iconic gray-steel boxes of yore: They've undergone an extreme makeover -- or several of them. Taking the place of those old square combination jobs are a range of custom safes, from boutique showpieces to decoy models for the family den -- not to mention the truly offbeat (a hideaway lockbox resembling, ahem, a pair of men's underwear) and the seriously safe (an in-home vault with a price tag of more than $100,000). And that's not even getting into the ever-broadening array of color choices (champagne marble, anyone?) "None of our safes should be hidden in a closet," says Markus Dottling, principal at Dottling, a German specialty-safe manufacturer whose museum-worthy designs can cost more than the average American house.

One thing that isn't driving the safe boom, apparently, is crime. Indeed, U.S. burglary rates have been plunging for years. Still, experts say that many savers and investors feel a lingering sense of insecurity in their finances -- a hard-to-shake fear borne out of the jolting recession and, at times, wobbly recovery -- which is helping to spur the new safeguarding mentality. Tyler D. Nunnally, founder and CEO of Upside Risk, an Atlanta firm that researches investor psychology, says sticking tangible assets in a safe can be a natural reaction to volatility in the markets. "People dislike loss twice as much as they like gains," he says. "They want to protect what they have." Growing numbers of these fearful types simply don't trust their banks to protect them: In a Gallup poll last year, a record-high 36 percent of Americans said they had "very little" or "no" confidence in U.S. banks. (In 2008 and 2009, when the financial crisis was peaking, that figure stood at 22 and 29 percent, respectively.) And growing concern about identity theft has made some people more eager to keep their assets in a form they can see and count, says R. Brent Lang, an investment manager in Surrey, British Columbia: "By acquiring one password, someone can wipe out all your digital wealth," he says.

Still, it says something about the resilience of the American consumer's mentality that even when purchasing an item associated with all sorts of negatives (theft, fire, global economic collapse), more buyers are demanding products with a little flair. "When somebody is building a $100,000 custom closet, they don't want a safe that looks like it belongs in the back of a delicatessen," says Robert Tompkin, president of Prestige Safe, a high-end New York manufacturer. That sentiment has fed the growth of an incongruous industry, where financial paranoia meets a willingness to pursue a little luxury. When firearms collector Gary Hansen looked for a safe to store his $100,000 trove of rifles and pistols, he found out he could customize the interior so that his wife could also use it to store her jewelry -- in velour-covered drawers, no less. The cost? Around $7,500, but Hansen says the his-and-hers combo saved him from a lot of squabbling. "I knew it couldn't just be a safe for 'Gary's guns,'" he says.

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