Estate Executors’ Headaches: How to Open, Price and Sell Residential Safes

Eventually, estate executor will have to deal with a safe, whether is in a wall, in the floor or sitting like a 700-pound gorilla in the basement. To relieve a bit of “executor pain,” here’s my primer on how to deal with residential safes: how to locate them, get them open, deal with the contents, value them and get them out the door (and live to tell about it).

One of my “go-to” movies when I’m in the mood for a caper-flick is “The Italian Job” starring Mark Wahlberg. In a clever bit of cinematography, Wahlberg’s gang of thieves steal a safe full of gold bars by using explosives to cut a hole in the floor around the safe causing it to crash through two lower floors and into a Venice canal, where they open the safe and steal the gold.

I’m reminded of that scene every time I appraise an estate that contains one or more of those big, heavy, steel safes. I comment to the executor that I’m glad that I won’t be the person required to move them, because I’ve moved too many already. I’d almost rather blow a hole in the floor and let a safe drop into a big, dark pit than move another one.

Auctioneers and estate-sale operators will admit that one factor affecting the price of some estate property is the difficulty of getting it moved. Pianos, gun safes and concrete yard art sometimes cost more to move than they are worth. When they don’t, their prices are generally lowered to compensate for the difficulty of moving them.

Residential safes are becoming more common with each passing year. Sales are up for residential safe dealers. A 2011 New York Times headline reads: “Sales of Home Safes Surge, Driven by the Recession and Recent Disasters.” The article quotes manufacturer Liberty Safes as reporting that sales have “increased 40 percent since 2009, and spiked 25 percent in the first three months of this year (2011).” James Skousen, a spokesman for Liberty Safe, claims that his company had seen a “surge in people buying safes to store gold and silver bullion bought as a hedge against the dollar.” Other manufacturers report similar trends: sales have risen 30 percent in the past three years for Brown Safe Manufacturing, a luxury safe manufacturer in California.

The Times’ headline is only partially correct in its attribution, however; recession and disasters don’t tell the whole story. States are becoming stricter about how gun owners store their guns. In some states, registered gun owners can be held liable for crimes committed using their guns that were not securely stored. Hence, the rise in the sale of gun safes. And—since boys like their toys—one in five gun safes sold are luxury models that surpass the requirements for safe storage alone: Offered with custom colors and features, luxury safes are promoted as being “a perfect addition to the man cave.”

Eventually, all of those safes will have to be dealt with by an executor. And they’re heavy. To relieve a bit of “executor pain,” here’s my primer on how to deal with residential safes: how to locate them, get them open, deal with the contents, value them and get them out the door (and live to tell about it).

Burglary safes often come with drawers and shelves for storing collectibles, jewelry and cash.

Gun safes are outfitted to store guns of many sizes and a wide range of accessories.

Residential safes are usually found in the form of burglary safes (made for valuables, collections, cash, jewelry, etc.) gun safes (their purpose is self-evident) and fire safes (fireproof, primarily for “important papers”). Fire safes are generally light enough to pick up and walk away with, so they rarely contain anything of high value. The other two types of safe are very heavy; typically 500-plus pounds or more. As more security is required, safes get heavier. Gun safes are 750 pounds and up. It’s not unusual for large residential safes to exceed 1,000 pounds.

Of course, it’s easy to find a big, bulky safe. The safes that are difficult to locate are the small fire safes. They may be hidden in a wall, a closet, tucked into a cabinet or almost anywhere. It’s important that such safes are located early in the estate inventory process in case they have vehicle titles or deeds in them. A probate judge won’t be too happy with an executor who turns in an amended inventory showing a yacht that was only discovered when a missing safe was opened.

As long as I’m on the subject, getting a safe open once it is discovered will likely require a locksmith. It’s a rare circumstance when a safe combination is easy to find. Finding a decedent’s personal papers is usually just a matter of sorting through desk drawers and file cabinets, but seldom do they leave a large note that says “THE COMBINATION TO MY SAFE IS…” That would defeat the purpose of having a safe, wouldn’t it?

Fire safes are usually portable, and valuables should not be stored in them.

Fire safes are rated according to how long it will take for the contents to ignite at a certain temperature.

Once a safe has been opened, the contents will need to be secured, because everything that’s in a safe is either valuable, important or dangerous. Whenever I open a safe, I make sure that a family member and a second witness are available to assist in cataloging what comes out of it. If guns are involved, make sure someone who knows guns is around to handle the guns; you don’t want to inadvertently shoot someone.Once the items in a safe have been cataloged, they should be secured. Valuables and important papers should go into a safe-deposit box at a bank. Guns should be stored at a gun shop until they are disposed of. Most guns shops will store guns for a fee while an executor checks their registration. Gun shops will assume all liability for the guns and provide the executor with a receipt. Never let a relative (or anyone else) “hold onto a gun for safekeeping”; that’s just asking for trouble.

Valuables and guns taken from a safe should be appraised, especially if they are to be transferred to an heir. If items are to be liquidated, the most efficient way to dispose of them is via a licensed auctioneer. In most states, auctioneers are able to sell guns without a dealer’s permit; check your state’s statutes before acting on this advice, though. Estate sale operators who are not licensed auctioneers or gun dealers cannot legally sell your guns. Auctioneers can usually get more money for guns and jewelry than retailers are willing to pay.

Residential burglary safes don’t sell particularly well at estate sales; most folks who have a need for a safe already own one. The best way to sell a burglary safe is to sell it to a dealer, who will also do you the favor of removing it from the premises. Fire safes are a saleable item because they can be carried out by the purchaser.

Deluxe residential safes are available in a variety of decorator colors.

If the “Italian Job” doesn’t do it for you, check out Ray Milland in “The Safecracker” (1958).

Gun safes can almost always be sold at an estate sale, if you make it easy for the buyer to get the safe out of the house. In my opinion, the best way is to call a company that moves safes and have them quote a basic price (most movers charge a base fee plus mileage and unusual circumstances like steps and long carries). The price of a safe plus its moving costs should equal less than half the retail value of a comparable used safe. Once the total price for a safe and moving crosses the halfway mark, dealers prices become more appealing because of the amenities that dealers offer (like delivery, setup and service). Of course, buyers can save a few bucks by moving a safe themselves. Boswell Safe and Vault offers advice for those who wish to move a safe themselves.

As for pricing a safe, begin by making sure that the safe can be opened and that everything is in working order. Look for the make and model number and search online for current selling prices. Check the Sold listings on eBay, and check retailer’s prices. Don’t expect to get more than 20 to 30 percent of the retail price; the eBay Sold listings will also provide a better idea of what used safes are selling for. Call a couple of safe dealers to see what they would be willing to pay. Empire Safe is one of the country’s largest used safe dealers, and they are nice folks to deal with. The advice they offer is trustworthy.

And, if all else fails, use “The Italian Job” method: just cut a hole in the floor around the safe and let it drop into a canal.

Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions or Resale Retailing with Wayne Jordan.

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