Scenario: you’re living in a dorm room. There’s a fire in the dorm, which proceeds to damage your belongings. Will the university cover the damage?

Probably not.

This is an unfortunate lesson that Duke students have had to learn in early 2014. A fire in Brown Dormitory sparked questions from Duke students who live on campus about the university policy for replacing damage to student property in the dorms. The official Duke policy, as quoted by the Duke Chronicle, is as follows:

The Duke Housing License and Terms for 2013-2014 states that, “The University is not liable for damage or loss of personal property kept in the resident’s assigned space or in other areas of University housing. Because the University does not provide property insurance, residents are encouraged to secure their own personal property insurance.”

Many families and students think that all their personal property is automatically covered by the university. This is not common. Yet, many parents don’t worry about possible damage because they assume their homeowners insurance will extend to their students belongings in the dormitory. In certain, but not all circumstances, this is true. However, such coverage can be limited.

According to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC), “If you live in the dorm, it is likely your parent’s homeowner’s insurance will cover your stuff, but there may be a limit on what is covered.” Of course, for students without access to homeowners insurance, no coverage should be expected. Furthermore, students living off campus may not have have the benefit of the extension of homeowners insurance to a student’s new rental residence.

It’s an awful thing to realize belatedly that your property is not covered by insurance. (Author’s note: I saw this firsthand when my freshman dormitory floor flooded after a pipe burst in the hallway. One resident had water up to his knees in his room, which destroyed thousands of dollars of items. He had no insurance coverage to help him replace those items, which included his new computer). Ideally, universities would promote renters insurance knowledge on their campuses, or even offer a seamless opportunity to purchase discounted coverage when paying for dormitory fees. Duke has said that it will investigate the former method, which seems needed considering the alleged stream of inquiries their residence life has received about student property coverage in the dormitories.

In their meantime, we suggest heeding the advice of this consumer alert, in which the NAIC suggests the following approach for renters insurance for college students:

Renter’s Insurance

Many students bring thousands of dollars worth of personal items — such as electronics, a computer, textbooks, clothes, furniture or a bicycle — with them to school. So, whether your student is living on- or off-campus, it’s a good idea to review your homeowners policy to see whether your student’s personal items will be covered.

Does Your Student Need Renter’s Insurance?

If your student is younger than 26 years old, enrolled in classes and living in on-campus housing, your homeowners policy will likely extend to the belongings they take with them. However, if your student is living off-campus, talk with your insurance agent about whether your homeowners coverage will extend to the rental property. If it does not, you might want to consider renter’s insurance to protect your student’s personal property in the event that it is damaged, destroyed or stolen.

There are things that you may be considering purchasing that could be excluded from your liability coverage – such as certain breeds of dogs or a trampoline that sounded fun when you saw it on Craigslist. You should talk with your parents or insurance agent before adding major, potentially hazardous stuff to your collection. Also, if you are throwing a party, you need to know it is possible you could be held liable for accidents that happen after someone’s been drinking at your house.

No matter where you live, it is a good idea to have a full list of your stuff that you have with you at school. A home inventory will help you and your parents know how much insurance you need and if something happens you can use it to file your claim. The NAIC has a free smartphone app that makes a home inventory easy. You will find the iPhone version here and the Android app here.