An hour spent taking inventory photos of your home now can save you hundreds of painful hours trying to pull together information for an insurance claim after a disaster. And without good documentation, you’re likely to receive a lower settlement, said Kurt George, an appraisal and claims expert with Property Damage Appraisers.
It’s the homeowner’s or renter’s responsibility to prove the condition of each item that was lost due to theft or damage from fire, water or other covered incident. “Relying on your ability to remember every single piece that’s been reduced to ash can be a tragedy on top of a tragedy,” George said.
His suggestion: Put together a digital inventory of your possessions that you can access anywhere from any computer, tablet or smartphone. It can be as simple as setting up a dedicated email account that you name “home inventory.” Then take date-stamped photos of the outside and inside of your home and email the photos to the account.
“That alone is a huge head start on a claim,” said George. “Having a current inventory is one less thing to worry about so you can concentrate on your family’s safety.”
Louise Downing didn’t expect to lose her newly remodeled home in Southern Oregon’s Almeda Fire last September. She recalls stopping before she and her husband, Charles Noble, fled their property, thinking that she should grab her laptop. No, she thought, we’ll be back.
If there’s a sliver of a silver lining to the catastrophe, Downing is grateful her insurance company understands that most people have not prepared a written household inventory — let alone have photos or a video — to show proof of possession.
“Our adjuster made that part easy for us,” said Downing.
Foremost Insurance company accepted an aerial Google photograph of their home. The adjuster located the title and “helped us get the most of our policy limits that we could without listing items,” Downing said.
Whether you have insurance that offers replacement cost or an actual cash value policy, without proof of possession, quality and condition, insurers could undervalue your loss, George said.
If you have details, however, there’s no guessing or need for estimates. The more information you can provide, the faster and more fully you’ll be compensated, said experts.
After creating visual documents, enhance your home inventory with descriptions of each significant item: its value, purchase date and identifiers (make, model and serial number). “A receipt is the golden ring that allows you to prove an exact amount without an argument,” said George.
Know your insurance coverage
Check your policy to learn about your limits, exclusions and deductibles, and see if your coverage is to replace what was lost (such as five standard kitchen cabinets) or the equivalent value (five custom cabinets), less wear and depreciation.
Ask your insurance company what they want in a home inventory and understand that it’s your responsibility to prevent damage. “After a loss, you don’t want to have a forensic appraiser find that there was something you could have done to prevent it,” said George.
While creating an inventory, look closely for ways you can reduce your property’s vulnerability. Clear away flammable materials inside and outside of your home and take other fire suppression actions.
Portland Fire & Rescue has a safety checklist (portlandoregon.gov/fire/58348) for inside a home that includes removing clutter and other unnecessary combustibles, and making sure electrical and heating equipment are in good working condition and not overheating.
Take a video inventory
There are home inventory apps like Home Contents and HouseBook that help you take an account of your belongings. Complex collections benefit from even more details to help owners receive the appropriate insurance settlement in case of a claim.
Ken Aaron of Portland-based Virtual Home Inventory uses 360-degree photography to create a virtual tour that an insurance appraiser can move through. He add tags with facts about artwork and other valuable possessions.
He also photographs open cabinets to show pots, pans and appliances, and closets with towels, bedding, clothes and shoes as evidence of their quality and condition.
A do-it-yourself home inventory can start by recording a narrated video as you slowly walk through your home. Include information such as “this is the living room. In that cabinet is the silver flatware from John’s mother and the antique crystal Aunt Bertha gave us. We bought that couch and I remember it was about $3,000,” said Aaron.
The narration will help you remember more and you can play back the video to study items you might have missed the first time. “Every dollar you can get in your settlement, the better your recovery will be,” said Aaron.
Steps to a home inventory
A thorough home inventory includes information about the structure’s exterior and the contents in every room, closet and drawer inside the house, basement and attic, as well as in the garage and tool and storage sheds. Include self-storage units if they are covered under your home insurance policy.
If that sounds overwhelming, start start with a small spot such as a kitchen appliance cabinet or sporting equipment closet, then move on to the rest of the room, suggest experts with the Insurance Information Institute.
Give extra attention to antiques, art, jewelry and collectibles. These may have increased in value and could need special coverage separate from your standard homeowners insurance policy, according to the institute.
The Insurance Information Institute offers these additional suggestions:
• Add new purchases to your existing inventory when you move or redecorate to keep your information up-to-date.
• Count clothing by general categories such as five pairs of jeans, three pairs of sneakers, etc. Make note of any items that are especially valuable.
• Keep proof of value. Store sales receipts, purchase contracts and appraisals with your list.
• Store a copy of the paper inventory along with applicable receipts and appraisals in a safe deposit box. Keep a digital copy in the cloud or another place outside your home. Make at least one backup copy of your inventory document and store it separately.
• Give a copy of your inventory to your insurance agent, allowing them to see if you need extra home or renters coverage or need to add a personal articles insurance policy.