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Take a Home Inventory

Save yourself from insurance headaches with an itemized list of your personal property

Floods, fires, hurricanes, tornadoes and even construction cranes toppling into apartment buildings: No home is completely safe from natural or man-made disasters. But while almost half of Americans say they have an inventory of their possessions to document losses in case of a disaster, you couldn’t prove it by Garry Kaufman’s experience.

See also: How to be prepared in any emergency.

When Hurricane Ike hit Texas in 2008, Kaufman, president of Galveston Insurance Associates, had more claims than anyone in the state. “I have 38 employees, and as far as I know, none of them encountered a homeowner who had a complete inventory,” he says. “A few customers stored a printed one in a file cabinet. That isn’t much use when your home is flooded by a 20-foot storm surge.”

Now that the hurricane season is gearing up, home inventories are essential. Most of us can’t remember what we had for lunch much less what’s stashed in the hall closet. That’s why you need to take stock of what you have. In the event of a claim, insurers require you to substantiate your loss in as much detail as possible. “It’s one of the most important documents a consumer can put together,” says Jeanne Salvatore, spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, which has provided free downloadable software to consumers for years.

For those who find the prospect of cataloging everything they own daunting, there is some good news. Sure, you can get the job done with a notebook and disposable camera, but why not let computers do the heavy lifting? A number of new home inventory software programs let you list items room by room and attach photos and receipts, all the while storing everything securely in cyberspace. The real advantage: You can print a report anytime and from anywhere and turn it over to your insurance company with a total sum of your assets.

Internet makes it easy

Carol Edgar, 63, of Bigfork, Mont., lives adjacent to a wilderness area where wildfires occur every summer. “If there was fire, we’d pack up the animals and be out of here,” she says. Edgar was one of the first to try the Insurance Information Institute’s Web-based Know Your Stuff program, launched in March. “It was incredibly easy,” says Edgar, who has so far inventoried her furniture, quilts, sewing room supplies and office equipment.

man using laptop

Don’t worry about completing your entire inventory in one day. Spread the task over a series of weekends or 30-minute stints. — Photo by Getty Images

Taking the inventory

Now get organized. Dig out every receipt. Remove garments from dry cleaning bags. Take stuff out of boxes. Open drawers and cabinets and pull out anything hidden on back shelves.

Then proceed room by room, suggests Ilene Drexler, a certified professional organizer and owner of The Organizing Wiz in New York. Make a list of your personal possessions, describing each item and where you bought it. Take pictures of every room, then focus in on valuable items. “It’s probably sufficient to photograph the inside of your closet and guesstimate the approximate number of slacks or shirts you own, but take additional pictures of those expensive shoes or custom-tailored suit,” she says.

Next: What Hurricane victims learned about home inventories. »

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Video Extra

Vivian Vasallo, Vice President of Housing for AARP Foundation, talks about emergency preparedness at home for older Americans. Read

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