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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

Photo by Getty Images

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

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. »

Merrell started by photographing all the artwork and furniture in his living room. He uploaded the photos, and then added information such as description, purchase date and serial numbers for each item. “I like taking the photos first so I can refer to them as I add the data,” he says.

The little things can add up. So photograph the inside of your medicine cabinet and arrange your bed so you can see the various components—box spring, mattress, linens and pillows. Count your dishes and silverware and itemize small kitchen appliances and cookware.

One way to get the entire family involved: Use a video camera. “Have one person be the director-cameraman and another the actor who opens the drawers, shows the items and narrates,” Drexler suggests.

Once you have your information, enter it into your chosen software program. For inherited items include as much information as possible, such as “this was Grandma’s hardwood rocking chair that she inherited from her grandmother.” Scan receipts, price tags, warranties and appraisals into your computer. No scanner? Shoeboxed will digitize 100 paper receipts into images you can download to your home inventory program. There's a 14 day free trial period and rates range from $9.95 to $49.95 per month based on a subscriber's needs.

An alternative: desktop storage

For those nervous about keeping their inventory online, one option is Quicken Home Inventory Manager ($29.99). Others include Computerize Your Assets ($29.95) and Cover Your Assets ($49.99). All perform just like the Web-based systems but reside on your own desktop, so you have to take an extra step to ensure you can access your records.

As Hurricane Ike victims discovered, even the most complete home inventory is worthless if you can’t get to it. At a minimum, copy your files to a CD and give them to a friend or relative in another location or e-mail the file to yourself. You might also check into an offsite backup service. Quicken’s runs from $9.99 for up to 100 MB to $149.99 per year for 10 GB. The backup service from Cover Your Assets costs $99 a year, with discounts for multiyear plans.

Don’t worry about completing your entire inventory in one day. Spread the task over a series of weekends or 30-minute stints. Once you have your stuff cataloged, be sure to add new items as you acquire them.

Even if you never need to file a claim, home inventory software pays. According to Salvatore, a majority of homeowners are underinsured. “A complete home inventory can help you purchase the right amount of insurance,” she says. Edgar likes the fact that she is creating not only an inventory of her possessions but a record for her children and grandchildren. “It gives them an idea of what’s what and its history, should they ever need to know,” she says.

Laura Daily is a Denver-based writer

Published August 2009. Portions updated September 2013