Fire season: Time to take inventory of your home's possessions

burnt down house with embersOctober heralds the onset of fall, bringing burnished leaves and cooler temperatures. It also is the beginning of fire season in Southern California and other parts of the Southwest (although fire season seems to be a year-round event now).

Insurance experts say this is the time to take an inventory of the contents of your home -- from cell phones to toaster ovens -- with a moving or still camera. After every item is accounted for, store the recording -- as well as irreplaceable personal property, like photo negatives and important documents -- off-property, in a safe-deposit box. Also, remember to notify your insurance company about new construction on your property and high-end acquisitions, such as a big-screen TV.

Why bother?

"The most important reason is that after the traumatic experience of losing your home, the last thing you'll remember is what you had in it," says Pete Moraga, a spokesman for Insurance Information Network of California, a nonprofit insurance industry trade group. When you talk to the insurance company, "you'll always remember the computer, the stereo, the washer and dryer, but can you remember how many curtains you had and how many sheets and carpets? All of that gets replaced."

Without proof of those items, your insurance company probably will not cover those losses.

Moraga says that some agents tell him that only one out of 100 policy holders have a written, photographic or video-recorded inventory of personal property. The lack of proof of those items adds considerably to the anguish owners experience after the loss of a home, he says.

"The more you can document these things, the better."

Just ask Bradford and Anita Stanley. In 2007, the Malibu homeowners lost their home and all its contents in the Corral Canyon fire that ravaged the area that fall. It took Anita six months to re-create their personal-property inventory and proof of purchases their insurance company required to settle their claim. They had documented the big items, but their insurance company also required precise information on kitchen cutlery, clothing items and bed sheets. Additionally, they had to provide estimates for rebuilding the house.

"It's necessary to be prepared," says Anita.

Toward that end, the Stanleys created DocuHome Home Inventory Solutions, a service that offers technologies to document and store personal and business assets. It cost $59 per year (some of the proceeds benefit the Red Cross). The company currently offers a free 60-day trial.

The Insurance Information Network of California offers a free download that allows you to input, room by room, all of the contents of your house and scan copies of receipts, Moraga says. After recording everything, package it, send it to yourself, then store it off-property. You also can recover an online version from any computer in the event your personal one is destroyed in a fire or other disaster.

"Whether you do it free through us, or hire a company to do it for you, make sure it's thorough," says Moraga.

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