Imagine that one night your house catches fire. You and your family escape unharmed, but by the time the fire is extinguished, there’s hardly anything left of the house or its contents.
Once you recover from your shock, you call your home insurance company to file a claim. The company tells you that in order to process the claim, they need a complete list of everything in the home you’ve lost with details, such as the age and estimated value of each item. Would you be able to come up with that list from memory?
Unless you have a mind like a computer, the answer is probably no. But fortunately, you don’t have to. Instead, you can write out your list ahead of time, while all your possessions are intact and right in front of you. A list like this is called a home inventory, and it’s the best friend you can have when you need to file a home insurance claim.
Why You Need a Home Inventory
When you buy a home insurance policy, it lists two numbers for property coverage: one for the value of the dwelling itself, and one for “personal property.” This second number is the maximum amount you can claim for belongings that are destroyed in a covered disaster, such as a fire or mudslide. Some policies cover the replacement value of your goods, or the amount it would cost to buy new items to replace the ones you’ve lost. Others cover only the actual cash value, the price that your belongings would fetch if you sold them in their current condition.
However, no matter which type of coverage you have, the company doesn’t simply write you a check for this amount when you file a claim. That’s because a disaster doesn’t always destroy everything inside your home, and the company doesn’t want to reimburse you for anything that you still have. So you have to provide a list of the items you’ve lost – something that is hard to do from memory.
That’s where your home inventory comes in. By making a list of your belongings, with photos to back it up, you can show exactly what you owned before the claim and how much it was worth. Keeping an up-to-date home inventory makes it easier to get an insurance claim settled quickly and make sure you get the full amount that’s due to you. In fact, the Insurance Information Institute (III) recommends making a home inventory even before you sign up for a home insurance policy to figure out just how much coverage you need.
What a Home Inventory Should Include
The more documentation you can provide with your home inventory, the better. The III recommends that you include:
- Detailed Descriptions. As you list each item on your home inventory, add a description with details such as where and when you bought it and what condition it’s in. For appliances (especially major appliances, such as refrigerators and and washers and dryers) and electronics, include the make, model, and serial number, which you can usually find on the back or bottom. For small items like clothing and books, you don’t have to count each item individually – just list the number of items you own in a category, such as shoes or pants. However, if you have clothing items that are particularly valuable, such as a couture gown, list those separately.
- Price Information. Along with the description of each item, include an estimate of how much it’s worth. Depending on which type of policy you have, you should list either the cash value or the replacement value. If you have any documents that show an item’s value, such as receipts, purchase contracts, or appraisals, attach them to the home inventory. In general, the more you paid for an item, the more documentation you should provide for it.
- High-Value Section. If you own any particularly valuable items, such as artwork and fine jewelry, create a separate section on the inventory list for these. Pricey items like these often need separate insurance coverage, so let your insurance company know about them before you have to file a claim, and make sure you have enough insurance to cover them.
One item that’s worth listing, even if it doesn’t have much monetary value, is important documentation, such as financial and legal records. That way, if there’s ever a fire or other disaster, you’ll be able to remember which documents you need to replace.
For some documents, such as bank records, you can store a backup copy online or in another location. For others, you can include notes on your list about how to replace them, such as “Contact State Department to replace lost passport.”
Home Inventory Methods
There are many different methods for making a home inventory – from the old-fashioned method of writing everything out on paper, to sophisticated software apps that keep everything organized. Each method has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, and no single method is best for everyone.
Ultimately, how you do your home inventory isn’t that important, as long as you actually do it. So pick whichever method feels most comfortable and natural for you – that way, you’re more likely to get the job done instead of putting it off.
Pen and Paper
The simplest method of all for creating a home inventory is to walk through your house with a notepad and pen, noting every item you can see. To make sure you don’t overlook anything, do one room at a time, and work your way around the room systematically.
For example, the page for the bedroom could start out like this:
- Dresser, top drawer: underwear, 16 pairs, replacement cost $2 each; crew socks, 20 pairs, replacement cost $2 each; handkerchiefs, two dozen, replacement cost $10 per dozen
- Dresser, second drawer: T-shirts, 20, replacement cost $8 each; polo shirts, 6, replacement cost $18 each
The main advantage of this method is that it’s easy to get started right away. The only tools you need, a notepad and pen, are inexpensive, and there’s a good chance you have them already. They’re also very portable, making it easy to move from room to room recording what you see. If you don’t have time to do the whole house at once, you can easily record a bit at a time whenever you have a few minutes or an hour free.
However, although this method is easy, it isn’t particularly quick. Writing everything out longhand takes time, and it only makes a single paper copy – if it gets lost or damaged partway through the process, you have to start over from the beginning. Also, if your handwriting isn’t particularly neat, your insurer – or maybe even you – could have a hard time reading it when you need to file a claim.
One fairly quick way to do a home inventory is to go from room to room with a camera, taking photos of either whole rooms or individual items. A photo is a quick and accurate way to show an item’s condition. You can also zoom in to capture important details, such as the serial number of an appliance, the manufacturer on a piece of china, or the signature on a piece of art.
If you choose this method, work your way around each room, photographing it from every angle. Open up closets and drawers one at a time to photograph their contents. Also, don’t forget to record the camera itself – possibly by taking a picture of it in a mirror.
Some phones and digital cameras allow you to add a written description to each photo when you save it. If yours doesn’t, you can either print out the photos and write the important information on the back, or type up a separate document explaining what’s shown in each picture, providing details like the make and the price.
To store your photo home inventory, you have two choices. First, you can burn the pictures onto a disk and store it somewhere outside your house – either in a safe deposit box or at the home of a friend or relative. The other option is to save the photos in a cloud storage account, which lets you access them from anywhere if you need them for a claim.
An alternative to shooting photos one at a time is to record a room-by-room walk-through of your house on video. One advantage of this method is that you can narrate as you go, explaining what each item is and what it’s worth. That way, you don’t have to add a separate written description.
You can also record audio-only with a voice recorder. However, if you do that you don’t have a visual record of each item’s condition.
You can also describe groups of items all at once, opening up a drawer or a kitchen cabinet and briefly describing the contents. For instance, you could say, “These are my everyday dishes. They’re Corelle, and I bought them in 2010. The set has service for eight, with dinner plates, salad plates, bowls, and mugs.”
A spreadsheet program, such as Microsoft Excel, Open Office Calc, or Google Docs Spreadsheet, makes it easy to organize your home inventory. You can list one item on each row of the spreadsheet and use column headings for information such as value, date of purchase, condition, and so forth.
If you’re not sure how you want to set up a home inventory spreadsheet, you can download a free home inventory template from Vertex 42, a company that specializes in spreadsheet templates. This template includes headings for each item’s location, description, date and place of purchase, warranty, price, condition, estimated value, model, serial number, and additional notes. It also has a separate section to add contact information for yourself and your insurance company, so you’ll have that information handy if you ever have to file a claim. The template works with Excel, Calc, and Spreadsheet.
Using a spreadsheet for your home inventory is inexpensive, as long as you already have the basic software, and it keeps all your information neatly organized. It’s easy to sort the list to search for a specific item or group of items, and it’s easy to add or delete items whenever your belongings change.
The main drawback of a spreadsheet is that it’s very hard to work with on a smartphone or tablet. You can use your home computer, but that makes it much more difficult to inventory one room at a time, since you have to keep running back and forth from the room where you’re working to the room where you keep the computer.
Home Inventory Apps
There are dozens of software programs and apps you can use to create a home inventory. You can find a home inventory app for just about any system, from iOS to Windows, and for any budget as well.
Home inventory apps work more or less the same way. You list the rooms in your house and add items to each room, along with details such as location, category, date of purchase, model number, and replacement cost. You can also add photos of your items and, in most cases, copies of receipts or other documents. The programs either store your data on the Web, so you can access it from anywhere, or convert it to a spreadsheet or PDF file you can save on your computer.
The main advantage of home inventory software is that it makes it easy to store all your information together, including descriptions, photos, and other documents. However, these programs also have the same drawbacks as a spreadsheet template: using them on a phone or tablet makes typing awkward, and using them on a home computer makes it difficult to enter items in different rooms.
Home inventory programs include:
- Know Your Stuff. The III offers a free home inventory program called Know Your Stuff, which you can use on the Web or download as an app for iPhone or Android. It stores all your information, along with up to 1GB in photos, in a secure, password-protected online account. Along with your item lists and descriptions, it stores your personal information and insurance information so you can access it from anywhere. It also allows you to attach files such as receipts and appraisals. You can view your items in multiple ways – by room, by category, or all at once – and generate reports that show a group of items and total their replacement costs.
- What You Own. What You Own is a home inventory program available for Windows or MacOS. A free trial version is available, but the full software costs $40. A CNET review posted on the company’s website praises the software’s “sleek, intuitive design” and easy installation. Editors particularly like the “Donation Room” feature for items you plan to donate to charity, as this makes it easy to track your donations for tax purposes. Aside from that feature, however, it doesn’t look like this $40 program can do anything that Know Your Stuff can’t do for free.
- Liberty Mutual Home Gallery. This app, available for Android or iOS, is free for everyone, whether or not you have an insurance policy with Liberty Mutual. With Liberty Mutual Home Gallery, you can scan bar codes on your items and have images and descriptions pop up automatically, rather than having to type them in by hand. After creating your inventory, you can export it as a spreadsheet or PDF, either to share or to use as a backup in case your phone is lost or damaged.
- Inventory for Homeowners. Inventory for Homeowners is a free app for Android or iOS from Encircle, a company that provides software for the insurance industry. This picture-based asset manager can store an unlimited number of photos and an unlimited amount of information about each one. You can enter updates from your smartphone, tablet, or the Web, and the software automatically synchronizes it across all your other devices. However, several reviews at the Apple Store complain that you can’t download the app without “signing up” first – without being told exactly what you’re signing up for.
In addition to apps designed specifically for creating a home inventory, there are a variety of other apps that can be adapted for this purpose. Their intended purposes range from cataloging books to organizing information for work, but it takes only a little extra effort to turn them into home inventory tools.
- Delicious Library. As the name implies, Delicious Library is designed mainly to catalog your book and music collection. Any item with a bar code (such as a book, CD, or DVD) can be scanned, and the app automatically adds data such as the title and approximate value. However, you can also add items that don’t have bar codes (such as tools and furniture) by hand, making this library app suitable for home inventory use as well. Delicious Library runs only on Mac OS X and costs $25. A free trial is available.
- iTrackMine. Like Delicious Library, this app is designed for managing collections of books, music, and even wine. You can scan your items or type in UPC numbers by hand, import data from your accounts at websites such as iTunes and Goodreads, or add items by hand as “custom items.” However, unlike Delicious Library, iTrackMine can also generate insurance reports just like a dedicated home inventory app. You can use iTrackMine on the Web or download the free mobile app for iOS, Android, and Mobile Safari devices.
- Sortly. This iOS app is intended to help you organize your belongings for a move. You can list items, organize them into folders, upload photos and short videos for each item, and add searchable tags and notes with data like serial numbers and warranty dates. You can export data as a PDF or spreadsheet or back it up automatically in a cloud account; you can also import data from an existing spreadsheet. Sortly costs $8 for the full-featured premium version. There’s also a bare-bones free version that can store up to 200 items and can’t import videos or export a PDF.
- Evernote. This popular productivity app can already store articles, photos, and handwritten notes, so it’s a natural extension to use it for storing information about your belongings as well. Take a photo of each item, then go into your Evernote account and add whatever additional information you want and tack on a tag like “home inventory.” Evernote is available for Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, and Android. The free Basic account, which allows 60MB of uploads per month, probably isn’t enough storage to accommodate a large home inventory, but you can upgrade to the 1GB Plus account gives you 1GB per month for $25 a year or the unlimited Premium for $50 a year.
Storing Your Home Inventory
No matter how you create your home inventory, you need to store it in a safe place where you can access it when you need to file a claim. If you store it on your computer’s hard drive, or on paper in a filing cabinet, a disaster could wipe out your only copy.
Some safer alternatives include the following:
- Store a hard copy, or a digital copy on a flash drive, in a fireproof safe
- Keep it in your safe deposit box at the bank
- Hand over a copy to a trusted friend or relative who doesn’t live with you
- Save the data in a cloud storage account
- Email the file to yourself so there’s a copy on your email server
Another important thing to do with your home inventory is to keep it up to date. Whenever you make a major purchase, add the information to your home inventory and save the updated copy, so you’ll have a record of it if you need to make a claim.
There’s no denying that making a home inventory is a pretty big hassle, especially if you’ve been a homeowner for a long time and have accumulated a lot of stuff. However, trying to file a home insurance claim without an inventory is an even bigger hassle, and it’s one that comes at a time when you really don’t need any more stress. Even if it takes you a whole day to complete your home inventory, the peace of mind it provides makes it well worth the trouble.
Have you ever had to file a home insurance claim? How did the process go?