How to Prepare a Home Inventory Before Disaster Strikes

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Editor's Note: This story originally appeared on Living on the Cheap.

It’s not a pleasant topic, but what would happen if your home were damaged, burned down, or otherwise destroyed, or if your property was lost or stolen? Would you be able to recall everything you had in your home? Trying to remember when you bought your television is the last thing you’ll want to be doing in the midst of a disaster.

It may seem like an overwhelming and time-consuming process, but try to think about the peace of mind you will have once your home inventory is complete. You don’t have to complete it all in one day, weekend or week. Even if disaster strikes before you have completed it, having a partial list is better than no list at all.

Here’s what you need to know.

What is the goal of a home inventory, and why do I need it?

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The goal of a home inventory is to be able to hand this document over to your insurance company or use it to create a list of items lost. The reason homeowners have insurance is so they can be reimbursed and made as financially whole as possible in the event of a loss.

Having a detailed inventory of everything you own should increase your insurance reimbursement and possibly reduce the time it takes to be reimbursed. You increase your chances of a better reimbursement because you have a list of what you owned and proof that you owned it (photos, videos, receipts). Rather than trying to recall what you had in the midst of a disaster, you will have completed it before you sustained the loss.

The insurance company isn’t going to reimburse you for anything you don’t remember you had. And according to the Insurance Journal, having a home inventory may “halve the time it takes to process a claim.”

What should a home inventory include?

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The key to a good inventory is detailed descriptions and information and proof of ownership. A home inventory should be a list of everything you own, along with the date you bought it and financial information including purchase price and more.

It should include descriptions, make, and model and serial numbers (where applicable) for more expensive items. It should also provide proof that you actually owned the items on your list. You can accomplish this with photos. If you want to be really thorough, a video of all areas of your home is a great idea.

You should also attach any receipts, purchase contracts, and appraisals that you have. Try to have as much documentation as possible for expensive items.

The more detailed the document, the more you are likely to recover from your insurer.

Tools to prepare a home inventory

Home inventory
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There are many methods to accomplish this. Just use whatever method is most expedient for you so that you can get it completed and it will be easy for you to update.

  • Encircle is a free app that lets you do a home inventory.
  • You can also create a spreadsheet or document for a template you can customize and store online in the cloud.
  • Some insurance companies offer advice on how to put an inventory together, so you should check with your carrier.
  • If tech isn’t your thing, you can write everything down using this template from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

Steps to follow

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  1. Start by going room to room. You may want to tackle one room a day. You may also want to enlist the help of other household members to create a preliminary list for their bedrooms. You can then go through and confirm that everything is listed correctly and add missing information.
  2. Take a photo of each wall in every room. Photos (and videos) provide proof that you owned items. You may look at a photo later and notice something you missed on the list.
  3. Take close-up shots of valuable items so it is clear what they are. Zoom in for serial numbers.
  4. Label all your photos, either electronically or by printing them out and writing detailed information on each photo.
  5. You can take videos. Narrate as you go along with descriptions, price, and purchase date of expensive items.
  6. Don’t forget closets, drawers, hallways, boxes, under beds, behind large pieces of furniture, storage rooms, basements, attics, crawl spaces, sheds, and garages. Take photos and videos of these areas also. Don’t forget the inside of drawers and closets. For expensive items like shoes or clothing, take pictures with the labels visible.
  7. Record the name of each item, describe the item, including its brand/model (if applicable), condition, purchase price, and the date and location where you purchased the item. Also, record any serial numbers found on any items. For items such as furniture, also include the dimensions and the materials (for example, oak desk or 4-foot-by-6-foot mahogany table).
  8. If you have receipts, attach them electronically or group all the paper together.
  9. If you have a replacement-cost policy, you should include replacement cost estimates for every item in your inventory. You can often find that information online.
  10. Locate receipts. If you purchased valuable items online, go into your accounts and reprint the receipts.
  11. Work with your insurance agent to ensure that your inventory is acceptable and that your current coverage is adequate by showing them your inventory. They also will determine whether you may need an insurance rider for certain items such as jewelry, artwork, musical instruments, furs, valuable wine, etc.
  12. Update the inventory every time you make a large purchase, receive expensive gifts, or move items within your home. At the minimum, update your inventory annually. Keep a file or container and put your receipts for large purchases in it then go back periodically and log in the new information. Also take new photographs. Then electronically store the inventory.
  13. A home inventory can be used as the basis for taking a deduction from your income tax for the uninsured portion of a casualty loss.
  14. Update your insurance coverage if necessary when adding expensive items to your home.

Storing your inventory

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Store a copy of your inventory, including all backup documents, away from home. Store it on a cloud service like Dropbox, or email it to yourself if you are comfortable with that.

If you live in a disaster-prone area, keep a copy in your emergency evacuation bag.

Keep in mind that your expensive electronics and appliances may have cost a lot, but the value of your shoes, clothing, coats, dishes, cookware, bakeware, small appliances, vacuum, yard maintenance equipment, tools, books, bicycles, sports equipment, children’s toys, beds, linens, bath linens, home decor, draperies, rugs, furniture, and more probably far exceed the value of your computers, televisions, etc. So don’t skimp on the project, because that could cost you far more in the long run.