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Preparing for an emergency: How to document your things

Whether you're getting ready for a natural disaster or you've already experienced a loss, here's what insurance companies need to know about your possessions.

This story is part of Road Trip 2020, CNET's series on how we're preparing now for what could come next.

Don't be surprised if you go through my phone and see photos of bookshelves and kitchen appliances. Where I live in South Florida, we regularly photograph our belongings in case a destructive hurricane hits.

Documenting all of your stuff is a pain. But doing it before disaster strikes -- whether it's a theft or natural disaster -- will make dealing with the aftermath, and filing a claim with the insurance company, so much easier. If your home -- or anything in it -- is stolen, damaged or destroyed, your insurance company will want to know exactly what needs to be repaired or replaced. Not having a record means using your memory to reconstruct the details, which will be difficult and possibly less persuasive.

Rather than going off what you think is in your home, documenting it through photos and detailed notes means you know what's there. If you have to file insurance claims, it can help speed up the process. The better your inventory is, the faster your claims will get approved and processed.

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A home inventory is helpful for estate planning as well. Wills and trusts that include a detailed accounting of your things are much more effective, giving your loved ones a clearer idea of what you own and how you want it all handled and distributed after you die.

Regardless of your reason, a home audit is important. Here's how to get started.

Read more: Best life insurance for 2021

How to create a home inventory

Even for minimalists, the notion of cataloging every single thing in your home would be daunting. But there are plenty of tools and strategies to make this task more approachable. 

Do it yourself

  1. Create a folder. This should live in the cloud since that's easily accessible if your computer or phone gets lost or damaged. Google Drive can house your details and your images, but any cloud or apps will work. You'll need a completed folder on a thumb drive as a backup. If you get an app, make sure you have an alternative method of accessing your documents.
  2. Use a spreadsheet. Keep a record of the item like the make, model and serial number. If you can, include when you bought it and how much it cost. You may want to include notes like where you bought it or a link to the product, if applicable.
  3. Separate your belongings by category or room. There are many ways to catalog your things. Take the route that's easiest for you. Maybe put your appliances on one sheet and furniture on another. You can also list things by room. For instance, everything in your kitchen goes on one sheet while everything in your bedroom is separated.
  4. Record smaller items. You might not think about clothes as something to document, but you wear them every day! Catalog by general description and quantity, like how many pairs of jeans, coats and shirts. If you're a shoe collector, consider keeping these separate with their own details, like the designer, cost and when you bought each pair.
  5. Catalog receipts. Scan your receipts or make PDFs of your email receipts and keep them in a folder on your drive and the cloud. Any time you buy something, make sure your inventory list is updated.
  6. Take photos. This shows the accuracy of your inventory list. It can both showcase your possessions and document how they looked and the condition they were in before you made an insurance claim. This might sound tedious -- especially if you're cataloging every pair of shoes you have -- but it's an added layer of proof and protection.
  7. Go through every room. You may not think your bathroom has a lot of expensive things, but if you bought a nice vanity for a few hundred dollars, it's worth noting. Don't forget your garage, laundry room, attic, basement and other parts of your home.
  8. Update as necessary. As you add to your home and buy new things, especially big purchases, make sure to update your inventory. And if you've recently sold some goods or offloaded things, adjust your document as needed.

Using an app

Why do all the work yourself when you can get an app to help walk you through the process? There are plenty of tools out there that offer some added security in case you switch insurers or just want to keep your information separate. A few popular ones include:


Add up to eight photos of each item, along with a serial and SKU number, expiration date, purchase date and other product details. You can break up items into folders, which is helpful when organizing your things by room. Single-user plans are free and allow you to add up to 100 items. The advanced level lets you add 2,000 entries and up to three people for $39 a month. The ultra level is $99 for unlimited items. Available for iOS and Android.



Nest Egg

Scan product barcodes to retrieve product information. For a one-time fee, you can use Nest Egg and have everything stored in the app or you can use Nest Egg Cloud for free. You can get an overview of your things from your dashboard, pull reports for specific categories and access information across multiple devices. You can sign up for free with up to 100 items. Cloud standard lets you store up to 600 items and have two users for $3.99 a month. Cloud enhanced -- $7.99 a month -- allows three users and 1,000 items. If you want to try a paid option, you can sign up for a free two-week trial.

Nest Egg.


Memento Database

Use this on your Android phone or desktop. You can also sync to Google Sheets, letting you edit and share outside the app. Choose from premade templates -- or libraries -- to start your inventory build. Pricing starts at $3 a month and gives you unlimited entries, unlimited libraries and 2GB of cloud storage. The only option for multiple users is the team version, which starts at $5 a month per user and must have a minimum of five users.

Memento Database.


Talk with your home insurance agent about your documents to see if you have enough coverage based on your inventory. 

What to do when disaster strikes

Whether you live in hurricane territory like me or you face other types of natural disasters like earthquakes, tornadoes or wildfires, there's a chance emergencies can happen. Here's what to do:

  1. Get to safety. If you're in your home and it's not safe, find a place for you to stay temporarily.
  2. Contact your insurer. Call your insurance company and explain what happened. 
  3. Document the damage. Take lots of photos and videos of the damage as soon as possible. Don't throw anything away.
  4. Save the receipts. Keep a record of all of your expenses related to the incident -- whether it's for supplies or temporary housing. And keep copies of all of the paperwork you send to your insurance companies in an easily accessible place (like your phone or computer).
  5. Get ready for the adjuster. The insurance company may send an adjuster to your home to document the damage -- or you may just be given a form to complete. Either way, your home inventory list will come in handy. The more information you have about damaged items, the faster your claim can be settled. 
  6. Be mindful of others in your situation. If you're the victim of a disaster that's affected a large area, remember that you're not the only one going through the insurance process. 
  7. Use your adjuster to your advantage. Most insurance companies require claims to be filed within a year of the incident and most policies require adjusters to sign off on repair costs before they're complete. If an adjuster finds a quote too high, they can negotiate the price on your behalf. Likewise, if an adjuster comes out and doesn't do as thorough of a job as you would've hoped, contact your insurance company and ask for another visit. 
  8. Get your money. If you have a mortgage on the home, money for the housing structure (or dwelling) will go to your mortgage lender. If the contents of the home are damaged, like your possessions, you'll get a separate check for that. You typically have two options for how to record your valuables during the claiming process: actual cash value and replacement cost. Actual cash value is the depreciated value of the lost or destroyed items. It doesn't replace the item, but it gives you an amount for what the item was valued at when it was destroyed. Replacement cost puts the value on what you'd pay if you were to replace the item. For this option, you'll usually get some money up front and the rest after proof of purchase. If you don't replace it, you'll get the actual cash value. Most claims get paid out within 30 days.

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