If you have ever dealt with a major property loss or know someone who has, chances are that you or they were asked by an insurance adjuster if there was documentation to support their claim.
Too many claimants find out after the fact that their insurance settlements would have been much easier and often much higher if only there was a record of what was lost.
The average home contains thousands of items from major appliances to the minutia of what we wear every day. People are often complacent about documenting what they own. “I have great coverage, my insurance will cover whatever I lose.” So, then the question is, “What did you lose?” Without good records, that question is hard, if not impossible, to answer.
Yes, you might have great coverage, but an adjuster working a claim does not have a secret database showing what was in your home before it burned down or fell over in an earthquake.
A typical homeowner’s policy will allocate half of the rebuild cost of a home to contents. For example, if your home is insured for $400,000, your contents would be covered to $200,000. The problem is that even if an insurance carrier is willing to pay out the entire content coverage, how are you going to go about the daunting task of replacing everything in your home?
The answer, of course, is to document your property. This can be done in a number of ways, from having a full set of receipts showing everything you ever purchased, to photographs of these items, to elaborate detailed spreadsheets.
Probably the most efficient way to document your property is with video. For those convinced that receipts are the way to go, remember that many receipts show only the amount spent and not what was purchased, e.g. credit card records. You may have spent $84.37 at Macy’s, but unless it’s on a Macy’s credit card, it won’t show what was purchased as is the case with Visa and Mastercard.
By the way, are those statements and receipts on paper in a file cabinet in your home office? If so, then they will likely be destroyed along with everything else in a fire. Wedding gifts and family heirlooms going back decades, probably have no records at all.
The efficacy of video for home documentation is hard to argue with. Digital cameras include a timestamp, but you can also start your home documentation by showing a newspaper or computer screen indicating the date you are doing the documentation. Before an insurance adjuster hands over a check for $200,000 they are likely to ask, “When did you shoot this video?”
Go through your house a room at a time. Start with a slow pan around the room to show the room in its entirety. Then go cabinet by cabinet, drawer by drawer, opening and closing each one as you go. Keep your video clips short, no more than 45 seconds each; if the day comes when you have to use the video record to establish a claim, you don’t want one 50-minute clip of the upstairs of your house because you won’t know what’s on the clip without watching the entire 50 minutes that covers just the upstairs!
Digital video cameras create a new clip every time you stop and start. When you put the media card from the camera into a computer, you see the first image of each clip laid out on your screen. By keeping the clips short, you can easily locate a certain room, cabinet or closet. This is especially valuable in burglary claims when only high value items are taken.
Speaking of high-value items, modern video cameras are great at showing detail. A valuable painting usually has a signature, major appliances have bar codes showing model and serial numbers, most guns have serial numbers, fine crystal and china have etchings and manufacturer stamps, and home electronics will have model numbers on faceplates.
A thorough home documentation on high-definition video will generate about a gigabyte per thousand square feet. Even if you are incredibly detailed, you probably won’t exceed two gigabytes per thousand square feet. That means that the average 2500 square foot home will generate 3.0-3.5 gb.
The smallest USB flash drive you can buy today is 16gb, so when you finish your documentation you can easily copy it to removable media or the cloud. The important thing is to make copies and store them away from your home. This can be your safe deposit box, a relative or friend’s house, or even your insurance agent. The point is to have your data, preferably the original, stored offsite. People often go through the trouble of documenting only to have everything backed up on their home computers. If there is a fire or theft, the data is gone with the computer it was stored on.
The bottom line when settling insurance claims is to minimize what can be disputed. Remember, insurance companies make money collecting premiums, not paying claims. Even in the rare cases where they want to pay out, ask yourself what it is that you want replaced? Without documentation, you won’t know where to start. As a professional photographer, I document property for my clients. Just as you cannot buy more insurance after a loss, you can’t document your property after it’s gone.
Richard Cassel is a commercial photographer specializing in property documentation. For questions on how to document your property he can be reached at 818-421-9154 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Richard Cassel