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Take inventory of belongings before the storm

The powerful acts of nature dominating headlines in recent days serve as stark reminders of how quickly we can lose everything. Take inventory of your belongings before it's too late.

The powerful acts of nature dominating headlines in recent days serve as stark reminders of how quickly we can lose everything.

Even if you don’t live in an area that gets hit with earthquakes, tornadoes or hurricanes, you may be affected by other big storms at different times of the year.

Bearing that in mind, it’s a good idea to take careful inventory of the possessions in your home. You also might want to have some of your valuables professionally appraised.

This kind of ammunition can really come in handy in any future negotiations with your insurance company. Consider these tips.

1. Understand why an inventory so important. Would you be able to remember all the belongings you’ve accumulated over the years if they were destroyed? Even if you could, that may not be enough for your insurer when the time comes to file a claim.

2. Know what it accomplishes. Armed with an up-to-date inventory, you’ll be in a better position to settle your insurance claim more quickly, substantiate your losses for your income tax return and make sure you have adequate insurance coverage for your personal property.

3. Seize opportunities to get organized. Inventories aren’t as daunting to compile if you’re moving or just starting out. As you set up your household, take a moment to jot down a quick description of each of your possessions. Write down the make, model, place of purchase and dollar value, and attach any receipts and sales contracts to your list.

4. Have you been in the same house for years? If so, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by this whole inventory thing – but don’t let yourself. That beleaguered feeling can make it easier to procrastinate about taking stock of your stuff. Remember: An incomplete inventory is better than no inventory at all.

5. Check your personal finance software package. If you have one, it might include a convenient room-by-room inventory program that you can use on your home computer. Or, you can download free home-inventory software from Know Your Stuff, a Web site of the Insurance Information Institute. Once you get started with programs such as these, it’s relatively easy to keep your inventory up to date. Any time you make a major purchase, you can add that item while the details are fresh in your mind.

6. Track specialty items correctly. When documenting your clothing, write down the number of items you own by category (shirts, coats, shoes and so on). Record the serial numbers of major appliances and electronic equipment. The numbers usually can be found on the back or bottom.

7. Say cheese. Photograph or videotape each room in your home, including closets, open drawers, storage sheds and the garage. If you opt for the videotape route, you can record yourself describing each of your items as you walk through your home.

8. Consider an appraisal for valuable items. If you own jewelry, heirlooms, artwork, silverware, china, collectibles and other items of significant worth, a professional appraisal and separate insurance coverage may be in order. Look for an appraiser accredited by a reputable association, such as the American Society of Appraisers or the International Society of Appraisers. Allow four to six weeks for the appraisal to be completed.

9. Be smart about storage. Store your inventory, receipts, photographs, videotapes and appraisals in a secure, fireproof place off site, such as a safe deposit box. A reader who shared a comment on the message board running with this column also had this suggestion: Forward digital photos and important documentation to yourself at a Web-based e-mail address. That way you’d be able to retrieve all of it quickly as soon as you regained access to the Internet.

10. Clarify what your insurance does – and doesn’t – cover. You could have the best inventory in the world, but it won’t do you much good if you don’t have the right kind of insurance. Flood damage that happens as a result of storm surges and other environmental events won’t be covered by your homeowners’ policy. To assess your flood risk and buy federally sponsored flood insurance, visit the Web site of the National Flood Insurance Program.  Earthquake coverage also isn’t included in standard homeowners’ policies. You’d have to seek out a supplemental policy through your insurer, and that policy likely would carry a deductible ranging from 2 percent to 20 percent of your home’s value.