The recent surge in fires this week has understandably made many residents nervous – and cautious.

They also underscore the importance of having adequate insurance and documenting what you are insuring. If you live in a multi-unit building it serves as a reminder that as careful as you might be, you can’t do much about the person next door.  

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 found 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 everyday. People are often complacent about documenting what they own. “I have great coverage, my insurance will cover me.” So the question is then, “What did you lose?” Without good records, that question is hard, if not impossible, to answer.

In spite of your great coverage, an adjuster working a claim does not have a secret database showing what was in your home before it burned or collapsed in an earthquake. The problem is that even if an insurance carrier is willing to pay out the entire contents coverage on a property, 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, most receipts only show the amount spent and not what was purchased; yes, you spent $84.37 at Macy’s, but the statement will not show what was purchased, as is the case with Visa/Mastercard. And those statements and receipts, they aren’t on paper in a file cabinet in your home office by chance are they? If they are, then likely they will be destroyed along with everything else in a fire. With wedding gifts and family heirlooms going back decades, there are probably no records at all.

The efficacy of video for home documentation is hard to argue with. To make your own home documentation, start with a short clip 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. 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, you won’t know what’s on the clip without watching the entire 50 minutes, and that’s just the upstairs!  Digital video cameras create a new clip every time you start and stop. By keeping the clips short, you can easily locate a certain room, cabinet or closet. 

Speaking of high-value items, video cameras and phones 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 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. That means that a 2,500 square foot home will generate 2.0-2.5 gigabyte. When you finish your documentation you can easily copy it to removable media (e.g. USB drives) 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 off site. 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 establish credibility and 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 the policy limits, 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. Two certainties:  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. He can be reached at  818-421-9154 or rcasselphoto@gmail.com.