Remember the kids' party game when someone's mother showed you a tray filled with household items, and you had to memorize the contents and write them down after she took away the tray?

Now imagine doing the same thing as an adult, but now the missing items are your household goods and it's no longer a game. If something happened to your house today, would you know what was in it? Most of us think we would but, according to the experts, the chances of that happening are slim.

"Very few people that we deal with have completed household inventories," says Alex Hill of USAA Insurance of San Antonio. "It's something that everyone has good intentions of doing, but until you're missing things, it rarely happens."

Hill, manager of insurance operations for Missouri, has seen homes after disaster strikes—whether from flood, fire, or burglary—and knows how overwhelmed families feel when they think about starting over.

"We send representatives to the field to meet with our members," says Hill, "and they're devastated when they go through that kind of loss. Having a household inventory makes the restoration process that much easier."

Anne Obst of State Farm Insurance agrees. As the company's Woodbury, Minnesota-based public affairs specialist, she spends part of each day educating State Farm clients about how to protect their household goods and how to make sure they're prepared in case of disaster.

"State Farm publishes educational material about inventories on its Web site," says Obst, "and we publish a Home Inventory Booklet that is free to our clients." The booklet covers everything from the hows and whys of household inventories to a special section about theft-prone items such as antiques and art objects.
      Keep a record
      of your
      personal papers
      with your

Work your way
each room,
recording the
name and
a description
of each item.
Why have a household inventory?
There are many reasons to have a household inventory, among them the disasters mentioned above. You rarely think that tragedy will strike your home, but when it does, household inventories can help the replacement and healing process start that much sooner. Having a household inventory also helps you determine the value of goods in your home so you have enough insurance in the first place. This applies to homeowners and renters—renters should have renters insurance to protect their personal household items. And if you don't have adequate insurance, having a household inventory can help you document tax deductions for your losses.

Household inventories also help in estate planning, not only for determining the value of your household goods but for divvying up things in your will.

"Most often families don't get serious about a household inventory until the neighbor's house is on fire," says Karen Goebel, a consumer science professor with the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Human Ecology. "But beyond insurance purposes, the discussion of 'who gets what' in the estate planning process is a step in the household inventory process."

Goebel should know. As a family consumer economics specialist with a joint appointment in the UW's Extension Department,
Goebel travels the nation to lecture on topics as diverse as protecting your household goods to making sure that loved ones don't "pilfer" them once you're gone. Goebel says it's amazing how often a son or daughter will go into a parent's house and think, "nobody will miss this hutch, and I've always liked it more than anyone else...." A detailed household inventory can stop problems like that in their tracks.

How do I create an inventory?
Creating a household inventory is time-consuming, but starting one is easier than you think. Simply begin at one end of your house and work your way through each room, recording the name and a description of each item. If possible, record serial numbers and, if you have them, include receipts. Keep in mind that many credit card companies now offer insurance on items that are lost or destroyed within a year of purchase, so it's wise to save those receipts anyway.

Georgia Lehman, director of emergency social services for the Keystone Chapter of the American Red Cross, Johnstown, Pa., stresses that in addition to household goods, you should keep a record of your personal papers—including birth certificates, marriage certificates, immunization records, and so on—with your inventory.

"We tend to think, 'I have a refrigerator, I have a stove, I have a microwave,' " says Lehman, "but our personal records are equally important and, in many cases, more time-consuming to replace." The Red Cross offers more tips at its Web site.

If tragedy strikes,
having a
can help the
replacement and
healing process
start that much
Pictures please...
Although insurance companies don't require pictures, photographs and videotapes are valuable if anything happens to your household items. This addition to your inventory also can make your recording job easier—but should not replace a hard copy—as you can talk your way through each room with a video camera and scan all the items in each room. Photos and videotapes also are helpful if your insurance company offers a replacement service, which USAA does.

"We have contracts with several different vendors," says USAA's Hill, "and if we know that you had an RCA 27-inch television with a built-in VCR, we can find you a new one to replace the one that was stolen in a burglary or lost in a fire."

Photos also help determine the condition and value of your goods, which is especially important if you have "actual cost" vs. "replacement cost" insurance. The UW's Goebel advises paying the extra premium to get replacement cost insurance. "If you have actual cost insurance to replace an item, you will end up buying a used or depreciated item," Goebel says. "Some insurance companies may use this cost figure, but the consumer's difference in premium makes it worthwhile to have the replacement, or the cost to replace [your item] with a similar item at today's cost."

The inventory's finished—now what?
The first thing you should do with your completed household inventory is make a copy. If you wrote your list in a notebook, photocopy the whole thing. If you took pictures, order duplicates. If you completed the inventory on your personal computer, print two copies and put one copy on disk. In whatever form, keep one copy at home in a fire-retardant box, and send another to the home of a friend, preferably one who lives some distance from you in case of a natural disaster, or keep it in a safe deposit box at your credit union or at a bank.

For more information about creating household inventories and protecting your valuables, check out Yahoo!'s Home and Renters Insurance Center.

©1999 Credit Union National Association Inc.