Written by Kirsten Rabe Smolensky, JD, ISA CAPP
As an appraiser, I have worked on a lot of insurance claims, including losses due to fire, theft, transit damage, and flood. The number one mistake most insureds make is not being prepared in advance.
Imagine that your house has burned to the ground and everything inside it destroyed. The insurance company requests an inventory of EVERYTHING inside. Do you know how many kitchen pots you have? Shoes? Tools? Most people remember the large, expensive items, but forget numerous smaller items. These items add up quickly.
And, those large, expensive items? They may or may not be covered depending upon how your policy is written and whether you have the appropriate riders in place. Most insurance companies will require an appraisal to insure these items.
This article will help you prepare for a potential loss. Some steps you can take on your own, but others will require the assistance of a professional appraiser.
Understand Your Homeowner’s Insurance Policy
The biggest problem I see after a devastating loss is underinsurance, meaning that homeowners suffer a loss yet fail to recover tens of thousands of dollars just at the time when they have lost everything they hold dear. How do you prevent this?
Every insurance policy is different and you should work with your insurance agent to understand how your policy works. However, there are a few common traits most homeowner’s policies share. If you understand these commonalities, you can ask the right questions to ensure that your coverage is adequate.
Most homeowner’s policies have a total coverage limit for household contents that is based upon a percentage of your home’s value. For example, if you have a $400,000 home, you might have 50% in personal property coverage ($200,000) or you might have 75% in personal property coverage ($300,000). You need to know what that amount is and feel confident that you can replace every item of personal property in your home, from fine art to furniture to clothing, for that amount. If you are buying furniture from designers, have some nice rugs and fine art, or are a collector, these limits can be easily exceeded. If you have expensive tools or lawn equipment in your garage, you should also consider those items.
Next, even if that limit appears sufficient, your policy may have special limits for certain categories of items. Most homeowner’s policies have dollar limits on jewelry, fine art, rugs, silver, collectibles, antiques, guns, etc. The limits generally range from a few thousand dollars to $5,000 or $10,000 per category. However, if you have two or three nice rugs or pieces of fine art in your home, you can quickly exceed those limits.
For example, assume that you have three nice, original paintings in your home. You inherited one and are unsure of its value, you purchased one ten years ago for $3,000 and you recently bought a third painting for $4,000. At this point, you know you have at least $7,000 worth of fine art. If you have a $5,000 special limit on fine art, you will need a rider adding coverage to your homeowner’s insurance. Otherwise, in the event of a loss of the three paintings (and any other fine art you may own) you will only be reimbursed up to $5,000, regardless of the total value of the paintings. So, if the inherited painting turns out to be worth a fortune, you just lost it. Adding a rider, or additional special coverage, to your homeowner’s policy will protect against that loss. And, it will often require a professional appraisal of the paintings in advance. Understanding your policy and making sure you have adequate coverage is crucial to protecting yourself against such unanticipated losses.
The most common mistake that I see clients make is that they remember to get their jewelry appraised but forget about their rugs, silver, antiques and collectibles. Make sure you ask your insurance agent the right questions and fully understand your homeowner’s policy.
I recommend having a conference call with an appraiser and your insurance agent so that everyone can be on the same page as to which items need to be appraised. Many competent, ISA-trained appraisers can help facilitate a discussion with your insurance agent to ensure that you get the necessary items appraised and properly insured.
Create an Inventory
Create an inventory of items that you own. This can be done on your own or with the assistance of a professional appraiser. A written, photographic, or videoed inventory can mean the difference between coverage and non-coverage.
The purpose of an inventory is two-fold. First, it proves to the insurance company that the items existed and were in your home. Second, a good inventory will provide details about the items (type, style, quality, condition, brand, etc.) that will ensure accurate replacement should replacement become necessary.
If you do not want to do this yourself, or fear you may not know what information to capture, many appraisers will create an inventory for you. If you know you have valuable items that will require a rider, then ask the appraiser to create an inventory for you while they are already on site appraising your other items.
Many appraisers can photograph every room of the house in an organized, orderly fashion that is easy to follow, and focus on the more valuable items. Appraisers generally have a good eye for value and quality and will know what objects to focus on and what types of photographs to take, but we never want to miss anything that is important to you. Make sure that you point out items in advance that you know are particularly valuable or important to you so the appraiser knows what to capture.
Photographic inventories can be invaluable in the event of a loss, and I generally recommend clients store photographs on a flash drive (or two) and keep at least one flash drive off site in a secure location.
Keep Good Records
For those expensive purchases, including jewelry, fine art and the riding lawn mower in the garage, make sure that you keep receipts. Insurance companies will often ask for proof of purchase price for expensive items, particularly if they are not listed on a rider prior to the loss and/or you paid cash for them. Keep copies of the receipts in a secure location offsite or digitize them and save them in the cloud. Alternatively, you should be able to look up major purchases on your credit card statements. Insurance companies will often accept those records as proof of purchase.
For items such as fine art or an important antique, keeping the receipt may also help prove provenance. Provenance is an item’s record of ownership that is often used to help determine authenticity, quality and ultimately value. An item with a good provenance often has more value than an item without a provenance. Keeping good records should become a habit whenever a substantial purchase is made.
If the Worst Happens
Unfortunately, claims sometimes happen. Here are a few things you should keep in mind if you need to file a claim:
- File your claim as soon as possible. Do not miss the deadline for notice. If you do, you may not be covered.
- Make sure that when you file a claim it is as complete as possible. If you’ve had items damaged in a move, take an extra day or two to make sure you’ve listed EVERYTHING as long as it won’t cause the claim to be late. If you find items later and add them to the list, it may look suspicious.
- When asked how old an item is and what was paid for it, be honest and reasonable. When possible support your statements with receipts and/or credit card statements. If you are unsure how much was paid, just say so and explain why. Perhaps the item was a gift or it was inherited.
- Once you open a claim, keep a file for that claim. The file can be electronic or printed, but it should include all correspondence, any photos, any receipts, all emails, etc. Ideally, you should also keep a notepad handy to record every verbal interaction with the insurance company. Include the date of any call, who you spoke to, what was discussed and how long the call was. Keep a copy of the insurance policy handy too. If you do not have one, ask for it. If you need to hire an appraiser, it may be helpful for the appraiser to see the policy. This will let them know the type of policy and any special limits, etc.
What You Should Do TODAY
Call your insurance company and make sure that you understand your policy. If you have items that need to be put on a rider, call an ISA appraiser and have them assist you in:
- Figuring out which items should be appraised
- Creating an inventory
- Writing an appraisal for high-value items.
A little bit of work up front can save you LOTS of time, money and frustration should the worst happen.