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Documentation can avert insurance hassles after a disaster

Published Sep. 26, 2005

(ran HP, HL, HC editions)

The first time David Bennett's home burned down, he was sad. The second time, he was furious.

Bennett, 44, has unusually strong opinions about home insurance in general and fire insurance in particular. A careless plumber accidentally burned Bennett's home down in 1983, and a neighbor accidentally burned him out in 1991.

"I wasn't very well-prepared the first time," Bennett said, explaining that he felt that house fires were things that happened to other people but not to him.

Now, however, Bennett is so well-prepared that, if anything happens to his current home, he will have no trouble giving his insurance company a detailed list of exactly what was lost.

Bennett's story begins at 5:45 p.m. Dec. 26, 1983. Today Bennett is a partner in an advertising firm, but in 1983 he was a radio personality handling the afternoon shift.

He was on the air when his mother called the station to say his condo in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, was on fire. The experience that followed was agonizing, Bennett said.

"I wouldn't wish it on anyone," he said. The fire destroyed irreplaceable photos, scrapbooks and a quilt made by Bennett's grandmother in the 1920s. It also forced Bennett to go through the laborious process of trying to recall exactly what was destroyed so that he could file an insurance claim.

In both fires, Bennett's insurance adjuster was helpful, understanding and reasonable, he said. The problem was that he just couldn't produce a complete list of his possessions.

Bennett's experience is extremely common, said Jayna Neagle, manager of new media for the Insurance Information Institute in New York City. Homeowners and apartment dwellers routinely fail to complete the household property inventory forms they receive when they buy home insurance, she said. Without that inventory, homeowners will find it almost impossible to recoup their losses. Most homeowners make little effort to do an inventory, she said.

In Bennett's case, the job of listing his belongings began as soon as he rushed home to see his condominium being destroyed. A plumber using a torch to thaw frozen pipes accidentally started the blaze, Bennett said.

"I was able to get pretty good documentation for what I lost in the first fire," Bennett said. He went to the stores where he had purchased his furniture, clothing and other major items, and he was pleasantly surprised that they had detailed records of what he had spent and when.

He filled in many of the blanks with his memory, mentally going from room to room and remembering where he kept his valuable items and gifts.

"I was prepared for a battle with my insurance company, but that didn't happen," Bennett said, explaining that the adjuster accepted virtually all of his claim. That included difficult calculations, like the value of his grandmother's quilt.

"When I filled out my claim form, I listed the value of the quilt as "priceless' because I literally had no idea how to estimate the worth of an item like that," he said. The adjuster paid $300 for the irreplaceable item, which Bennett felt was reasonable under the circumstances.

Bennett bought a new condo in the same development. It was part of a 12-unit building that burned down June 8, 1991, when a neighbor with a defective gas grill accidentally set her own unit on fire.

"I was shell-shocked the first time, feeling sorry for myself and saying "Why is this happening to me,' " he said. "Well, the second time, the frustration was just unbelievable. I was swearing up a storm because I was really angry."

Bennett still didn't have a household inventory to help file his claim. The claim was fairly easy to prepare, though, because virtually all his possessions were fewer than 7 years old, and retail stores provided him with good records of his major purchases. "I was able to figure out 85 percent of what I needed," he said.

In both cases, Bennett wasn't able to remember everything. "What you learn from a fire is that all the little, insignificant items you accumulate over the years suddenly become very significant," he said. Seemingly minor items _ tools and small appliances, for example _ escaped his memory as he prepared his claim. For months, however, he was repeatedly forced to drop everything and go on an emergency shopping trip to replace a minor item that was suddenly vital.

"All those little things I had to pay for on my own," he said. "Even though I couldn't remember them when I filed my claim, I couldn't live without them."

These days Bennett lives in a custom-built home in Bath, and he keeps a record of all his major purchases in a secure place. He spent extra time with the architect, seeing exactly where his new home's smoke alarms would be and specifying a fireplace that burns gas instead of wood.

"I'd love to be able to burn logs, but I feel safer with gas," he said.

A gourmet cook, Bennett specified an oversize 54-inch exhaust hood to provide an extra level of safety in case of cooking fires. "The first household item I bought was a fire extinguisher," he said.

Insurance claims are more common than you might think. Neagle said 11.5 percent of homeowners file some kind of claim each year.

The average claim is only $2,919 because most damage is caused by relatively minor fires, severe weather and theft, she said. However, the average claim would be higher if homeowners had better records of their possessions.

"If you don't have a way to submit a complete claim, you'll lose the value of whatever you forget," she said. "Completing that inventory is really important."

The best way to compile this list is to take photographs of every room, with close-ups and receipts for major items. Forms provided by your insurance agent _ or from the Insurance Information Institute on the Internet at _ are intended to give a room-by-room listing with a purchase price and purchase date for each item.

Doing a complete inventory is so time-consuming that many homeowners skip it completely. "If you feel you don't have the time to do a thorough inventory, at least do something," Neagle said.

The inventories are especially important to collectors, she said. "If you have a valuable baseball card collection, for example, you really have to document exactly what you have."

Folks with especially complicated inventories _ or people who simply enjoy working on computers _ might want to consider using special software that is easy to update as you add purchases. Neagle said a program called MyDataBase by MySoftware Inc. is available for $29.95 by calling (800) 325-3508. It includes a home-inventory section that can be printed out or transferred to a disk.

Some homeowners simply walk through their homes with a videocamera, scanning each room. "That's a very good idea," Neagle said. "If you do this, you should zoom in on major things and provide a little running narration, saying things like, "Here's the Sony 2000 stereo I purchased five years ago for $3,000.' It is a lot better than nothing."