Tips to Prepare Your Home in Case of Emergency
Photo: Joel Sartore
Smoke alarm? Check. Furnace serviced? Check. An inventory of your keepsakes for insurance? Connie Proteau says absolutely.
Like most Canadians, my husband and I purchase insurance every year to protect our biggest asset—our home. Annually, we ante up a few thousand dollars for a policy our insurance broker has scoped out to meet our needs, we replace smoke detector batteries, have the chimney cleaned—all the usual maintenance tasks that any one of us do to mitigate the risk for a house fire. After filing away the documents in a drawer, there’s nothing else we need to do, right? Wrong. It wasn’t until we experienced a house fire ourselves that we learned a few lessons on ways to improve our preparedness (and peace of mind), especially for sentimental possessions that are irreplaceable and priceless to us.
As far as house fires go, ours wasn’t particularly dramatic, although it definitely caught us off-guard. And thankfully, it happened in the daytime. On a lazy Sunday afternoon, we were sitting upstairs in the loft area of our home. We had just turned the TV on and were about 10 minutes into a movie when I began to hear distinctive snaps, crackles, and pops—sounds that are typical of burning wood.
“Turn down the TV for a second. Do you hear anything?” I asked my husband.
My initial guess was the neighbours were having a bonfire in their backyard, although the sounds seemed too loud considering our windows were closed on this chilly day in April. My second guess was the fire we’d had going in the fireplace downstairs, earlier in the day, had suddenly relit. I stood up to move closer to the stairs and listen. And then, looking up through the skylight in the ceiling, I saw smoke billowing outside.
We both thought we were having a chimney fire and quickly grabbed a phone and ran outside. While my husband was on the phone with 911, he began dousing the flames that were poking through the roof with the garden hose. After passing off the hose to a neighbour who came to assist, he ran to the other side of the house to get another hose plus a ladder because with two hoses going, there wasn’t enough water pressure to reach the top of the roof from the ground below.
Although our fire wasn’t large, the gaping hole burnt into the roof and ceiling below allowed for lots of water to find its way down two flights of stairs, leaving six inches of water in the basement. Thankfully, the rest of our photo albums are stored in built-in shelving, several feet higher than the basement floor, so we didn’t lose anything there either.
Still, the experience taught us we should have had a home inventory system in place. If we’d lost more than a roof, carpets and a wood ceiling (all replaceable), the claims process could have been much more difficult. Today, with the aid of technology, making a home inventory list is simple to do. There are several apps available—Encircle, Sortly and Know Your Stuff are a few that are free.
The benefit of using an app and a smart phone is that most of the documentation is done by simply snapping photos of entire rooms or individual items within each room. The inventory list can be accessed anytime on the app’s website to add details such as purchase price, serial or model numbers—easier to do using a computer keyboard. The list should be updated yearly, especially after a remodelling project or making major purchases.
Include images of the manufacturer’s label on expensive or designer clothes to make certain you’ll be compensated fairly. Take photos of attics, closets, garages and the contents of filing cabinets. Most of us can’t recall every item in our home or cottage without having this visual. Alternatively, photos or videos (taken without the use of an app) could be transferred to a memory stick and stored in a safety deposit box or at a different location. Preparing ahead of time, will go a long way in reducing mental and financial stress and additionally, will ensure you have adequate coverage when shopping for an insurance policy every year.
The Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) also recommends that you ask your insurance representative if you can hire a contractor or supplier of your choice to do repairs. If so, discuss costs. Make sure the contractor or supplier respects the price and specifications that you and your insurer agree on.
5 tips for making a home inventory
Print a copy of the IBC’s Personal Property Inventory Checklist or download an Excel sheet to track your possessions room by room. In taking stock of your contents, consider the following.
1. Keep bills, receipts, warranties and instruction manuals for your more valuable possessions—these can serve as proof of ownership.
2. Store your records and receipts in a safe place, such as a safety deposit box or a secure online option.
3. Review your home inventory every year and when you make new purchases. The value of your possessions will increase the more you acquire.