The devastation from the recent California fires is a reminder of why it’s important to take stock of what you own now—before something happens.  

In the unlikely event of a fire, a wind storm, a robbery, or another unexpected event, homeowners insurance can help you repair your home and recover or replace your belongings. But you’ll need to remember what you’ve lost—which can be a challenge during a time of trauma.

That’s why it’s wise to consider doing a home inventory. Having a list or visual reminder of your belongings can make a big difference in how much the insurer will pay, and thus how well you’ll recover financially.

“A home inventory is beneficial because it gives homeowners and insurers a clear picture of how many items are in a home and how much it would cost to replace them in the event of a natural disaster,” says Michael Barry, a spokesperson at the industry-sponsored Insurance Information Institute, based in New York City.

It's Easy to Get Started

Creating a home inventory doesn’t have to be difficult.

“It can even be as simple as standing in the middle of each room and taking a 360-degree video, and uploading to the cloud or emailing it to yourself,” says Melanie Hart, senior underwriting manager for the San Antonio insurance company USAA. 

To start, focus first on the big and valuable: major appliances, jewelry, furniture, rugs, electronics, and art or collectibles.

More on Recovering from a Catastrophe

Using your smartphone’s video feature, sweep the camera around a room, narrating the description of items you’re filming and—if you remember—what you paid. (Photograph receipts if you have them.) Capture serial numbers and brand names when possible so that the insurer can replace what you had with exact or similar items.

Once you’ve cataloged the pricier items for your home inventory, open cabinets, drawers, closets, and boxes and do the same. But don’t sweat the small stuff too much. An insurance adjuster is likely to create a “bulk estimate” of those things—for example, $200 for everything in your utility closet, insurers told us.

Store the Information Right

Store the images and video for your home inventory on a cloud service, such as iCloud or OneDrive, or put it on a thumb drive and stash it in a safe deposit box or fireproof safe.

Several insurers even offer free web-based home inventory storage tools and apps. American Family Insurance’s DreamVault, for instance, lets anyone create a digital home inventory; it’s available online and as an Android or iOS app.