Despite your best intentions, you never got around to creating a home inventory, a detailed list of your belongings, for insurance purposes. Now that you've suffered a theft or casualty loss, you're kicking yourself. All isn't lost: There are strategies you can use to approximate a home inventory after the fact and assign value to your damaged or destroyed possessions.
Lita Epstein, co-author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Accounting," suggests first checking your insurance policy to see what's covered and to what degree. Ideally, you should have replacement cost coverage, which reimburses at full price for a comparable item rather than deducting for depreciation. Once you determine your level of coverage, you're ready to inventory your belongings.
Make a list
Start by making a comprehensive list from memory of everything that was lost, says Mark Goldwich, founder of GoldStar Adjusters, a Jacksonville, Fla., claims adjusting firm. Using a home inventory checklist -- you can download our free PDF worksheet -- might help you remember items that may not otherwise come to mind.
Record any important details that affect value such as types of stones in jewelry or the size of a television screen. Examine any available receipts, checkbook ledgers, bank statements, and credit card records for details on purchases.
Solicit photos and videos
Photographs or videos of your possessions can be an important part of proving the value of a loss, says Kelan J. Vorbach, an insurance representative with John B. Wright Insurance in Manasquan, N.J. Examine your photos and home videos, as items may appear in the background. Those images can be used as back-up documentation for your claim. Vorbach also recommends asking friends and family for any photos or videos taken in your home.
Work with what you have
In the case of theft, you may still have owner's manuals or accessories that came with the item that was stolen. In one of Goldwich's cases, proof for a claim included the remote control to a stolen video camera, as well as copies of credit card statements, emailed receipts from online purchases, and even tops from the packaging of some items. In cases where possessions are destroyed, Epstein recommends taking photos of the damage and assembling a list from any remains at the scene, as long as it's safe to do so.
Look on manufacturers' websites to get estimates of what similar items cost, suggests Epstein. You may even want to contact manufacturers to see if they can help you determine the retail value of a comparable item, she says. If you don't have replacement value coverage for your possessions, sites like eBay and Craigslist that sell used merchandise may give you an idea of how much you can expect to pay for a similar item, says Goldwich.
Hire an appraiser
Especially if you lost high-value items, it may be in your best interest to hire a certified personal property appraiser to help you document your claim, says Epstein. Check with the International Society of Appraisers, which has an online appraiser search function. Hiring a professional typically costs between $250 and $500, though fees can vary greatly depending on the size and complexity of a claim.
Some appraisers charge a percentage of the appraised value, perhaps 2% to 5%. Epstein says an appraiser's report can go a long way in helping you document the value of your items, often making the investment worthwhile.
It's critical to devote a day or two to documenting your claims thoroughly, not only for your insurance company but also for the IRS. Federal tax rules allow for certain deductions related to theft and casualty losses, including declared disasters. "Those types of claims have a high rate of audit, so you want to be sure you have as much documentation as possible to defend the deduction," Epstein says. Consult a tax adviser, and refer to IRS Publication 547.