Documentation saves images, money

Pictures back up memory, claims of homeowners

— Fans of the public television show "Antiques Road Show" know that Aunt Maude's old breakfront can be worth a startling amount of money.

Luckily, most people have good household insurance. But if their home burned down tonight, could they prove to the claims adjustor that Aunt Maude's antique furniture was worth $7,500? Could they even prove that they ever owned that fine example of early colonial craftsmanship? You could if you had taken the time to photograph all of your possessions and carefully stored them in a safe deposit box. Sadly, many people talk about taking inventory and documenting their possessions, but never follow through.

"It's very important," State Farm agent Jerry Dunn said. "It's always nice to have documentation. Ninety percent of the time, our company will ask, 'How do we know you owned it? How do we know you owned a $10,000 ring or an antique dresser when your house is burned to the ground?'"

Dunn said claims adjustors for his firm also ask for receipts to demonstrate ownership, but in the case of items that policy-holders have received as gifts, receipts can be impossible to retain. Photographic evidence of the property can be you best option in that case.

And if you can't imagine you'll ever take the initiative yourself, contact a local firm called DigiTrac and they'll undertake that chore fore you.

DigiTrac is a company owned by 22-year residents of Steamboat Springs, Darcy and George Coale. For a fee, the Coales will come to your home and use a digital camera to photograph all of the possessions a homeowner deems worthy. They produce a color catalog for reference, but the key to their system is saving the pictures they take to three identical, and easy to store, compact discs.

Darcy Coale said she and her husband created their business from scratch.

"We were looking for something that would suit our personalities," she said. "My husband is a very gregarious person. He actually goes to peoples' homes and businesses and makes the digital photographs. I like to work on the computer."

The company is fully bonded and insured.

Dunn said the most common way for people to document their possessions is with a video camera. But the Coales contend VHS videotapes can break or fade, and they lack the resolution and detail preserved by a digital camera.

"Our software provides thumbnail images and page numbers at the beginning of the inventory CD," Darcy Coale said. "You can go to a specific item, or you can set the program to automatically flip, like a picture album, through every page. You can enlarge each image for greater detail, and you can print a copy of any of the images."

The trend in Steamboat Springs and Routt County is toward the construction of fabulous homes valued at $1 million and more. It isn't too big a leap to deduce that many of those homes contain fabulous furniture and works of art, not to mention state-of-the-art home entertainment systems.

Dunn said in the case of exceptionally valuable property, an expensive painting for example, it may be necessary to have it appraised and listed as a schedule on a homeowner's policy. In some cases, it's even necessary to write a separate policy.

Pam Bentley of Sleeping Giant Insurance in Steamboat said it's very important to make a record of your possessions for insurance purposes.

"We've worked with a lot of people who wished they had a record," Bentley said. "Most people don't take the time to do it."

Scott Mayor of Riedman/Brown and Brown said a careful record of your possessions will always help in the case of a fire or a burglary. Most people will overlook some of their valuable property if they rely on memory, he said. And in the case of burglaries, most insurance companies will rely on police reports as sufficient proof of ownership.

"Most people aren't brave enough to lie to the cops," Mayor observed.

Claims adjustors will typically take a close look at a claimant's lifestyle to try to determine if the items included in their losses fit in with other aspects of their lives. For example, Mayor said, if a claimant lived in a tiny home but claimed an impressive home-theater system in addition to a couple of other televisions, an adjustor might reasonably ask, "Where did they have room for such a huge entertainment system?"

One occurrence Mayor can recall, that fits that scenario, cropped up when a Steamboat man, who lived in a poorly kept condo, claimed to have lost a set of Ping golf clubs in a burglary. The golf clubs said "country club" but the condo didn't, raising skepticism on the part of the adjustor. However, the claimant was able to produce a letter from an older brother who was a successful stockbroker and confirmed he had given the clubs to his brother as "hand-me-downs." That was good enough for the insurance company.

Mayor recalls the case of a Steamboat mechanic who had his shop broken into. Among the missing tools were three sets of taps and dies, however, the mechanic overlooked the metric set, which was rarely used. He didn't notice it was missing until nine months later when he needed the metric tools, but he was able to reopen the case and make a supplemental claim.

Mayor's own mother was once a victim of a burglary, and her experience illustrates how difficult it is to recall all of your possessions if you haven't made a record in advance.

"She had a lot of small jewelry stolen, nothing real valuable," Mayor recalled. The missing jewelry she didn't notice until the following Christmas was a pair of Santa Claus earrings set with tiny diamonds.

Santa makes a list and checks it twice. Local insurance pros say Steamboat business and homeowners should do the same.

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