Home inventory businesses spring up after fire

RICH LADEN Updated: December 14, 2012 at 12:00 am • Published: December 14, 2012

Insurance companies have warned homeowners for years: Make an accurate record of your household contents, and keep it in a safe place in case of an emergency.

The advice has taken on special meaning for Colorado Springs-area residents after the Waldo Canyon fire destroyed nearly 350 Mountain Shadows homes in late June. Some residents of the northwest side neighborhood have spent months battling insurance companies to obtain satisfactory settlements.

The amount received in such settlements hinges, in large part, on what kind of information homeowners can provide to document the value of their contents. And insurance companies want detailed proof of value, not homeowners’ misty-eyed recollections of the items they lost.

That’s why at least two home inventory companies recently were launched in Colorado Springs, part of a growing industry that offers to record and document household contents for a price. In spite of the Waldo Canyon fire’s harsh reality, and warnings from the insurance industry, assembling inventories remains one of those chores that many busy homeowners put off.

“Their intentions are there, but it’s very, very time consuming,” Carrie Mitchell, owner of Together We Stand Home Inventory and Asset Management Group, said of homeowners.
Mitchell, who owned rental properties in Manitou Springs at the time of the fire, had tenants who were evacuated from their residences; she also had friends who were evacuated and stayed at her home. She and her partner in the company, Springs businessman Pete Vieth, had friends who lost everything.

In volunteering with Colorado Springs Together, the nonprofit assistance group that formed after the fire, Mitchell and Vieth talked with several fire victims, most of whom had failed to put together home inventories. They also heard harrowing testimonials from residents who suddenly had 15 minutes to evacuate as the fire approached.

“They spent the 15 minutes snapping pictures (of household contents) and video taping in a panic,” Vieth said.

The pair researched the home inventory industry over the next few months, spent hours talking with insurance company representatives and estate planners and conducted pilot home inventories. They did their first inventory in October.

Together We Stand uses digital photography and a software program to document a home’s contents — taking photos of appliances, electronics, furniture, jewelry, firearms, antiques and coin collections, among other items, while entering detailed descriptions of each item into a computer software program. Inventories start at $349, average about $500 and the final cost depends on how time they spend at a home and how detailed a homeowner wants to get..

“What we’ve learned from the insurance industry is that values that are done based on the homeowner’s self valuation are meaningless to insurance companies,” Vieth said. “What’s important to insurance companies is the photographs, the detail and documentation.”

Some insurance companies are better at working with their customers than others, but all want the most documentation they can get, Mitchell said.

“If you have documentation, there’s no question,” she said. “There’s proof. This is what you had before the fire.”

A second home inventory business, VanMark Inventory Services, also started in October and essentially offers the same service for a similar $500 average cost, said Mark Leiker, who operates the business with his wife, Vanessa.

VanMark is a franchise of Hartman Inventory Systems LLC, whose Indiana-based owners started their business after being burglarized twice, according to Hartman’s website.

“It’s a relatively new industry, but it’s an industry that everybody needs, especially in this area,” Leiker said. He previously owned a business that sold and serviced espresso machines, and was looking for another investment opportunity.

“When you look at society, when you look at the amount of burglaries we’re having, the number of home and house fires we’re having, and the wildfires, and wind and hail-type damage ... I just felt this was something that needed to be done.”

VanMark takes hundreds of photographs of household contents while documenting serial numbers and other item descriptions in writing or on computer, Leiker said.

“Insurance companies, they’re trying to find ways to avoid paying,” he said. “If you can’t prove what you own, if you can’t remember it, you can’t recover it.”

Inventories aren’t just for fires or other disasters, according to Together We Stand and VanMark. Homeowners and businesses can use them to report burglarized items to insurance companies and police. A couple going through a divorce can use an inventory for an accurate record as they split assets. Older residents can document possessions for estate planning purposes.

The insurance industry doesn’t dismiss home inventory businesses, but some carriers have free, online tools for consumers who want to conduct their own inventories, said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. The industry’s Insurance Information Institute has its own home inventory site, knowyourstuff.org.

Leiker said it’s fine to use industry tools, but he contends some online sites offer only basic information and aren’t as detailed as inventories conducted by third-party companies.
Homeowners who hire a home inventory business should make certain they’re bonded and insured, Walker said. The owners of Together We Stand and VanMark both say they are.

“Many people find it an overwhelming process,” Walker said of home inventories. “They procrastinate. So, these businesses can help someone get it done, and do it for them. At the same time, I always encourage people to investigate the free resources available to them. With technology, many insurance companies provide a ‘cloud’ (off-site storage) or apps and their own technology to help make the process easier.”

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• At least two Colorado Springs businesses, Together We Stand Home Inventory and Asset Management Group, and VanMark Inventory Services, offer to conduct home inventories — documenting household contents and their value in case of a fire, burglary or other incident.
• The companies go from room to room, taking photos of contents — what an item looks like from different angles, as well as photos of labels that might show a product’s model and serial number. Together We Stand takes up to six photos per item, and records item descriptions in a computer software program. VanMark takes hundreds of photos, and takes down item descriptions on computer or in writing.
• Together We Stand downloads photos and item descriptions onto a CD and flash drive; VanMark puts together photos and item information in a binder for customers.
•Why not video? Together We Stand partner Pete Vieth says photos on a compact disc or flash drive can be accessed by calling up a category of item or a room in the house. With video, you might need to speed through two hours of information to find what you’re looking for, he said.
• Together We Stand charges by the hour; VanMark charges by the square foot. Both say their household inventories typically run about $500. Together We Stand also offers a scaled-down version of the company’s software program for an additional $49, which allows customers to update their CD and flash drive as needed. VanMark customers can pay $50 a year to have the company store the information on an off-site server.
• Contacts: Together We Stand Home Inventory: www.TWSHomeInventory.com, 208-0287; Van Mark Inventory Services, www.VanMarkInventory.com, 209-7248

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