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.

That’s when time began to slow down.

While I watched the smoke fill the neighbourhood and the flames get bigger on our roof, I began to realize the speed at which fire spreads is directly inverse of how slow time goes by when your house is on fire. The nearest fire hall is within several blocks from our house so I expected to hear the truck’s siren as soon as it left the hall. I paced the backyard while more neighbours gathered and we watched the flames get bigger. When I finally heard the siren, it was like music. (A mere six minutes, the fire chief told us later—amazingly fast for a fire department staffed by on-call volunteers.) Within minutes, another fire hall responded.

While I watched a team of firefighters aim several high-volume hoses at the roof of our house, I tried to recall every item that was upstairs that was possibly being soaked in water, and whether or not it mattered. And then I remembered what I’d left on the floor of the guest room: a 10-year collection of baby photos and other memorabilia from our children’s early years—a scrapbooking project I’d been working on in fits and starts over the last several weeks. When I asked one of the firemen if he knew how much water was in that bedroom, he dashed inside and scooped everything off the floor, placed it in a box and brought it outside. I was so pleased that none of our keepsakes were damaged.

The gaping hold burnt into the roof…

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.

Our insurance company hired a private fire investigator to find the cause of the fire. The investigation determined that electrical wiring chewed by rodents was the probable but not conclusive cause. Fortunately, this is covered under our policy but not always. Check with your insurance representative if rodent damage is included or offered as an add-on. Policies vary from one insurer to the next, so it is important to select a policy to your specific needs. Ask your representative to clearly explain what is covered and what is not covered.

Insurers offer three options for your damaged or stolen items: repair, replace or reimburse. Review your policy with your insurance representative so that you know your specified deductibles, coverage limits and replacement values. Always ask if you qualify for any discounts such as having an alarm system, a new hot water tank, or a membership with a particular organization. Some insurers offer a loyalty discount for bundling car insurance with house insurance, for being claims-free or for being a senior.


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.

4. Take photographs or video footage of all of your valuable possessions. (Try out free apps such as: Encircle, Sortly or Know Your Stuff.)

5. Store records of credit cards, taxes, government and other important household documents in an off-site location.


Source: Insurance Bureau of Canada

A version of this article appeared in the April 2017 issue with the headline, “Up In Flames,” p. 52-54.