Rinker on Collectibles: The Time for Emergency Preparedness is Now

Stortz and Associates, Linda’s and my accounting firm, often sends me e-mails containing information about changes in the tax laws and other financial matters. On March 6, I received an email titled: “Emergency Preparedness: Household Inventory.” It began: “In our first e-mail on this subject, we discussed the importance of creating an emergency document binder to keep in a handy place to grab if you have to leave your house suddenly and quickly. Today we’ll look at compiling a household inventory, which would also then be kept inside your emergency document binder.

“A household inventory provides you with a list of household items and essentials that could possibly be damaged, lost or destroyed in a disaster situation . . .”

As I thought about this, I asked myself, “How many collectors are prepared to protect their collections in an emergency?” My immediate answer was none. I know this is not true. There has to be one collector out there who has given this matter some thought and taken the proper precautions. However, 99.9 percent most likely have not.

Collectors cannot imagine any disaster happening to their collection(s). Their primary concern is their death. The common assumption is that my collection(s) will outlive me. Collectors accept the occasional damage that occurs from handling objects. This is not the time for “let me tell you what my cleaning lady broke” stories. I have several.

I am in the basement of my home in Kentwood, Mich., as I write this column. What disasters should I fear? I live half way up a hill, not in a flood plain. There are no large trees in close proximity that can fall on my house during a wind storm. I am relatively safe. Or, am I?

My first house located on Drury Lane in Bethlehem, Pa., was on the direct flight path for one of the runways of the Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton airport, a fact about which the seller conveniently forgot to tell me. After a 24-hour drive from St. Louis, I was unloading a U-Haul when a plane approached. I swore and fell to the ground, assuming the plane was heading directly for the entrance to my garage. I could count the rivets on the wing. The plane passed safely over the house, the first of many in the six years I lived there.

While my Kentwood home is not on a direct flight path, it is extremely close to the Grand Rapids Airport. Could an airline disaster happen in close proximity? The answer is yes. Last year, Linda and I watched while a simulated airline disaster drill took place in a Davenport University parking lot. Davenport is three miles down the road. An airline disaster is a remote possibility.

Damage from wind and rain is not. While western Michigan occasionally experiences the fringe winds and storms from hurricanes, it is not immune from tornados (a few hit less than 50 miles south of Kentwood last year) and storm-force winds blowing off Lake Michigan, 20 miles from our home. Wind can do serious damage, especially to roofs.

When heavy rain occurs, Linda and I rely on the sump pump to drain off any excess water that threatens our basement. I am cavalier in my assumption that it will work, forgetting that it is driven by electricity. If the electricity goes out in a storm, it will fail. Linda and I do not have an emergency generator. I am considering buying one immediately after finishing this column.

The sump pump is located in the storage room that houses the furnace and floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with archival file boxes containing dozens of my specialized collections. It would only take a few inches of water to impact the boxes on the lower shelves. It would take Linda and me more than half an hour to hand carry the 60 boxes (they are double stacked) stored on the bottom-shelf level up the stairs. This assumes we can confine any water issues to the one storage room. There is a second large storage area with another 40 boxes sitting directly on the floor.

Forget the sump pump. The water heater and furnace are in the same storage room. What happens if the water heater springs a leak? This has happened to me in the past. What about the furnace exploding? The furnace at The School (the former Vera Cruz, Pa., elementary school) exploded two months before I sold it. Soot and ash spread to two rooms outside the furnace area. Cleaning the collectibles that were located in the storage areas was a cumbersome task.

Fire is the one disaster that collectors never want to consider. Not preparing for it borders on negligence. Although our neighborhood consists of separate homes, they are close to each other. What happens if the fire is at our neighbor’s home? Assuming the local fire department can contain it, the potential for smoke damage is great. Having consulted on smoke damage to antiques and collectibles for insurance companies, I am more horrified by smoke than by fire damage. Smoke damage is intrusive. The impact extends far beyond the smell.

When reporters interview me in our home, Linda often is sitting beside me. When the question arises, as it inevitably does, “if there is a fire, what object would you save,” I can see the look in Linda’s eyes that says “take me.” I assume she can get out on her own. I usually mention a family item because of its personal rather than financial value. Again, this is a situation I hope I never have to face.

Author’s Aside: I do have a fire exit plan for all the rooms in my home. When I stay at a hotel or motel, the first thing I do is review the fire exit plans.

At this point, some readers will think I am an alarmist. Their “this will never happen to me” attitude is understandable. Yet . . .

Identifying a problem is the first step to finding solutions. Assuming that a disaster can strike, what are some of the things collectors can do to protect themselves?

First, install smoke alarms:
Although I have numerous battery operated smoke alarms throughout the house, I also have two that are connected directly to the company who monitors my home security system. I want the first department called immediately.

Second, buy a fireproof filing cabinet:
Keep acquisition and other key records in it. Leave the bottom two drawers empty just in case you need to put some key pieces in the collection in them on your way out the door.

Third, do a video walk through of your home every two years:
Ideally, provide commentary on what is being pictured. Transfer the information to a CD or flash drive and keep it in a location outside the home. Give a copy to your attorney or executor. Avoid putting it in a safety deposit box which might be sealed if you die.

Fourth, keep a supply of empty plastic tubs or other watertight containers available:
I do not store my collections in these tubs, concerned about their chemical composition and their ability to retain moisture.

Fifth, develop a series of “what if” plans should you be faced with unexpected disasters:
During “Gunman on Campus” training at Davenport University, the instructor made a point to say that those who are best prepared to deal with a crisis are those who have thought about it and played out various scenarios in their head. I agree.

Sixth, identify the most important pieces in a collection:
Collectors love every object in their collection. Deciding which are favored over the others is difficult. But, it must be done. This is not a well-made decision if left until the disaster is occurring.

Seventh, share your plan with your spouse or friends:
If lucky, there may be time to enlist help when facing a disaster. Know who you are planning to call and put their numbers in your mobile phone direct dial.

Eighth, do not forget to grab the computer:
Many of the files are likely collection(s) focused. If it is not a portable, take the backup unit. What back up unit? If you do not have one, buy one immediately.

Finally, do not be stupid. Do not put yourself at risk trying to save objects. Objects can be replaced. You cannot.

Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out Harry’s Web site.

You can listen and participate in Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show “Whatcha Got?” on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the Genesis Communications Network.

“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Pond Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2013

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  • Earl

    Excellent article!! As a retired fireman this is something I have always tried to practice. This article has refreshed my memory to keep in a readiness state. And from a fire standpoint, I collect old fire dept related items. I have approx 50 fire extinguishers throughout the house with at least 3 working extingushers (FD type, not store bought) on each floor.

    And to answer the question: What one item would I rescue first? That would be my wife!

    Happy collecting!

  • Chrystal Hays

    The fire that took my pets and much of my home happened in the middle of the day while I was at work. I had great insulation, so no smoke was visible to neighbors. I had alarms….but no human was there to hear them. I came home to find it in progress, everyone dead, the house full of smoke and near 2000 at the ceiling level.

    Making sure fire alarms are connected to a third party is something I never considered. I pictured a fire at night, with me in my pj’s and all the pets in their carriers on the lawn. Now: hooked up to ADT.

    I used a public adjuster in working with insurance, and was able to recover the value of things lost…but just the things….and almost 3 years later, I’m back in the house. Check your electrical and extension cords for fraying.

  • eieio

    I liked your article and the eight steps you use to keep your inventory up-to-date. I do a very similar process to keep my inventory but I use a sigle program from Microsoft called “OneNote.” I keep my entire itemized inventory, household walk-through video, photos, and Internet articles I find that are supportive to define my collections of glass, art, and antiques. I don’t stop there but also keep electronics such as TVs, computers, and AV equipment in my inventory too. Then, a couple of times a year a trusted friend of mine and I exchange inventory files. She and her husband keep a copy of my inventory off site and safe. I do the same for them. I also keep a copy of my inventory in one of the free cloud services (encrypted of course). One of the nicest features of OneNote is that any electronic file can be stored in a single software package that organizes, tracks changes, and keeps a back-up in the cloud of your choice. It doesn’t matter if the file is a scanned bills of sale, photos, articles, spreadsheets or Internet information. OneNote places the date into a file with just a couple of keystrokes or you can cut and paste directly from your computer screen. I have stored small software programs and passwords! You can organize the OneNote file(s) much the way you would organize a notebook binder, with titled pages, tabs, categories, and color code the information, which is searchable across the entire notebook. I don’t know what I did before such an easy to use, versatile, software package came along to keep me organized. And no, I do not work for MS.

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