Sunday, August 1, 2010

What would you save if your house were on fire?

I am at the tail-end of packing up our house to move to Winston-Salem.  The truck comes on Tuesday!  For days, I have been categorizing my personal property into: (i) stuff we're taking; (ii) stuff that we don't need or want but someone might, i.e. Goodwill; and (iii) stuff we don't need or want and nobody else needs or wants.

I am struck and frankly embarrassed by the sheer amount of stuff that we have accumulated.  But this isn't a diatribe on the rampant consumerism of which I am equally guilty.  No, this task is super-boring, so I began trying to figure out a fourth category -- what would I save if the house were on fire?

Dispense with the easy stuff -- spouse, kids, pets.  Let's just focus on personal property.

The vast majority of stuff that I have is replaceable, given sufficient insurance proceeds.  I'm left with three categories of irreplaceable (or replaceable only at a time and expense that won't be adequately compensated by insurance): family heirlooms, art, and information (most of which is digitized).  I am struck by the contrast between the categories. 

I am the family historian, so I have LOTS of family heirlooms (just ask my husband).  Civil War discharge papers, family Bibles from the mid-1800s, a receipt for a land purchase in 1830, family photos from the turn of the last century, handwritten marriage certificates, deeds, wills, military papers.  My maternal grandmother's set of kitchen crockery and my paternal grandmother's wedding ring.  A cherry china cabinet made by my great-great grandfather in the late 1800s.  The desk from my grandfather's general store.  A lot of stuff.  So you can see that choosing five items from that assortment would be heartbreaking.  The china cabinet would have to burn.  Its just too darn heavy.

But the family heirloom category is other people's stuff that defines their lives.  What personal property defines mine?  Besides my wedding ring and the art that I've acquired or made, it would seriously have to be my iPhone.  Because the personal property that is most important to me is information -- pdfs, mp3s, jpgs.  My important personal property has been digitized and saved on a passport hard drive smaller than an index card.  As long as I grabbed that and my iPhone, and as many family heirlooms as we could carry (most of which are scanned in on that hard drive, btw) we'd be okay.

What five items would you save if your house were on fire? 

Tanya Marsh

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Excellent question. In some of the writing I've done on personal attachments to property, I've argued that the list of stuff that is not replaceable with market-value compensation is a lot smaller than we intuitively think it is. I’d take the family photographs that I’ve not yet had time to digitize, and some artwork. That’s about it. The great thing about digital information is that it is easy to back up onto the cloud. So Tanya, back up that iPhone, and not just to your pc at home!

Posted by: Ben Barros | Aug 2, 2010 6:47:26 AM

[This really is an excellent question, but if I could be highly annoying and violate its spirit in favor of its letter for just a moment, fulfilling my parental role and unfortunate pedantic instincts: in an actual fire, you don't try to save anything except the people. People die because they don't anticipate that fire spreads exponentially, and underestimate how much time they have to escape. I learned this in awful detail in the course of some horrifying litigation and I've never been able to forget it. Sorry for the interruption. Now let's return to the interesting discussion about what types of personal property are truly beyond the reach of compensation.]

Back in the day when I lived in grad student family housing, when the fire alarm went off, you'd see lots of young families standing oustide the building. The kids would be playing, and all the parents would be cradling their laptops, me included.

Posted by: Mark Edwards | Aug 2, 2010 9:17:12 AM

Stuff!! Occasionally in Property or Wills class I refer to George Carlin's classic routine on "Stuff":

Posted by: Matt Festa | Aug 3, 2010 12:49:53 PM

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