After their house in Cedar Grove, Wis., was destroyed by fire, Lillian and Richard Van Den Berg learned the enormous value of keeping property appraisals and insurance evaluations updated, and of making documentary records of all their possessions.
The Van Den Bergs had traveled widely and had collected books, paintings, pottery, and antiques in many parts of the world. Their library of Japanese books was outstanding. They had acquired these objects, and their other furnishings, gradually over 30 years. Although they had insurance, they had no adequate inventory of their possessions, nor any concept of their replacement value.
The couple and their friends sifted through debris for three months to come up with the 65 pages of description and evidence that established their insurance claims. They were eventually awarded $100,000 for their losses, and the remaining $30,000, not covered by insurance, was reported as a casualty loss on their income tax return.
After that experience, Mr. Van Den Berg claims, ''I was ready to write the book on the do's and don'ts of fire loss.'' Some of his ''do's'' include the following:
* Classify your possessions into two categories: those that are precious and valuable (such as family heirlooms, antiques, art, fine books, jewelry, and the like) and your regular household furnishings. With your appraiser and insurance agent, establish the total content value of your home and the value of those precious and valuable items that will require floater insurance policies.
* Safeguard your home with adequate fire extinguishers and smoke alarms. ''In our new Japanese-style home, which we rebuilt on the exact site of our original house, we placed three extinguisher units of the correct size and one smoke alarm in the basement and another in the living area. We also joined our neighbors and invited our local volunteer fire department to come one weekend and inspect all our homes to see if we were violating any rules of access, and also to become familiar with the interior layouts of each of our homes. We had discovered that once a house was burning, the firefighters could not see inside and had no way of knowing where or how our possessions were placed.''
* Have the gas company check all furnace, kitchen-stove, and water-heater connections, and have an electrician check the wiring in the house.
* Put stickers with phone numbers of the fire and police departments on all telephones. And keep handy the names and phone numbers of insurance agents and other important people who must be notified in case of fire or theft.
* Make a complete inventory of your possessions, including personal clothing, appliances, furniture, art, jewelry, and books. All insurance agents will provide inventory schedules on request. Forms are also available from insurance information institutes and bureaus, and a small book called, ''At-A-Glance Inventory of Household Furniture and Personal Property'' is made by the Sheaffer-Eaton Company and is available for about $2 at many stationery stores.
* Make photographs of your home, inside and out. According to insurance experts, a complete photo inventory of your possessions could be of great value in filing claims for losses. Pictures help establish the date and value of pieces. Also the Internal Revenue Service allows tax deductions for repair and replacement if damage resulted from a natural cause.
Before and after snapshots are one way to show the extent of damage or loss. I follow the advice of Kodak photo experts who recommend picking a starting point in a room and taking serial photographs, in a clockwise pattern, of each section of the room, overlapping each shot so everything is shown. I use a wide-angle lens on a 35-mm camera with fast film to do the room shots, although the job can be done with many aim-and-shoot cameras that have built-in electronic flashes or flash attachments. It is also a good idea to photograph smoke alarms and fire extinguishers as proof that you have taken every precaution possible, and also to photograph the contents of closets and drawers.
Photograph valuables up close, from several angles, in order to record their size, color, and condition. I place such objects against a sheet to get a neutral background. I group small items together and take them at eye level. Each finished photograph should either be mounted in an album with date, general location, description, original price, etc. listed beside it or clearly written with felt pen on the back.
Once the photo inventory is complete, it should be stored in a safe deposit box or a fireproof home safe, along with sales slips and other documentary evidence as to cost, age, etc. Photo inventories should be updated periodically, as moves are made, and new possessions are acquired.
* Have your appraisals brought up to date every two years, and consult with your insurance agent every year.
Several of Mr. Van Den Berg's ''don'ts'' include:
* Don't keep volatile fluids inside the house.
* Don't keep your documentary photographs, inventories, and policies in a drawer where they could be destroyed by fire.
* Don't overheat your chimneys. New houses can be built with fireproof chimneys, which could be a good investment.
With all this in mind, Harmer Johnson, a New York appraiser and auctioneer, warns people against over-reacting to the high prices that now exist in the auction market. Mr. Harmer, a partner in Accord Fine Arts Inc., says, ''tangibles are constantly increasing in value, and many people are investing in them as a hedge against inflation because of their increasing value. But we warn people over overappraisal and overexpectation.
''Some people think every egg cup they own must have value now, but this is not necessarily the case. We advise clients to discriminate between their routine furnishings and those items which they know or feel might be increasing in value. We sometimes have to take three days to inventory an entire house, when one day would do. Our charge for doing appraisals in New York is $750 per day, so time does make a difference.'' Many appraisers charge less. Some charge more. Most charge by the day, hour, or assignment.
Dexter McBride, executive vice-president of the American Society of Appraisers in Washington, D.C., agrees that people should have appraisals updated at least every two years. Many appraisers, he says, provide annual value adjustments on appraisals at no extra charge.
The chief point, says Mr. McBride, is that people properly identify their properties, determine the value of those properties through valid appraisals, maintain supportive documentary evidence such as photographs and sales slips, (since the burden of proof rests with the property owner), and then consult regularly with their insurance agents to make sure they are adequately and properly insured at current values.