How to Organize and Store Important Documents at Home
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Congratulations! You’ve purchased a home, making you the proud owner of a piece of real estate and piles of paperwork to go with it.
From the beginning of your house search to closing day, your home-buying journey created a breadcrumb-trail of forms, letters, reports, agreements, contracts and other documents. And this growing stockpile of paperwork doesn’t taper off once you get the keys.
Home ownership means an endless stream of everything from new appliance operating manuals to permits for future renovation work, all of which need to be securely stored so you can always find what you’re looking for, easily and without stress.
You may be asking yourself if you can go paperless and store some documents digitally only. Digital storage is a good backup for important documents. It’s easier to search your computer files by name to locate them quickly. But you will still need to keep the original copies of most of your paperwork.
Scan financial records, tax returns, contracts, bills and receipts and even key personal documents like passports and birth and death certificates to have an easily retrievable copy. But once you store these digital copies in the cloud, an external hard drive or a DMS (document management system), you’ll still need to safely file and store the originals.
To avoid drowning in a river of paper, set up a system for organizing and storing important documents as part of settling into your new home. Here are some tips to get you started.
Gather Your Important Documents
The first step may be the most tedious, but also the most important — get all your documents in one place so you can file and safely store them. Examples of the types of home-related records and other papers you should put together include:
Buyer’s agent agreement;
Addenda, amendments or riders;
Home inspection report;
Title insurance policy;
Home and product warranties for systems like the water heater, furnace and major appliances;
System and appliance operating manuals;
Construction plans and permits for any past remodels;
Leases and transferable contracts from the seller, i.e. a solar energy system lease;
Service contracts and receipts for lawn care, pool maintenance, etc.
As long as you are gathering important documents from your home purchase to organize and file, consider taking this opportunity to assemble other documents you may want to keep in a safe and easily accessible spot. Here’s a good checklist:
Birth and death certificates;
Social security cards;
Credit card documents;
Transcripts and diplomas;
Monthly bills and receipts.
Set Up a Filing System
Once you’ve gathered all your home purchasing and other documents in one place, take some time to sort through them. Divide them into stacks based on order of importance, with things like birth certificates, social security cards and property deeds taking top spot and old tax records and transcripts set to the side.
Then take a hard look at these low-priority mountains of paper and shred and toss what you can to eliminate clutter. Paperwork that has overstayed its welcome includes:
Printed bank statements that are more than three years old;
Credit card statements (keep those related to large purchases for proof of payment);
Tax returns that are more than seven years old;
Bills and receipts that are more than three years old;
Expired service contracts, policies, warranties and leases.
Your culled stacks of paperwork can now be organized in a way that makes finding a specific document in the future fast and intuitive. This may be alphabetical or chronological, although most people find that filing paperwork by subject makes the most sense. So personal records all go in one file, banking records in another, home purchasing documents in a third, and so on.
Consider adopting a color-coded system to group related documents. With this system, you can find the general category of document you are looking for at a glance but avoid the problem of over-stuffing a single file folder with hundreds of sheets of paper.
Assign a primary color to a category of files (red for home-related, for example), with the most important documents in that category in the brightest folder (home inspection report, property deed). Then break down the category by filing secondary but related documents in folders of different shades of the same color (pink for warranties, operating manuals and service contracts, for example).
Remember that the more you break down your system into categories and subcategories, the less time-consuming and frustrating the process of tracking down specific documents will be in the future. To keep track of your system, create a simple file index with a table of contents to further ensure that you won’t misfile or misplace any important document.
Choose Where and How to Store Your Documents
You may be tempted to stack your files in a box and tuck it away in a corner of the attic or basement. Keep in mind that many important documents are difficult and expensive to replace if they are damaged by water, heat or rodents.
There are a number of containers you can use to store important documents at home, from old-school banker’s boxes to a fireproof safe. Here are four storage systems that may work for you:
The simplest but least secure solution, a banker’s box is simply a cardboard box designed to hold file folders. It includes a sturdy lid and handle holes for easy access and shelving.
Although a banker’s box is a cost-effective and no-fuss storage method, the cardboard will not protect documents from fire, water or rodents, and there is no way to lock the box to guard against theft. You can use a banker’s box for low-priority papers, but your more important documents should be stored in a more secure container.
Like a banker’s box, a simple plastic bin is a cheap and easy way to store low-priority personal documents. Plastic bins are made for stacking, so these can be a convenient solution when you have a large number of files and limited space. Although this storage method offers limited protection from flooding and rodents, it is not fireproof and can’t be locked.
Home filing cabinets come in various styles to match the interior décor of your home and can fit a large number of files in multiple drawers. You can choose a model with a lock for some limited protection against theft, and some types of filing cabinets are heat resistant in case of fire.
Filing cabinets are an excellent solution for all but your most important and hard-to-replace personal documents. However, in case of flooding, the documents stored in the lowest drawer may sustain water damage.
Home safe or lock box
The most secure method of storing your important documents at home is in a home safe or lock box that is fireproof and flood-resistant. You can opt for a small lock box to store your highest-priority documents — birth and marriage certificates, passports, Social Security cards, will and house deed — paired with a locked home filing cabinet for the remaining paperwork.
No matter which storage method you settle on, be sure to back up copies of all your important personal and home-related documents digitally. Store them in the cloud, on a USB flash drive kept in a safety deposit box, or with a trusted lawyer or friend.