How (and Why) to Build a House Book

A week or so ago, I shared an article about my friend’s sudden heart attack. The positive feedback and comments via email and social media was tremendous, with countless kind words for my friend, his family, and myself, and all were appreciated.

One particular comment, from a user identified as threeoutside, really stuck out, and I wanted to share it here:

“I’ve been thinking I need to update my House Book so all the information in it is current; I remind my son (who lives half a continent away) of where it is every time I’m with him. I also need to update my will. It’s easy to put that off because I have to find a different lawyer and well, what a pain. Thanks for this heartfelt essay. I’ll get on it ASAP.”

The idea of a “house book” is something I’ve covered in the past. A few years ago, I assembled a binder containing a number of important documents regarding my assets and my estate plans. I intended that binder as a one stop shop for everything that a person might need to know to close out my accounts and make sure that my family has easy access to all of the assets and insurance that they were due should I pass away suddenly. All they have to do is grab that binder and all of the key info is right there.

Inside that “house book” is contact information for the various businesses I have contracts with, information on all insurance policies pertaining to me, a copy of my will and Sarah’s will, an inventory of the valuable assets around our home with serial numbers, and a few other personal items, such as letters for my children to read when they’re older if I’m not around to be there for them. It starts off with a brief note suggesting things to do first, such as contacting insurance companies and notifying my business associates.

Unfortunately, as I leafed through the book again, I quickly realized that the book was already outdated, so I spent a few hours over the following days making it current.

As I look at that thin binder now, fully updated, I feel incredibly good. I know, just looking at this binder, that if something were to happen to me, the transition to what comes next in the life of my wife and children will be as smooth as possible.

My belief is that if you have any dependents in your life or if anyone you know and care about will have to deal with your possessions when you pass away, creating this kind of “house book” is not only invaluable for them, but it’ll be surprisingly helpful for your own peace of mind. I recommend you give it a shot.

Here’s what you need to do.

Before anything else, decide how you’re going to store this. I have mine stored in a three ring binder with a bunch of transparent document holders, so I can easily change the documents without worrying about punching holes. The binder fits quite easily in a safe deposit box and protects the pages. You may want to do things slightly differently, but that’s my recommendation.

First, make sure that all of your estate documents are present. Do you have a copy of your will? What about other estate documents, like trust documents? Collect all of these together before you do anything else and make sure that current copies of all such documents are in the book.

Second, gather together all of your insurance documents and information on all accounts that have significant assets. Make a list of these accounts, who’s on the accounts, who the beneficiaries are, and who to contact for each account. You want to make it as easy as possible for someone to take care of these most important steps. Include this information as a single page or two at the front of your house book. It’s also likely worthwhile to include information about your employer here as well.

Third, gather information about your significant assets. If anything has significant resale value in your home, what are the serial numbers of those items and where are they likely located? I have inventories of things like my small trading card collection, my family’s inherited coin collection, and some other things. I also have suggestions on how to liquidate those items.

Finally, include some personal materials. Write that letter to someone that you were never quite brave enough to send during your life. Write a final letter to your children and to your spouse, letting them know how much you love them and how proud you were of them and how you want nothing more than for them to move on and have a wonderful life. It will help more than you can imagine.

Collect all of these items together in a binder and then store that binder in a very safe place, like a safe deposit box held at a bank. Tell a trusted friend, likely the executor of your will or someone else of deep trust, how to access that box when the time comes.

Once every year or two, update that binder. Stop by the bank, pull out the binder, and update it. You’ll be able to make some changes in pen, of course, but when the updates begin to make the documents messy, it’s best to retype them from scratch. This used to be one of my annual tasks but it slipped through the cracks the past few years; it’s back on my annual list now.

This task takes a few hours to complete, and perhaps an hour a year to revise. However, simply knowing that this document exists and that, if something happens to you, your family will be able to move on easily is deeply satisfying. Putting together such a binder becomes a truly meaningful task if you keep in mind the stakeholders for which you’re making it.

As I rebuilt my “house book,” I thought of my three children. I thought of the promise they hold for the future, and how my passing might derail it, and then how this binder might just help to keep it on track. I thought of my beautiful wife and how I would not want my passing to leave her struggling beyond the emotional loss and how I want, more than anything, for her to deftly pick up the pieces and move on. If this binder can help with any of that, then it was worth the investment.

If you want to do something quietly meaningful for your family this holiday season, put together a “house book.” Gather up these documents, put them together, and store them somewhere safe and secure but quite accessible when the time comes. As you’re doing it, keep those key loved ones in mind and remember that you’re doing this for them. You’re doing it so you can help them through a difficult moment, one final time. It is an act of meaning; an act of love.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.