According to Bankrate’s Money Pulse survey, less than half of Americans invest in the stock market. However, over 64 percent of people own their home. We could take this to mean that for most adults, owning a home is one of the biggest investments, if not the biggest.

Few things are more alarming when it comes to the security of that investment than when disaster strikes — most commonly in the form of water or fire damage. In fact, one organization that tracks these sort of things states that the average homeowner will file an insurance claim once every nine years, with water and fire damage being the most common. Considering this statistic, all homeowners should be equipped to handle these situations in a manner that both protects their investment and their peace of mind.

1. Safety first

Water and fire damage can result in numerous hazards. Serious physical harm or even greater damage may result if these hazards are not respected and addressed. For example, in the case of a flooded basement, one might also encounter dangerous electrical hazards with unprotected live circuits. When homes are damaged by fire, structural elements may be compromised and entire sections of the home may be prone to collapse. The key is to avoid rushing into a damaged area. When in doubt, call a professional for assessment.

2. Act immediately

Most insurance policies require the policyholder to mitigate their damages. This means that you have a responsibility to stop further damage that may result from the original disaster. Often, homeowners will wait for an insurance representative to authorize emergency services, such as water removal and professional drying of their home. However, in the case of a mass storm event, insurance claim professionals are inundated with damaged properties. In this case, the property damage increases due to the inaction of the homeowner as building materials warp and swell, or as mold and bacteria begin to grow. These additional damages may be the responsibility of the homeowner if they don’t take steps to correct the damage in a timely manner. 

3. Evaluate professionals thoroughly

All too often we hear stories of homeowners who are scammed by unscrupulous contractors. Such a mistake can easily be avoided with the help of technology that is readily at our fingertips. You can locate contractors who are properly trained and certified by organizations such as the Restoration Industry Association. Such organizations have a search function on their website to quickly find qualified restoration contractors. Also, ask for references and examples of work they have completed similar to the restoration required in your home.

4. Document, document, document

Again, smartphones can be a major asset in this area. Be sure to take photos of your damaged property before restoration begins. In fact, take a lot of photos and document the source of damage, along with all the affected areas. Make certain you take pictures of items that are of high monetary or sentimental value. Finally, you should take notes and record the date and time of important meetings with contractors or insurance representatives. 

5. Prioritize needs

If your home is damaged in the event of a disaster, the crisis can be overwhelming. Make a plan to address the most important things that your family needs on a daily basis. This list can include medications, important financial documents, your insurance policy, clothing and computer back-ups.

Remember, for most of us, it is not a matter of “if,” but rather “when” we will experience some sort of damage to our homes. While that damage may not be catastrophic, these five steps will help you navigate a disaster of any magnitude.