Moving to A New Home

Everyone’s heard the horror stories of movers charging exorbitant rates, showing up two weeks late, breaking sentimental heirlooms and losing boxes. Exaggerations aside, it’s stressful. It’s exhausting. And it’s expensive.

Moving is big business. Millions of families hire professional movers each year, paying them about $7 billion annually, says the American Movers Conference, a national trade organization.

But the industry standards vary greatly and no two companies are alike. Knowing the right questions to ask up front and what to do if disaster strikes will keep disputes out of court and money in your pocket.

Before the Move

Get at least three estimates from different movers who review your items in person. Don’t assume that the larger the company, the better. Consumers Union , the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports , says reputable, national companies don’t necessarily provide the lowest rates or have the least problems.

Ask each company for both a “binding” and “non-binding” estimate.

A binding estimate is an agreement that sets a fixed price up front before weighing the items. Usually a truck is weighed before and after loading the items. The price depends on the difference in pounds. The binding estimate cannot be changed if everything weighs more than the movers thought, but if it weighs less, you’ll get a refund.

Not every moving company offers this option and some that do charge extra for it.

A non-binding estimate is what all movers offer — a rough idea of what it will cost but no guarantee. Movers can’t charge for giving a non-binding estimate.

The downside is that the final price is often more — usually hundreds or thousands more — than the initial estimate.

Make sure the estimator includes the costs of putting together an inventory. An inventory lists everything that’s being moved and its condition. It will help settle any disputes about damaged goods. Review the inventory list with the mover, so that every scratch and nick is recorded accurately. Get a copy of the inventory.

And finally, ask the company for its annual performance report. By law, the company must supply you with a copy if you ask. It tracks the number of claims for damaged goods, late deliveries and price discrepancies.

Ask as many questions as possible and feel free to go above your representative if something sounds fishy. One customer of a national moving company couldn’t understand why the representative wanted a cashier’s check made out in his name instead of the company’s. He called a manager at the company and found out that the representative never scheduled the move with the company and later discovered that he planned to pay a friend to do the move and then split the profit.

The Contract

Once you decide on a company, you’ll have to sign a moving contract called a “bill of lading.” Each varies depending on the company, but the Consumers Union says every contract should include the following:

Ask how payment should be made. Many moving companies don’t accept credit cards or personal checks, wanting cash, certified check or a money order. If you can’t pay on delivery day, the movers won’t hang around until you go to the bank. Many times, they’ll put your possessions in storage and add it to your bill.

Moving Day

What do you do if disaster strikes? It’s going to depend on your contract, the company and the amount of moving insurance you bought.

Some moving companies require customers to go through a lengthy and complex appeals process to fight extra charges or get reimbursed for damaged goods. Making it complicated is a good way to get people to just forget it and pay up. But don’t give up that fast.

You usually have up to 180 days to file a claim. The company then has 30 days after that to acknowledge your claim and then another 120 days to come up with a settlement.

If you moved across state lines (called an interstate move), then you have more options. The American Movers Conference offers a dispute settlement program to keep problems involving damaged goods out of court. The American Arbitration Association mediates the disputes as an independent, unbiased third party.

“A lot of the items that cause problems have sentimental and emotional value,” says David Hauenstein, director of the dispute settlement program. “For example, someone’s family piano ends up damaged and wants the movers to pay $10,000. The company comes back and says ‘yes, we damaged the piano but it wasn’t in great condition to begin with and it’s not worth $10,000. We’ll give you $1,000.’”

Moving companies are required by law to provide information about arbitration services, where an independent arbitrator decides the case instead of a judge. Although both sides must voluntarily agree to arbitrate, most companies almost always opt for arbitration rather than a potential lawsuit. The arbitrator has 60 days to make a judgment.

Another option is small claims court, depending on how much reimbursement you seek.

If you moved within the state, federal laws don’t apply. But that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. Contact your state attorney general’s office or local Better Business Bureau.

Moving is never going to be a piece of cake, but, like everything else, the more prepared you are, the better.