Americans are on the go. Some 37 million-plus Americans move every year, reports the Better Business Bureau, or BBB.
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Moving to greener pastures is a major event, whether you're headed across town or across the country. But it can be pricey; the average move across state lines currently runs about $5,600.
Want to trim those fees? That's understandable. But fixating on price alone may wind up costing you a bundle. Just ask Rusty Buchanan. When he moved to Los Angeles, he wound up spending nearly $90,000 in legal fees to recover his belongings from a rogue mover who held his property hostage for 18 months.
"It was a total, complete con," Buchanan says.
Buchanan's move turned out to be a nightmare partly because the person who drove off with his possessions didn't work for the moving company that Buchanan thought he was doing business with. He was a subcontractor.
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Buchanan is not alone. Last year, the Better Business Bureau fielded about 9,300 complaints against movers. And the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, or FMCSA, cites the most common consumer complaints against household goods movers as shipments held hostage, loss, damage, delays, unauthorized movers and overcharging or other deceptive practices.
You can avoid moving rip-offs with a little due diligence, simple tips and new tools that make it easier than ever to move smart.
Gearing up: Finding a mover
The Internet has made it a snap to score great deals. But "going online to find a new pair of slacks is very different than finding the person who's going to take everything you own, put it on a truck, put a padlock on it and drive away," warns John Bisney, director of public relations for American Moving & Storage Association, or AMSA.
Get references from friends who've recently moved. If personal references aren't available, consumer groups, public agencies and associations can help.
Consider the ProMover program, for instance. AMSA created it to help consumers find trustworthy firms. Companies that qualify for the ProMover certification must pass an annual background check, and they've historically posted higher BBB ratings than non-ProMover companies. Moreover, ProMovers "have five times fewer unresolved complaints," says Rod Davis, senior vice president of enterprise programs at the BBB.
Next, verify references.
Interstate haulers need a Department of Transportation number to operate and be insured. Confirm they're roadworthy by calling the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration at (800) 832-5660 or go to ProtectYourMove.gov.
Information about intrastate haulers can be obtained from various state agencies, though some states don't license movers. Find the governing body for movers near you under the "State and Local Resources" link at ProtectYourMove.org.
Also check the BBB website at BBB.org for a list of accredited moving companies.
Getting the estimate: They're not all equal
Before you sign on the dotted line, consider estimates from at least three moving companies and understand how different types of estimates may impact your wallet.
Under binding estimates, you'll pay a stated price. If goods or additional services are added to your shipment, the estimate will be increased before loading and shipping to protect against unforeseen price changes. Extra costs won't be due until 30 days after delivery.
Nonbinding estimates set the final cost after your goods are weighed and your final move distance is computed. If your shipment's lighter than first estimated, you'll pay less. But if your goods weigh more, the tab climbs. Depending on the extra services you get, you may have to pay additional fees at delivery rather than 30 days after.
Not-to-exceed estimates let you pay whichever is cheapest: a binding estimate or actual cost.
Extras include shuttle service fees, which kick in whenever shipments are transferred to smaller trucks because full-sized vans can't operate on certain roads. There may be charges for dismantling large pieces or delivering certain items to different locations.
Avoid being blindsided by additional costs by looking at a mover's tariff. That's a menu of services and prices. Reputable movers will help identify extras for you by conducting in-home estimates so they know what you have.
Make sure it's insured
Your belongings will cost a bundle to replace or repair, so insurance is a must.
Don't rely on homeowners insurance. It won't cover property that's being moved. To fill the gap, consider trip transit insurance. "It will protect you in the event of theft, loss or fire," said Loretta Worters, vice president at Insurance Information Institute, or III. "It won't cover the cost of repairing broken goods when they're with movers."
That's where the moving companies kick in. Interstate movers are liable when items they're transporting are damaged or go missing. But the extent of their liability varies, depending on the coverage.
Released value protection is the cheapest coverage you can buy, but experts say it's often not worth the savings. That's because movers' liability is limited to 60 cents per pound, per article. If your 15-pound antique table falls off a moving truck, compensation to you is set at $9.
A more expansive option is full-value protection. Although it costs more, movers are liable for replacing or repairing possessions, or paying you a cash settlement to fix or replace an item at its current market value. For that reason, experts often recommend this option.
"I think it's dollars well spent," says Rod Davis at the BBB. "If people focus solely on cost they're not looking at overall quality."
Pay attention to red flags!
Some moving firms use brokers or subcontractors to drum up business. Federal law requires brokers to identify themselves, but bad brokers won't volunteer this information, says Bisney. "Confirm. Ask, 'Are you a mover or do you broker your moves?' They're required to tell you."
Other red flags?
No bricks and mortar: It's a snap for shady operators to throw up a snazzy website to lure clients. Before hiring anyone, check their address. Is it a secure business or an abandoned lot?
Phone quotes and super-cheap estimates: Price sounds too good to be true? If you get a substantially cheaper quote than others, research why. "You don't want to be caught in a bait-and-switch situation when your property is in transit," says the BBB's Davis.
Demands for cash: Reputable movers won't demand upfront payments. In fact, under the 110% rule for non-binding estimates, you can't be required to pay interstate movers more than the original estimate plus 10% at the time of delivery.
Know your rights: Movers are required to give you a booklet, "Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move," at the time of your estimate. If you don't get it, "It means they don't want you to have something you should have," says Carl Walter, spokesman at MoveRescue, a program that assists moving fraud victims.
Stay involved, but not too much
So you want to pack up your gear in free boxes from the supermarket to save money? Not so fast. That budget-saving tactic may wind up being a pricey mistake. That's because movers won't accept liability for items they didn't pack. If you have expensive, fragile or irreplaceable goods like heirloom china, you may want to leave it to the pros.
What should you move yourself? Small valuables, such as jewelry or cash, as well as medical records or irreplaceable photographs and anything else you can't risk losing.
Don't disappear when your goods are being packed for you. You may not be elbows-deep in bubble wrap, but you should see what's going into boxes. Items should be listed on an inventory that will be given to you by the moving company.
You may want to consider new apps to help you stay organized.
An app called Moving Day creates labels that you can scan with QR codes so you can see what's packed without having to go through the hassle of opening boxes. The Insurance Information Institute's Know Your Stuff - Home Inventory app lets you enter information and photos of your property through the app or its Web-based software so you can keep track of everything.
Mind the details
Once everything's packed, the moving company will give you a bill of lading, which spells out the conditions of your contract and includes an inventory of your property and other critical information. Read the fine print and ask questions before you sign.
"All interstate moves and most intrastate moves are subject to government regulations, which have been written to address almost every possible scenario, so there are definitely some fine points consumers should be aware of," says Bisney at AMSA. "Many more variables can affect the cost of a household goods move than would come in effect for a simple product purchase."
Got scammed? Know where to go for help
Although many go smoothly, some moves can go awry. If yours is among them, you should first file a complaint with your mover within nine months from the date of delivery. After that, a mover has 30 days to acknowledge formal receipt of it and an additional 120 days to resolve the claim. If no agreement is reached, interstate movers have to participate in an arbitration program by law, but cases often don't reach that point, says Bisney.
In-state movers will follow specific state guidelines for settling complaints.
"There's no question most movers prefer to try to settle a claim than go through the expensive alternative of a lawsuit," says Bisney at AMSA.
If you don't reach an agreement, AMSA may help by contacting movers on your behalf. It also has an arbitration program that may resolve certain cases.
The BBB also can act as a third-party mediator in a dispute, but it can't force movers to compensate you for lost or damaged goods.
You can also file complaints against movers with the FMCSA (call (888) DOT-SAFT), and the agency's website links to state agencies and guidelines for seeking compensation from local movers.
Combating rogue movers, the MoveRescue program was created to help victims of criminals posing as legitimate household goods haulers. MoveRescue's hotline, (800) 832-1773, or website at MoveRescue.com will direct you to available resources.