Each year, over 40 million Americans move and the average American will relocate eleven times in his or her lifetime. Yet, despite the frequency with which people move, most are still intimidated by the process. It is easy to understand why. After all, you hand over all of your worldly possessions to strangers who may lose or break them, or even hold them for ransom. The Better Business Bureaus receive thousands of complaints every year involving overcharges, late deliveries and damaged or missing goods. If you prepare however, you can make the experience less strenuous.
Choosing a Mover
Choosing the right mover can mean the difference between a hassle free move and a harrowing one. Make sure that the company you use is licensed, either by the United States Department of Transportation, for moves from one state to another, or the New York Department of Transportation, for moves within New York State. You may call the Commissioner of Transportation for verification at (800) 786-5368. Get recommendations from friends or from reputable real estate agents. Ask interstate movers for a copy of their "Annual Performance Report," which provides information about the number of claims filed against the firm for lost or damaged goods, how often the firm made late deliveries, and how often it incorrectly estimated the final cost of a move. Check movers' ratings with the Better Business Bureau.
Get written estimates from at least three movers. Estimates given over the phone can be inaccurate. The estimator must be able to see your belongings to make a valid estimate. Don't forget to show them everything, including things that are stored away in closets, under beds or up in the attic, and make sure they know about stairs or elevators and any access problems (for instance, if the moving van would not be able to pull up close to your home or apartment).
Binding vs. Non-binding Estimates
A binding estimate is a guaranteed price. The final price for the move cannot be higher than the binding estimate, unless you require additional services. Keep in mind that a moving company may charge you a fee to make a binding estimate and that binding estimates may run slightly higher than non-binding estimates.
Non-binding estimates are the estimator's best guess at the cost of your move. In no way does it limit what the actual cost of the move will be. The mover is not permitted to charge for giving a non-binding estimate. The final price will be determined by the actual weight of your goods for an interstate move or the actual number of hours required to perform a move within NY State. For an interstate move, if the actual price is higher, at the time of delivery you are required to pay the estimated cost plus 10%, with the balance due within 30 days. For a move within New York, you must pay the estimated cost plus 25%, with the balance due within 15 days. If you cannot pay the estimate plus percentage at the time of delivery (and most moving companies require cash or a certified check), the mover is legally allowed to put your goods in storage, and to charge you storage and re-delivery fees.
Do not automatically assume that the cheapest estimate is the best deal. Try and find out why one company may charge you less than another. Is it because they use substandard equipment or poorly trained workers? Are their rates lower, or are they estimating fewer hours for the job than another company? Some movers intentionally underestimate the cost of a move, a practice referred to as "low-balling." They lure customers with a low price that they have no intention of charging. Be wary of a company that thinks your goods weigh much less than other movers estimate, or that promises that it can do the job in significantly fewer hours (unless you can get that low price locked in with a binding estimate).
Order For Service
Once you've chosen a moving company, that company should provide you with an order for service. The order will note the estimated charge of the move, any special services you require, such as packing or storage, and pick-up and delivery dates. Movers will generally give you a range of dates, rather than a specific date. If you want your goods to arrive on a particular day, the mover will probably be able to arrange it for an extra charge. Never accept a verbal estimate of pick-up and delivery dates or the promise "as soon as possible." If you are moving out of state, the mover should provide you with a US Department of Transportation pamphlet called "Your Rights & Responsibilities When You Move." The order for service is not a contract. You can cancel up to the day of the move without being liable for any charges.
If you find your own boxes and pack your belongings yourself, you may be able to save a significant amount of money. If you do choose to do your own packing, you may have more difficulty prevailing on a claim if your goods are damaged. However, according to a survey conducted by Consumer Reports, just over half of the people who paid the movers to pack their things reported damage, while only a third of those who packed their own things did. Ask the movers in advance about their liability policy on self-packed cartons. Items that are very valuable or irreplaceable, such as jewelry, family photos, and important documents, should be packed separately and carried with you. If the movers pack for you, be very specific about what you want packed. Most movers will not leave anything behind, including trash.
Bill of Lading
As the movers pack your goods, or as they move your goods on to the truck, every item should be recorded on the bill of lading. As the movers list the goods, they will note their condition. Examine this inventory list carefully, and make sure it is specific. If you disagree with any of the mover's descriptions, mark it on the inventory. (For example, if the mover describes a wooden chair as scratched, you may want to add that only the legs are scratched. That way, if the chair arrives with a scratched seat or back, you'll have an easier time making a claim.)
The bill of lading will also list most of the general information from the order for service, including the price estimate, acceptable forms of payment, special services, and the range of delivery dates. The bill of lading is your contract, so read it carefully before you sign it.
Movers generally provide three types of protection for your goods in case they are lost or damaged: limited liability, added valuation, and full value. Limited liability is the basic coverage required by law, and it does not cost the consumer anything. Under limited liability, the mover is responsible for sixty cents per pound per item for an interstate move, and thirty cents per pound for a move within New York State. So if the mover drops a ten-pound television set, the company may owe you as little as six dollars, despite the TV's actual worth. You must sign a specific agreement on the bill of lading agreeing to this protection option. With added valuation protection, the amount you can collect is based on the current replacement value of the item, minus depreciation. The amount you pay for this coverage depends on how much you declare your goods are worth. For a higher price, full-value coverage covers the actual cost of an item's replacement or repair, without any deductible for depreciation. Be sure to read the fine print for any other deductibles or restrictions. Even if you purchase coverage, you generally must note on the bill of lading if a particular item is of very high value (worth more than $100 per pound).
Before purchasing coverage from the moving company, you may want to check your homeowner's insurance policy to see if it will cover your goods during a move. Call your insurance company to find out how much they would charge to insure your goods during a move, and compare the options and prices they offer to the moving company's. If your employer is paying for the move, find out if any special insurance is available through your company.
Weighing the Shipment
Most interstate movers charge consumers a rate based on the weight of the goods and the distance they are carried, plus charges for packing and special services. A few interstate movers charge according to the volume of the goods (how much space they take up in the truck). The vehicle is weighed before your goods are loaded (the tare weight) and after (the gross weight) to determine the shipment's net weight. You have the right to be present at all weightings. If the net weight sounds too high, you have the right to ask for a second weighing before the delivery, at no cost to you. If the goods weigh more at the second weighing, you must pay the higher rate. Some movers have a minimum weight requirement, such as 500 or 1000 pounds, and will charge you for the minimum weight if your goods weigh less. If your shipment appears to weight less than the mover’s minimum weight, the mover is required to advise you on the order for service of the minimum cost before agreeing to transport the shipment. Should the mover fail to advise you of the minimum charges and your shipment is less than the minimum weight, the final charges must be based on the actual weight instead of the minimum weight.
Make sure that the movers can reach you when they are ready to deliver your shipment. If they can't get in touch with you, they will put your goods in storage, at your expense. Expect to pay for the move as soon as the truck arrives. Most movers will not unload the shipment until you have paid for it. Acceptable forms of payment generally include cash, traveler's check, money order, or certified--not personal--check. If you can't pay at least the amount of the (non-binding) estimate plus 10% (25% for a move within New York), the movers will store your goods until you can, and they will demand that you pay storage and re-delivery fees.
Federal law requires that if an interstate shipment is going to arrive late, the movers must notify you by phone or telegram, or in person. If the movers don't deliver your shipment on time, you may be able to recover any expenses, such as hotel bills, that are caused by the delay. Save all related receipts. The U.S. Department of Transportation does not specifically regulate claims made for delayed shipments, so the movers may be cooperative and reimburse you for all expenses, or they may force you to sue them. Some movers may require that you purchase in advance a "guaranteed service" option, which sets a fixed rate per day that the movers will pay if they deliver late. Find out the mover's policy on late deliveries in advance. You will probably not be able to recover any expenses if the mover can show that the delay was caused by circumstances beyond the company's control, like a natural disaster.
As the movers unload your belongings, use your inventory list to make sure that everything has arrived. Check furniture and cartons for damage, and open boxes containing fragile items. If anything is missing or damaged, make a note of it on both yours and the driver's inventory lists. Don't sign for the shipment until you have inspected everything. If you notice that something is broken after the movers have left, contact the moving company, and leave the item in its box with all of the packing materials.
If you need to store some or all of your possessions, some moving companies have a storage facility, or you can use an independent storage warehouse. Within New York City, all storage facilities need to be licensed by the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs. Contact them at 212-487-4444 to make sure a warehouse is licensed. Before storing your goods, inspect the premises for cleanliness and security. If the moving company provides short-term storage, you may need to pay extra to extend your liability coverage to cover loss or damage that occurs at the facility. If you have a separate contract with a storage warehouse, you may want to take out insurance to protect against fire, theft, water damage, and pests. Before choosing a storage company, check its record with the Better Business Bureau.
Moving can be very expensive. Some of the following tips may be useful in keeping the cost of your move under control:
Filing a Claim
If anything is lost or damaged during the move, ask the moving company for a claim form, and fill it out as soon as possible (you have nine months from the date of delivery to file a claim). The movers must acknowledge the claim within 30 days, and they must deny that claim or make a settlement offer within 120 days.
Under both federal and state law, movers are required to offer arbitration for any disputed claim. Any carrier that does not establish its own program to settle disputes must submit disputes with shippers to an alternate mechanism for resolving disputes sanctioned by the commissioner pursuant to rule and regulations.
If you cannot resolve your claim with the moving company, contact the U.S. Department of Transportation at 202-366-4000 (www.dot.gov), or for a move within New York State, the Department of Transportation at 718-482-4810 (www.dot.state.ny.us). If a mover is a member of the American Movers Conference (www.amconf.org), that organization offers binding arbitration. You must contact them within 60 days of the dispute. File a complaint against the company with the Better Business Bureau, which can mediate or arbitrate your complaint. If you choose to sue the moving company, you generally must do so within two years.
Moving doesn't have to be a difficult experience. If you plan in advance, chose your mover carefully, read all the fine print, and understand your rights and responsibilities, you're on your way to a successful move.