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Moving target: best mover, lowest price

Movers like to say that comparing estimates is like comparing apples to apples -- but it doesn't always work out that way. You did what you were supposed to do. You let three sales reps from three companies traipse through your house, eyeballing everything you have -- only to come up with three estimates that aren't even close.

Here's what often goes wrong when getting an estimate -- in no particular order of blame.

The customer gets it wrong
All too often the customer simply underestimates what's going to be moved.

"You'll say to the customer, 'Is there anything in the basement that needs to go?' " says Chris Noblit of Avatar Moving Systems in Bohemia, N.Y. "The customer says no. So you go in the basement and come out with 2,000 more pounds. And she says 'Oh, I forgot the metal shelf and the Christmas decorations and the ... ' "

It's a smart customer who has a sales rep go through the house room by room, including the basement, garage and any other storage areas, carefully making note of everything he or she sees. Inexperienced sales reps often simply take a customer's word that nothing in the basement is being moved. They probably will come up with a low-ball estimate.

It doesn't matter who underestimates the load -- customer or sales rep. The bottom line is it results in a big hassle and increased expense for the customer.

An estimate includes how much furniture, clothing, etc. is being moved; services the mover will provide, such as packing, and accessorial charges for long carries, stairs, elevators, moving a car, etc. Most movers will allow for a carry of 75 feet from truck to door. Anything more than that is considered a long carry and costs extra.

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Shuttling can be costly
If the big moving van can't get to your old home or new home because the street is too narrow or there are low-hanging tree branches, a shuttle may be necessary. This means everything has to be loaded onto a smaller truck temporarily. That will be included in the estimate as well as "additional transportation charges," which compensate the mover for services performed in cities where labor rates are higher.

Also look for something called advanced charges. They cover additional costs for having someone other than the mover dismantle things such as pool tables or pianos.

"Advanced charges are very common," says Jim Dalessandro of MoveSource based in St. Clair Shores, Mich. "There are third-party companies that provide that type of service -- disconnect a washer or dryer or gas stove, for instance. Some movers will do that themselves, but we'll bring in someone qualified to do that safely."

Dalessandro says customers also should check the estimates to make sure they account for bulky items, such as a piano, that require extra handling and may take up space on the truck volume-wise vs. weight. With all of this to keep in mind, it's easy to see how estimates can vary.

"When we walk through the house we have a table of estimates called the cube sheet," says Avatar's Noblit. "It lists about 150 items, everything imaginable. We put a tick mark next to every item we see. The sheet then calculates the total cubic footage so they know how much space it will take up on the truck. If one mover comes up with an estimate of 1,000 cubic feet, which is then multiplied by 7 for a total weight of 7,000 pounds, and another mover comes up with 1,500 for a total of 10,500 pounds, what's the problem? The big discrepancy is salesman No. 1 didn't put as many ticks on the cube sheet as salesman No. 2."

Worrying too much about price
That's why Noblit says customers shouldn't focus so much on the price as on the quality of the estimate.

"The highest weight estimate the customer sees is probably the most accurate," according to Noblit. "The common wisdom in purchasing is throw out the high and the low estimates and go with the middle -- not here."

Noblit advises customers to pick the agent they're most comfortable with. Referrals, initial phone contact and meeting the sales rep all need to be factored into the process. But referrals can be tricky. Someone telling you Allied ... or United ... or Mayflower did a great job may not be enough.

"People look in the phone book for a name they trust. They don't understand each agent is independently owned and operated. They see a nice ad in the yellow pages and say 'I know that name.' It validates the fact that it's a big name," says Noblit. "But your best bet could be a little mom-and-pop outfit or a mega-agent. Do due diligence to find the good agents."

The binding estimate trap
Customers like binding estimates which they think will protect them from higher charges being tacked on at the last minute when their stuff is on the van and they're feeling like a hostage. But the binding estimate only covers what's accounted for on the estimate sheet, says George Bennett of the American Moving and Storage Association headquartered in Alexandria, Va.

"Say you're having a yard sale and you say, 'Give me a binding estimate on everything except the stuff in the garage because I'm going to sell it.' Well, for some reason you don't sell it. Now, the driver pulls up and the homeowner says, 'I also have this.' Someone has to come out and redo the estimate."

If the move costs more than is stated on the non-binding estimate and the customer disputes the amount or can't afford to pay the additional amount when the goods are delivered, there's a bit of a reprieve. The customer has to pay the initial estimate plus 10 percent of the additional cost upon delivery. The customer then has 30 days to pay the remainder or argue. But remember, the mover will have weight tickets to show the load was heavier than expected or will have other documentation to prove there was a longer carry than expected or a shuttle was needed, etc.

If a mover does give binding estimates, you may want to ask for a "not to exceed" estimate.

"The smart customer," says Bennett of the moving association, "will say, 'I'd like to have a binding estimate and then I'd like to have the truck weighed and figure that cost and get the lower of the two.' "

A good mover will do that automatically but it's best to ask.

Now that you have three estimates, what's next?

Go back to low bidders
According to Noblit, find the one with the highest weight and the one with all the long-carry, accessory and extra charges, call the others back and ask them to revise estimate to include the same weight and charges. Then you'll be comparing apples to apples.

Now, says Noblit, everyone should be on a level playing field -- the only difference will be the discount. This, he says, is where quality comes into play.

"A 5 percent difference in a discount on a $10,000 move is $500. I'm not a big discounter," he says. "I'm competitive, but when they're at 55 percent discount, I'm at 45 percent. You can shop 'til you drop. You'll find price, but you may also find pain."

-- Posted: July 7, 2004

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