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Two dozen moving mistakes you can avoid

You've heard all the horror stories about moving: scam movers who hijack your possessions in return for some ridiculously high ransom; untrained crews who show up late or drunk and proceed to trash your prized possessions; or moving company reps who are polite and solicitous until you have a problem, then won't return your calls.

With a little planning you can eliminate, or at least reduce, your own moving horror stories. Here are 24 moving mistakes to avoid:

1. Not investigating the new town before you move. "The most disastrous problems arise if you move someplace you haven't researched first and find out it's a (bad) fit for your family," says Shari Steiner, co-author of "Steiner's Complete How-to-Move Handbook."

So if you're faced with the perfect career opportunity without a lot of notice, look for solutions that give you time to look before you leap, says Steiner.

2. Not timing your move. Want a cheaper, easier move? Avoid (in this order) moving during the summer, the very end or beginning of the month (when people like to start a new lease), and the exact middle of the month, says Mike Shaffer, former chairman of the American Moving and Storage Association, or AMSA. Instead, look for dates around the 7 or 21.

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3. Calling the mover at the last minute. If you start early, you can eliminate stress and might be able to save some money.

So how early do you need to call? A lot depends on the time of the year and even the time of the month you're moving. During crunch periods, allow more time. The ideal planning period is one to two months. But some movers are happy just to have two weeks' notice.

4. Interviewing one mover. Just like any other professional service, get estimates from at least three services before you make your choice. The same goes for renting a truck if you're moving yourself.

5. Accepting the price you're quoted. Instead, dicker. You don't have to accept the first price you're offered, says Shaffer, who was also the chairman and CEO of Atlas World Group Inc. before retiring. And if you're moving during an off-peak time, you'll have more bargaining power, he says.

6. Automatically hiring the lowest estimate. Less-than-reputable companies have been known to lowball the estimate to get your business, then pad the bill on the back end. Or the low estimate could be a sign that you might not be getting a professional crew, or that the company will subcontract your job to another firm. An estimate that is substantially lower or is calculated by anything other than weight is a red flag, according to Whitefence.com, a home services comparison Web site.

7. Not requiring a written estimate. You want to know, in writing, what the company believes the move will cost. You also want to know, in writing, what that estimate means to that company. Can they raise your bill on delivery? Does the contract allow them to bill you for more later? Once you pay them on delivery, are you done?

8. "Forgetting" to tell the company about the stairs in your new home or that oak furniture hiding in the attic. If the estimate is based on a move without stairs and your new home is two flights up, the company will add that to the cost. So give an honest assessment of the job and you're more likely to get a realistic estimate.

9. Refusing extra coverage for loss and breakage. For an interstate move, the default compensation rate for breakage is 60 cents per pound. That means that 95-pound flat-panel TV that cost $1,000 is worth about $57 in compensation.

And a typical homeowners policy won't cover broken items, says Jeanne Salvatore, senior vice president of public affairs for the Insurance Information Institute.

You have these options, according to the AMSA:

  • Full value protection: If your item is lost or broken, the moving company can choose either to pay you what it would cost for a new item, replace the article with something similar or pay you the repair cost. Prices for this extra coverage will vary.
  • Released value protection: This is what you get if you don't pay for additional coverage. If something is lost or broken, the moving company gives you 60 cents per pound.
  • Some companies will also offer arrange for added liability insurance, provided by a third-party insurance carrier, to cover loss or breakage during the move. Again, prices will vary, and if you have a claim, you'll deal with the insurance company, not the moving company.

10. Not asking how the company wants to be paid or when. Payment is due when your goods are delivered. And some companies don't take personal checks for a long-distance move.

"The most important thing is to be wary if the mover asks you for an unusually large deposit," says John Bisney, director of public relations for the AMSA. It is reasonable, Bisney says, to pay a small deposit, but a mover who asks for 50 percent of the estimate up front should send up red flags.

11.Make sure the moving company is accredited by the Better Business Bureau. Also, be aware that there are some federal protections governing state-to-state moves that don't apply to in-state moves.

The solution for instate moves is to look for a well-known, established mover who also does out-of-state moves. Even though interstate rules don't apply, at least you know you're dealing with a professional.

12. Taking a moving company at face value. While the moving pro you met is probably telling the truth, you have to cull the bad apples. Verify what they tell you and check references.

13. Assuming that one office of a national company is the same as another. Just like fast food chains, some locations are better than others. During your move, most of your contact will be with the local office. So evaluate that branch on its own merit.

14. Using an online estimate to hire a mover. Don't get fooled by con artists posing as movers, warns Bisney.

"They may just have a Web site and a truck, but they're not really professional movers," he says.

A mover with a local office is a safer alternative: Ask the mover to come to your house and provide a written estimate.

But the Internet can be a great tool when you shop. Check out consumer opinions on various professional and self-move services. And visit state and federal government sites to make sure the companies you choose have licenses and insurance.

15. Assuming that moving yourself is cheaper than hiring a pro. Hey, it might be. But when you figure in all of the costs (and many people underestimate how many miles they will drive the rental truck -- a big expense), including your time, you might find it actually pays to hire someone else.

16. Being a jerk. There are going to be glitches and delays that are out of everyone's control. So skip the type-A behavior and don't expect to be compensated just because the truck is a half-hour late.

17. Ignoring the fact that the name on your moving van doesn't match the name of the company you hired. Chances are you've been subcontracted to another company. Problem: Even if you checked references and licensing, you're now dealing with a total unknown. You may need to pull the plug and reschedule.

18. Not getting a dolly. Whether you're moving yourself or just rearranging things after a professional move, the money you shell out to rent or buy a dolly will pay for itself in bypassed back strain and missed ER visits.

19. Neglecting to back up your computer. When you move, your life becomes a study in Murphy's law. So if you have vital data in your computer, or anywhere else, make a couple of copies and stash them in various locations.

20. Not looking out for No. 1. Pack an overnight bag with a few changes of clothes, toiletries and any meds you might need. Ditto for all your family members, including the four-legged ones. Put a cell phone in one of the bags, too. Even if you think you'll be without your belongings for only a day or two, things can and will go wrong. But that's all OK if you can shower, put on clean underwear and send out for pizza.

21. Deciding that Moving Day is too late to put on the brakes. If the crew or truck isn't what you were promised, or you're unhappy for any reason, call the company and cancel.

If you decide you want to go through with the move anyway, call and have them rework your estimate, in writing (have it faxed or go to their office), to make the inconvenience worth your while.

22. Forgetting your move come April 15. If you paid for the relocation, Uncle Sam may be able to help you. Save all your receipts for your next tax return, and ask your accountant if you meet the time and distance tests for a tax deduction.

23. Not tipping your movers. No, it's not included in the bill, but neither is the tip at a nice restaurant. "It's up to the consumer," says Rhodes. "Whatever you think is fair, whatever is appropriate for the work that was done."

24. Acting helpless. You get to the other end and several items are missing or broken. Or the bill comes in higher than the estimate for no good reason. Most companies should take care of any losses, complaints or discrepancies quickly.

In the rare instance yours doesn't, you can elect to take them to small claims court. With interstate moves, you can have the matter mediated with the AMSA for a minimum fee.

And if you get a scam artist who hijacks your furniture for ransom, call the police, says Rhodes. He remembers one Tampa, Fla., man who was ready and waiting when the truck finally arrived -- with the cops. "Police departments are becoming more and more aware of this problem," says Rhodes.

Even though it may be technically a civil matter, he says, "a lot of times, the police will step in."

Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

-- Updated: July 16, 2008

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