By Adam Bluestein
The process of finding a good mover can seem daunting. But doing a little research is worth it. By shopping around, you can save money (sometimes more than $1,000) and avoid scams. Here are 12 steps to help you through the process.
1. Get recommendations. Ask friends, coworkers, and local real estate agents. Look in the phone book for moving companies that have offices near your home. You’re going to want to get an in-person estimate of how much your move will cost. Don’t rely on any estimate that comes from someone who hasn’t looked in every one of your closets. Don’t assume that big-name companies are best. Do not get estimates through websites that offer to “find you a mover.” Find the mover yourself and avoid the numerous scams associated with some of these sites. And don’t use household-goods brokerage services that find a moving company for you―they are not regulated by the laws that movers must follow.
2. Do an initial screening. When you have a list of recommended movers, go online to do a quick background check (you can do a more thorough check later). Call or go to the website of the Better Business Bureau (bbb.org). You also can call or e-mail the American Moving and Storage Association (moving.org, 703-683-7410, email@example.com) to see if a moving company is a member, which means it has agreed to abide by the organization’s published tariffs and to participate in its arbitration program. AMSA membership is voluntary. As long as a moving company checks out in all other ways, the fact that it is not a member shouldn’t rule it out.
Be sure to check the consumer-advocacy sites movingscam.com. Each of these has a blacklist of companies with a history of consumer complaints, as well as tips and general information about the moving industry. You can also do a search using the company name at Rip-off Report (ripoffreport.com).
3. You should end up with at least three or four companies to call for an in-home estimate. If you’re moving to another state, ask if the company will give you a written binding estimate or, even better, a binding not-to-exceed estimate. Both types of estimates put a guaranteed cap on what you will pay for your move. While nonbinding estimates are legal (as long as they’re given free), as the U.S. Department of Transportation moving guide warns, “You should expect the final cost to be more than the estimate.” And while interstate movers are allowed to charge you for binding estimates, most will offer them free. Estimates for interstate moves will be based on the weight of the items you’re moving and the distance of the move. For moves within the same state, rules about estimates vary: Some states (such as California) require that movers give a written and signed binding estimate; others (like Illinois) forbid them to. Either way, estimates for these movers are based on the amount of time the move will take.
4. When an estimator comes to your home, show him everything you want to have moved―in the closets, the backyard, the basement, the attic. If on your moving day the foreman believes you have significantly more stuff than was calculated in your estimate, he can “challenge” the original estimate (before everything is on the truck, not after). He can’t force you to pay a higher amount, but he doesn’t have to move your stuff for the original amount, either. And at that point you probably don’t have a lot of other options. Also, make sure the estimator knows about any conditions at your new home that might complicate the move, such as stairs, elevators, or a significant distance from the curb to the closest door. While the estimator is at your home, get as much information as you can about the company. Make sure it will be moving you itself, not contracting the job out to another mover. Find out how long the company has been in business. (You want one that’s been around a few years at least, and ideally 10 or more.) By the time the estimator leaves, you should have collected all of the following:
- The company’s full name and any other names under which it does business.
- The company’s address, phone numbers, and e-mail and website addresses.
- Names and contact information for the company’s references.
- USDOT (U.S. Department of Transportation) and MC (motor carrier) license numbers.
- The U.S. Department of Transportation booklet called “Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move.” Federal law requires any interstate mover to provide you with this guide, which is the official rule book of the interstate moving industry. (You can download a copy at fmcsa.dot.gov.) For in-state moves, movers are regulated by the state’s department of transportation or its public utilities or commerce commission. Some states publish their own moving-guide pamphlets.
5. Review the estimate. The estimate may be a combined document that, when signed by you and the moving-company representative, serves as your order for service and bill of lading, too. These, along with the inventory list created when your goods are loaded, are the basic documents any mover should provide you with. Make sure you see the words “written binding estimate” up top, as well as the mover’s signature with a date at the bottom. For an interstate move, the estimate should clearly describe the type and quantity of goods you’re shipping, the distance to your new home, when your things will be picked up and delivered, and any additional services (such as packing) and supplies the moving company is providing. If you want to purchase additional insurance from your mover (above the standard 60 cents a pound that the mover’s insurance covers), make sure you understand the costs and details of that coverage. For an in-state move, for which you can’t get a binding estimate, you should still get a written estimate that sets out the hourly rates and any additional costs you may incur (for supplies, tolls, driving time to and from the mover’s facilities). If you’re not sure about anything in the estimate, call and ask. And have the company send you a revised written estimate if necessary―don’t just take someone’s word for anything.
6. As you get estimates, collect them in a brightly colored (that is, hard-to-lose) moving folder. Keep this folder open in plain sight as later estimators come in. This shows them you’re doing your homework, which encourages them to be honest and perhaps give you a more competitive quote.
7. When you’ve gotten all your estimates in, compare the bids. Be wary of any company that comes in much lower than the others. Look at high bids to see where the extra costs are coming from. Call and ask questions if you don’t understand anything. If you have several reasonable-sounding bids from reputable companies, don’t be afraid to negotiate to get the best possible rate. Especially in a market where there’s lots of competition, most movers will work with you on pricing.
8. Now check out the contenders in more detail. Take the information you’ve gathered and get back online. First, make sure they’re incorporated in your state―and confirm how long they’ve been in business―by checking your secretary of state’s office. Some have searchable databases of businesses online; if not, call the number in the government pages of the phone book.
9. Next, make sure your moving company has the license and insurance it needs to move you legally. (Yes, there are movers who solicit business without the legal authority to do so.) Go to safersys.org, the website of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), and enter the company’s USDOT number and click on “Search” (you can also search by name or MC number). If you have an accurate DOT number, you’ll be shown a screen with lots of information on the company. Here’s what to look for:
- The company’s name, address, and phone numbers. Are they the same ones the company gave you?
- The “Out of Service” field, at the upper left of the form, should say “No.”
- The fields labeled “Power Units” and “Drivers” tell you how many trucks and drivers the company has. A company that claims to do 100 moves a month but has only two trucks deserves skeptical treatment.
- Under “Operation Classification,” there should be an X next to “Auth. for Hire.”
- Under “Carrier Operation,” if you are moving out of state, there should be an X next to “Interstate.”
- Under “Cargo Carried,” there should be an X next to “Household Goods.”
- Farther down, in the “Inspections/Crashes” section, you should be concerned if the company’s average is much higher than the national average shown. In the “Safety Rating” section, if there has been a review, the results should be “Satisfactory.”
- At the bottom of the page, click on the “FMCSA Licensing & Insurance site” link. On the next page, click on either the “HTML” or the “Report” button under “View Details” to get to the “Motor Carrier Details” page. Under the column “Authority Type,” there are three listings: “Common,” “Contract,” and “Broker.” The “Authority Status” column to the right tells you if the company’s authority is active. At least “Common” should be listed as active, with “No” under “Application Pending.”
- In the next table down, there should be a “Yes” under “Household Goods.”
- The bottom table contains insurance information. A moving company is required to have both bodily-injury and property-damage (BIPD) insurance ($750,000 minimum) and cargo insurance filed. Under the heading “Insurance on File,” BIPD should be at least $750,000, and “Cargo” should say “Yes.”
- You can also call the FMCSA to get information on the status of a company’s licensing (202-366-9805) and insurance (202-385-2423).
10. Finally, call the FMCSA’s Safety Violation and Consumer Complaints hotline at 888-368-7238 (open 24/7) and ask about complaints against your moving company. And, if possible, go to the company’s address and check out the facilities in person.
11. Now you can select a mover. You should feel confident about any company you’ve run through the checks above. Confirm the dates and details of your move, and make sure you get a signed order for service and a bill of lading.
12. On moving day, get a written copy of the mover’s inventory list, provide the movers with specific directions for getting to your new home, and make sure you have a number where you can reach the movers throughout the move.