Getting ready to move out of Baltimore is bittersweet. You love the Baltimore area, but you are about to embark on a big adventure as you move out of state. Whether you are moving for a promotion, a new job, or to be closer to family and friends, it’s an exciting change and a happy opportunity. But before you can start to enjoy the new hometown, you have to get through the move.
Moving companies come in all shapes and sizes, but mostly small. Almost half of all the moving companies in the U.S. have fewer than five employees. That doesn’t mean they don’t have the resources to complete a big move on your behalf, though. That small mover could be a genuine independent or the locally owned franchise of a major chain. Alternatively, it could be the regional agent of a national or international shipping line.
To find a mover, start by asking people you know for suggestions. If you are relocating on behalf of your employer, the human resources or purchasing department may have some referrals for you. Even if the move is personal, they might have some companies they can recommend. If you have family or friends who have moved, ask if they had a mover they recommend (or one to avoid.) Next, check with FMCSA to be sure that the mover is properly registered and licensed. FMCSA is the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, and it’s the part of the Department of Transportation that regulates interstate commerce. FMCSA collects safety data on moving companies and provides useful resources for consumers to understand the moving industry and protect themselves from fraud.
Most moving companies are honest and want to do a good job. Unfortunately, in any industry, some disreputable players make it harder for the honest ones. FMCSA reports that almost 6,000 consumers filed moving fraud complaints in 2018. 40% of those complaints involved damage to property or loss of property, and the average loss claim was over $16,000. The Better Business Bureau, which publishes ratings about companies in many industries, including relocation, and posts independent reviews from consumers, reports that it receives over 13,000 complaints annually about moving companies.
One growing fraud, accounting for 7% of recent reports, is referred to as a “hostage load.” Here’s one scenario: You find a moving company online and enter your information into their website form. Next, you speak to a friendly representative and share the details about your upcoming move. The company provides you with an attractive quote for the work, and you agree on a date, happy to have one less thing to worry about. The representative probably requests a deposit, which you provide. When moving day arrives, the crew supervisor may tell you that the estimate the company gave you was too low and demand a higher price for the work. Most likely, they will tell you this only when your belongings are partly or mostly loaded. If you refuse to pay the higher price, the person will instead demand that you pay them to unload.
Next, the loaded truck disappears. You are expecting delivery in a week or ten days, but you cannot communicate with anyone from the company you contracted with. The number has been disconnected or isn’t being answered. If the truck does appear at your new home eventually, the driver tells you that there is a new delivery price. This scenario is the origin of the “hostage” terminology. If you want your household goods, you must ransom them.
There are other versions of the moving scam, but you can guard against them by being cautious. Check with FMCSA to determine if the company you are considering is licensed and has appropriately managed past complaints. Check the BBB site for reviews there as well. Then, invite at least three candidates to provide you with an in-person survey and estimate. This step is a required part of the process for interstate moves, but a shady operator may be reluctant to complete it. They may suggest that they can give you a fair quote using your verbal or online description of the work. It is in your interest to require the visual survey. It is the best way to get a valid assessment of the job’s scope and determine if you are dealing with a legitimate mover. When they come to do the survey, you can talk to them about their professional background and ask questions.
Once you obtain the estimates, compare them, checking that each indicates whether it is binding or nonbinding. A binding estimate is a guaranteed price, as long as you don’t add anything to the shipment or request any additional services. A nonbinding estimate is more of an approximation, and it could go up or down if the mover gauged the weight high or low. Keep in mind that the FMCSA regulations only allow a mover to increase the payment due on delivery by 10% over the amount of a nonbinding estimate. For example, perhaps you have an estimate for $5,000, based on the assessed weight of 7,500 pounds, but the actual weight is 10,000 pounds. On delivery, the mover can require payment of $5,500. Anything you owe more than that, they can bill you for later, but they must deliver your goods if you pay that much. This rule doesn’t apply if you add extra items to the load or ask for services not included in the estimate. If those things happen, you should ask for and receive a new quote that both you and the mover sign.
Finally, check references before you choose a mover. Once you have made a selection, ask the mover’s representative for a recent customer’s name and contact information. It’s better not to rely on the testimonials you may see on the company website—you don’t know who wrote those or how old they are. Talk to someone who has used their services and ask how they did. If the mover isn’t willing to provide this information, that is a red flag, and you may want to choose a different company for your job. Remember this and offer to be a reference for the mover later if they do an excellent job for you as well.
Don’t overlook talking to your mover about the liability protection for your move. Liability protection is the formal name for moving insurance, sometimes called valuation. Some customers go without full replacement value protection for their belongings because there is a cost associated with it. The mover will provide you with basic value coverage at no additional charge, and you may be tempted to take it. But think about it carefully. The basic (also called released value) protection will only offer reimbursement at up to $0.60 per pound to take care of your loss if something is damaged or missing. That won’t go very far toward replacing or even repairing something of value. Think about a 20-pound flat-screen television with a replacement ceiling of $12.00. For most people, the things in their household have a higher value and should be protected with the replacement value coverage. Check with the mover about deductibles and how packing affects the coverage. For high-value pieces, you need to submit a list of things individually and agree on the overall shipment value with the mover.