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Avoid Making a Bad Move

Kate Traynor

Moving for a job in a new town requires planning, and hiring a professional mover to haul your household goods may make the transition easier. But a government investigation found that uninformed consumers are sometimes taken for a ride by household-goods movers.

According to the General Accounting Office (GAO), complaints against household-goods carriers doubled between 1996 and 1999. Common complaints lodged against carriers included assessment of unreasonable charges for packing supplies or storage of goods and insufficient reimbursement for damaged goods. Another problem noted by GAO was the "hostage" complaint, which occurs when a carrier refuses to unload the truck until the entire moving fee, including any disputed amount, is paid in full.

Consumers often have no practical recourse against unscrupulous carriers, GAO said. The Department of Transportation (DOT), which has overseen the household-goods moving industry since 1996, concentrates on promoting highway safety and does little to help consumers or enforce the laws that regulate movers.

Although GAO's report on household-goods carriers, released in March, may prompt DOT to beef up its consumer-protection efforts, education and preparation are still your best protection against dishonest movers.

Visit the DOT Web site. The agency’s consumer-protection offerings, described by GAO as "minimal," are still worth a look. DOT offers two free consumer-education publications: "Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move," and the "17 Most Frequently Asked Questions by Individual Shippers of Household Goods (PDF)."

Get at least three written estimates. An accurate estimate of your moving costs will require a visit to your home by the mover’s agent. When comparing estimates, you should check that you are looking at equivalent units; if one estimate is by weight and another is given in square feet, you may not be able to compare the two accurately.

Know when an estimate is binding. Movers offer binding or nonbinding estimates of moving costs. In theory, a binding estimate lists your actual costs and a nonbinding estimate is just an approximation of the costs. Movers cannot legally charge more than 110 percent of a fee provided in a nonbinding estimate, but according to the GAO report, DOT does not generally enforce this regulation.

Check the mover’s reputation. Your local courthouse and the Better Business Bureau may have records about complaints and pending lawsuits involving movers. DOT may also have information on file about specific movers.

Understand the payment terms. A mover that accepts payment by credit card may be more reliable than one that demands cash. In any case, find out in advance what type of payment you will need to provide and when it is due.

Understand the difference between protection plans and insurance. A moving company may offer to sell you liability coverage to protect your goods during transit. But true insurance is regulated by state insurance commissions, which can penalize insurers who fail to live up to their agreements. Most protection plans offered by movers are not really insurance and will cover a small fraction of what a valuable item is worth.

Learn from other peoples’ mistakes. The Consumer's Resource Center for Relocation, founded by a man who says he was victimized by an unscrupulous mover, has down-to-earth information about hiring a moving company. Inc., which is best viewed with Internet Explorer, offers many horror stories—and a complimentary one—told by consumers who used professional movers.