Moving-company complaints are among the most common consumer-related gripes in South and Central Florida. A series of reports in the Sun Sentinel led to a statewide crackdown on problem movers about decade ago and eventually to increased county oversight of moving companies, including licensing and enforcement.
But county consumer affairs officials say price disputes continue to be common.
Statewide, consumers filed 396 moving company-related complaints in 2010. That's up from 386 complaints filed in 2009. And complaints in prior years were also high (605 in 2008; 474 in 2007; and 532 in 2006).
In Broward and Palm Beach counties, it adds up to several dozen complaints each year. Often, consumers say that they've been charged more than the moving company estimated it would cost.
"The biggest complaint we hear about is overcharging," said Joe Santiago, an investigator with the Palm Beach County Consumer Affairs Division. "What starts the problem a lot of times is that an estimate is given over the phone. Later there will be a debate about what the mover thought was to be moved and what the owner actually wants moved."
That is one reason to avoid using non-licensed movers or any company that does not follow the rules.
For instance, ordinances in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, as well as the state, require moving companies to provide a "bill of lading," which states the total cost of the move, said Joel Metter, supervisor of the consumer protection department in the Permitting, Licensing and Consumer Protection Division of Broward County.
Beverly Rudow, who recently moved to Delray Beach from New Jersey has a few hard-learned lessons about hiring a mover. The 67-year-old widow and retired tutor said she was overcharged $1,500 in fees to move her furniture, jewelry and two urns containing the ashes of her husband and daughter.
"I signed a contract for $6,000. But when the movers arrived in Delray Beach they told me I needed to pay an additional $3,000. When I refused to pay they took off with the truck and my furniture," Rudow said. "I started to cry because my daughter's urn was on that truck, my husband's urn too. I didn't know what to do or who to call, I cried all night."
Rudow said the movers returned the next day and agreed to unload her belongings for a payment of $7,500, about $1,500 more than she agreed upon with the original contract.
A supervisor with the New Jersey moving company, which has been in business for more than two decades, said that the higher total costs were for "extra time, extra men and extra supplies." The supervisor said the original price agreed upon did not include moving dozens of extra boxes to a Goodwill store, at the request of Rudow, nor costs related to trash removal and cleaning services, as well as an extra day of work that had to be done because Rudow asked the movers to stop working at 9 p.m. on the last day of moving.
The Sun Sentinel is not naming the moving company or supervisor because no formal complaint or charges have been filed against it.
But the case illustrates the importance of getting a moving estimate — upfront, and in writing — that spells out all details of a move. "However that total amount is arrived upon, it must be stated on the contract and that amount is binding," said Metter.
He added that consumers should be aware of clauses related to extra costs, however, such as fuel surcharges or fees for boxes and packing materials. Those charges are valid as long as they are spelled out in the contract.
South Floridians who hire a mover should also expect a second form, which spells out the total cost for the move and requires signatures from a moving company representative and from the customer. That form must also include the date and time it was signed. The purpose of the form is "to make it crystal clear to the consumer and mover that these documents are signed before the move commences," Metter said.
"If the move is done and at the tail end the mover wants more money, the consumer can call police," Metter said. "It is a felony under state law for a mover to demand more than what is stated on the contract. He is subject to arrest on the spot."
To avoid moving problems in Florida, experts also advise:
Deal only with companies that provide in-person, in-home written estimates. Online or over-the-phone estimates often lead to bill disagreements and hikes. Get at least three estimates in writing.
Movers should not begin a move until they have provided a contract with a fixed price that is signed by the moving company representative and the owner — and both should fill in the time that the move began, which must match.
In South Florida, complainants should contact the county consumer affairs agencies, said Bob Hitt, manager of the Palm Beach County Division of Consumer Affairs. In Broward, call 954-765-4400; in Palm Beach County, call 561-712-6600; in Miami-Dade, call 305-375-1250. "But consumers should understand they are not always right," he said. "Sometimes we have to help them understand where their rights begin and end."
For information on consumer rights or to file a complaint for moves within the state, contact the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services at 800-435-7352 or http://www.800helpfla.com/moving_text.html.
For information for interstate moves — from state to state — including searches for moving companies and company complaints, contact the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration at 888-368-7238 or visit
Check out Daniel Vasquez's Consumer Talk blog for ways to spend your money wisely, use technology to make life easier and keep your family safe and healthy at SunSentinel.com/consumerblog.