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Shop around before moving to save grief, money


It is almost summer -- moving time for many Americans.

More than half of all moves in the United States are completed between mid-May and late September. And each year, one in five families -- more than 43 million people -- moves, according to the U.S. Census Bureau; the average American moves 11 times during a lifetime.

Whether you are relocating across town or across the country, you would be wise to choose your moving company carefully.

Industry studies indicate that moving can cause major stress, regardless of whether the process is a good or bad experience. And although there is probably no way to eliminate the trauma of relocation, doing your homework in selecting a moving company and further planning may save you grief and money.

"Traumatic as a move may be, people just have to keep their wits about them," says Phil Yallowitz, supervisory special agent for the Los Angeles office of the Interstate Commerce Commission, the federal agency that regulates interstate movers. "They should get everything in writing."

In 1980, the federal Household Goods and Transportations Act partially deregulated the interstate moving industry, bringing increased competition among movers and, in many cases, lower prices for consumers. The law allows movers to offer discounts, additional insurance to cover replacement of damaged or lost goods, and binding estimates that guarantee a fixed price -- even if the move costs more or takes longer than the company predicted.

Although some industry analysts say that moving companies tend to give high estimates for a binding agreement, it is smart to get prices from several companies and compare them, no matter what kind of contract you want.

With the non-binding agreement, a company salesperson comes your home and gives you a written statement of the probable moving costs. But you can end up paying much more at the end of the move if the estimate is low. Under ICC rules, however, you do not have to pay more than 10 percent more than the original estimate.

Moving is expensive. Transporting 10,000 pounds (the typical weight of goods from a three-bedroom house) from Los Angeles to New York costs about $5,000. (If you are relocating across town, it is cheaper to rent a truck and get some friends to help you.)

It pays to shop around.

"We recommend consumers get three bids, and they should be leery of the lowest one," advises George Bennett of the American Movers Conference, an industry trade association based in Alexandria, Va. "The cheapest company could have old equipment, people who aren't trained movers, inadequate insurance, whatever."

There are about 25 to 30 national van lines and independent movers, 5,000 agents and 26,000 owner-operators, according to the American Movers Conference. When you call a major carrier, you will usually get a local agent. So, when choosing a mover, consider not only the national company's reputation, but the local agent's reputation as well. Also, ask friends and co-workers for recommendations.

"You have people wanting to move all their earthly possessions, and they just look in the Yellow Pages and call somebody," Mr. Bennett cautions. "It's amazing. The truck pulls up; they take everything and drive away. That's fantastic faith in your fellow human beings. A lot of people just don't do enough checking."

For interstate moves, rates decline as the load weight increases, says a representative for Campbell Moving and Storage in Pomona, Calif., a North American Van Lines agent. You also may pay less if you move on weekdays.

"People definitely should get several estimates," says Tony Ortiz of A Nice Jewish Boy Moving and Storage in Beverly Hills, Calif. "If they have a large three-bedroom home and the furniture weighs, say, 10,000 pounds, they could get a 50 percent discount. Another place might offer them only a 35 percent one."

Experts recommend that customers have a moving company representative come to their home to survey its contents. Over-the-phone estimates are not binding, and some companies charge extra if you have a piano or a pool table to move; some tack on additional fees if their movers have to climb stairs.

Many carriers offer various payment options, including major credit cards or monthly payments. Others, however, demand cash or a certified or cashier's check for the full amount when the furniture is delivered. If you want to pay with a personal check, you should work that out in advance with the company representative. Be sure it specifies "personal check" on the bill of lading, which is the contract. ICC regulations require the mover to have a bill of lading for every interstate shipment, and the driver must give you a copy before loading your goods. You also have to sign that bill.

Customers also should find out about the mover's liability coverage. Movers are required to have "released value" coverage.

Reputable moving companies also offer additional insurance. You can get "added value protection," which is computed at current replacement costs, less depreciation. "You can have $10,000 protection with this for $50," Mr. Anderson says. "Or you can pay a little more and get 'full value protection' that will replace it for whatever it is worth. It's not a lot higher than the depreciated value protection."

Most major moving companies offer booklets that give tips on moving and packing and explain contracts and liability coverages.

The ICC puts out a consumer pamphlet, "When You Move: Your Rights and Responsibilities."

The American Movers Conference offers three booklets to consumers. They cover moving and packing; moving and children; and moving pets and plants. To order, send a self-addressed, stamped, letter-sized envelope to American Movers Conference, 2200 Mill Road, Alexandria, Va. 22314.

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