Posted by Elisabeth Leamy, Fri Feb 24 2006, 08:43pm

I just moved to a new house

I just moved to a new house. And you know what? I know it's hard to believe, but everything went perfectly! If you do the heavy lifting BEFORE moving day, you, too, can have a smooth move.

Here are some of the thing you could face if you DON'T do your homework: Misleading lowball estimates that get jacked up at the end, intentional delays so that you owe for additional hours, belongings held hostage until you agree to cough up more money, missing property, damaged property, stolen property… BUT, HEY, NO BIG DEAL. We're only talking about all your worldly possessions here. These are all real scenarios reported time and time again to consumer protection agencies across the country. Moving companies are one of the top targets of consumer complaints.

Small local movers are the subject of many of the complaints. Many states regulate movers who operate only inside that state, but there are still plenty of fly-by-nights that don't bother getting licensed. These companies hire sketchy day laborers and change their names whenever too many customers complain. They routinely hold customers' belongings hostage to extort more money. Some "store" your belongings outdoors in the rain. Many use illegal contracts that blatantly favor the company.

Interstate moves used to be a better bet, but they've gotten worse since 1995, when the government abolished the Interstate Commerce Commission. The ICC used to closely regulate interstate movers. Today, moves across state lines are overseen by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. There are some minimal consumer protection laws in place, but the FMCSA doesn't have the funds to enforce them as aggressively as I would like. Local police usually won't get involved in moving disputes. And state agencies don't have the authority to help with moves that involve more than one state. So… it's up to you.

Don't just hire any mover or base your decision on price alone. Ask friends and family for recommendations and double check the company's reputation with the Better Business Bureau and your county or state consumer protection office. If possible, look up the owner's name instead of just the company name, in case the moving company has changed names a few times. Also try Googling the moving company's name. If anything negative comes up, move on. If you're hiring a big national mover, search the national name and also the name of the local affiliate. Narrow your search further by crossing off movers with less than five years in the business. Ten years is even better. Ask the moving company whether any partner companies will be involved in your move. If so, check those out too.

Don't let a moving company tell you it can give you a good estimate over the phone. You're just setting yourself up to be low-balled. Instead, invite three or four movers to come to your home, view your belongings and give you WRITTEN estimates. In local moves, these estimates are usually based on man hours. In interstate moves, they are based on weight. Be honest. If you have six boxes of files at the office that also need to be moved, tell the estimator that. If you keep it a secret, the mover has the right to throw out your original estimate on moving day.

In order to compete and get your business, movers have a bad habit of underestimating what it'll cost to do your move. INSIST ON A BINDING ESTIMATE. The price will be higher than those wishy-washy non-binding estimates, but at least you'll know what you're getting into. The best kind of binding estimate is one that is "guaranteed not to exceed." In other words, the mover promises to move your household for a set rate. If your move involves more weight or takes more time than the mover thought, you still pay the estimated amount. If your move involves less weight or less time than the mover originally estimated, you pay less! Now that's a good deal. You will probably have to follow up with the mover at your destination to see if the price went down. It's something the company may not volunteer.

If you end up with competing estimates that are nearly identical, haggle a little. Many companies provide free moving boxes and things like that. Keep in mind, price isn't everything. If a mover can pack your things on the date that's most convenient for you and guarantee a timely delivery, that's worth something too.

1. Check out moving companies before you hire them. THIS IS SO CRUCIAL! Once the company has all your worldly belongings on its truck, you have a lot less leverage.
2. Have movers come to your home, look at your things, and give you written estimates.
3. Insist on binding "guaranteed not to exceed" estimates and get them in writing.

If you moved within one state, complain to your county and state consumer protection offices. Also file a complaint with the BBB. If yours was an interstate move, complain to your state consumer protection office (although they may not have jurisdiction to help you, they can at least offer advice) and contact the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.