Claudia Buck

Personal Finance: How to avoid movers' scams

Published: Sunday, Jul. 7, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Monday, Jul. 8, 2013 - 9:19 am

Karen Purdie feels she got flim-flammed by the moving man.

Last December, she went online, researched various moving companies and hired one to move her elderly parents from Grants Pass, Ore., to her home in West Sacramento. She got an estimate, told them what needed to be moved and set a delivery date.

Three days later, Purdie says, the movers showed up hours late – at 9:30 p.m. on a Saturday night. Her parents' mattress was soggy, a dresser mirror was shattered and a number of items – including their favorite recliner chairs – had been left behind in Oregon by the movers. Worse, the moving crew wouldn't unload anything until they were paid – in cash.

"It was horrible. It wasn't a complicated move. Never in my wildest dreams would I have anticipated what happened," said Purdie, a state employee, who's filed a claim seeking reimbursement for damages.

Last year, consumers like Purdie filed more than 11,100 complaints with the Better Business Bureau nationwide. Nationally, moving companies rank among the top BBB complaint categories.

"When moving during the busiest moving time of the year, taking extra precautions when choosing a mover is imperative," said Gary Almond, president of the Northeast California BBB, in an email. "Know who runs the business, where it's located and ensure you know who is handling your personal and important possessions."

The company that Purdie hired, Alliance Worldwide Van Lines, has several locations nationwide with "F" and "D-minus" ratings, based on consumer complaints. The BBB said the company may have subcontracted Purdie's move to another firm. Efforts to reach Alliance were unsuccessful.

Certainly, moving is no one's idea of a good time. Whether it's schlepping furniture, books and belongings across town or cross-country, it's a lot of work. But there are ways to make the adventure go as seamlessly as possible.

Choose carefully

Don't rely on TV or Internet ads. Get recommendations from friends or family. Check a company's complaint history through the Better Business Bureau and its licensing status through state or federal agencies, such as the California Public Utilities Commission. (For details, see box.)

"The biggest mistake that consumers make is going online and not dealing with brick-and-mortar companies," said Steve Weitekamp, president of the California Moving & Storage Association, which represents about 350 licensed moving companies in the state. "Anyone who tries to do this online is asking for a problem."

In addition to checking a company's licensing and complaint history, he recommends stopping by its office to gauge its professionalism.

Get it in writing

Get at least three estimates from companies that send an estimator to your home. Avoid online firms where you fill out a do-it-yourself inventory list.

Generally, for moves of less than 100 miles, you'll be charged hourly rates. For longer-distance and out-of-state moves, you'll be charged by weight and mileage. Some companies have minimums: i.e., at least four hours or 5,000 pounds.

Compare competing bids but avoid low-ball prices that seem too good to be true. Companies are required to provide a maximum price in writing on what it'll cost, door to door.

"Before the first piece of furniture is loaded on a truck, the consumer should have a 'Not-to-Exceed' price. It's the maximum they can charge," said Weitekamp.

Be specific

The best precaution, especially on a long-distance move, is to fill out an inventory, where you and the mover list all major items and their condition. Anything that's already nicked or damaged should be noted. Be clear about exactly what is going in the truck vs. what you'll be packing and moving yourself.

Know the extras

Movers can charge extra for elevators, flights of stairs (beyond a single-family home) or "long carry" fees when their truck can't get closer than 75 feet from your front door.

Also, if they get to your house and there are 50 extra boxes in the garage or furniture that you changed your mind about taking, you'll be asked to fill out – and pay for – a "change order" for the additional items.

Avoid peak times

The summer months, June through August, are when movers' calendars and trucks fill up fast. Especially with apartments and rental homes, the first and last days of the month – and Fridays – are the busiest.

If possible, request a midweek or midmonth move. And try to schedule it at least 30 days in advance.

Accidents happen

The lamp shade gets crushed, the glass vase chips, the flat-screen TV cracks, the leather sofa is ripped. Damage can happen in the hustle and bustle of moving.

Under California and federal law, all moving companies are liable for basic repayment, if they damage an item during a move. It's 60 cents per pound, per item. The coverage is included in your moving estimate.

But it could be woefully inadequate. If you've got a 10-pound, $1,000 Lalique glass bowl that gets broken, for instance, you would be repaid $6.

If you want added coverage, movers offer "replacement value" or "cash value" coverage against potential loss or damage. In California, the rates are regulated, but generally are up to $7.50 per $1,000 of coverage.

Also, check your homeowners' insurance to see if damages are covered.

If you've packed a box yourself and something breaks, you'll have to show that the box itself was damaged. Otherwise, the mover can't be sure that your packing skills didn't contribute to the broken goods.

Some dos/don'ts

Do have a "first-off-truck" box that has essentials you'll need immediately at your destination.

Don't pack anything onto a moving truck that's personally valuable: fine jewelry, cash, vital documents, business records, etc.

Another tip: Don't move a flat-screen TV unless it's been unplugged for 24 hours. If moved while still warm, it could suffer internal damage.

Be there

Too many consumers, said Weitekamp, make the mistake of not being present or paying attention while movers are at work. You should be an active participant, he said. Supervise packing. Do an accurate inventory. Watch as the goods go out and come in. Walk through the house to see that nothing gets left behind. At the new location, check the inventory for anything missing or not in the same condition.

"Moving is a very personal service, where you're entrusting all your worldly possessions to someone you just met," Weitekamp said. "The mover is going to load everything you own into a truck, close the door and drive away."

A little caution ahead of time can save a lot of expensive headaches.

MOVIN' ON

If you're planning a move, whether across town or cross-country, here are some tips.

RED FLAGS

Steer away from any moving company that:

• Only provides an online or over-the-phone estimate, with no in-person inspection of your residence.

• Has no local address or licensing information on its website. Answers calls with a generic-sounding name.

• Wants a large deposit or full payment upfront.

• Says all your goods are covered by their insurance.

• Arrives with a rental truck or unmarked van on moving day, rather than a company-branded fleet truck.

• Doesn't provide a copy of required state or federal booklets on consumer rights and responsibilities.

HELPFUL RESOURCES

• California Moving & Storage Association: Represents 350 licensed California movers. Offers consumer tips on hiring a mover, packing tips, avoiding fraud and lodging complaints. To contact: (800) 672-1415 or www.thecmsa.org.

• American Moving & Storage Association: The national organization has similar tips and resources. To contact: (888) 849-2672 or www.moving.org.

• California Public Utilities Commission: The PUC regulates and licenses moving companies within California. To check a company's license or file a complaint, call (800) 366-4782.

• ProtectYourMove: The U.S. Dept. of Transportation oversees moving companies that transport across state lines. Its website offers moving checklists, fraud prevention tips and complaint records of moving companies. To contact: (888) 368-7238 or www.ProtectYourMove.gov.

TO FILE A COMPLAINT

Call the mover first. If you can't get resolution, contact the CMSA, your local Better Business Bureau, the state PUC or the federal ProtectYourMove.

Call The Bee's Claudia Buck, (916) 321-1968. Read her Personal Finance blog, www.sacbee.com/personalfinanceblog.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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