How to avoid a doorstep dispute

June 3, 2011

All of the readily available information on the Internet seems to make it easy to shop for moving companies. But the Web can inspire a false confidence among consumers.

“The Internet has become the bane of my existence,” said Douglas Numbers, an investigator with the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection. People do an online search for movers and are attracted to companies with fancy Web sites that promise quick online estimates — which can lead to problems.

“They get movers that give them quotes without ever setting eyes on their house, and we’re seeing lowball estimates,” Numbers said. “When they get there the day of the move, suddenly they have an estimate that has doubled.” Some even seed consumer-ratings sites with fake reviews to make themselves look good.

But industry, government and consumer groups also use the Web to boost consumer awareness. You can check out movers’ records at the following sites:

The American Moving and Storage Association launched the ProMover program in 2009 to help screen for basic criteria: Movers must have a “C” rating or higher from the BBB, must be in good standing with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, must have an arbitration process in place, and must meet a list of ethical standards. Look up companies at moving.org or call 888-849-2672.

The Maryland Movers Conference, mdmovers.org or 410-644-4600, has a registered mover program for companies that abide by a code of ethics, agree to an arbitration program and provide their contracts to the organization for review.

The Better Business Bureau has its own accreditation program. Go to bbb.org.

Also, local consumer protection agencies may have an online tool to look up complaint records. For example, the Fairfax County Consumer Affairs Branch, fairfaxcounty.gov/consumer.htm, lists details about complaints and their resolution. In Montgomery County, you can look up movers in the “merchant complaint” section of the Office of Consumer Protection’s Web site, montgomerycountymd.gov/consumer.

The federal regulator’s Web site, protectyourmove.gov, has information about movers’ records, consumer rights and links to state moving associations and consumer-protection offices.

Use these resources to check out movers recommended by friends and family, too. Use contact information pulled directly from one of these sites, rather than from an online search, because shady movers sometimes choose names similar to well-established companies.

There are other steps you can take:

Get in-home estimates from three companies. “That’s the only way you’ll get an accurate, reliable estimate,” says Numbers. Even legitimate movers can add legitimate but unexpected expenses if they discover that you have a lot more stuff than average, live on a street that doesn’t permit tractor-trailers (and need to shuttle the items from a smaller truck), have narrow staircases or items that need special protection. Get a detailed estimate of extras, such as packing materials. Make sure you’re really talking with three different companies; some movers do business under multiple names. Be suspicious if one mover offers a price that is much lower than the others.

Contact the movers in advance. That way your choices aren’t limited by availability. Good movers get booked quickly, especially during peak moving season in the summer.

Ask for a binding contract. New consumer protections limit the amount of extra expenses a moving company can charge on the day of the move if you have a binding contract. Moving regulations are complicated; large, interstate movers are subject to different rules than local movers. Jurisdictional issues are particularly complicated in the Washington area, where a move of just a few miles can cross a state line and be subject to a different set of rules.

For local moves in Maryland, for example, a law scheduled to take effect October 1 says movers cannot charge more than 125 percent of the amount on the contract for the services identified in the estimate. “That gives them flexibility if the move ran a little longer than expected, for example, but it prevents a scenario where rogue operators can jack up the price 300 percent to 400 percent,” says Louis Campion, president of the Maryland Movers Conference, a trade group.

A similar rule with a 110 percent cap now governs most interstate moves. (However, movers can send you a bill for additional charges beyond that cap.) Movers are supposed to give you a notice of your rights under federal or state regulations.

Always make sure there are no blanks on the contract where extra charges can be filled in later, another common complaint.

Make sure you’re insured for breakage. Federal law requires interstate movers to pay just 60 cents per pound for broken items, no matter how valuable they were; some states have even lower limits for local moves. Ask your insurance company if you have coverage for broken items while moving. Some insurers, like Chubb, cover possessions while moving; others have limited coverage or require you to buy an extra rider to cover certain fragile items.

--Kimberly Lankford

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