The worst moving story that Shirley Rooker has ever heard was the one about the woman who moved from Florida to New England. The movers would not deliver her furniture until she paid hundreds of dollars more than the estimate they had given before the move.
"They kept her furniture for days," said Rooker, president of Call for Action, a consumer advocacy group.
Things like that "are not supposed to happen," she said, "but we're seeing more and more as the moving season gets busy."
Even a good move is difficult, but a bad one can be horrible.
"In 1998, it was No. 10 on our most-complained-about types of companies in the metropolitan area," said Edward Johnson, president of the Better Business Bureau of the metropolitan Washington area.
"A lot of complaints we get involve damage of consumers' furniture, and people get very upset about that," said Peter Drymalski, an investigator for Montgomery County's consumer affairs office.
"Missed appointments--we get complaints about that," he said. "A lot of people are under time pressure to move in and move out. And sometimes you get complaints when people feel just plain taken advantage of."
His colleague Sharon Wilder said, "The ones I get seem to stem from the national problem of not getting a binding estimate. They give an oral estimate over the phone without ever having seen what they're moving." The result can be charges that are far above what the customer expected.
For all practical purposes, there's no federal regulation of movers and little or no state regulation. That means consumers have to protect themselves when they move. Some tips from the consumer advocates:
* Research the mover. Ask friends, neighbors or apartment managers for suggestions. Check the companies out with the Better Business Bureau. "The size of a yellow pages ad means absolutely nothing," said the bureau's Johnson; it's the company's track record that counts.
* Shop around. Get quotes from a few companies, but make sure those quotes are based on a visit to your home. Don't rely on telephone estimates.
* Understand the bill of lading and how payment is to be made. "If they only want cash and they only accept cash, it really is something consumers should take a close look at," Johnson said.
If you pay with a credit card, you have some recourse through your credit card company in case of a dispute. "Once the cash leaves your hand, sorry, Charley," Johnson said.
* Ask about miscellaneous charges, such as fees for stairs or long driveways. In particular, Drymalski said, ask about charges for packing materials and compare them with charges at a local box store.
* Inquire about liability and insurance. Consider buying extra insurance.
* Book a date early. Confirm and reconfirm the date and time. "Don't feel like you're being a pest," Johnson said.
* Unpack as soon as possible to determine if there are damages. Don't sign anything that says there are no damages until you have checked. "They're going to push you," Rooker said. "If necessary, tell them to wait."