The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Making a move soon? Here’s how to find a reputable company and avoid scams.

For whatever moving help you need, be sure to get prices from several companies. Estimates should detail the services to be performed and include an inventory of items to be moved. (iStock)

If your household will be on the move in the next few months, and you have more stuff than you and your friends can handle (ah, the good ol’ days of payment via beer and pizza), book a reputable moving company, stat. The good ones will be very busy for the foreseeable future, and there are plenty of bad actors to avoid.

A top company should take care of your possessions and your spaces, and respect your time. Checkbook.org’s ratings of area moving companies will help you find a business that will do a good job. Until Aug. 20, Washington Post readers can access Checkbook’s ratings of area moving companies free of charge via Checkbook.org/WashingtonPost/Movers.

Think first about what services you need. You’ll save a lot of money by doing some or a lot of the work yourself, especially packing — on most local moves, paying a moving company to box up your stuff will double your costs.

For a local move, you can save by ferrying some of your own boxes and other small items, which account for a substantial amount of the weight and cost of a move. Then let a mover handle the piano, dressers and other heavy, hard-to-move items. Even if you don’t want to lift a finger, still plan to move jewelry, framed art and other especially valuable belongings yourself.

Getting estimates

For whatever help you need, be sure to get prices from several companies. Estimates should detail the services to be performed and include an inventory of items to be moved; otherwise, on moving day you may get into a dispute with a mover who wants to charge extra for work you thought the estimate included.

Checkbook’s undercover shoppers collected prices for three local moves and three long-distance moves, and for each job found dramatic company-to-company price differences. For example, prices quoted to pack and move the contents of a four-bedroom house less than a mile within Arlington, Va., ranged from less than $4,000 to more than $8,500. To move 10,000 pounds of goods from Rockville, Md., to Oakland, Calif., price quotes ranged from $9,100 to $25,000.

More Brasler: Need new carpet? Don’t get walked on.

For local moves, companies usually charged based on the number of workers and amount of time needed for the job. If you get help packing, the price also includes a charge for any company-supplied containers. Most companies if asked will offer estimates with caps — you won’t pay more than the cap, and you’ll pay less if it takes less time than estimated.

Maryland law stipulates that movers cannot charge consumers more than 25 percent above a written estimate. If you’re moving to or from an address in Maryland, any written estimate in effect includes a capped price.

For all other local moves, we strongly recommend you get an estimate with a cap. Otherwise the company may work slowly, and you’ll pay more than estimated. Also, without a binding price from each company, you lack a sound basis for comparing prices.

Moving long distance

For long-distance moves, moving companies must operate under a tariff system that calculates the cost of moves using weight and mileage, not hours. Company tariffs also stipulate special charges for packing and exceptional matters, such as storage, extra stops and waiting time.

However, a company’s specific tariff rate for a given move is somewhat irrelevant because it can still impose exceptions to its filed tariff rates. Usually a company agrees to discount its tariff rate, or portions of its tariff rate, by a specified percentage. It might, for example, offer a 35 percent discount for the long-haul part of its charges and a 20 percent discount for packing.

As with local moves, for long-distance moves we advise you to get either binding estimates or estimates with a binding maximum.

More Brasler: 15 painless ways to reduce your home’s energy use

If you need storage services, or if your goods will be placed into storage while awaiting transfer during a long-distance move, get prices for it and obtain documents indicating where the goods will be stored and check on the charges. If possible, inspect the storage facility. Also get proof that insurance will cover your belongings against theft, fire and other risks while in storage, because insurance for goods in transit won’t cover them during long-term storage.

During your move, be on the scene — and attentive — when your belongings are loaded and unloaded. Make sure the moving company prepares an inventory of your belongings. Carefully read the bill of lading before you sign it. Later, as your goods are unloaded, check the condition of each item. You won’t have time to open every carton, so focus on inspecting cartons containing especially fragile or valuable items. Don’t sign the inventory or any other paper without first noting any damage that has occurred. Signing a document that does not note damage will make it hard to collect for damage later.

If you find damage after the movers leave, notify the company promptly; and keep the broken items and packing materials as you found them in the box, so the mover’s claims representative can check them.

Finding a legitimate company

Finally, when shopping for a mover beware of brokers, many of which operate online, often disguising themselves as local moving outfits. These companies do not own or operate any trucks or employ movers; they simply collect a deposit and arrange for a moving company to handle your move. The problem with such arrangements is you have no control over who actually performs the work. Since the broker chooses the mover, you may get stuck with an inferior outfit. Because the broker typically collects its fee upfront, it may be uninterested in mediating disputes with the mover.

The moving industry is also plagued by scammers who take advantage of people who are in a rush and don’t know how to find a reputable mover. The crooks advertise heavily on the Internet to get prime placement on search results. A quick online search is not enough to verify that a company is legitimate.

More Brasler: How to find a rock-solid mason for your home

Because moving scams are so lucrative, criminal enterprises have created sophisticated operations masquerading as legitimate businesses. They claim to have an office in your area, but these are typically virtual offices or mail-handling services. They also tend to change names frequently, which makes it difficult for consumers to get reliable information about them. If you hire one of these crooked companies, there’s a good chance your goods will wind up lost or stolen, or that the company will charge exorbitant fees for the return of your stuff.

Checkbook’s ratings will help you identify a trustworthy local outfit if you’re moving within the area. Many good local companies handle long-distance relocations, or work with national networks to coordinate them. For long-distance moves, avoid companies that are not registered with the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates interstate and international movers. Use the FMCSA’s database to check if an interstate mover is licensed and insured (as required), and to see its complaint history.

Pay with a credit card if possible, so you can initiate a chargeback from your card issuer if the company doesn’t do the job properly and won’t make things right. Also be aware that most peer-to-peer payment apps, such as Zelle and Venmo, do not offer the fraud protection of a credit card, so this is a risky way to pay for goods and services.

Kevin Brasler is executive editor of Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org, a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. You can access Checkbook’s ratings of moving companies free of charge until Aug. 20 at Checkbook.org/WashingtonPost/Movers.

Read more in Real Estate:

Need new carpet? Don’t get walked on.

15 painless ways to reduce your home’s energy use

How to find a rock-solid mason for your home

Loading...