You’ll want to find a company that handles your belongings carefully. (Justin Tran for The Washington Post)

It’s time to relocate. You assess the situation:

1. The days when you could shove everything you owned into the back of a friend’s Subaru are long over.

2. You can’t remember how the delivery guys got your sectional through the front door — and can’t imagine how you’ll get it out.

3. You pack three or four boxes, do the math and figure the job will take roughly 600 hours and 1,200 boxes.

4. Your back hurts. Already.

5. Your spouse is whining about doing manual labor. Already.

6. When you tell friends you’re moving, they break eye contact, grow silent and slowly back away.

Yep. You’re gonna need to hire movers.

You’ll want a moving company that provides reliable pricing and other helpful information, handles your belongings carefully, takes care of both the home you’re leaving and the home you’re moving into and does the job on time. Checkbook.org’s ratings of area moving companies will steer you to an outfit that can do it all. Through a special arrangement, Washington Post readers can access our ratings of area moving companies for free through Aug. 1 by visiting checkbook.org/washingtonpost/movers.

Before calling anyone, think first about what services you’ll need. You’ll save a lot of money by doing work yourself — particularly packing your own stuff. Having the movers do the packing usually doubles the cost of a local moving job. But keep in mind that it saves you time and improves your basis for filing an insurance claim if damage occurs. No matter who does the general packing, plan to pack and move fragile items, jewelry, framed art and other especially valuable belongings yourself.

If this is a long-distance move, also think about your schedule. Long-distance movers usually cram several households onto each truck; that makes it difficult to set accurate pickup and delivery dates because a delay with one load affects the others. If you’re on a tight schedule, focus on movers that offer a guaranteed pickup and delivery service. With this option, if the mover fails to pick up or deliver the shipment on the agreed-upon date, the mover will reimburse customers for the delay or cover living expenses (hotels and meals) caused by the delay. Although movers usually charge a premium for this provision, it may be worth the price if you are on a tight schedule.

If you need storage services, or if your goods will be placed into storage while awaiting transfer during a long-distance move, obtain documents showing 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.

Be sure to get several estimates. 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 five local moves and three hypothetical long-distance moves and for each job found dramatic price differences. For example, prices quoted to move the contents of a four-bedroom house from McLean to Annandale ranged from less than $2,000 to more than $3,500. And to move 9,000 pounds of goods from the Washington area to Chicago, we were quoted prices ranging from less than $2,000 to more than $8,000.

For local moves, companies usually charge 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. For customers who do the packing themselves, most companies offer an estimate with a cap — you won’t pay more than the cap, and you’ll pay less if it takes less time than estimated. But many companies offer only nonbinding estimates, and we found few companies willing to commit to a binding estimate for the packing portion of moving jobs.

Montgomery County 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 Montgomery County, any written estimate in effect includes a capped price.

For all other local moves, we strongly recommend that 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.

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 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.

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. As your goods are unloaded, make sure each item is in good condition. Don’t sign the inventory or any other paper without first noting any damage that has occurred.

Finally, we strongly advise you to stay away from the Internet when shopping for a mover. In recent years, more and more moving brokers have sprung up on the Web. These companies usually 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 that you have no control over who actually performs the work. Because the broker chooses the mover, you may get stuck with an inferior outfit. And because the broker typically collects its fee upfront, it may be uninterested in mediating disputes with the mover.

Brasler is executive editor for Washington Consumers’ Checkbook and Checkbook.org. The nonprofit Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org rate service companies and professionals. See ratings of area moving companies free of charge until Aug. 1 at checkbook.org/washingtonpost/movers.

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