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by Mae Saslaw

Three Ways to Moving Day

Man carrying large stack of boxes

Moving sucks. It causes headaches, backaches, and heartaches under the best of circumstances, and it can be one of the most miserable experiences in an otherwise comfortable adult life. It’s also very expensive, no matter how you do it. At any given moment, millions of Americans are planning to move, and millions are wondering what would happen if we just didn’t take any stuff at all.

The first big problem to solve on the journey to your next home is this: How will you and your worldly possessions travel from Point A to Point B? If those two points happen to be within the same city, you’ve got a relatively easy task — at least from a financial perspective. If you’re migrating hundreds or thousands of miles, it’s a different story. The options you have to consider are similar, though, and today we’ll take a brief tour of the dreaded (yet exciting) moving scene.

Hiring Movers

There’s a vast industry of moving companies ready to vie for the privilege of carting any number of your belongings for any number of miles. According to a 2008 industry report(PDF), moving and storage account for about 8% of all truck transportation revenue in the US. It’s a $16.5 billion industry, and households are their top customers.

The American Moving and Storage Association has ties to the earliest organized movers in the country, who arranged and facilitated relocations by rail in the 19th century. AMSA member companies are federally licensed and loosely regulated by the US Department of Transportation, and the national trade group provides resources for consumers as well as industry professionals. There are a handful of large corporations, but according to AMSA’s 2010 fact sheet (PDF), over 90% of moving companies are small businesses. If you’ve ever stared down a listing of available movers, this should come as no surprise: There are thousands upon thousands of companies that will haul your stuff for money.

We’re used to comparison shopping, but in this case, the stakes are as high as they go. AMSA reports that the average cost of moving to another state is about $4,300— you’re making a big financial commitment, and you’re letting someone else take all your stuff and drive it somewhere. The DOT provides guides and resources for selecting a trustworthy mover; don’t skip this step, even if you were supposed to arrive at your new home yesterday. Accepting the lowest initial bid could cost you thousands more in the end, and once your stuff is on someone else’s truck, you’re hardly in a position to haggle.

Reputable companies are easy to find, and you can expect to receive similar quotes from movers who follow the rules. It should be expensive to have other people get all your things out of one home and put them in another home, and for people with families, nice furniture, and average upper-body strength, it’s worth it.

Containerized Moving

Many moving companies provide a less expensive alternative to full-service moves, and the container option is appealing for plenty of reasons. A 2010 review from the Workforce Mobility Association suggests that containerized moving and storage may prove disruptive for the industry as traditional moving companies must either compete with or integrate container services. Customers who choose container transport pack their belongings into a large box, which is delivered to a new home, or to a storage facility. If you don’t have much to move, or if you want to store some of your stuff, you may save money by avoiding a full-service arrangement. In most cases, you’ll be responsible for getting your things into and out of the container, so be prepared for a little heavy lifting.

The same rules apply for choosing a company: Get lots of quotes, check the DOT’s listings, and be very, very wary of low estimates. Containerized moving is a relatively new trend in a relatively unregulated industry, and again, the quote you heard over the phone won’t count for much when the guy who has all your stuff demands more money.

DIY

Rented moving trucks are today’s covered wagons trekking from coast to coast. If you’ve got the strength, stamina, and time it will take to load up and drive out, you’ll almost certainly save with a DIY move. Time in transit may not be a significant factor for short distance moves, but it’s a big consideration if your new home is more than a day’s drive away. The further you’re going, the more you’ll spend on fuel, snacks, and lodging en route. Fuel costs are typically included in the fees you’d pay to a moving company, and if you’re filling a truck’s tank yourself, the added cost could wipe out some of what you saved.

An estimated two-thirds of Americans who move don’t hire professional movers. Based on data from AMSA and the US Census (linked above), three million families moved to a different state in 2007 — 1.2 million households did it without outside services, one million rented trucks, and the remaining 800,000 hired movers. We can’t ask them all to explain their choices, but we can imagine that most families weighed a few options and did what they thought was best.

The Fun Doesn’t End

Let’s say you know the exact weight and cubic footage of all the things you want to bring with you to your new home. Let’s also assume you know where you’re going. With that information, you can price out each of the above options in an afternoon. You’re not finished yet.

Short-distance movers are almost there. Next, it’s time to start packing. Some moving companies provide packing services or packing materials for an added fee. All those boxes are going to have to come from somewhere, so you’ll need to start collecting cardboard or budget for materials. You might consider using one of a few new companies dedicated to renting boxes, and if you have anything that’s really big and fragile (a piano, for instance), you might need specialized help.

For long-distance moves, you’ll need to consider how you will get to your new home. Perhaps it’s cheapest to use a container service for your things, but if the cost of plane tickets for the family is greater than what you could save over renting a truck, it pays to look at the whole picture. If you’re bringing a car, it might make sense to tow it yourself — add the cost of a trailer, additional fuel, and the challenge of driving a big truck with a car hitched to the rear — or you can pay an auto shipping company to deliver it. The average cost of shipping a car from coast to coast is about $1000, which is certainly less than you’d spend on a cross-country road trip.

It helps to read and listen to other peoples’ stories, and to look for applicable moving tips whenever possible. The Home Depot’s Mover Program has tools and checklists that might serve you, and with one or two comprehensive guides, you can feel confident that you haven’t overlooked anything. The whole point of moving stuff is to get to your new home with only the stuff you actually want, and the process will be less painful if you spend enough time deciding which stuff is worth moving.

It’s going to suck, because moving sucks. Get organized, do your homework, take as much control as possible, and it’ll all be over before you know it. It’s a lot of work, but it can be done.