Moving In: Moving Day Disasters and How to Avoid Them

moving in mover truck
Thousands of homebuyers across the U.S. are moving in to new homes this summer, thanks to the homebuyer tax credit. After the gantlet of contracts, credit checks, offers, counteroffers, inspections and title searches, the journey should be exciting and fun.

For your life's possessions, though, it's not about the journey -- it's about the destination and getting there without a moving-day disaster.

About 12 years ago some friends of mine were ready to move into a house they'd bought in L.A. after returning there from Virginia. An employer already had arranged to have their furniture trucked across country and put in storage, while they'd shopped for a place. A local moving company had just finished the last leg of the job, they thought, when they got a call from the California Highway Patrol. There was a mattress on the side of the freeway with their name on it. The CHP wanted to know what to do with it.

You don't have to surf very far on the net to find similar disaster stories, and worse.
Much, much worse. Like the story of the over-height truck and the low bridge.

Moving is always a nightmare, says Laurie Manny, a real estate agent in Long Beach, Calif., because people moving into a new home are so frazzled by that stage. It's a nightmare that she says she's experienced a few times herself.

And you thought the sleepless nights ended after escrow closed.

Disaster No. 1: There are no trucks available.

The final days of June, July and August are the busiest times of the year for movers and van-rental companies. And summer is the busiest time, period. So plan for it as far in advance as you can. If you can move off-season or at the beginning or middle of the month, you probably will have better luck reserving a truck, and you might save money, too.

Disaster No. 2: It turns out my cousins didn't want the bedroom set after all.

You think you've made a deal on some furniture, but it falls through. Or you expected to sell a lot more at your garage sale. The mover's estimate was made on the amount of possessions that you thought you were going to move to begin with, now there might not be any more room on the truck -- or it will cost you more.

Disaster No. 3: I didn't know we had this much stuff!

How difficult is it to pack? Maybe not so much if you have enough time and know how to do it properly. A lot of do-it-yourselfers underestimate the task, and will still be packing boxes when the moving truck pulls up. The driver might have to pitch in. This could cost you more in time and money, especially if improperly packed possessions are damaged in the rush.

Disaster No. 4: I'm not finding a parking space.

State and municipal codes vary, but you should pick a moving company that's somewhat familiar with the area, and that's able to arrange a place to park its van close to your new property. Check with the mover to make sure.

If you're doing the move yourself, especially in a neighborhood where parking is at a premium, call your community's transportation department for the rules. You might need to buy a permit to reserve parking on the street. And do this several days in advance. The gears can grind slowly at City Hall, especially in this era of budget cutbacks.

If moving into an apartment or condo, you should talk to management about how to bring furnishings in and if you need to reserve a freight elevator.

Disaster No. 5: Honey, do you have the keys from the real estate agent?

A reputable moving company probably will give you at least a couple of hours to resolve this kind of snafu before having to charge more. But that truck might soon be needed elsewhere, too.

The worst case scenario is when a house deal falls through at the last minute, then your possessions might have to go back where they came from or into storage.

As for my friends' mattress? Their movers were unfazed when called about the CHP's find. Yeah, sure, they'd pick it up and drop it off at my friends' house that night. As if instigating a SigAlert was all in a day's work.

When my friends got to their new home, it still wasn't there. But there was a note from their new neighbors down the street (whom they hadn't yet met):

"Could you please come get your mattress?"

Disaster No. 6: Gee, I thought the weatherman said it would be clear today.

Water damage is one of the worst things that can happen to wood furniture or anything covered in fabric, like a couch, or stuffed with batting. And it can ruin electronics as well. To prepare:
  • Have tarpaulins handy to cover them, or plastic sheeting. Even blankets can work in the short run.Park the truck as close to an entrance as possible.
  • If you can enter through a garage or carport, that might help, especially if you can use it as a staging area to quickly unload the truck before a storm reaches full force.
  • To prevent muddying your new floors, put down tarps, old towels, area rugs, runners, or even unroll some heavy landscaping cloth inside the house, making sure these won't slip.
  • Make sure there's a good doormat at the entrance -- probably smart no matter the weather.
Aside from damaging your possessions, wet weather can of course slow delivery. You should hope that your driver errs on the side of safety, so weather and traffic may cause delays, especially over long distances. But the mover should stay in touch with you to let you know a load's progress and when a problem arises. This is why the expected time of arrival can stretch over a few days.
Disaster No. 7: No, I don't think that couch was already missing its cushions when you guys came to pick it up.

Realtor Laurie Manny of Long Beach, Calif. remembers a dispute that she had with a mover about a damaged piece of furniture. The mover insisted that a mirror attached to it had already been broken when they picked it up at her storage unit. Going to the scene she found shards of mirror where they had loaded her furniture on the truck, suggesting otherwise.

The mover refused to take responsibility. The mirror was irreplaceable, and she ended up having to junk the piece. To avoid this kind of dispute:
  • The mover should make a thorough inventory before loading, including a condition report that the customer checks and signs off on. The customer should then again thoroughly check the condition of the furnishings when the move is completed before signing the receipt.
  • Typically, the moving company carrier also offers insurance. And they will offer the customer several options. Manny says to use the most reputable company you can find and make sure to get a certificate of insurance from the company so that you know they are insured and what's covered.
  • Your homeowners policy still might apply for theft, fire, flood or other occurrences -- but not against damage in transit. Ask your insurance agent if you can get a rider on your policy that would cover this.
  • Certain credit cards might cover damaged items, if they were purchased recently enough.

Disaster No. 8: What's this charge for?

The driver says, sorry, the load weighs much more than estimated, so it's going to cost you more. You don't want to pay? It'll go into storage until you do pay more, along with storage charges.

Watch out for scams. SmartMoney described one like this and several others in its article, "10 Things Moving Companies Won't Say."

A quote that a customer gets from a salesman might not include taxes and other legitimate add-on costs. So ask about additional charges and get a thorough estimate in writing at the outset, so there are no surprises later.

The federal government has a website with resources on moving companies, including complaint histories, and explains how recent changes in the law can protect customers from unscrupulous practices.

Disaster No. 9: When's the last time anyone saw Fluffy?

Secure or relocate your small children and pets away from the job, and not just because something could bump or fall on them.
  • If it spends most of its waking hours protecting your home, your dog might react badly to those strangers rolling up the carpet. It can even make happy-go-lucky dogs nervous.
  • Cats especially might find a moving-van's interiors enticing, with its maze of furnishings and boxes to climb and explore.
  • Warn the neighbors, too. (Once, when I was introducing myself to new arrivals in the neighborhood, I turned away from my preschooler for a second and he was halfway up the ramp of their moving van.)

If Fluffy does go missing, and the movers are on the road in the middle of the country, you can hope that they will open the door and listen for a cat crying and try to get it out of there. If there are no obvious signs that it's there at all -- well, that can be a lot of stuff to unload and reload for nothing.

There are two things that those I spoke to seem to agree on, but they also might top the list of things-easier-to-say-than-do, especially if you've been focused on buying a home. They are:
  • Give yourself as much advance time as you can to plan and prepare, especially if you're doing it yourself. Major moving companies have a lot of useful information on their websites, even for do-it-yourselfers. You'll also find blogs and books on the subject.
  • Use the most well-recommended company that you can find. This might require some research online and especially through the network of people you know. Your real estate agent might be good to start with, along with your insurance agent.
Happy moving!


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