Life As a Moving Experience

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I've moved a lot over the years. Cross-country twice this year already for starters, plus the move to NoVA from MT in 2003, the move to Central PA from MT, and then back, in 2002, down to Chicago in '98, up to the the Twin Cities in '99, and the move to MT in '01 in the first place. On top of all these home moves, we've also done a ton of driving vacations, driving through the vast majority of continental states in the last 10 years (I've driven through or in every state except SC, OR, and NE). Suffice to say, my life is about being in-motion, or so it seems.

Given this experience, I thought it only appropriate to sit back and reflect a bit on the moves of the last 10 years. There are lots of interesting lessons to learn, and I hope that you'll find these interesting and, perhaps, a wee bit amusing.

Communication Is Essential
It is vitally important to communicate clearly on multiple levels. For instance, in '99 my Dad helped me move from Chicago to the Twin Cities. I had a cell phone, but he didn't. At one point during the trip, after a refueling stop, we hit the interstate and headed off. Next thing I knew, he was nowhere to be seen. I had no way to contact him. I slowed down, I stopped, but overall I was at a loss. We were heading the same direction, but I was in the faster vehicle of the two (he drove the truck). Even if I was only 5 miles ahead, if our speed difference was only 5mph, then it would take an hour for him to catch-up; and that assumed I could maintain a slow enough speed that entire hour! (we caught up eventually - we used my mom at home as a relay and eventually met up again)

In other cases, it's the little things, such as a destination address. This last move everything ended up working out, but it was touch-n-go for a while. I simply wasn't sure if I was going to have a lease agreement before the movers left with all our stuff. While this was perhaps not the biggest problem, it was still an additional cause for stress in that I was on the verge of seeing all my things off without knowing if they would have a place to go in the end.

The little things can be a killer, too. Lease negotiations took seemingly forever after this move, not only because of a bad relay (the renting realtor), but because there was a single overly-restrictive clause that needed changing. In the end, I called the owner directly, explained my concerns, and we had an agreement that night, but until that point the "telephone game" paradigm came into play. The right message just wasn't getting through.

Strap The Rack On Right
It's the little things that matter most. Little things like getting enough sleep before putting things together, or strapping the bike rack onto the car the right way. In 2002 I moved across country to work for ICSA Labs. We were completely broke, and in fact couldn't even afford to move both of us (my wife ended up staying in MT while I was in PA - not a great time in our lives). Anyway, so we drove both cars cross-country for the move. I put my bike on the back of my wife's car. As it turns out, I did a lousy job of mounting the rack on the trunk. About 35 miles on the road, it fell off her car at the most inopportune time. I didn't notice until 20 minutes later that she wasn't behind me due to the road being windy and hilly.

Attention to detail, especially when packing, is of the utmost importance. Failure to read the fine print, put enough padding around delicate items, or to otherwise ensure that things are done well and right can result in loss and damage. Or, more importantly, significant emotional distress, as happened to my wife, and then to me, when the bike fell off the back of her car, she disappeared, and was in a dead zone for cell coverage. Crazy times that could have been avoided with a little clear thinking.

Don't Overload The Boxes
It is too easy to be clever about packing boxes. You figure "hey, I have so many cubic inches, I might as well use every last one, right?" Well, no, actually, space in boxes is not a bad thing. Especially when it comes to heavy items like books and dishes. Book, in particular, can be very easy to overload into boxes, as we learned the hard way in 2004 when we made a local move in VA.

My wife - an elementary teacher - has a large library of kids books. Both of us are avid readers, too, so we have a fairly large personal library as well. We picked boxes that were too big and filled them full of books. At the time we were moving from a 3-level townhouse, where the entry way was an immediate 25-step climb, into a single-level apartment on the 4th floor of the complex. We hired movers to help with things. They were not happy campers, for a couple reasons. At the destination, they literally refused to haul the book boxes up to the apartment, requiring us to instead open boxes and empty half their contents into laundry baskets - to haul upstairs on our own - rather than deal with the weight. (the other reason they were unhappy is the next topic: Tipping)

In our recent cross-country moves we found that, while the volume of our belongings only calculated out to be about 7,000 lbs. the actual weight was closer to 10,000 lbs. Why? Book boxes. We had somewhere in the range of 50 small boxes full of books and running an estimated 40-50 lbs. each. This weight adds up very quickly. Fortunately, we'd at least learned by this time to use smaller boxes (yay us), but there was significant extra cost in moving all this mass.

Tip Generously
My philosophy today, now that I'm now completely broke, is "always take care of those taking care of you." In other words, tip generously - especially when you've had very good service, or when you're entrusting others with your care or the care of your valuables and belongings. Thus far, in all the moves (I've personally moved 12 times since Feb '99, including 5 cross-country moves [MT->PA, PA->MT, MT->VA, VA->AZ, and AZ->VA]) we've had very little breakage. We forgot a kitchen drawer once (MT->VA move), and we lost a cheap floor lamp this last time (the base snapped off). However, thus far (with about 50% unpacked), it appears that everything else is full intact.

So, you might be wondering how much I tipped the movers (I certainly wasn't sure how much to tip before). It varied a bit from region to region given the variance in cost of living, but I generally tipped $40-50/pp (mover or driver) and then added a little extra on the top for the driver. I tipped at both ends (so the driver got double, since they're primarily responsible for your belongings). Also, I gave the tip to the driver directly and let him/her divvy it up to the rest of the team.

Note that I apply generous tipping to other areas, too, such as food and beverage. Because the math is easy, I frequently tip about 20% for good standard table service, and higher for exceptional service (less - sometimes much less - for worse service). I always tip bartenders well - especially when running a tab.

Living Minimally Is Difficult
There are really three aspects to this point. First, stuff really accumulates quickly! It's amazing how fast books and clothes and other random stuff pile up. And every move seems to entail buying piles of stuff that you only need for that specific place. It's rather infuriating.

Another challenge with minimal living is that it's too easy to become accustomed to all the various amenities of life. Television, for example. It's amazing how much time can be wasted in front of the TV. On the flip side, we've also found that it's rather silly to pay for TV now that we have a toddler because there's rarely time to lounge around in front of the tube (with the exception of Sunday NFL football).

Lastly, living out of a suitcase is a pain. Moving twice this year required multi-day drives across country, which meant living out of a suitcase with the bare essentials. Many times we started to look for things only to realize that they were packed. Now we have extras of certain necessities because we had to buy them on the road (toothpaste, razors, etc.).

All the little things add up quickly, especially when multiplied by what is considered "normal" by modern standards (like shaving daily).

Beds Are A Necessity
As much as we like the outdoors, camping really is not much fun, mainly because of sleeping on the ground. For longer periods of time, sleeping on the floor is simply not an option. I know, because I did it for 6 months, relying just on a camp mat, and I was miserable. Not only was I miserable, but I was not getting good quality sleep, which created one of those self-reinforcing cycles (never underestimate the importance of sleep).

In moving this time we got rid of our "guest bed" (sofa sleeper) before leaving AZ. Since our stuff wasn't scheduled to arrive until a few days after we moved into our new place, I made the decision to buy a new bed. Why? Well, because we needed a guest bedroom outfitted, but also because it provided a good opportunity to buy an inexpensive-yet-decent bed to sleep on until our own bed arrived. I highly recommend this approach, if you can afford it and have the space.

Spare Tires & Roadside Assistance
One might think that the argument for a spare tire is iron clad. Absolutely, it can be handy to have one, as I've found on at least one occasion. At the same time, I'm not fully convinced that they're actually altogether useful. On two different cross-country moves we had a car trunk full of stuff when we get a flat. Were we honestly supposed to empty our trunk to get the little donut spare so that we could drive 50mph down the highway to the next town? I guess that's the theory, but it seems rather silly.

In both of these cases we ended up with a tire shop coming out to us. In the first case we had a tire hazard warranty on the tire, so the tire service company simply brought a replacement tire, which it installed, with the other one marked as totaled. In the second case, the service truck was able to put air in the tire so that we could limp into town to the shop, where they pulled and patched the tire. In neither case did we end up having to unload the trunk, which is good.

The lesson here, I think, is that tire warranties and roadside assistance plans are far more important than the spare tires themselves. In the case of my Ford Escape, I'm not even sure if I have a spare tire (I think I might, but I've not remembered to crawl underneath to look). It's quite possible that I don't have a spare at all, which doesn't even really phase me all that much now. It's not like it's really benefitted me much to have a spare over the years.

Weight vs Volume Is Tricky, Or: Getting Screwed By Movers
In our attempt to live minimally, we have done a fairly good job of having very compact moves. This might seem like a good thing, but in the end can lead to getting burned, too. Specifically, book boxes (mentioned before) can lead to adding a lot of weight to a load without adding much volume. This last move we were fortunate to have reasonably honest estimators who looked through the house and then added lots of weight for books and weights.

You have to be very careful, though. Eagled-eyed, really, to make sure that the mover isn't going to completely screw you on the estimate. As it is, though we didn't have to pay out-of-pocket for the move to AZ, we definitely got screwed. Somehow the driver got a final weight that was a good 2,000 lbs. more than it should have been. Which leads me to...

Scams, Scams Everywhere
If you ever have the opportunity to move with a moving company, BEWARE!!! There are lots of bad companies out there doing a lot of scammy, scummy work. There is apparently very little regulation or enforcement in this market, and thus it's an industry rife with corruption.

First and foremost, check out http://www.movingscam.com/ before you sign anything. It could very well save your bacon. It's amazing (appalling?) how many moving scams are out there. Here are a couple common scams:
* Empty Fuel Tank Weight: An unscrupulous driver may provide an initial truck weight with empty fuel tanks, and then weigh the truck loaded with full fuel tanks. This can add a ton of weight (almost literally!).
* Non-Binding Estimate: As I'll note below, you should get a binding estimate with a max amount to be paid. Otherwise, you could get asked to pay more after your load has been loaded and moved.
* Hostage Loads: One apparently common practice is that cut-rate movers will give you a very low quote, but then will suddenly jack the price on the other end. They'll tell you due to unforeseen circumstances, your load price is now much, much, much more. Pay up or they'll just keep your goods in storage until you agree to the new terms. You can file complaints, etc., but you may not be able to get your belongings for a while.
* Cash or Cashiers Check on Delivery: This appears to be the hallmark of most cut-rate scam movers. They'll accept a deposit up front on credit card, and even accept the first half of the estimate on credit card, but then will require a cash or cashiers check for the last half. Combine with the last point on hostage loads and you see how the scam works out for them. Even if you challenge the charge(s) on your card, they still get away with cash in hand. Good for them, bad for you.
* Non-refundable Deposits: Another attribute of a scam seems to be a non-refundable deposit. It's custom to require first half payment up front for personal moves, but this deposit nonsense seems to be specific to scam movers.
* BBB Accreditation (or not): Check the BBB listing for the mover you're looking to work with. Don't be surprised to find multiple listings for some of these scam movers. I almost bought into a scam fully (Oasis Moving), who claimed to be BBB Accredited, but was unable to provide proof. There were 3 listings on the BBB site - 2 listings for companies of the same name in other states, and then a non-accredited listing for the company in Las Vegas with which I seemed to be working. Note that, regardless of accreditation, you may still be able to find ratings online. C- is not a good rating, btw.
* No Live Estimator: The scam companies seem to rely on your own estimates, rather than on the estimates of professional estimators. The professional moving companies I queried (United, Graebel, Atlas, Bekins, etc.) all sent (or offered to send) estimators to walk through the house. The scam companies did not. Oftentimes they just wanted you to do all the work for them. RED FLAG!
* High Pressure Sales: A true hallmark of scams introduce a time limit that your estimate is only good for a limited time. Don't believe it. They're trying to pressure you into making a bad decision. If you're sensing pressure from a moving company, dump them ASAP because they're probably trying to scam you.
* "Too Good To Be True": Use common sense. If estimates from live estimators are consistently at a given level, yet some online company is significantly cheaper, you should be extremely skeptical. Where do they get the cost savings from? Cheaper equipment? Doubtful. Fuel charges are obviously the same. Cheaper labor? Probably not such a good idea. Sure, there's probably some wiggle room in the profit margin, but not 30-50%.

Get a Binding Estimate
If at all possible, get a binding estimate. Beware "estimates" that allow for +/- 10% (or more!) because you will inevitably end up paying + and not -. A binding estimate will set the top end for the cost of the move, with few exceptions. In the case of my move, the binding estimate from S&M Moving (a United carrier) was very good, and the company had reasonably good reviews, too. It's nice to know that you can't get burned after the fact with all sorts of add-on costs thanks to a poor estimate.

Assembly Required Can Be Good/Bad
Bookshelves and other storage materials that can be disassembled can be great for a compact move. However, at the same time, reassembling everything can be a pain, not to mention trying to keep track of all the hardware. In our case, we made some good choices with Libra shelving from the now-defunct Organized Living a few years ago. These shelves have served us very well. They're nothing special, yet decent pine construction with inlaid wood reinforcement. Anyway, I digress.

Non-disassembled furniture of the cheap-ish variety can actually be as much, if not more of, a pain as having to reassemble everything post-move. I say, spent a little bit more on decent disassemble-able shelving and ditch the heavy, cheapy chain store shelving. Bakers racks also make for durable, compact shelving, though they tend to be fairly hefty. Nonetheless, with a careful eye you can usually save a lot of trouble by getting decent take-apart shelving instead of stuff with cardboard backing that can be easily damaged.

Moving Into A New Home Is Expensive
It seems like it's always the hidden costs that kill you on the move. Eating dinner on the road for several days. Black-out curtains in a room with a southern exposure. Floor lamps for rooms with no ceiling lights. Rugs and mats for slippery hard floors. The list goes on and on. I figure that with almost every major move, there's probably in the ballpark of $2,000 in hidden costs associated with all the little "extras" that you have to put into the place. That kind of money adds up quickly - especially if you move twice in a year (*ahem*)!

Don't Forget A Towel
It can be the little things that are the most annoying. Like moving into a new place and forgetting to bring a towel or shower curtain. Or running out of soap or toothpaste or what-have-you in the middle of nowhere. It's not that these things are necessarily hard to get, but that you have to stop your forward progress for a side-trip to get the little things. Oh, sigh. :)

Seriously, though, when you think through a move, I highly recommend throwing in the little hygiene items you would need right away upon moving in. A towel, maybe sheets and a pillow, and so on. Especially if you're driving cross-country and can afford the extra little bit of space in your vehicle.

Protect Your Health
As if being sick isn't miserable enough, try being sick leading up to, during, and/or right after you move. It's miserable, and that's an understatement. And, I had the wonderful misfortune of this experience this last move (back to VA). I came down with a severe cold about a week before the move. Then I flew round-trip, making it worse. Driving cross-country was ok, though I went through tissue like crazy. All the hotel rooms made it worse, not to mention the really long days of endless driving. Sleep was in short supply (I'm looking at you Albuquerque and your stupid closed I-40 all night for a movie set!!!). All of these things led to a perfect storm that made me extremely sick, and even made our daughter very sick (she landed in the hospital with a severe case of the croup). For my part, my severe cold became a sinus infection and tonsillitis, followed by a stomach virus. 3 weeks of severe yuck, really. Not to mention the impact to the brain given all the sleep deprivation.

Sleep is important. Health is important. Eating well is important. Minimizing stress is important. All of these things will be challenged in a cross-country move.

Suffice to say, I'm done with moving for a while. As of right now, I feel like if I never moved again it would be too soon. Not to worry, though. Give me a couple years here and I'm sure the wanderlust will return. For now, though, I'm going to tuck under the covers and hide out for a bit. :)

1 Comment

Wow...just...wow. Thanks for that complex rundown, it's very informative. I've never had to move cross-country but have considered it before, but to be honest, it scares the living pee right out of me for the complexity and cost associated.

Obviously it can be done...people do it all the time. But clearly lots of planning and thought are required to avoid problems and issues. Thanks again.

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