NEW YORK -- Moving is never fun, but it shouldn't be a rip-off.
Yet that's exactly what I experienced last month, when I shelled out $2,000 for a job my movers had estimated at $900. I can usually argue my way out of such situations, but since the movers had all my worldly possessions locked in their truck, my leverage was nil.
When I asked John Bisney, spokesman for the American Moving & Storage Association, what I should have done differently, his first tip was that the cheapest option isn't always the best.
"It's one thing to go online and shop for the lowest price for a pizza or a lamp," Bisney said. "But when you're talking about people who you don't know coming to your house, loading everything you own onto a truck, and putting a padlock on it and driving away, maybe you want to check them out a little bit."
Bisney has a clear stake in encouraging people to spend more on moving, but it's a valuable point.
Here are more tips from Bisney and other moving experts.
1 Beware of rogue operators
Instead of relying on a company's fancy website, see if it has a physical address and consider stopping in. If the company doesn't have any offices in your state, that isn't a red flag in itself, but Bisney recommends at least viewing the building with Google Maps in that case.
If you're considering a company that does interstate moves, check whether it's registered as required with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, at www.protect yourmove.gov .
If your company does only in-state moves, go to AMSA's consumer site, www.moving.org , and click on "State Moving Resources" to find out what's required in your state.
Also check www.moving.org for companies AMSA has screened and given its seal of approval, called ProMover.
2 Insist on an in-person estimate
If a company tells you it can give you an accurate estimate over the phone or online, be careful. That means they can always say you have more stuff than you told them about. In fact, movers covered by federal law must survey your belongings in person before giving you an estimate if they have an office within 50 miles of your home.
3 Consider binding agreement; beware extra fees
With a binding agreement, you'll pay what the movers estimated, whether your shipment actually ends up weighing more or less than they guessed. With a nonbinding agreement, the final price for moving services isn't determined until your shipment is loaded and weighed.
Even with a binding agreement, movers can tack on fees for moving into a dwelling on a steep hill or in a crowded city or with a lot of steps.
If the movers need to bring in your stuff on a little shuttle instead of the giant truck it traveled in, that can cost $300 extra, for example. So ask.
4 Know your rights
Federal law bars movers from charging you more than 110 percent of the original estimate for moving services, even under a non-binding agreement. But that limit does not include fees and extras like the shuttle.
Companies can't require full payment before final delivery, according to FMCSA, but Bisney said not to be scared off if a company asks for a down payment of 10 percent or less.
5 Consider insurance
You'll have to pay extra for full liability, but the movers will be on the hook for any items that get lost or damaged, as long as they packed the items and you specifically list any particularly expensive items on shipping documents. AMSA recommends listing china, antiques and anything with a value of more than $100 per pound.
The "alternative level of liability" insurance is free, but the movers assume liability of only 60 cents per pound. So, according to AMSA, if you have a $1,000 stereo that weighs 10 pounds, your movers would be liable for only $6.
6 Don't forget your car
Consider shipping it instead of racking up the miles by driving it. Your mover may ship your vehicle along with your other belongings, or you can opt for a company that specializes in moving vehicles. The cost can vary widely depending on how far you're moving. It could cost at least $1,000 to move your car across the country, but that's compared with roughly $1,500 in mileage and gas at current rates, plus your food and lodging along the way.