You don't have to own a world-class art collection or a million-dollar wine cellar to stress out about moving.
Jeff Harrington's New Jersey- based company has moved Wall Street billionaires and once hired armed guards to protect a client's goods as they crossed Russia. He maintains that just about every family has something that needs special handling, whether it's an heirloom antique or a football helmet autographed by an NFL player.
"You don't want to smudge that autograph," said Harrington, whose trucks stock anti-smudge wrapping paper as standard equipment, along with liquid-filled pillows that expand to envelope delicate porcelain and other precious objects.
Alas, movers like Harrington are the exception, not the rule. As Americans get on the move again after five years of recession and bottomed-out real estate prices, they face the bewildering task of finding a mover they trust with their possessions.
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"Most customers worry about their decision until the very end of their move," said Sharone ben-Harosh, Founder of Unpakt.com, a comparison-pricing site for people looking for a moving company.
We asked Harrington, Ben-Harosh and other experts how to have a successful and worry-free move. Their advice:
Know what you are moving: One way to simplify the process is to make a complete list of what you want moved. Compiling an inventory will help you focus on what you really want to keep and what things you can sell or give away to lighten your load. And you'll be better able to check that everything has arrived at your destination.
A complete moving list will also make it easier to assess estimates.
"By asking each company to provide a quote for one uniform inventory, you're more likely to receive quotes you can compare easily," Ben-Harosh said. Insist on a firm price based on your list.
Itemizing includes taking stock of the value of your belongings. If you suspect a piece of furniture, jewelry or a collection is worth serious money, get it appraised, said Julie Sherlock, fine arts practice leader at ACE Private Risk Services.
She also recommended recording rare or precious items with photographs and assembling a condition report that details any damage or wear.
"Having that documentation is critical," Sherlock said.
Check your insurance: "Moving companies do not provide actual insurance," Ben-Harosh pointed out. Instead, they offer two levels of protection called "valuation": full-value protection, which is comprehensive but costly, and "released value protection," which covers between 30 and 60 cents per pound for lost or damaged items.
"So if you have a Rembrandt, and it gets lost, you'll get 60 cents per pound," Harrington said.
Fortunately, many basic property policies cover your moving, but it pays to check with your insurer that the items you're most concerned about are covered, especially if you have separate protection for jewelry or other valuables. You may have forgotten to specify, or "schedule," recently inherited or purchased pieces.
Also consider arranging coverage for items with sentimental value; the amount is usually your call.
That doesn't mean your mover doesn't need insurance—for damages to your home on either end and for the benefit of your insurer, who may be able to recoup some of its payment if a loss is the mover's fault.
"Make sure to ask about the process for recovery should the worst happen and something get damaged," Ben-Harosh said.
Hire the right mover: Even professionals agree that the biggest challenge in relocating is finding a mover. There are numerous companies available, and performing due diligence, from verifying their licenses to reading online reviews, can consume as much time as the move itself.
Be sure you know what each mover is offering in the quoted price, and don't refrain from asking for extra help.
"Many customers do not often understand how much a moving company can do for them," Ben-Harosh said.
Some movers provide cleaning and concierge services, or will break down computers and other technology and reinstall it in your new home. Others provide storage for furniture you don't need in your new spot or will even help you donate it to charity.
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The most popular added service is for packing and unpacking.
"While packing and unpacking services may cost between an additional 50 or 100 percent of the basic move price, almost all our customers say it's well worth it," Ben-Harosh said. Some companies offer photos of everything they've packed.
Once you've done your homework on a narrow list of prospects, trust your gut. "I want my clients, when my truck shows up, to see that it's clean," Harrington said. "They want to see guys in uniform who obviously know what they are doing."
Special movers for special things: "If you have items of real value, use someone who specializes in these kinds of items," said Gary Raphael, senior vice president of risk consulting at ACE. "A specialist will have temperature and humidity controls, and the right kind of tires and shocks to give the items their best chance of getting there unscathed."
When moving high-priced or easily damaged items, insist that one company be responsible for the item for the entire move.
"Ninety-five percent of moving companies don't do their own crating," Harrington said. That means if something is damaged, you can't be sure who's to blame. "It's important to keep the liability with one company," he added.
Move your way: Sometimes the wisest course is not to entrust your cherished things to a moving crew at all. "If the items are limited, we recommend packing them yourself and even transporting them yourself," Ben-Harosh said.
The best test of a moving company may be its willingness to accommodate your anxiety. Harrington recalled being being summoned to a job because an elderly client insisted that a priceless painting be handled his way.
"He pulls out this old box I wouldn't have put anything into. His wife pulled me aside and said, 'Please do what he wants.' So we moved it that way. He would have had a heart attack if I switched it."