Posted: 7:58 p.m. Friday, July 15, 2011
Summer is the peak season for the more than 40 million Americans who move each year.
Even a move that goes well is stressful, but a move that goes badly because of problems with the moving company can be devastating and ruin what is a significant event in anyone's life.
Andy Newitt, chairman of the Florida Movers and Warehousemen's Association and director of business development at A-1 Moving & Storage in Jupiter, said the last week of June and the last week of July are the busiest times for South Florida moving companies, as families want to get settled before school starts.
What's the biggest mistake people make when hiring a mover? It's probably not having the company do an in-person survey of their household goods, Newitt said.
"Whether you're moving local or long distance, it is important to have an estimator come into the house and do a physical inventory. We have a whole process we go through. We have physically seen the stuff and the challenges," Newitt said.
"Does your house have three steps, no steps or six steps from the driveway? These things all impact the time to do a move," he said. "There's the antique armoire in the back room that took an hour to get in there. What happens is, people go on the almighty Internet and think, 'I just saved $1,000,' " Newitt said.
If the fee seems too good to be true, and is way below other estimates, you are probably dealing with a broker, not a moving company, said Corey Mathews, executive director of Florida Movers and Warehousemen's Association in Tallahassee. A broker has a website and quotes a fee, then finds someone to do the move.
Joe Santiago, Palm Beach County Consumer Affairs moving and vehicle-for-hire investigator, has seen all sorts of unlicensed movers in the area, including those who show up with a pickup truck and one who used a gutted former school bus licensed in Mexico.
Santiago agrees the No. 1 problem is the customer's failure to get an estimate based on a visual inspection. With a phone estimate, the mover has more room to raise the fee when he arrives to do the move since he can say he did not know about something, such as bulky items.
"With local and state moves, the mover is supposed to disclose the real amount before they move any furniture on the date of the move. With interstate moves, a lot of times movers will not tell the consumer," Santiago said.
Florida's law consumer-friendly
Florida had such problems with rogue movers giving people estimates, then holding the goods hostage until more money was paid, that the laws were tightened in 2006, with more loopholes closed since then, Newitt said.
The consumer-friendly Florida law now requires movers to provide a binding estimate before anything is loaded onto the truck. Violators face a third-degree felony and up to $5,000 in fines. If the mover refuses to unload the customer's goods, the consumer can call police to intervene.
But that's only for moves within Florida.
"The problem is interstate moves (those across state lines) are not regulated as well as we have done here in Florida" Newitt said. "All those things that happen in interstate moves don't happen in Florida. If they do happen here, the consumer can fight them."
There are exceptions where the moving company can charge more than the estimate, such as when a homeowners' association will not permit large vans to enter and the mover must unload the delivery elsewhere and bring in a shuttle truck, Mathews said.
Even then, if the customer refuses to pay the additional costs, the mover must deliver the goods and attempt to collect the extra fee later, Mathews said.
If on the day of the move the customer has more items than when the estimate was given, the mover will draw up an addendum or addition to the contract, which the customer needs to sign, Mathews said.
With interstate moves, there are both binding and non-binding estimates. With a binding estimate, the customer and company have agreed to a price. With a non-binding estimate, the move cannot cost more than 10 percent above the estimate, according to federal laws.
Interstate horror tales
"Moving out of state is really scary. There is twice as much chance of something going drastically wrong," Santiago said.
Toni Thaler, a 67-year-old widow who moved from the New York City borough of Brooklyn to Boca Raton in January 2010, experienced what she calls a nightmare of a move with issues that are still not resolved.
"I am sick over this," Thaler said. "They say I owe them more money. My furniture was broken when it arrived two months late."
She hired Father & Son Moving and Storage of Newark, N.J., after seeing their ad in the Yellow Pages. On Dec. 23, 2009, Thaler said, she signed an estimate for $4,406 and paid a $3,000 deposit.
When the movers arrived in late January in Boca Raton, Thaler said she was told the total she owed was $7,506, not $4,406. Thaler said a company representative informed her by telephone that the load weighed 2,000 more pounds than estimated. Her furniture and other goods were put in storage in Miami.
In March she paid another $2,300, and her furniture was delivered. But she said it arrived broken. Thaler said her goods were delivered by another company hired by Father & Son. She said that some items were missing and that a bed arrived with its headboard cut in half. Her kitchen table was in pieces, and her entertainment center was broken, she said.
Thaler said Father & Son told her that after the initial estimate she signed a second contract for the larger amount. When her items were delivered, Thaler said workers showed her a contract she signed stating she would pay $7,506 and that her possessions were in good condition.
The company's side of it, according to a manager in New Jersey who would only give his name as Sal, is that Thaler still owes the company $2,200. He would not comment further, except to say the issue is in litigation.
Despite Thaler contacting everyone from her congressman to consumer, legal aid and trade groups and federal authorities, the situation has not been resolved. Thaler filed for arbitration through the American Moving & Storage Association, an industry trade group of which Father & Sons is a member. Thaler said that after she sent 180 photos - three sets of before and after photos of her furniture and other belongings - and paid a $300 fee, an arbitrator told her the company could not be forced to arbitrate. Her fee was returned.
Moving association spokesman John Bisney said: "What happened here, as we understand it, she did sign a revised estimate. She owed them money under the contract she signed, and she refused to pay it. There is no obligation for a company to go forward with arbitration when the customer owes them money."
Father & Son also qualifies as a ProMover with the association. The ProMover program certifies that members have passed a background check and agree to uphold association code of ethics.
The company has a C rating (on a scale of A-plus to F) with the Better Business Bureau and had 29 complaints in the past three years, according to the BBB's website. Bisney said that a C rating is the minimum BBB rating a company can have and qualify as a ProMover.
If and when Thaler pays the disputed amount, then arbitration over damages could go forward, Bisney said.
Thaler said the company offered her $210 for damage, but she estimates her damage at close to $10,000.
Mathews said the biggest thing consumers can do is to educate themselves before hiring any mover.
"Doing a little bit of homework will really go a long way," Mathews said.
In addition to verifying licenses with local, state or federal authorities, check complaint websites such as ripoffreport.com, movingsham.com, movingscam.com and consumeraffairs.com
Make sure the company you are considering isn't the subject of horror tales about everything from sofas being thrown off of balconies to valuable goods disappearing in transit.
A company's complaint history can be researched in databases at http://www.protectyourmove.gov/
"Start early and do your due diligence," said Duane DeBruyne, spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. "Ask around. Check with the Better Business Bureau and state and consumer protection agencies."
Moving within state?
Here is what you need to know:
Palm Beach County Consumer Affairs licenses local movers. However, when your furniture is transported across state lines, the responsibility to investigate complaints falls under the jurisdiction of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Moves within Florida, including those within the county, are also governed by the state, which also issues licenses.
- Get written estimates from three movers based on an actual inspection of your household goods.
- Getting the cheapest price can be costly in the long run. You may be required to pay more than the agreed-upon price before the mover will release your goods.
- Just because a mover advertises in the Yellow Pages or has a website, it doesn't mean it is licensed and insured. Verify licenses with state and federal authorities.
- Companies that conduct interstate moves must have insurance and a U.S. Department of Transportation permit issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The DOT number must be displayed on all estimates, bills of lading (contract) and trucks. You can verify a mover's license at FMCSA's Web site, www.protectyourmove.gov.
- If you're moving within Florida, you can check with the Florida Division of
Consumer Services at https://csapp.800helpfla.com/cspublicapp/businesssearch/businesssearch.aspx
Or go to fmwa.org and click on the 'check license' link.
- By law, movers are required to deliver your goods based on a 'binding or non-binding' estimate. Call the FMCSA at (800) 832-5660 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting (800) 832-5660 end_of_the_skype_highlighting, and ask for the booklet, 'Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move.'
- Ask the mover about 'full value protection' if you are concerned about damage. The most common valuation coverage is 'release value,' which means you will only be reimbursed 60 cents per pound for lost or damaged goods.
- Never ship valuables, heirlooms, irreplaceable family photos or medicine.
- Read every document the mover gives you before you sign it. Do not sign blank paperwork or documents you do not understand.
- Some movers even display the logo of the Florida Movers and Warehousemen's Association, American Moving & Storage Association, Better Business Bureau or other associations, even though they are not members. Check directly with those organizations first.
- Be aware there are moving brokers who do not own trucks or warehouses like traditional movers. Instead, they operate by collecting a deposit or a fee from you and then arrange for your move to be handled by one of their affiliated (often unlicensed) movers. The deposit or fee they collect may be based on their guess of how much you are going to move based on a survey that you provide.
- What about deposits? Quality professional movers generally don't require a deposit before moving you, and if they do it is generally just a small 'good faith' deposit. However, some bad actors or Internet brokers frequently require a large deposit. So, if a mover you are considering requires you to pay a big deposit to 'hold your dates' or to ensure 'prompt service,' choose another mover. Also, the FMCSA consumer regulations do not allow movers to require you to pay for your move before it takes place; instead, payment is due when the truck arrives at your new home.
Sources: Palm Beach County Consumer Affairs, wwwpbcgov.com/consumer
Florida Movers and Warehouseman's Association, www.fmwa.org
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, www.protectyourmove.gov