Making All the Right Moves When Choosing a Van Line

Times Staff Writer

Question: My husband is a retired insurance executive. During his 33-year career, we have moved eight times to different states. Each time we moved, the company made all of the moving arrangements. They chose the van line, paid the bills and got our damaged furniture repaired or replaced.

Now that we've retired, we are moving to our home in Vermont. We have very valuable possessions and furniture that we have accumulated over 35 years of marriage. The problem is that now, for the first time, I am responsible for making all the moving arrangements. None of our previous moves went smoothly, and we used four different moving companies.

I have checked the yellow pages, but if you have ever looked for a mover in them, you know there are hundreds of them! I called several, but moving is very personal, and I didn't feel comfortable with any of them. My question is: How can I find a quality mover that won't damage our furniture and will give us a fair price?

Can you recommend a good mover? I'm sure we're not the only family faced with this problem. Is there some place that has reports about movers?--A.F.

Answer: It's rough indeed, being kicked out of the corporate nest and having to do these scary things all by yourself. And scary it is too, because there are more horror stories floating around about movers who toss antiques onto trucks as though they were bags of corn than there are about auto-body repairmen who operate out of their car trunks with rubber hammers.

You'd better brace yourself for one little thing in anticipation of your move to Vermont. You're going to have a bill that one normally associates with a week's stay in the intensive-care ward of a hospital. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, the key in any move is a combination of weight and distance and, Consumer Reports found, the average household move entailed transporting about 6,000 pounds of bric-a-brac 1,000 miles. Total cost: a bit more than $2,500.

You'd better sit down before I tell you that the average bill for heavier loads for more than 500 miles was about $4,100. And from your home in Laguna Nigel to Vermont, it's uncomfortably close to 3,000 miles, and we're looking too at 35 years of accumulation--crates of bronzed baby shoes, tarnished golf trophies going back to the '50s and at least 18 photo albums filled with pictures of each other draped over the hoods of a dozen long-forgotten family cars at the Grand Canyon, Pismo Beach and the Circleville, Ohio, Pumpkin Show.

You're in luck, though, because--coincidentally--moving companies are explored at considerable depth in the current issue of Consumer Reports (September), and it should be invaluable to you. It's of particular interest because it capsulizes the results of a reader survey the magazine conducted covering 20,000 people who had moved at least once between 1982 and 1985. And it's a little disquieting to find that a full 17% of them came out of the experience flatly dissatisfied.

Because there are, as you say, "hundreds of them" operating around any major city, Consumer Reports confined itself only to those national movers that turned up on at least 200 of the questionnaires returned, which narrowed the list down to 11 household names in the business. The areas under investigation: accuracy of estimates, on-time pickup-delivery, frequency of damage claims, care in handling, average number of days for claims settlements. Also covered, in footnote form: fewer (or greater) "unexpected" and/or "unreasonable" charges than average, ease (or difficulty) in contacting, drivers and helpers more (or less) helpful than average, sales representatives more (or less) helpful than average.

Low 'Satisfaction Index'

Significantly, only one van line came out clearly superior in any one of the above specifics, and that was Bekins in its "accuracy of estimate" category. On its "Satisfaction Index," the magazine found its readers grouping the majority of the movers in a fairly narrow band, but even the highest rating here (Wheaton) came to only 80% satisfaction--which is a whale of a lot less satisfaction than we expect from, for instance, our dentist.

Complex Business

While conceding that the business of moving households "doesn't have as much quality control as, say, a McDonald's," Jane Downey, staff counsel for the American Movers Conference in Alexandria, Va., makes another point.

"This report was awfully limited, you know. They (Consumer Reports) studied 20,000 moves over a three-year period, and we have about 1 million interstate moves alone, every year."

In defense of the household movers who make up a large percentage of the conference's membership, Downey adds that "most of the personal contacts--where so many of the complaints center--are with the local contract people, the owner-operators. And while the van lines can, and will, cancel their contracts with these owner-operators as a result of complaints, the damage has been done by then."

A different picture of the moving industry emerges, Downey adds, when you look at Interstate Commerce Commission studies--all interstate carriers making more than 100 moves a year must file a detailed report with the ICC annually. These studies claim that movers are on time 98% of the time for pickups, 96% of the time for deliveries and only 4% of all interstate moves result in damage claims in excess of $100.

Choosing Blindly

The most common mistake that individuals make is choosing a van line blindly, reports Rueben M. Stokes, sales director for San Juan Capistrano-based Advanced Traffic Services.

Stokes' firm operates in exactly the same way that a travel agency does--setting up all of the details of a move, choosing the carrier, following through on pickup and delivery and taking care of any subsequent claims for damages.

"At ATC, we normally get at least two estimates, which are studied by the coordinator assigned to the case and each of whom has firsthand van-line experience. If they're seriously out of line, then we'll call for a third estimate," he adds.

Stokes' organization has been in the executive-moving business for the past six years--handling all aspects of employee transfers--and a year ago branched out into consumer service.

"Now," Stokes says, "the consumer market is a good 30% of our business and we're moving steadily out of the corporate end. Individuals and families are the ones who need our expertise."

ATC's service is provided at no additional cost to the individual who's moving.

Reimbursed by Rebate

"We get paid in the form of a rebate from the van line, exactly the same way a travel agent is reimbursed by the airlines and hotels he books," he continues. "And with the volume business we do with the lines, we can get substantial discounts that aren't available to the one-time user."

Licensed by the Interstate Commerce Commission, ATS operates nationally. "Our only minimum requirement, either for interstate or intrastate moves," Stokes adds, "is that the shipment must total at least 1,000 pounds, and that's about what's involved in moving a one-bedroom apartment with washer and dryer."

Thorough Questionnaire

"When we get a call from an individual, we assign him or her to a coordinator who makes a detailed study of the needs involved--the date or tentative date of the move, the destination and things like that. It's quite a thorough list of questions," Stokes adds.

Whether to do the packing yourself or have the van line do it is one of those questions that varies from individual to individual.

"When the individual does the packing," Stokes continues, "it may trim 15% to 20% off the total cost but the insurance rates will go up anywhere from 35% to 40%, so you may be looking at a net saving of 10% to 15%. In the case of a young couple where costs are a problem we'll normally suggest that they do it themselves, and we'll even direct them to where they can buy used containers. With a big move like this one to Vermont, though, it would probably be better to have it done professionally by the line."

Once ATS knows what's involved, the two van lines that seem best suited for the job--logistically and price-wise--are sent out for estimates, "which we schedule to the customer's convenience," Stokes adds.

Spotting 'Low-Balling'

"Our people then look over the estimates carefully--like Consumer Reports we prefer a binding, rather than a non-binding, estimate--and because we all have experience in this sort of thing, we're pretty good at spotting any 'low-balling' that a van line might try--bidding deliberately low for the job with the idea of hiking the bill at the other end."

Any subsequent claims for damages are made to and pursued by ATS rather than to the van line directly, Stokes continues.

"We've got quite a bit of clout with them, after all. If we're giving a van line 70 to 100 moves a year, then it's pretty receptive to our follow-up on complaints and claims."

You will notice in this procedure the absence of the word "fun."

In all likelihood the last time any of us ever found a move to be "fun" was when we moved back home from the college dorm for the last time.

Don G. Campbell cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to consumer questions of general interest. Write to Consumer VIEWS, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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