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It's Your Move

The success of your move within Maryland or the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area depends on how well you prepare. There are federal regulations for interstate moves (from state to state or outside a Metropolitan area) but there are few laws that specifically address intrastate moving (within a state). Given this lack of specific protection, you must take special care to protect yourself. The old adage "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" is especially applicable when it comes to moving. The following recommendations will help you to prepare properly for a hassle-free move. 
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Quick Tips

  • Before you choose a moving company:
    • Ask friends for recommendations.
    • Check movers' complaint records by contacting:
      • Office of Consumer Protection (OCP) online at Merchant Disclosure or by calling 240.777.3636
      • Ask the mover under how many trade names it operates and what they are. (You may think you are shopping around when, in fact, you are calling the same company.) ​
    • Check to see if the mover is a member of the  Maryland Movers Conference  (MMC) by calling  410.644.4600. The MMC tries to screen out unreliable movers and will arbitrate complaints.
    • Don't make assumptions about the moving company's reliability by its presence on the Internet. Internet design is cheap and easy to put up ad take down on a moment's notice.  All one can assume from the advertisement is that the mover recognizes the importance of the Internet as a marketing tool. ​
    • Visit the mover's place of business. Is it clean and organized, or is it a dump?  Think twice if all you can find is a P.O. Box or a temporary address like a UPS Store or executive suite.  The Maryland Movers Conference warns consumers about " Rogue Operators. "
    • Get several written estimates (video), preferably based upon on-site inspections. Telephone or email estimates are seldom reliable and have little legal value.
    • Don't choose on the basis of price alone. Disreputable businesses can low-ball the estimate and then hold your belongings hostage when they demand more money at the end--often citing unexpected issues.
    • If the move is an inter-state one, the mover must give you a very helpful brochure written by the Federal government called  Protect Your Move . Be sure you get this brochure as early as possible and read it carefully, because it gives you a very good explanation of how you can protect yourself in such moves.
  • Before you sign a contract:
    • Read and be sure you understand the terms of the Bill of Lading (moving contract) and in what form (check, cash, cashier's check, etc.) the mover will require payment.
    • Get everything in writing, including the mover's liability in case of breakage or loss of your possessions. Most movers limit their liability for damage or loss to only 30 or 60 cents per pound. Therefore, give careful consideration to buying additional full replacement insurance to cover loss or damage. Keep accurate records or an inventory of all items shipped and their condition. 
    • If you want the mover to pack your goods for you, this can be very expensive. Some movers charge double or triple for boxes and bubble wrap compared to what you can buy them for yourself at a box store. The mover will also charge you for the extra time needed to pack. Consider getting a fixed price estimate for packing services.
  • Before you move:
    • Plan as far in advance as possible. This is especially true if you're moving during the summer, when most people move. A mover's schedule is also especially busy at the end of every month, so try to avoid moving then. Select the mover carefully. Make sure your goods are properly insured. Find out in advance from the mover what to do if your goods are damaged or missing. If you have questions or a problem you can't resolve, contact the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection:  240. 777.3636.
    • Pack and move rare or fragile things yourself. Write "Subject to further inspection for concealed loss or damage" on the moving contract to allow for damage you may discover after you've had more time to check your possessions.
  • After you move:
    • Check items as they arrive.
    • File a written claim with the mover  immediately if any loss or damage occurs. Keep a copy of your claim.
    • Have a problem? File a written complaint with our office or with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) or you can call the MMC with a request to arbitrate.
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Who regulates your move?

Intra-state, moves inside Maryland, are regulated under the Maryland Household Goods Movers ActHowever, the movers do not have to be licensed, bonded or insured.  In addition, moves within a certain radius of the Washington, D.C. line, even if from one state to another, are considered intrastate moves under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)'s  " Washington D.C. Commercial Zone ."  As "intrastate" moves, they are covered by the applicable laws, if any, of the jurisdiction(s) involved in the move (Maryland, Virginia, or the District of Columbia), and by the Department of Transportation Safety Regulations. Moving companies who only provide service within the Washington Metropolitan Area are not regulated by the FMCSA.

Inter-state moves are regulated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration ( FMCSA ) of the U.S. Department of Transportation. All inter-state movers must be insured and must have a Motor Carrier license. NEVER DO BUSINESS WITH A MOVER WHO DOES NOT HAVE A MOTOR CARRIER LICENSE. To find out if the mover is licensed and to find out who the mover's insurance carrier is, call the FMCSA at 1-800-832-5660. Information is also available online at www.protectyourmove.govThe FMCSA takes complaints via their website or by calling 1-888-368-7238. The FMCSA also requires movers to provide independent, third-party arbitration of complaints.
The American Moving and Storage Association (AMSA), a trade association representing most of the large carriers, has information about the arbitration program , required of its members. Arbitration decisions are normally binding on both parties and are enforceable in any court having jurisdiction over the dispute. AMSA has a table of fees per claim size on its website.

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Getting Estimates

The Maryland Household Goods Movers Act  requires a written estimate. This requirement is waivable by the consumer.  Local moves are usually billed on the basis of the actual hours required, plus travel. Many local movers will not give you a fixed price estimate but will only guess at how many hours they will need. These guesses are often wrong. Be prepared to pay more if all you have is an email or telephone estimate or if the mover tells you he only bills by the hour. Interstate moves are usually billed by the pound. The mover may estimate the weight of your goods and reserve the right to charge more after the truck is weighed and the total weight is more than the estimate. However, fixed-price (binding) estimates are more readily available for interstate moves. According to Montgomery County law ( §11-4(s) ), a written estimate may not be exceeded by more than 25% unless the consumer gives approval for the increase. The same applies under state law to nonbinding estimates.  See Md. Comm. Law §14-3103(d)(2).

Remember, estimates not based on a visual inspection are often not reliable or binding. Another potential problem with estimates is that sometimes unavoidable changes occur between the day the estimate is given and the actual moving day. If there are such changes, and in the mover's opinion, they will affect the cost of the move, make certain that the moving company informs you in writing of any increase in cost  before the move begins. Additionally, if you believe that significant changes have occurred from the time when the estimate was provided, you should call the moving company and explain the changes. Determine if a new estimate will be necessary before the moving crew begins to work. By doing this, you can avoid an unpleasant surprise about the cost for moving services. 

In order to get a useful estimate, you should keep the following in mind:
  • Email or telephone estimates are frequently the source of many problems for consumers.
  • The only way to get an accurate estimate is to have the mover see everything to be moved and for the mover to be made aware of the conditions at both pick-up and delivery locations.
  • Before getting an estimate, discard items you don't need and will not move.
  • For an intrastate move, the estimate may be either a flat charge or an hourly rate that will vary with the size of the moving crew. If it's based on an hourly rate, ask how many workers will be in the crew. The more workers, the less time your move will take.
  • Ask for a list of all additional charges that could be added. For example, your move may cost more if it involves long driveways or hallways, or the use of an elevator. Movers usually charge travel time to your home and to the delivery site. Knowing distances in advance will enable you to verify the estimated travel time. Also, movers may charge for packing materials. Check on what will be provided at no cost and what will be charged.
  • Ask the mover about a binding flat rate estimate. A binding estimate is a firm price; the contract price will not differ from the estimate as long as you don't change the type of service or decide to move additional items. There are pros and cons for each type of estimate. A binding flat rate estimate eliminates uncertainty. If you are not paying by the hour, you don't have to keep track of the number of movers in the crew or the amount of time spent by the moving crew on moving day or be concerned about bad weather slowing down your move. However, you may prefer to pay by the hour if you think the actual move will take less time than estimated. Maybe you plan to sell some of your furniture before moving day, or move as much as possible yourself, so you expect to have less to move than you showed the estimator.

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Comparing Estimates

Eventually you'll be comparing estimates. Be sure you give each mover the same information. Show each the same amount of goods to be moved. Ask each to give you the same type of estimate. Get several written estimates. Keep copies. Be sure the estimates are itemized and clearly describe what will be shipped and which services are included (for example, packing and unpacking, providing cartons, etc.) Usually you can rent or purchase cartons, wardrobe containers or other moving supplies from the mover. However, before agreeing to buy, compare the moving company's prices to a packaging or hardware store's prices.

Although cost is certainly a major factor, the company with the lowest estimate won't necessarily do the best job. If you've done your homework before getting your estimates, you'll have other useful information, besides price, on which to compare.  If one estimate is significantly lower, try to determine why. Maybe rates are lower in general, or it is the firm's slow season and it needs your business. The mover may have made a mistake and underestimated the time needed for your move. On the other hand, in order to get your business, the mover may have deliberately given you a low, non-binding estimate knowing that the final bill will be substantially higher.

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Insurance and Liability Coverage

This aspect of the moving services transaction is often the subject of consumer complaints. The mover is required by Maryland law to disclose in writing that a consumer should purchase insurance. It is strongly recommended that such insurance be purchased. Or you may purchase "extra" or "excess" valuation (which is not always "insurance.") In the absence of purchasing additional protection, the mover will limit liability for damage done to your belongings to 30 to 60 cents per pound up to a maximum of $50.00 per item that is damaged. Clearly, this is a paltry amount when you consider the replacement value of furniture and other household goods. If the mover you are considering does not offer such insurance or additional coverage, do not use it. Select one that does.

Moreover, review your homeowner's or renter's policy to determine what, if any, coverage already exists for both loss and damage or if a special rider to your policy can be purchased. If you are advised that your renter's or homeowner's policy will provide you with coverage in the event there is damage or loss, request it be put in writing. If you decide to purchase excess valuation coverage from the mover, it is not the same as purchasing your own insurance coverage. Rather, the coverage extends to the moving company. Therefore, fully understand any limitations on excess valuation coverage such as: if the mover does not pack and unpack all items, coverage may be voided; and that fragile, mechanical or electrical appliances may be exempt from coverage.

While many movers will resolve damage or loss claims directly with you, if the mover denies your claim request, an inspection by the insurance company providing coverage should be requested. Most claims are settled on the basis of depreciated value. Unless coverage purchased specifically provides for payment of the full cost of replacing your goods at current prices, claims are settled on the basis of depreciated value. If your mover does not offer such coverage, you may be able to buy it from your own homeowner's or renter's insurance agent. Also, make sure the mover carries cargo, public liability, and workmen's compensation insurance. If the prospective mover does not have such coverage or refuses to provide the information, take your business elsewhere. If a member of the moving crew is hurt, you could be held responsible if the moving company does not have appropriate insurance. 

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If you plan to store your possessions, be sure you understand the terms and conditions of such storage and the exact charges:
  • Ask if the mover has a "storage warehouse" license.
  • Inspect the mover's storage area to make certain it is clean, dry, safe and secure before you sign a contract. Ask who will have access to the storage unit.
  • Get a copy of the storage contract and an inventory, video recording, or photographs of all items stored, noting the condition of your possessions.
  • Be sure your goods are adequately insured while in storage. Again compare coverage. You may have insurance through your homeowners or renters policies comparable to what is being offered by the warehouseman. Be aware of where in your insurance such coverage is provided or request a statement of such coverage from your insurance agent. Be sure such insurance coverage is for both loss and damage. In particular, check if damage occurs from conditions in the storage area such as dampness, rodents, etc., and what coverage exists for any resulting damages. If a mini-storage facility is being used, it is likely to have little if any liability.
  • Make certain that, for billing purposes, you notify the storage company of any change of your address. If this storage facility is not owned by the moving company make sure the contract specifies that you are to be notified if the mover changes storage facilities or fails to make storage payments.

Note: Your goods could be publicly auctioned if storage payments are not made to the storage facility. 

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The Moving Contract (Bill of Lading)

Get all information in writing, especially any verbal promises the mover makes that you consider important. As the Bill of Lading is a contract between you and the mover, take time to read the contract before you sign it. If you don't agree or understand something, don't sign until you're satisfied.
Make sure it conforms to the estimate and clearly shows:
  • The name, address, and phone number of the mover, its agent (many large, national companies have local movers as their agents), or both.
  • Pick-up and delivery dates and times. Some movers "overbook" by promising to make more moves than they can handle, particularly during the busy moving season.
  • Plan your schedule to allow for delays in pick-up and delivery by the moving company.
  • The mover's liability for damages, and the terms of your insurance coverage, if any. The moving company should be advised which items they will be moving are rare or extremely valuable so appropriate care may be taken. State the value of such items in writing and make it part of the contract. Additional insurance may be necessary.
  • Any extra charges you may have to pay (for example, charges for estimates, use of elevators, extra long hallways or driveways, packing or cartons).
  • How and when the mover is to be paid. They may accept only cash or a certified check unless you've arranged for credit beforehand.
  • The procedure for filing a damage or loss claim.

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Keep Careful Records

On an interstate move, you generally get a detailed inventory sheet signed by you and the mover that lists each item and its condition. You'll have to pay extra for such an inventory on an intrastate move. You could make your own, but many movers will only sign inventories they've prepared or confirmed. You could also photograph or videotape to show the condition of valuable items on moving day. An inventory or photo record can be very useful if you later have a dispute as to whether an item was damaged before or after it was moved.  Maintaining a complete and detailed inventory list may be the most important precaution you can take. The satisfactory resolution of claims for lost or damaged goods will depend on how such items are described in your inventory or photo record.

While most movers will move antique furniture, you should personally move as many valuable items as possible - for example, small antiques, furs, jewelry, important documents, and items of sentimental value, like family photos or mementos. When packing items in boxes, number the boxes and keep a record of the contents of each box. Check off each box as it is loaded and unloaded. If any boxes show excessive or unusual wear when they are unloaded, inspect them as soon as possible for damaged contents. Retain the box as evidence to show that reasonable care may not have been exercised.

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Moving Day

If you live in an elevator building, be sure to make an advance reservation to use an elevator. If you are paying the mover by the hour, note on the Bill of Lading what time the moving van arrives and departs. 

If the moving crew shows up without the necessary equipment, or doesn't seem to be professionally competent to handle your move, call the moving company immediately and request that a supervisor come to resolve the problem. Keep a record of any lost time; you don't want to pay for it.

Assign someone in your household to count the boxes, and at the new site check the furniture and other items for damage. They should be on the alert for any containers which appear to be damaged. Damaged containers should be opened and checked. If the contents are damaged, keep the box and alert the crew manager. If you discover items are missing or damaged, note it on the moving contract or other papers the driver asks you to sign. Also, write "Subject to further inspection for concealed damage or loss." This will allow for damage that may be discovered after you've had more time to examine your possessions.

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Can the Mover Hold Your Goods Hostage?

Many complaints the OCP receives arises from the mover's refusal to unload the goods unless the consumer immediately pays in cash or pays a bill that is considerably higher than expected. Most states give the mover the right to a "carrier's lien." This means that the mover can keep the goods until all his "reasonable charges" are paid. If the consumer disputes the charges the only practical choice is to pay up and then sue the mover for a refund later.

Maryland has adopted a major change to this rule. If the move takes place entirely within Maryland the mover has no lien and must deliver the goods even if he is not paid. The mover can then sue the consumer to collect the balance unpaid, and a judge will have to rule on whether the bill is reasonable.  If the move crossed state lines, even if within the Washington D.C. Commercial Zone, (for example, it was from Washington, DC to Bethesda) the old rule still applies.

If the move was long-distance and regulated by the FMSCA, there are 3 options:
  1. If the mover did not give a written estimate, the old rule applies.
  2. If the mover gave a non-binding, written estimate, the mover can insist on payment at delivery of 110% of the amount of the estimate, plus his full charges for any work not in the estimate but requested later by the consumer. The consumer has 30 days after delivery to pay the balance over 110%.
  3. If the mover gave a binding, written estimate, the mover can insist on payment of the full estimated amount at delivery. He cannot exceed the estimate at all, unless the consumer authorized additional services not included in the estimate. The consumer must pay these added, authorized charges at delivery also.

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Claims for Damages

File any claim for damages as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the harder it may be to prove that the moving company, not you, caused the damage.

File the claim in writing. Keep a copy. To be safe, send the claim form by registered or certified mail. If no claim form is available, write a letter and list the damaged items and specific amounts claimed. Indicate how you arrived at the dollar amount you are claiming and indicate when the item was purchased.

Your own insurance agent may have advice on how to determine depreciated value. However, most movers reserve the right to have a subcontractor (furniture repair shop, antique restoration company, etc.) attempt to repair any damage before agreeing to reimburse you. Movers are responsible for their negligence; however, their liability may be limited under certain circumstances. Refer to the section in this guide called "Insurance and Liability Coverage." If a dispute arises as to whether the damage was caused by the movers or was pre-existing damage, the evidence you have available will be crucial. Such evidence may include records such as videotapes and photos showing the condition of the articles prior to the move, the condition of cartons which may show that reasonable care was not taken, witnesses who saw that reasonable care was not used by the movers, etc.

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Resolving Disputes

If you cannot resolve your dispute directly with the mover, you can contact the agencies and organizations outlined above. In addition, you have the option to initiate legal action against the mover. If the amount of money you are claiming is not more than $5,000 plus interest and costs, you can file an action in Small Claims Court.  View the District Court's guide on how to file a small claim at  How to File a Small Claim in the District Court of Maryland .  NOTE: Interstate moving companies are required by the FMCSA to have representatives to accept delivery of legal papers in every state in which they do business. The FMCSA will provide the name of the local agent.

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