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By the time I relocated to San Francisco from Chicago, I thought I had mastered the art of moving. It was my family's fifth move in six years. We knew how to pack our belongings so nothing would break, make money from selling things that we no longer used, get the majority of our packing supplies for free, and stay on budget – to the dollar – this time at $8,000.
Done, done and done.
But after our most recent move across country – this time with two kids and two dogs – the emotional (and financial) toll had finally caught up to us. Remnants of the financial strains we at times overlooked were staring us in the face. Nine moves in eight years will do that to you. Just ask our therapist. Or ask a good portion of Americans who know what it’s like to move.
It's no secret that moving is one of the most stressful things you can do. At Marcus, when we asked people about the most stressful parts of moving, most people said it was finding a place to live that they would love (26.8 percent) or dealing with the financial strain of moving (21.3 percent).
Financially speaking, there were times where we’ve spent way too much on certain parts of our moves, like on food. We always knew there’d be a price tag for each of our moves, but the most important lesson we’ve learned is that there’s usually a smarter way to spend money that can help you avoid some stress.
So, for better or worse, here's a handy checklist, a bit of our hard-earned wisdom, that may help you prepare for your next move.
I know. It sounds obvious. But there are so many little costs (like food and moving supplies) that added up. And if you're not careful, that'll leave you with a mountain of moving debt (trust me, I know). So thinking through those little costs is key.
For local moves, the actual number of moving hours dictated our costs. Before the movers arrived, we always moved as much stuff ourselves as possible to help save money (also, my wife trusts no one to move her wall art and family keepsakes, so it’s a win-win).
Long-distance moves – we’ve done three – were much different, and often depended on whether or not I needed to produce receipts for reimbursement. For our recent move from San Francisco to New York, we set a much different goal: sell or donate as much of our belongings as possible. That way, we moved as cheaply as possible and bought new furniture with the rest of the money.
Set a realistic budget based on the distance of your move. Of the people we surveyed who made a budget, 37 percent went over.
When we used moving companies for our local moves, I often got estimates over the phone based on the square footage of our apartment and exact measurements of our largest items. It’s important to note everything that needs to be moved or else the final bill is probably going to be higher than your quote. Their estimate is only as good as the information you give them. And don’t forget to ask about extra fees. Going up and down stairs, for instance, on either end of the move will often be an additional price.
I've found long-distance moving quotes are typically done in person with a rep coming to your home and making their own inventory based on what they see. So just don’t forget to include anything that might not actually be at your house. I once failed to mention an entire storage unit full of boxes that would also need to be moved on the same truck.
The result: We ran out of room and ended up leaving six dining room chairs and a collection of cleaning supplies on the sidewalk.
Be upfront with movers about all your belongings and the logistics of your living situation. Don’t forget about what you have in storage, a friend’s garage or family member’s basement. Can’t decide whether to use a moving company or DIY? Crunch all of the numbers and walk through anything you need to take into consideration. Need your stuff delivered on an exact date or are you okay with a three to five day delivery window? That could cost you extra.
I thought I had finally arrived in the world when a company gave me money to move and threw in corporate housing for my family. That had never happened before!
And I didn’t know what I was doing.
"When we asked people about the most stressful parts of moving, most people said it was finding a place to live that they would love (26.8%)..."
I never asked my company for anything specific, except that we’d live someplace that was pet-friendly. I was once housed in perhaps San Francisco’s least family-friendly neighborhood. We didn’t sleep because of the firehouse outside our window, and my then-pregnant wife was always uncomfortable and exhausted from pushing a toddler in a stroller, walking two dogs and trying to find us permanent housing. Finding permanent housing ended up being a lot more difficult than we expected, and we quickly realized the one month in corporate housing we’d been offered and accepted without thinking more time was needed, was not enough time. Oh, and we also ended up paying over $300 out of pocket for a parking spot.
Do your homework. If you need it, negotiate for at least three months so you have enough time to find permanent housing. Ask about parking and anything else your employer might not be covering. Definitely consider location and, if possible, ask new coworkers to recommend neighborhood options.
Nothing complicates moving more than pets. And they’re really expensive.
We have two dogs. Whether we drove and had to pay a pet fee at the hotel or took a flight and paid a premium to bring our dogs in the cabin, there’s just no way around the high costs of transporting pets. Oh, and that corporate housing I mentioned? I ended up shelling out over $1,000 in non-refundable pet rent.
If you’re going to be renting and looking for pet friendly options, do your research about your new city sooner rather than later. Had we known how not dog-friendly San Francisco was for our needs, we would have seriously considered temporarily leaving them with our in-laws (which we eventually did when we moved to New York).
We always checked what people had thrown away to find boxes in good condition. We also scoured Craigslist, which has been a goldmine for boxes and packing paper, and often in excellent condition.
You’ll likely need boxes larger than you think. You could also try a liquor store, where you can probably find boxes with lids, but it’s also worth finding options in unorthodox places, like a community chat room.
We’ve only had three things break during a move over the years: an antique mirror, a plasma screen TV, and a collector’s edition Scrabble board (not that valuable, but we were crushed nonetheless).
Typically, moving companies are insured. If something breaks during a move, they will have the ability to reimburse you, so long as you file a claim within nine months from the date of delivery.
By move No. 8, my wife and I realized the best way to pay for a move was not to move anything at all – or at least the bare minimum.
With each move, we became less and less attached to stuff and began to question the logic of paying money to move replaceable items. And for those rare irreplaceable items, we still downsized where possible.
We paid to have all our physical family photos and VHS home movies (yeah, we still had some of those) transferred to digital format. Most of my sports memorabilia had only sentimental value, so I chose a few favorites and tossed the rest in a dumpster. My wife’s decades-old papers and journals got treated to a backyard bonfire. We sold furniture we liked (but didn’t love) and donated clothes we’d never wear.
"I know. It sounds obvious. But there are so many little costs (like food and moving supplies) that added up."
Our final move was not only the longest move, being clear across the country, but a true pinnacle in our evolution as moving pros.
Don’t waste money moving things that are easily replaceable or hold little value to you. If you’ve got some time and motivation prior to a move, look to sell online, through Craigslist or neighborhood apps. Host a garage sale. Wait patiently at bookstore buybacks. Get rid of kitchen appliances collecting dust. Same goes with toys.
I'm an old pro when it comes to setbacks on long-distance moves.
A short list of what’s gone wrong on some of my now legendary family moves: moving truck flat tires, dead air conditioner (which cost us an extra night’s hotel stay and a half dozen Freon kits for the car), and blown headlights. And, just for good measure, I once lost the difficult-to-replace screws to our knockoff Italian marble lamp for our living room, which cost me roughly three weeks and $30 to find replacement screws and wrenches.
If you’re driving your car, get a tune-up before long distance moves. When possible, buffer in a day or two to your road trip, just in case something goes wrong and you’re stuck someplace overnight, which could be an added cost.
My wife has always done the majority of unpacking. Still, there was only so much we could do by ourselves while starting new jobs in new cities and taking care of two children.
One of the smartest things we ever did was hire a Task Rabbiter to help us hang our art and do other odds and ends the day we moved it. It saved us hours of work and probably days of wading through moving boxes.
One thing I wish I had thought of was to find someone to watch our two kids on move-out or move-in days. There’s so much going on with movers, landlords and cable guys passing through, and it's way too chaotic when a kid is throwing a tantrum at the same time. While we didn’t have any family nearby for most of our moves, we might have saved ourselves some heartache by getting more help.
Ask for and pay for help – whether it’s someone to watch your kids, help move furniture or hang stuff on the walls. If nobody’s volunteering, then consider making extra hands a part of the budget.