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Moving is like death and taxes. It’s inevitable, usually dreadful, and also often costly. About 40 million Americans move each year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The American Moving & Storage Association says the average interstate move costs more than $5,000, but that’s just the beginning. Moving.com says homeowners spend about $10,000 “feathering the nest,” when they move, filling the new place with drapes, carpets, silverware and everything else that comes up with a big transition.

After buying a home and a car, moving can be one of the biggest expenses a family faces. It can also be among the most stressful, and most perilous consumer transactions to navigate. Moving is full of financial booby traps. Do it wrong, and your move can easily cost more than twice what you initially expect. Doing it right is critical in a still-fragile economy, where portability (the ability to move for a job) can be critical to ending a long bout of unemployment or underemployment.

May is National Moving Month, named so because it begins the heavy moving season each year. About 52% of all moves occur between May and September, largely because families try to synch up moves with the school calendar. So here’s our guide to navigating the mine field of moving.

From Point A to Point B

Getting your stuff from old home to new home is easily the trickiest part of a move. Movers are notorious for layering on hidden fees and providing misleading estimates. They also have an incredible leverage advantage over consumers, one few other industries enjoy — they can hold your stuff hostage while demanding higher fees.

It’s easy to find horror stories from consumers saying they were quoted $2,000 for a move, then handed a bill for double that after their belongings were loaded onto a moving truck. Many people in this situation are moving for a new job, and are in no position to haggle or delay. Movers can threaten to sell the belongings of consumers who object to the higher price, or they simply send the stuff on the “slow train,” making new homeowners sit in an empty house for weeks or even months, unless they pay more to get delivery back on track – the so-called hostage freight circumstance.

New Jersey officials recently ran a sting operation and nabbed 19 different companies operating improperly licensed moving firms. State officials posed as consumers and “booked” moves online, then lured operators to a fictitious address where drivers were cited or arrested. Many arrived in tell-tale rental trucks or unmarked trucks.

“Too many consumers have been ripped off by movers who held their furniture and other goods hostage while demanding outrageously inflated prices,” New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs Acting Director Steve Lee said in announcing the sting.

Some ways to avoid trouble include:

  • Always insist on an in-person estimate. Some state laws require this.
  • Beware movers who arrive in rental trucks, or vehicles that aren’t obviously a part of permanent fleet.
  • Don’t pick your mover online; spiffy websites prove nothing. Pick a mover with an office you can visit.
  • But do research your mover online. Interstate movers are regulated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Visit the agency’s website, ProtectYourMove.Gov, armed with the mover’s DOT license, and search its complaint history. That site also has links to state officials where intra-state movers can be researched.
  • Even legitimate movers can surprise consumers with fees or bills that exceed original estimates. Be sure to understand all costs – including packing materials, such as boxes and blankets – before you book. And examine paperwork carefully at every step of the process.

All these horror stories are one reason many people choose to move themselves. Renting a truck for a move — and driving it cross-country – can be cheaper, but it brings its own stresses. So some people are splitting the difference and using self-packing containers that are dropped off at their homes and then loaded onto trucks for moving. Prices for self-packers can vary by thousands of dollars, however, so it’s important to get several quotes.

Setting Up in a New Location

Other costs of moving people often don’t consider:

Auto insurance – A new address could very likely mean a higher auto insurance bill. Call your insurer before you move and ask, to avoid sticker shock. If your company is paying for the move, you might be able to negotiate over higher auto insurance costs.

Deposits – For renters, it’s nearly impossible to move without leaving one deposit behind on an old home while making another deposit on a new place. With any luck, and perhaps some elbow grease, you’ll get the old deposit back, but you’ll still have to plan for the capital outlay.

Double utilities – Unless you work some magic moving pixie dust, you’ll probably end up paying for overlapping utilities like telephone and electricity. You might end up paying double rent, too. That’s just part of moving.

Getting out of contracts – Consumers find themselves in the middle of lots of unfriendly contracts when they move. Health club commitments can be hard to break, but some states have laws that give consumers who move relief if there is no affiliated club near a new home. Check local laws. With any luck, your old cellphone provider will work fine in your new home, but that’s far from guaranteed. Getting relief from a cellphone contract during a move can be just as hard. And if you have a contract with a pay television service like DirecTV, plan to take the service with you.

Mail troubles – The chance of missing a bill and paying a late fee is high when your mail is being forwarded to a new home. Consider switching to paperless billing, even temporarily, during your move. Missing a payment on a bill, particularly for a loan or credit card, can have a negative impact on your credit, so it’s all the more important to stay on top of those payments. You can see how your payment history affects your credit by getting your free credit report summary on Credit.com. And of course, the best way to avoid late fees and damage to your credit is to pay your bills even if the “bills” never arrive.

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