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Moving ranks high in the list of most stressful life events. In addition to settling into a new environment and learning your new neighborhood, the move itself can be a stressor. Turning all your worldly possessions over to a stranger, for that person to handle and transport, can definitely increase your anxiety level. This may be compounded by the rash of moving company scams seen in the news lately.
Luckily, moving companies are highly regulated. California and Federal laws have been enacted to protect consumers from unscrupulous moving companies. Your rights under these laws are explained in informational booklets that movers are required to provide to customers. Both the California and Federal (Interstate) booklets are available online, and are great sources of information. Some of the most important rules are summarized here.
The Public Utilities Commission (PUC) requires all California in-state movers hold a permit. Applicants must meet the strict qualification guidelines, including a background check, to receive a permit. The Public Utilities Commission maintains a database of companies with active permits, which you can use to verify a moving company's license.
Moving companies that offer interstate service are governed by Federal law, and must be licensed by the US Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Databases to look up safety records and licensing and insurance information are available for all DOT-licensed companies.
Maximum rates for services and supplies for California movers are set by the Public Utilities Commission, and listed in the annual Maximum Rate Tariff 4. Under California law, written estimates must be based on a visual inspection of the goods to be moved, and are binding on the mover (Maximum Rate Tariff 4, Item 108). Verbal rate quotes or estimates are not binding! If, after receiving an estimate, you decide to add services such as packing or appliance set-up, the mover will have you sign a change order. The cost of these additional services will be added to the original estimated price.
Prior to loading your items onto the truck, the moving company will have you sign a contract for services. For California movers, this contract must include a "Not to Exceed" amount, which is the maximum you can be charged, unless you add services after signing the agreement. This should match your written estimate, unless you've added services. If you do not have an estimate, you cannot be charged more than the "Not to Exceed" price, plus the cost of any services you add to the order; or the total cost for the services you used, calculated using the rates quoted in your agreement (Maximum Rate Tariff 4, Item 28).
Under Federal law, all interstate moving companies are required to file a tariff with the Surface Transportation Board which lists all the services and products they provide, and the prices for each. The company may provide a written binding or non-binding estimate. If you receive a non-binding estimate, the moving company is legally required to charge you the amount calculated using the published tariff, regardless of the estimated cost.
California moving companies are required to maintain minimum levels of liability insurance for both bodily injury or death and cargo. Your cargo is protected against loss or damage at 60 cents per pound per item, up to $20,000. You may purchase additional coverage if you wish. Be sure to declare the value of all articles, particularly items of extraordinary value, such as jewelry, art and antiques. Otherwise, any claim you have will be limited to the $20,000 maximum, regardless of the level of insurance you purchase (Maximum Rate Tariff 4, Item 136). There are additional limits to the moving company's liability, which are described in PUC General Order 136-C.
Interstate moving companies also protect your items from loss or damage. You are automatically charged for full-value coverage of your items. If you waive full coverage, your items will be protected at a rate of 60 cents per pound, at no cost to you.
Release of Property
Unless otherwise specified in your contract, payment for moving services is due at the time of delivery. The moving company must release your property upon full payment. For California movers, the full payment amount must not be more than the "Not to Exceed" amount on your contract, plus any additional services noted on a written change order (Maximum Rate Tariff 4, Item 104). Interstate moving companies must release your property to you upon payment of 100% of a binding estimate, or 110% of a non-binding estimate. For moves involving a non-binding estimate, the costs may be greater than 110% of the estimate. The mover must release your property to you upon payment of 110% of the estimate, and collect any balance due at a later date.
If any items are lost or damaged during your move, both California (Maximum Rate Tariff 4, Item 92) and Federal law require moving companies to have claims procedures in place. These claims procedures are intended to help resolve disputes quickly, in as little as 60 days. Keep in mind that you must pay the bill, regardless of damage to your items. Property damage and shipping contracts are two separate issues. If you have not paid the bill in full, you will not be able to file a claim for loss or damage.
Protect yourself from moving scams by researching the company before signing a contract. Be sure to check the California of Federal database to ensure the company is licensed. Ask friends or your realtor for recommendations, or contact the Better Business Bureau for customer reviews of the company.
By Mary Pinard Johnson, Public Services Librarian
updated 3/13 mpj
Links for "Moving Companies
California in-state movers must hold a permit.
California Public Utilities Code Section 5131-5143
Federal interstate movers are licensed by the US Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.