Moving: Hire a pro or do it yourself? (© Ken Wramton/Getty Images)

There are a zillion decisions to be made when you move a household. The first one seems simple: Do it yourself or pay for full-service movers to swoop in, pack up all your belongings and ship them to your new home?

It may surprise you, though, to know that there is a broad spectrum of choices that you can mix and match. Moving is a big American preoccupation — 15% to 20% of the entire population was on the move yearly before the recession slowed things down. In response, the moving industry has come up with an array of ways to configure your move. You can do some jobs yourself and hire experts for others. Ultimately, your decision boils down to the classic tradeoff: spend your money or spend your time.

What's your home worth?

Before considering the options, a word about preparation: You can’t start too soon. That’s true especially if you are doing part or all of the move yourself, says Barry Izsak, a professional organizer whose Austin, Texas, company, Arranging it All, specializes in relocations. It’s expensive to move things you don’t use – unfinished projects, broken and long-unused furniture, exercise equipment, books, toys, clothes and odds and ends you can’t relinquish. “Start going through your home room by room. Look at each closet, cupboard, drawer and ask yourself if you really need this stuff,” Izsak says.

Shopping for a mover
The moving industry is rife with scams, fraud and slick operators. (Read “Consumers Still Held Hostage by Movers,” at ConsumerAffairs.com, about a government investigation into the moving industry and learn more about estimates from the American Moving and Storage Association.)

Be certain that the company you choose is competent, licensed and insured. Licenses let authorities inspect the safety of the trucks, screen out fraud and make sure companies are insured. Here’s the American Moving and Storage Association’s guide to an interstate move.

  • Avoid online bids or estimates. Web-based lures to get your personal information are plentiful, so comparison shop by phone and get the mover to visit your home to make the estimate. Get bids in writing and insist on an itemized breakdown of costs. Ask repeatedly if there will be any costs not listed. If you can’t understand a salesperson’s explanation of costs, if he or she is overly aggressive, or if your gut says you’re not getting straight talk, just keep shopping. The key is to have someone come to your home. Tip: When getting bids, ask about any surcharges, including fees for reassembling and disassembling. Be sure to mention your piano, if you have one. Piano moves are charged separately, and many movers don’t do them at all.
  • Screen companies. Movers vary widely in quality, so do your searching through ratings-based Web sites such as Angie’s List (up to $8.75 for a one-month membership) or MovingHelp.com(free), which allow you to see clients’ comments. Also, you’ll find a national database of moving companies at Movers.com. Check out a company’s track record (free) through the Better Business Bureau online by name, business type or Web address. Or find a member of the American Moving and Storage Association, an industry trade group that screens members rigorously, says spokesman John Bisney. “We just want to get rid of these bad, criminal movers,” Bisney says. “They give all of our honest members a bad name.”
  • Ask. Get each company’s license number and insurance policy number. Call the insurer and state agency that issued the license to learn if the documents are current.

There are three kinds of moves:

1. Full-service move
The ideal, from many people’s perspective, is to relinquish as much of the moving job as possible to professionals. “If you have it all hired, your home is going to remain intact a lot longer before you move,” Izsak says. “You don’t have to feel like you’re living in a war zone. Everything stays in place and your life isn’t interrupted until much closer to your move.”

The mover packs all your furniture, appliances and belongings, loads them into a truck or van, transports them to your new location and unloads them from the truck and positions them where you want them. (Movers don’t usually unpack boxes.) Full-service movers can even ship your vehicle.

The players
Movers fall into three categories, by size and distance traveled. National van lines tout their long experience and skilled professionals as their competitive advantage. Smaller movers emphasize their own skill and expertise, lower costs and personalized service.

  • National van lines have giant warehouses and scores of trucks in constant motion. These large companies are often used in long-distance moves. Your belongings usually occupy a section of a truck holding several clients’ goods. Pickups and deposits are coordinated along the route. Because of this, van lines give you a time window rather than a precise appointment for deliveries. Pickups can be more precise. Van lines are licensed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (see FMCSA moving safety tips and search companies’ complaint histories here).
  • Smaller licensed and insured interstate (between states) movers usually assign one truck per client and so can be held to precise appointments for pickup and delivery. Trucks may be smaller. Services can be comparable to van lines, depending on the company. The FMCSA also regulates these state-to-state moves.
  • Smaller, licensed and insured intrastate (inside one state) movers can be a responsive and competitive option for shorter moves. These companies are licensed by states, if they’re licensed at all; only about half the states license moving companies. Some states, on the other hand, require movers to have both state and federal permits. (Find your state’s regulator here to see if you can check a company’s license.) It’s a good sign when a company belongs to a state movers association: Find your state’s association here.

The costs
Prices may be higher in summer or on weekends, when demand is greatest. Costs can run over estimate because of surprises at the destination such as elevators, stairs and unanticipated distances between the truck and dwelling, says Scott Lewis, owner of Nice Moves Moving in Seattle.

  • Local moves: Fees are charged hourly, per worker. (“Local” is defined by each state; in Washington state, for example, it’s a move of 55 miles or less.)  Example: In Seattle, regulated hourly rates run $40-$82 an hour; it costs around $1,150 to move a two-bedroom house across town, including materials, packing, loading and unloading. By providing your own packing materials, you could reduce that by $150-$200 and you could save roughly an additional $400 by doing your own packing, Lewis says.
  • Long distance – in or out of state - moves: Longer moves inside a state or from state-to-state are charged by weight and distance, according to complicated rate schedules. Moving companies typically estimate the weight of your goods, then calculate the final charge when the truck is weighed by a state-certified weigh master (not at freeway weigh stations). Example: Transporting a two-bedroom household (4,000-6,000 pounds) from Los Angeles to a similar, 1,600-square-foot house in Louisville, Ky. (2,180 miles), costs roughly $4,799 to $6,756. (Costs are from the moving calculator at MoveSource, a van-line network.) Packing, calculated per box (including materials), could run an additional $700-$900. If a long-distance mover does your packing, you must buy materials from the mover, often at prices considerably above retail.