When I moved to a new apartment on July 1, I knew it was going to cost me. But neither I nor the internet knew exactly how much. I was moving out of a three-bedroom group house and into a one-bedroom apartment, with what I thought was on the low end of a one-bedroom apartment's worth of stuff. My roommate, after all, was taking the whole living room — the couch, the coffee table, two chairs, an end table, the rug, and the big-screen TV.
That left me with a dining table and chairs, a small bar, my disassembled IKEA bed, and my porcelain cheetahs, Debbie and Donna. The girls and I weren't headed far, either — the new building was just a five-minute drive one neighborhood over in Washington, D.C. There was a freight elevator and a loading dock.
That's not to say that those sources were lying. With the benefit of hindsight (and some input from moving experts), I realize that I made a few mistakes when it came to planning my move. Read on to find out the good moves and bad moves I made when it came time for me to, um, relocate.
Video by Richard Washington
I know there's no official rule saying you can't do the friends, U-Haul, pizza, and beer thing after you turn 30, but there was no way I could ask my people to chip in for this one. For starters, I had to move on a Thursday — earlier and I'd owe prorated rent, later and I'd be in the way of people moving into my old house. My friends, my boyfriend, and I are full-fledged adults who now make decent money, and it felt gauche to ask.
If you're not afraid to ask for some help, renting your own truck for an afternoon will likely lower your costs significantly. "If you are cost-conscious and simply making an in-town move, you can keep your costs low," says David LoPresti, director of MovingHelp.com. "U-Haul equipment starts at $19.95, plus mileage and fees. The total cost depends on the distance driven and how involved you are in packing and loading the equipment."
Which is to say if you don't opt for professional help, a move can be pretty cheap. A 15-foot truck, which probably would have gotten it done for my move, costs $29.95 plus $1.19 per mile. Given that my new digs are only about a mile from my old place, I could have gone back and forth all day and filled up the gas tank for a fraction of what I paid.
I probably could have hired a couple of guys on TaskRabbit to help me get the job done and still come out ahead — the two cheapest guys in the District charge about $30 an hour apiece.
I figured a few hundred bucks was worth not having to ask for help, not having to lift a finger, and not having to worry that a couple of inexperienced TaskRabbits were going to damage my stuff by chucking it into a truck.
So I started getting estimates from local moving companies, inputting them into a spreadsheet. In each case, either online or over the phone, I gave the company an idea of what furniture and how many boxes I had, what my current house was like (were there stairs? was there street parking?), and how easy it was going to be to carry things up to the new apartment. Companies gave me a range of prices based on how many guys they would send, the size of the truck they'd need, and how long it would take them to do the job.
If you're on the fence between hiring movers or doing it yourself, make sure you factor in the DIY costs when you're comparing prices, says Lexie Holbert, housing and lifestyle expert at Realtor.com. "Beyond the pizza and beer and the size of the truck, think if you have any special needs," she says. "Do you have valuable furniture or antiques? A mattress you can't get down the narrow staircase by yourself? If you broke your antique, it could cost you a lot of money. Same goes if you have to leave your mattress behind or throw out your back trying to lift it."
Holbert suggests you get at least two or three estimates from movers. I got five. In each case, they quoted a two-hour minimum price but estimated the move would take 3 ½ to 5 ½ hours.
I thought, there is no way it will take as long as these people say. I didn't have that much stuff and we weren't going very far. And these guys were pros — they wouldn't even have to do that thing where you try to navigate a couch around a corner for half an hour.
Video by Jason Armesto
The guys who showed up at my place were indeed fast and diligent, but they also took a lot of precautions — precautions my bonehead friends and I, and probably those two TaskRabbit guys, would never take. Every picture frame was wrapped in bubble wrap, every piece of furniture draped in blankets and taped. It wasn't long before I realized I had made a mistake. As the fourth hour rolled by, I resigned myself to the fact that the bill was headed for four figures.
To avoid this sort of sticker shock, Holbert recommends having the movers come to your home during the estimate process, time and Covid protocols permitting. "You'll typically get a better estimate based on your situation, but you can't always anticipate when it will go over," she says. "On a recent move, it turned out a chair of ours had to come in through a window because of narrow stairs. It took them longer than expected, and they were hustling."
It helps to declutter beforehand. "If they spend five minutes on an item you don't really want and you multiply that by 20, that's an hour of moving time," Holbert says. "It really adds up."
One good decision I made was packing all the items I could pack myself. You can pay moving companies to come pack your things for you, but the cost is astronomical.
If you're self-packing, plenty of online moving guides will suggest you get free boxes at your local liquor store. I've done that, and I'm here to tell you: Spring for some new boxes. I got 10 large bankers boxes — complete with handles, lids, and no tape to assemble — for $56. Uniform size, stackable, sturdy as hell, and worth every penny.
If you're looking for a more sustainable option, renting hard plastic boxes isn't all that expensive, either. A one-bedroom kit from DC-based Lend-A-Box, which includes more than two dozen plastic boxes and a cardboard wardrobe, would have run me $159 for a one-week rental.
My move was complicated by the fact that I didn't know where I was actually going to live until about a week out. (My apartment hunt was long and grueling, but ultimately yielded a great place on the cheap — a subject for another piece.) Because I had to make plans last-minute, many of the movers in my city were already booked for the date and times I needed by the time I called.
"Starting to look at about six weeks out would be really helpful," says Holbert. "That gives you time to get estimates and have moving companies come look at your stuff."
Video by Courtney Stith
The timing of my move didn't help, either. As LoPresti explained, I chose to move during the busiest time of the year — between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. I also happened to move on one of the busiest days of the month: the first.
"If your move date is flexible, look for times when overall demand to move is lower, such as the middle of the week," says LoPresti. "Moving outside of the traditional moving season may help reduce costs."
By the time I booked the move, only a few moving companies had the time slot I needed. Concerned about my limited options, I went with a big-name brand that I knew was legit, even though they provided one of the higher estimates. If I'd given myself more time, I could have vetted the smaller companies by searching online reviews.
On the upside, I didn't encounter any companies asking for up-front payment, which Holbert says is a red flag. "Asking for a deposit ahead of time is totally legitimate," she says. "If they ask for full payment, that's unusual."
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