Pack Yourself… but Protect Yourself!

By Jim Weiss, Avant Relo Consulting

Whether moving locally or long-distance, many people opt to do their own packing in order to cut costs, and with good reason:  Packing is a major profit center for moving companies, especially nowadays, with the cost of fuel cutting deep into their margins.  Markups on materials often surpass 600 percent above cost, and labor charges for packing those cartons for you can add up in a hurry.

Packing your belongings yourself can cut your moving costs nearly in half, but there are hidden dangers you’ll need to be aware of, too, dangers that could make all the difference between a great moving experience, and yet another horror story.

They Break It, You Buy It

No mover will guarantee that the items you’ve packed will arrive at your destination in one piece.  Harsh as that sounds, they’re not doing this to be mean.  Moving companies (especially the national carriers like Allied, Atlas, and United) go to a lot of trouble and expense to train their packers to perform up to professional standards, so that’s whose work they’ll guarantee.  If the items you’ve packed yourself come out of their boxes damaged or broken, the mover will (figuratively speaking) need to see tire tracks on that box before they’ll even discuss a damage claim with you… and you’ll probably have to call out the local CSI unit to prove that the tracks were theirs!

One way to avoid this unpleasant scenario is to let the movers pack your breakables, while you pack everything else.  If they pack your dishes, glassware, pictures, etc., they’ll be fully responsible for their condition.  Meanwhile, you’ll still pocket noticeable savings by packing your books, bedding, pots and pans, and anything else you own that can’t be broken simply by dropping it on the floor.


What’s the Downside?

The downside is that the dishpacks and mirror cartons the mover will use just happen to be the most expensive cartons they provide (and the labor charges for packing those cartons are higher, too), meaning your cost savings won’t add up to as much as they might have had you done the entire job yourself.   But when weighing the cost of going this route versus the cost – be it financial or emotional – of replacing your fine china out of your own wallet in the event of catastrophic loss, allowing the movers to pack your breakables is what I typically recommend to those clients of mine who are weighing their options.


You Can Do This

If, however, you remain determined to do all of your own packing, I’m pleased to inform you that you can still do a good job of it, even if packing for a cross-country or international move is something you’ve never done before.  All of the major moving companies publish tips on how to pack your breakables (for instance, did you know that the best way to pack dishes is on their edges… not lying flat?), and make that literature readily available to their customers.  You can also go online and obtain many useful tips on packing from sites like this one.

As it turns out, then, the problems inherent in the actual packing of your own belongings – while in and of itself not the easiest or most enjoyable job you’ll ever perform – can be overcome without much difficulty.  The greatest danger actually lies in what comes next.

Guarding Against Theft

When you do your own packing, it’s of the utmost importance to understand that you’re exposing yourself not only to the possibility of unreimbursed damages, but also to loss or theft.  Most movers are decent and honest people, but as with every industry, there are always a few bad apples in the bushel.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is that you can protect yourself against loss or theft by following a few simple steps.

The first thing you must do – without exception – is see to it that your driver makes out a detailed inventory of the items you’re shipping.  Be present when he or she tags your item and writes them down on the form, and make sure that you’ve been provided with a legible copy, signed by the driver, before the truck pulls away from the curb at your origin location.  And finally, upon delivery, insist that all items listed on the inventory be checked off before you agree to sign the paperwork that will inevitably be placed in front of you.  Your signature states that all of your items have in fact been delivered in their entirety, and in good condition, and it’s your responsibility to make sure that that is indeed the case.

“Packed By Owner, Contents Unknown” – A  License to Steal

Now, here’s where it gets tricky.  No matter what you wrote on the boxes you packed with regard to what was in them, those boxes will be noted on the driver’s inventory as “PBO CU”, which stands for “packed by owner, contents unknown”.  Ostensibly, that’s because the driver has not in fact seen what those boxes contain, and should therefore not be held liable for the condition of those contents.  When dealing with an unscrupulous driver, however, once you’ve signed the bottom of that form at your origin address, you will have in effect issued that person a license to steal.  To illustrate, I’ll relate to you a story that was told to me very recently:

Shanti and Dustin Move to LA: A Horror Story

The daughter and son-in-law of some very close friends of mine arranged their move from Dallas to Los Angeles without speaking with me, first.  Instead, they chose a low-cost, no-name mover they found online (their first mistake), and did all of their own packing in order to save even more money.  Included in their shipment was an expensive set of pots and pans that they’d just received as a wedding gift, still in its original packaging.  Lo and behold, when their shipment arrived in LA, the set of cookware was nowhere to be found.  There was no inventory to refer to, no proof whatsoever that said cookware had ever been loaded on the truck, and without that proof, the driver got off scot free, with the full aid and support of his company.  And even if there had been an inventory, the carton would have invariably been listed as “PBO CU”.  In other words, the burden of proof that such a set of cookware even existed lay squarely on the shoulders of the injured parties, themselves.

Shanti and Dustin were devastated by their mover’s ability to rip them off in broad daylight and drive away laughing, and their respective families were left shaking with frustration at their inability to effectively intervene on their behalf.  But sadly, they could also just as easily have protected themselves against this outrage from the very beginning.  All that was necessary was for them to have opened the box while it was still in their apartment, shown the driver what was in there, and seen to it that an inventory form was filled out specifying that box number (whatever) contained pots and pans, manufactured by so-and-so, and have the driver countersign in the space that’s provided on all DOT-approved forms.  The carton would still be shown up as PBO, but the C (as it were) would no longer have been U, and the couple would have had the papers to prove it.  Taking this simple step would have not only created the necessary paper trail to supply to law enforcement, but would also have put the driver on notice at the very beginning that he should consider taking his thieving ways elsewhere.

If It Feels Good, Do It!  Just Be Safe…

To summarize:  By packing your own belongings, you can get a great move from a reputable mover, and still save yourself a bundle, just by following these three simple steps: 1) Pack only your non-breakable items; or barring that, 2) get expert advice on methods for packing your fragile items, and 3) protect yourself by ensuring that your most cherished items are all accounted for in writing.

Good luck with your move!

About the Author

Jim Weiss is a 27-year veteran of the relocation industry.  He is the owner and president of Avant Relo Consulting, a free service that matches relocating families with reputable providers for international, interstate, and local (New York City) moves.  To assist with your move, he can be contacted at tjweiss@avantrc.net