7 Embarrassing Lessons I Learned While Moving People

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Learning to be a good mover is not something you can get from a book. Like riding a bike, playing the piano and getting your black belt – like so many things, really – we all have to learn how to move stuff by going out to the job and getting to it.

And as with just about anything, it involves making mistakes.

This month I want to share with you seven lessons I learned during my earliest days on the job. Lessons learned both through the mistakes of others and through my own errors. They made me feel stupid and embarrassed, but nevertheless taught me things I needed to know if I wanted to stay on in this business.

#1. The nicer the furniture, the more likely you’ll damage it.

This isn’t some sort of karmic law. This is pure woodworking and physics.

The finest dressers and desks have drawers that slide out nice and smoothly – meaning you only need to tip that piece so far before gravity grabs hold of those drawers and start pulling them out and onto the floor. Quality furniture also (usually) means good, solid wood. And it’s heavy. Drawers will gain speed fast and hit the floor hard. Armoire doors, once they start to swing open, can come down so hard they put cracks in themselves; if they don’t bang against the floor, they can end up playing “irresistible force meets immovable object” with their hinges.

Yes, I’ve seen all this firsthand. A lot of it happened on a local move during my first week as a mover. I don’t know about the other guys on that crew, but that was the first and last time I let something like that happen.

Protip: Pad-wrapping items like dressers and armoires can obviously keep all those drawers and doors in place. So can a layer of shrink wrap. But if you prefer not to pad-wrap or shrink wrap those big pieces until you get them out the front door another option is using those big movers’ rubber bands, which are easy to put on, easy to adjust (by knotting up and tying off any slack) and totally economical since you can use them for years.

Extra advice: Gravity works on all kinds of furniture, not just the most expensive stuff!

#2. Sitting in the passenger seat does not mean you get to take a break from helping.

Unfortunately, one guy I worked with didn’t seem to understand this. “Watch that side,” I told him as I began backing half-blind into a slot between two other box trucks. “Aw-right,” he said, glancing lazily at the side view mirror before letting his eyes glaze back over.

I suppose it was my fault. I shouldn’t have taken it for granted that he was going to keep watching that side for me and warn me when I was about to sideswipe the truck parked on his side. Which, of course, he didn’t. And he didn’t get socked with a bill for the damage either.

Protip: This “help your driver” rule is always in effect on the road, because so are blind spots. When your driver is pulling up to the curb along a tree-lined residential street, pay attention not only to how close the tires are getting to the curb, but also how close the top of the truck might be coming to any big fat tree branches. Trust me, tree branches can do some serious damage.

#3. Don’t blindly trust a dog or its owner.

“He’s real friendly,” the customer with the mixed-breed said. “But I’ll put him out back so he doesn’t get in your way.” That seemed fair enough to all of us.

He was a quiet pup, actually, and after a while, I’d totally forgotten about him. I figure so did one of the other guys by the time he went out back to take care of the patio chairs. From the living room was where I heard the barking and the shouting, and I was walking through the kitchen when my fellow mover busted through the back door, cussing and bleeding in three places.

Protip: Quiet dogs are still dogs. With teeth.

#4. If you put things out of the way, remember where you put them.

After moving non-stop for six hours, our three-man crew was finally done with the unload. All we had to do was have the customer sign off on the inventory sheets.

“Looks like we’re missing something, fellas,” he said, showing us the lone unchecked box on his bingo sheet.

On the inventory, it just said “screw box” – which was exactly what I wanted to do. But the four of us – the crew plus the customer – spent the next half an hour looking for a screw box, not sure what one was even supposed to look like. Walking through the garage a fourth time, I looked over at the customer’s big old rolling tool chest and the sliding compartment doors at the bottom. Inside, to everyone’s relief, was a small PBO half-filled with nuts and bolts and washers and flanges and… yup. Screws.

Protip: Keep sticky notes and a marker in your pocket for anything that needs special denotation. That way, an out of the way item will be clearly visible and explained. A lot can be forgotten during a five-hour move, trust me.

#5. Pressboards can’t really be pressed.

During my first week as a mover, I was introduced to a pressboard entertainment unit in the customer’s living room. It held a big TV, stereo equipment, a VCR (this was 1996). When we got it cleared off and picked it up, it immediately started to wobble. I could feel the thing getting progressively looser as the lead guy and I eased it as best we could down the apartment building’s stairwell.

Out on the truck, the lead guy pulled out something called a ratchet strap. There I learned that when you introduce a ratchet strap to a piece of pressboard furniture, the ratchet strap will waste no time crushing that piece of pressboard furniture to pieces.

Protip: When confronted with a piece of pressboard furniture, give the customer two choices: a piece of paper called a Pressboard (Particle Board) Waiver that releases the moving company from liability for damage to a piece of furniture that shouldn’t be moved, or a piece of paper that says “FREE”. Read this discussion on MovingScam.com for more on particle/pressboard waivers.

#6. You know that the name is painted on the side of the truck, right?

One day, one of my fellow crew guys and I were asked to go help another van line agency handle a job in Manhattan. My buddy and I sat in the cramped space behind them, our knees pinned against our chests for the 90-minute ride into the city.

Granted, driving in Manhattan can suck. Driving a 26’ box truck around Manhattan is brutal. It takes patience. It takes nerves of steel. Our driver for the day had neither.

At one point there were three lanes being squeezed into two. New Yorkers generally have a grasp of the concept of merging though evidently, they don’t seem to like it. And, well, the driver let everybody on that ride know from out the window.

Protip: Most people on the road can both hear you AND read the name on the side of your truck.

#7. Shrink wrap comes in rolls, but you can’t reroll it.

“Hand me that shrink wrap, Kevin,” my buddy said from the back door of the box truck. Hands full (with what I don’t remember) I gave the shrink wrap at my feet a push with my boot and sent it rolling across the floor of the truck toward my buddy – and the boss, who had just materialized out of nowhere.

“Don’t EVER do that!” he barked in his usual intimidating way.” You know how much a roll of that stuff costs? You get one little rock in that plastic and the entire roll is shot! Where’s your head?!”

I wouldn’t say the whole entire roll would be shot. I wouldn’t say anything – not to that guy’s face. But he was right. Get even a small nick or cut or bit of debris in that plastic and it’ll drive you nuts the way it comes apart next time you try to use it. Money down the drain.

Protip: When someone asks you to hand them the shrink wrap, do just that.

Got any of your own lessons to share?

We know some of you have been around a while – long enough to have some good stories of your own about the hard lessons you’ve learned. We’d love for you to share them, so all of us can learn the easy way what you guys have learned the hard way.

Which brings me to one final tip.

Admit your mistakes. Spell them out to your team when they happen. This way you’ll be helping people avoid doing the same thing down the road.


Illustrations by Marlowe Dobbe

Inventory Sheets Legally Keep You From Losing Your Stuff on a Move. Here’s How to Use Them

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Among the many pieces of paperwork that a full-service mover will ask you to sign is a piece of paper called a “Household Goods Descriptive Inventory”. It’s more commonly known as an Inventory Sheet, and it’s basically an itemized list of everything the movers are transporting for you, from your furniture to your boxes to every last golf club, garden tool and garbage can in the shed.

We know, you hardly have time to search for a coffee filter, let alone make a list of every single thing you own. But why is writing all that stuff down so important before the movers haul it away?

You Probably Want Your Stuff Back

On move day, before the rest of the crew starts carrying your stuff out the door, the lead person or someone else who knows the drill will be going around putting numbered stickers on everything and writing a description of each item on the corresponding numbered line on the “IS”. So if you make one, you’ll get a copy of that inventory sheet – or more likely several inventory sheets – and when your stuff is delivered you’ll check off each numbered item as it comes off the truck. Armed with your inventory sheets, you can make sure everything is there.

Here’s what happens on a move with completed paperwork.

Example #1: Your movers have emptied the truck, everything is moved in and accounted for according to the inventories. You and the mover both sign each IS as documentation that all items have been received.

Example #2: Once the movers have emptied the truck, you find that one item on your inventory sheets has not been checked off. You and your movers search high and low for the item (because you both want to find it!), but it is nowhere to be found. Near the bottom of the IS you will write very clearly which item is missing, then you and the mover both sign off on the paperwork. (Make sure to keep a copy!) This is your documentation for filing a claim for your missing item.

Inventory Sheets Also Keep Track of the Condition of Your Stuff

Nobody wants to end up with a scratched and dinged up dining room table. Likewise, your movers don’t want to be held responsible for any scratches and dings that were already in that table. A special column on the inventory sheet, where your movers can record any existing damage, serves as a safeguard for both of you.

Example #1: If your dining room table is all scratched up upon delivery, but those scratches are documented on the inventory sheet as already existing when the movers came to move you, you cannot hold your mover falsely accountable.

Example #2: If there is any discrepancy between the condition of your dining room table as recorded on the IS with the condition of that table when it gets delivered, you’ll have the legal evidence and documentation you need to get reimbursed for the damage. Describe clearly the new damage in the “Remarks/Exceptions” box, then take pictures of the damage as further proof. (These pictures can also help your moving company determine whether to repair or replace the item.)

It’s Important to Prepare Ahead of Your Move

It’s hardly practical to follow your mover around to witness every notation they make on every inventory sheet and to check every box, every piece of furniture and every loose item in your garage. Go ahead and try if you like, but I bet you’ll drive both yourself and your mover crazy.

Instead, be proactive before the move. On the day of your relocation, check your furniture, your appliances, your bookcases and your bicycle. The actual paper itself is pretty straight forward: Just plainly denote any significant scratches, gouges and dings. Then point them out to your inventory taker. Seeing how you are paying attention, they’ll be inclined to do more of the same.

On packing: If you’re doing your own packing, keep track of how many boxes you have. Number them as you label them with what is inside. Make a rough list of your boxes if you like, noting what size or kind each box is. Such a list may not amount to a legal document but you can use it to make sure your mover has the same number of boxes listed on their official inventory sheets.

Finally, familiarize yourself with a typical IS, including the most common abbreviations movers use when taking inventory:

  • PBO – a box that was packed by the owner, i.e., you
  • CP – a box that was packed by the mover, i.e., the carrier
  • MCU – Mechanical Condition Unknown, to prevent false claims by the customer that something “was working before I moved.”

For a good example, take a good look at this standard Household Goods Descriptive Inventory form:

The inventory sheet is your best (and perhaps only) friend if something gets lost or damaged. Make sure you are well-acquainted – both before and after your mover fills it out – before it’s finally time to sign off at the bottom.

Two Jobs, Two Companies, One Major Fail

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[Synopsis: One company did a bang up job moving some artwork. Actually, so did the other.]

Dale Chiluly makes things out of glass. Things like chandeliers that have hundreds of separate parts. Things that people are willing to pay lots and lots of money for.

So when he needs his valuable glass things moved, he calls a company in Seattle that specializes in moving artwork. A company that will take care of everything, from beginning to end.

A company whose movers Chiluly has trained himself.

Check out some of Chiluly’s work, including this amazing time-lapse of them packing an elaborate chandelier. 

Scary, huh? But with the proper instruction, we would probably be all right.

Without it, we’d more likely end up like these guys

sculpture-copy

And their $280,000 screw-up.

In the Manhattan Supreme Court suit, filed Thursday, Carpenters Workshop Gallery claims they hired London-based company Adam Crease Shipping to move delicate marble console, valued at just over $280,000 USD, into storage on April 4, 2016.

…movers showed up and “tricked” the gallery into signing a document limiting the company’s liability to “60 cents per pound or $50” for any damage sustained, according to the complaint…Adam Crease Shipping is described on its website as a specialist “in the Shipping, Packing and Storage of Fine Art, Antiques.”

Chandeliers and seascapes and seven-foot spears…all made of glass and with hefty price tags. Makes packing a dining room full of china seem like a breeze, doesn’t it?

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