Moving home is the third biggest cause of stress, right after death and divorce. Moving abroad is even harder. Here's how how one expat went through the pain and found the ultimate lifehack to save money.
The agony of moving for me began way before the actual move, and reached fever pitch right around the time I had to hire a removal company.
See, up until now our household had been transported around the globe on the company's dime, through the high-end Sterling Relocation, and came complete with a sweet-talking move manager to iron out every wrinkle. But not this time; fully localized in London, getting ourselves repatriated to the US fell completely on my head (and our bank account). Of course, my husband was a magnificent pillar of support, but considering that his pet name for me is Logistics Queen, you can imagine how helpful he was going to be.
But if there was one thing I was a pro at, it was moving - and how tough could engaging the best, cheapest and most reliable moving company be? A quick Google search revealed zillions of ‘top-rated’ movers. I steeled myself and dived in, requesting online quotes and scheduling on-site visits. OK, it was a little daunting.
I know I’m not alone here. Even for folks being relocated by their companies, there’s a growing trend toward firms handing over a wad of cash and telling the employee to sort out their move on their own. There are even businesses, like moveguides.com, dedicated to assisting people manage their moves.
Sure, your company might be saving a bundle by letting you do the work, but according to research by IMPACT Group, employees spend 100-200 hours of productive work time organising their relocation when handed a lump sum and left to their own devices. IMPACT Group says this tallies up to some $20,000 in lost productivity per employee. Plus, adds my international banker friend, who’s done his fair share of moving and posted employees abroad, ‘It places too much of the onus on the spouse to deal with all the arrangements, and the spouse is the one who is usually most reticent towards the move.’ Yeah, that’s a rough introduction to expat life.
Back in London, we met with moving specialists to give us quotes. They all seemed nice enough, but then my skeptical self kicked in. Who were these people?
I searched for customer reviews. Cue full-on panic attack. ‘Worst company ever!!’ screamed one reviewer about a company I’d already penciled in moving dates with. ‘Very rude and careless’. Yikes – had I just dodged a bullet?
I moved on to another: ‘Do not use this company,’ and one measly star. ‘I was moving from Pennsylvania to Germany and despite many phone calls and emails my moving goods are now sitting in the UK,’ reported a furious customer. OMG.
I reasoned that these critics could be the exception and not the rule, and that only extremely unhappy customers bother tapping out their grievances. But I was scared and suspicious. More moving reps filtered in and out, surveying my belongings and sizing them up with tape measures. Sitting down with a gentleman from Gerson Relocation I stared incredulously at a letter signed Denis Thatcher, thanking the firm for their wonderful work moving their precious possessions. Did Denis really spend his time writing such notes? Had Gerson really moved The Iron Lady?
It was true, according to the Internet. But glancing at their list of clients, including major museums, I correctly guessed that having them pack up our jumble of old Monopoly sets and mountains of books would break the bank. I despaired.
Then, in a stroke of genius, I hopped onto The Columbia Journalism School international alumni listserve and posted a plea for referrals. If anyone had insight into the world of moving companies, it was this group of globetrotters. But what came back were more dire warnings including one from a New York Times writer telling me to 'beware' of one particular English company, 'their quote is super cheap, but the word on the street is they’re a complete fraud and jack up the prices once they have your stuff and everything arrives broken. Good luck.' I Googled them and found the company described asI was clearly navigating a dark and devious netherworld.
But at long last my fellow alums came through with suggestions. Names like Crown, Pickfords and Clark & Rose were accompanied with phrases like, ‘couldn’t have been nicer,’ and ‘they were great and we’ve used them more than once.'
Repeat customers… hmm… the stressed out cogs in my head whirred. Good old Sterling; surely they’d charged a bundle for our corporate moves, but just maybe they had a soft spot for customer loyalty…. They sent a surveyor —who nodded her head politely at my millionth mention that they’d moved us twice before — and I awaited what was sure to be an eye-popping estimate.
Fingers crossed, I pressed on, skimming endless lists of removal companies, all claiming to be tops, and boasting star-spangled awards. I’d heard of the Emmys, the Grammys and the Oscars, but the EMMAs? An actual award for moving companies? Really?
I phoned up TotallyExpat.com, which sponsors the award, to get the scoop. Turns out the EMMA (Expatriate Management Mobility Award) is a real thing. Apologetically, I asked Brian Friedman, founder of The Forum for Expatriate Management and TotallyExpat.com’s London chapter rep if one particular firm had actually won, or if they were pulling a fast one. ‘You’re smart to ask’, he said. ‘There have been cases where companies have claimed they won when they hadn’t … The moral is always to check independently that a supplier is who they say they are’. Ick. What is wrong with people?
And there on their list of past winners was Sterling, whose quote had just arrived in my inbox. Way too high. Sigh.
I was just about to sign the binding contract with my second choice when, on a whim, I phoned up Sterling to let them know how sorry I was to turn them down. ‘Just out of curiosity,’ asked the rep. ‘How much is Bournes charging you? … right, I’ll call you right back.’ In case you’re wondering, free market competition is alive and well. While I fully expected them to knock a few hundred off the price, I was completely unprepared for them to slash it by over £1000. I was as overcome with emotion as a teenager getting her old boyfriend back. ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ I cried.
So, Sterling it was and so far so good. Our container has cleared customs in the USA without a hitch (no small feat, I’m told), and although I haven’t laid eyes on our belongings yet. I have faith that all my freaking out, combined with diligent research, has paid off.
Planning an international move of your own? Movingscam.com suggests you search for a company that meets all or most of these criteria:
- In business for at least 10 years
- FIDI Member
- RIM (Registered International Mover) Certification
- OMNI (Overseas Movers Network International)
- ISO 9002 Certified
By Lauren Cooper
Lauren Cooper is a TransferWise revolutionary, globe-trotting journalist and battle-hardened expat. An expert on life in the world’s most expensive cities, she grew up in New York before doing tours of duty in Hong Kong and London.