The Broken Economics of Long Distance Moving

Picture of packed boxes in the center of an apartment
Jilted by the Long-Distance Mover
At the end of April, I had a chance to take a leadership role with a state-of-the-art automotive infotainment software development project in the Columbus, Ohio area. I jumped at the chance. As soon as the paperwork was confirmed, Tomoko and I stuffed my Chevy Volt with some pots, pans, blankets, and bare basics for an apartment and took off. We drove North to Dallas and then headed Northeast through the wilderness to the Ohio border. Along the way, we encountered some of the most stupendously filthy restrooms on the planet – and I make that comment coming from a wealth of experience of appallingly primitive restrooms in desolate places.

The Nightmare

While we thoroughly enjoyed that delightful adventure, we decided that once in a lifetime was quite sufficient. Tomoko would fly back to Austin and spend about two months planning to move the ship the other car and the rest of our possessions from Austin to our new apartment in Dublin, Ohio. And so she did. Tomoko researched meticulously, and lined everything up around the expiration of our apartment lease on the 29th of June.

Not that it was easy. Her first calls to the major moving companies (Allied, United, Mayflower, et al) were met with the information that these exalted organizations could not be bothered to do businesses with lowly cockroaches like us. If you were not moving a small palace of at least 30,000 square feet of floor space, they did not want to waste time talking with you.

Having been rebuffed by the majors, she continued to dig and identified an outfit called Fine Line Relocation out of Dallas, that as of May 20th seemed to have at least a few happy customers…as well as a few furious and dissatisfied customers. Fine Line quoted us a flat fee of $1400 for the 1244 mile move and collected a $140 deposit with a scheduled pickup date of 6/28/2016 – the day before our scheduled final walkthrough of our apartment. Tomoko began discarding, organizing, and packing. On 6/26/2016 I flew back to Austin to help. We spent all of 6/27/2016 furiously packing…until around 5PM. At 5PM of the afternoon before the scheduled move, Fine Line called: “By the way, we aren’t coming.” After 15 minutes or so of Tomoko trying politely to get some sort of sensible plan out of the Fine Line dispatcher, I got on the phone. I was less polite. The dispatcher did not like that. She transferred us to her supervisor who tried to explain to us that it was our fault. We should simply understand that the trucking industry is just like that. Stuff happens. A heated discussion ensued with him telling me that he was refunding our $140 deposit immediately (which he did) and had no interest in doing business with idiots like us.

Tomoko standing with two movers in front of our storage unit
Tomoko with Corey Washington and Roosevelt of Two Men and a Truck
Very nice. We were stuck without a mover, with a ticking clock, during the craziest, busiest time of year. We tried all sorts of alternatives. Pods and Upack were booked solid until the end of July. Fortunately, we still had Junk Busters scheduled. The local North Austin franchise of Two Men and a Truck scrambled to get us a crew for a local move on 6/29/2016. The apartment agreed to a one-day delay. We shifted strategy. We had Junk Busters haul away almost all of our heavy furniture items. We kept only our dining table and mattress. The extremely effective crew from Two Men and a Truck moved the remaining stuff and help us repack our existing storage unit to get it all stuffed in.

Honda Fit in the middle of Jollyville Rd behind a tractor trailer
Honda Fit Being Loaded
That got us out of our apartment. The remaining problem was getting our car shipped to Ohio. Tomoko had carefully made a reservation with a company called Ship a Car Direct It all looked very clear and official and was arranged for 6/30/2016. On 6/28/2016, having heard nothing further from Ship a Car Direct she called them. They had no idea who was coming or when but told her “not to worry”. Naturally, that information made her worry more. The next day, the information improved somewhat. We were given the name of a company in Ohio that had a truck driving around Texas picking up cars. The truck finally showed up on 7/1/2016 (one day late). The driver was very friendly and polite. However, we had to get a cashiers check for the shipping fee. No credit cards or personal checks accepted.

The Economics

After the Honda Fit was loaded, I received a follow-up call from Two Men and a Truck. I gave their guys a good review and asked about long distance moving. That question led to me being transferred to their local long-distance moving guy who spent quite a bit of time with me explaining the ins and outs of the industry. It goes something like this:

  1. They definitely do provide long distance moving. They will have a crew come pack your belongings, and drive them across the country for you. The same crew will unpack at the destination – which does wonders for accountability, effectiveness, etc… That same crew will then drive the truck back. There are some variations, but this is the basic deluxe plan.
  2. In order to understand the price, we have to understand that there are two seasons: “Summer” and “Not Summer”.
  3. During the Summer season, the company can keep their trucks 100% busy with local moves. During this season, they book each truck for $150/hour perhaps 8 hours per day.
  4. Having a truck drive long distance to deliver a customer’s shipment to a distant state represents an opportunity loss compared to the business that the truck could have been doing in local moves during the trip.
  5. For a 1244 mile move, they would expect:
    • 1 day to pack
    • 2 days to drive
    • 1 day to unpack
    • 2 days to drive the truck back
  6. That makes 6 days.
  7. The opportunity cost of having the truck unavailable for local moves for 6 days is cost = 6 * 8 * 150 = $7200
  8. Add to that the wear-and-tear and gasoline costs of about $1/mile. The total distance is 1244 * 2 = 2488 miles. On the other hand, the truck would have driven a little locally…so add $2400 for the mileage cost for the truck.
  9. Round it out with 5 days of hotel and meal costs for the crew
  10. and you are at $10k

Indeed, this number was in the ballpark quoted by all more serious movers that we contacted, with some wanting as much as $15k. If you move during “Not Summer” the price comes down a little because the opportunity cost is lower. If you are lucky enough that the mover can find another customer to share the truck, and it is during “Not Summer” you might get down into the range of $5k.

So what was going on with Fine Line‘s $1400 price quote? Basically, they are opportunistically hoping to find a truck driving back empty in the correct general direction. Apparently, the industry rule of thumb is that the driver/owner will be happy to have the $1/mile running cost of the truck. Naturally, these empty trucks are very hard to schedule accurately. Basically, the morning before the move, Fine Line sends someone out to stand next to the nearest freeway exit with a cardboard sign reading “LOOKING FOR EMPTY TRUCK HEADED TOWARD OHIO”. As we discovered, this process is really unpredictable. Also, there is no guarantee that the (randomly selected) truck that picks your stuff up will be the same truck that delivers it. Your stuff may get trans-loaded multiple times. It may spend several weeks sitting in someone’s warehouse, next to the bales of cannabis waiting for the next leg transportation.

Apparently, there are also a lot of games with the estimates. One common trick seems to be the seemingly convenient over-the-phone estimate, during which they low ball the weight estimate. Once the truckers pick up your stuff, they take it somewhere and weigh it and discover – Surprise! – your stuff is three times heavier than they had guessed. At that point, they hold your stuff for ransom and triple the price.

What to Do?

At these prices, shipping heavy furniture makes no economic sense at all. Unless you are fabulously wealthy and have exotic antiques, you can definitely buy an entirely new set of furniture for less than it will cost to ship an existing set. The long-distance guy at Two Men and a Truck was laughing a little telling me about customers who wanted him to ship furniture **TO** North Carolina. North Carolina is the furniture manufacturing center of the universe. Shipping heavy furniture across the country into the heart of furniture manufacturing is really silly.

One of the other interesting things we did is stop at the local Fedex Office store and ask about ground shipping rates. A 20lb box from Austin to Dublin, OH would be about $50, depending on shape and a few other things. In other words, the Fedex Ground rate on that route would be roughly $2.50/pound. On the other hand, the “Not Summer” quote we discussed above was about $7000 for about 2000 lbs of stuff – also in the vicinity of $2.50/pound. Hmmm….

The other thing we have noticed is that there seems to be almost no market for used furniture. In theory, one can advertise furniture on Craigslist. In practice, we have had mixed success getting rid of stuff this way, even when we gave it away free. The problem is worse if you are in a second floor apartment. Almost no one on Craigslist will come get heavy furniture from a second floor apartment. Buying furniture is really easy. Getting rid of it is really difficult.

What about renting? 30 years ago when I was single, I rented furniture for an apartment from CORT Furniture Rental for an apartment for a year. It was great. Painless to acquire. Painless to dispose of. CORT is still around. From my preliminary check, I can minimally equip our apartment with the key heavy furniture pieces from CORT for around $200-$300 per month. This is the direction I am headed in currently.

The really problem here is our current wobbly-as-jello economy in which there seems to be no such thing as a “permanent” job. We are now thinking carefully about how to play this game in which the constant turbulence in the economy forces us to move every year. It looks something like this:

  1. Ruthlessly eliminate the last vestiges of paper-based anything. We just closed our safe deposit box. We will be moving our wills to a cloud-based specialty service soon.
  2. Rent any piece of furniture heavier than 20 lbs. The rental service delivers and installs it. When it is time to move to the next spot, the rental service comes and takes it away.
  3. Buy smaller furniture pieces locally, as cheaply as possible. Walmart has amazing stuff in this category. I just purchased two very nice LED desk lamps for $7 each at Walmart.
  4. Rent a storage locker somewhere and never move it. This becomes your “home”. Ship precious memory stuff to that locker and keep it there. At the start of each temporary assignment, select a few small sentimental items from the museum (your storage locker) and ship them UPS or Fedex to the new apartment to enjoy and give a little warmth to the environment.
  5. Move things like clothing around in 20lb boxes. Ship them by UPS, Fedex, or USPS. The cost is about the same as the moving company would charge and you will have full electronic tracking and better control of delivery.
  6. Ship cars, but be prepared to have a several day window in which they get picked up. Rent cars while permanent cars are being transported.
  7. Make judicious use of the two luggage pieces that most airlines will allow for a reasonable baggage fee.

Overall, the challenge here is to simply have a lot less stuff. That is, we have to get used to having a lot less stuff until the miracle occurs in which we end up with the $4m or so currently needed to be basically financially independent in the United States. Until that time, we have to be on a very agile footing and ready to move at a moment’s notice.

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