What’s the most cost-effective, least-stressful way to cross country move in the United States?
If the thought of uprooting your whole life to restart in a new city requires some deep breaths and a lengthy list of pros and cons, you’re not alone. Moving — both locally and cross country — is a major investment of time, money, and mental and physical energy that the average U.S. citizen will go through 11.7 times in their life, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Here, we’re focusing on cross-country moving; those more challenging transitions that tend to revolve around life events like job/career advancement, a family member’s changing health-care needs, marriage, divorce, or educational opportunities. In short, events that are stressful enough without the added burden of moving a household thousands of miles, and important enough to warrant the undertaking in the first place.
Whether your reasons for cross-country moving are exciting or unfortunate, the transition from point A to B isn’t easy. You need the process to be as figuratively (and literally) painless as possible, and much of it depends on your own individual circumstances. Before you start Googling service providers, here are some key questions that, once answered, will provide the roadmap you need to get across the country with your possessions and sanity intact.
How much will cross-country moving cost me?
When calculating cross-country moving, distance and weight will be the most critical cost variables — how much stuff do you need to move and how far do you need to move it.
Based on recent survey data from more than 1,200 respondents, out-of-state moves range from $2,235 — $5,993, averaging about $4,093 per household. The American Moving & Storage Association estimates that the average “long-distance ” or interstate move in the United States is 1,225 miles.
These averages assume the household moving is roughly one bedroom, so if your household is in the three- to four-bedroom ballpark, Movers.com estimates you can expect to spend between $6,500 and $10,000 for a long-distance move.
A third critical variable is time — when does it all need to get there? Much like planning a vacation, planning a move well in advance (we recommend a year or more, if possible) means maximum savings and minimum headaches. For instance, identifying items you can sell instead of moving not only downsizes the “stuff” variable, it directly offsets ones you can’t get around, like distance.
Additionally, moving companies’ rates fluctuate with seasonal demand, so plenty of time to plan gives you the option of scheduling your move around lower rates and lighter traffic. Another important cost-cutting measure that is maximized with plenty of time? Collecting your own packing supplies over time and packing up your own house.
The national hourly cost for professional packing is a maximum of $42.50 per hour, per worker, Thumbtack.com averages. Since clients’ houses will vary in terms of square footage and items to be packed, most moving companies will send in bigger teams of professionals to pack a larger house, distributing the work for a lower hourly rate per worker and less time spent packing. It’s standard for professional packing services to include a fee covering the packing supplies, too — so perhaps you can actually afford help packing, if you get your own supplies cheap enough.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, expensive add-ons like professional packing may actually be worth the peace of mind if you’re worried about your belongings being damaged or destroyed.
“Only what the movers pack is covered,” says moveBuddha co-founder and relocation consultant Ryan Carrigan, on certain types of moving insurance we’ll cover further on. “So if you pack your own boxes or decide to pack and wrap fragile items like a flat-screen TV yourself, those items won’t be covered. It’s always a good idea to have the movers pack as much as possible so you get the full extent of the coverage,” Carrigan says.
However, coverage is not your only concern when dealing with moving companies. Timing is also a significant factor, as the sooner you begin to plan, the lower the estimate may be.
Planning a year in advance may not be feasible for you, and a shorter turnaround time doesn’t make your cross-country move impossible, just expect to incur more costs — especially if you’re selling the home you’re vacating. This article can give you some helpful insight into why more time equals more savings, as well as creative ideas for dealing with relocation real estate woes.
Once you have a good idea of how much/how far/how fast, it’s time to decide if you need extra services like professional packing or vehicle shipping, then gather and compare quotes from a few moving companies, and take another deep breath.
Can moving costs be deducted from my income taxes?
The short answer is no; deducting moving expenses from federal income taxes ended with the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
There are (of course) caveats to this, but if you’re currently planning a move, it’s likely not an option worth pursuing. Some individual states allow deduction of moving expenses from your state taxes, so you may want to research your destination state’s policies as part of moving preparations.
If you or someone in your household is an active member of the U.S. Armed Forces, and your moving expenses are incurred as part of a permanent change of station, you can file IRS form 3903. The Internal Revenue Service provides this online survey tool to help you fully explore your move’s eligibility for a deduction.
What’s the best moving company or service for a cross-country move?
The good news about professional movers is that the options are as varied as individuals’ preferences; the bad news is those options can be overwhelming and some may be scams. The answer to “what’s best?” depends on the variables discussed in the moving cost section (time, budget, and volume of stuff to move), and how directly involved in coordinating the process you want to be.
A key distinction to keep in mind as you weigh options is the difference between a moving broker and carrier. Brokers are middlemen between you and the carriers; carriers are the people doing the actual loading, transport and delivery of items. So, you can opt to make arrangements with a carrier directly, or hire a broker to assess and “sell” the job of your move to the lowest bidder.
There are advantages and drawbacks to either option: A broker can get you a significantly cheaper deal and help arrange special things like shipping your vehicle; a carrier will provide the more consistent, “traditional” experience of working with a professional team — including a customer service representative you can call.
Before gathering quotes or searching for a broker, know exactly what you want to do yourself, and what you can delegate to professionals. Most major moving companies and brokers can offer a menu of services like:
- Professional packing
- Custom crating
- Packing supplies including moving blanket rental or purchase
- Specialty item transport (pianos, fragile antiques, etc.)
- Furniture assembly and disassembly
- Vehicle shipping (including boats, ATVs, etc.)
- Home cleaning, debris removal
- Short- and long-term storage facilities
- Various moving insurance options (see below)
If you’re moving to a smaller household or interested in DIY options, there are plenty of cost-cutting alternatives, too. Fleet and storage companies like U-Haul provide the truck fleet, trailers, packing supplies, and storage units needed to do it all yourself.
PODS is a newer alternative that provides easy-to-ship, portable self-storage units that are rented on a monthly basis, come in multiple sizes, and can be kept on your property or stored in a company facility. Additionally, PODS doesn’t calculate fees based on weight, and will transport your POD for you so you don’t have to drive a truck.
A good place to start your search for a mover is the Better Business Bureau’s database of Long Distance Movers. As we’ll discuss further in the guide, they’re also a good resource if you feel you’ve the victim of fraud.
What about moving insurance? Do I need it?
U.S. moving companies are required to assume a certain amount of liability for goods they transport, meaning they must repair, replace, or reimburse you for lost or damaged items (with caveats!) — this is why the documents outlined below are critically important in the moving process.
While in the early stages of planning your move, it’s a great idea to acquaint yourself with the arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation that exists to enforce this and similar requirements on shipping companies: the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). Knowing your legal rights and responsibilities before you start contacting moving companies for estimates will demystify the paperwork and scam-proof you in a distracting, vulnerable time.
As Carrigan points out: “[Moving Insurance] coverage is only as good as the company behind it — I can’t stress this enough.” The FMCSA information (linked above) will help you understand exactly what to expect from a reputable moving company, the better to spot an unreliable one or a bad fit for your needs.
“If you pick a cheap or low-quality moving company, the company will find a way to deny your claim if damages occur. Finding an honest, high-quality moving company is way more important than the level of coverage you select,” he says.
The FMCSA details all of this thoroughly in the rights and responsibilities download linked above, but an overview of the documents essential to a legal, well-protected move are:
- The estimate: This can be binding or non-binding, but moving carriers and brokers are legally required to give you a document detailing how they will charge you, including exactly how much they will cover if items are lost, damaged, destroyed, etc.
- The order for service: This is the itemized list of services you’re paying for like manual labor to move items, professional driver, etc., as well as the agreed dates and times of pickup and delivery. You and your mover will sign one under a binding or non-binding estimate, and it should include charges you may incur like parking fees at delivery.
- The inventory: This is how you document the “before and after” of everything you’re paying to move, so it’s critical to filing a claim if something goes wrong. Both you and your mover should carefully review and sign this — your notations of items’ pre-move condition are your best advocate if something gets damaged in the transport/delivery.
- The bill of lading: This is the legal contract between you and your mover for services rendered. It should precisely match the order for service, and this document, along with your inventory, are your “receipt” for your move.
So, where does insurance factor into all this? Your mover’s liability is a key piece of the estimate, order for service, and bill of lading, and you should be offered two standard options as part of your moving service: Full (Replacement) Value Protection and Waiver of Full (Replacement) Value Protection. The costs vary by moving company, but extent of coverage is calculated per pound and will appear in your estimate. The absolute bare minimum liability required by law is 60 cents per pound, per article.
Third-party insurance is an option many moving companies offer, and you can elect to purchase it from a separate insurance company as well. There are, of course, both pros and cons to this option. The main reason it’s attractive is that it can cover whatever your mover doesn’t, even under Full (Replacement) Value Protection. The main drawback is that separate liability insurance is subject to state law and is not subject to arbitration if your moving company disputes your loss/damage claim.
Your moving company should provide means of filing claims for lost/damaged items and detail the claims process and statutes of limitations in your bill of lading. Additionally, if you experience any breach of contract or fraudulent actions by your mover, you should file a complaint with the FMCSA.
In the unfortunate event you do have to file a claim, Carrigan says time is of the essence, and — with a good moving company — will mean faster resolution.
“If you want to expedite a claim, confirm the damage upon delivery and have the company employee call in to headquarters to confirm the damage and start the claim process. Also make sure they note it on the delivery paperwork,” he says.
How do I avoid moving scams?
At this point in the process, it’s important to revisit good rules for avoiding a scam — where there is high stress and multiple thousands being spent, you can safely assume there are plenty of scammers.
The good news is there are plenty of resources like the FMCSA, which provides a step-by-step guide for choosing a mover as well as a searchable database of interstate movers registered with the U.S. Department of Transportation.
It’s always a good idea to keep your most valuable items with you throughout the entire move, avoid large down payments or payment in advance, get all agreements in writing, and ask as many questions as you need to, to thoroughly understand how everything will proceed.
According to usa.gov’s housing scams page, you’ll want to avoid a moving company that:
- Demands cash upfront before the move
- Avoids giving you a written estimate
- Asks you to sign a blank contract in advance
- Has only one cell phone number as a contact and no local physical address
- Shows up to your house with a rental truck with no company logo on it
- Provides a quote over the phone without any onsite inspection of your goods
- Gives you a low price quote and changes the estimate substantially at your destination
How will cross-country moving affect my kids?
As is the case for adults — even those who want to move — a cross-country relocation will be disorienting and complicated for a child or teenager. This doesn’t mean it’s exclusively negative, it simply means that it’s an adjustment requiring realistic expectations and preparedness on your part if children or pets are moving with you.
“Moving often feels like a kind of death that we need to grieve. When we live in a place for almost any length of time, we become attached to our house, to our friends, to the park, to the particular walk we liked to take after dinner. It’s natural that separating from all that makes us sad, and it might be even harder for children, who don’t necessarily have the perspective to know that new beloved friends and places will come along,” says Melody Warnick, author of This Is Where You Belong.
Based on the Census Bureau statistic cited earlier, it’s likely you yourself moved at some (or multiple) points in your own childhood, so consider ways you may be able to help your child or teen gain that missing perspective from your own experience. Did you meet your spouse or a best friend because of a move? Perhaps discovered a new hobby or passion because of relocating? Being transparent with your child or teen about the ups and downs will not only help set realistic expectations, but it will also build trust and relational support in your family.
“Acknowledge your kids’ sadness and, yes, anger. Acknowledge your own too. Before a move, one friend made a photo album for her kids of their favorite people and places in their city, down to Trader Joe’s and the soccer field. Afterward, when they missed their old place, they’d look through it, spend 15 minutes being happy-sad, then move on,” Warnick says.
Expecting, preparing for, and making space for negative emotions is very important, but when they take over and don’t dissipate, it may be time for professional help.
“Time is typically the great healer of these kinds of wounds. It can take up to six months to feel comfortable in a new space, but if the acute discomfort doesn’t ebb within a month or so, that might give you a heads-up that you need to talk to a professional,” Warnick says. “You can expect your child to cry sometimes or want to be by themselves, but when the crying goes on all day, or when your kid refuses to leave the house or meet new people, that’s a little more worrisome.”
A key to avoiding these reactions in kids and teens is associating a lot of joy with the new home, and as Warnick puts it, “front-loading” that joy in the first few months.
“I love creating a family bucket list for the new place: check Yelp and Google Reviews for restaurants to try, grab all the free local magazines off the racks at the grocery store, ask waiters for their advice. Then start doing the fun stuff together. One family I knew visited all the ice cream parlors in a 20-mile radius and ranked them,” Warnick says. “The incentive is the fun, and it also happens to be the best way for your kids to acclimate to their new community and feel at home there. They won’t forget their old town or friends, but more than anything, falling in love with the new town and what it has to offer will help them be happy about your move.”
What about cross-country moving with an elderly family member?
If you’re a caregiver moving with an elderly family member who’s part of your household, the stressors and solutions are extremely similar to moving kids. The key components to remember are keeping comforting, “normalizing” items on hand, and trying to stick to familiar routines as much as possible.
Make a careful assessment of your elder’s “musts” — clothing, medication, safety implements like a bath mat, books, or magazines, etc. As part of your early moving plans, locate a general practitioner in your destination neighborhood. Your health insurance provider should have a searchable database of in-network doctors and specialists. If you don’t have health insurance, WebMD has a zip code–based physician directory.
If your elderly family member is on prescription medication, try to get a 90-day prescription filled a few days before moving day.
Try to set up their space as quickly as possible with these items, and make it as similar to their previous room as possible. As the AARP recommends, finding a friend or additional caregiver to take your elderly family member off the premises during the actual move and new home setup will likely eliminate a lot of stress for both of you.
Lastly, routine is key. Enabling favorite routines your elder might have relied on in the old home will significantly ease their transition. If there’s a beloved TV show, make sure cable/internet is set up and ready upon arrival. If they love an evening walk or a comfortable outdoor space to relax, have a route mapped or outdoor furniture ready to go as soon as possible. Most importantly, be patient and emotionally present for them — grief or disruption of surroundings may be especially hard on an elderly family member. You don’t have to be perfect, just persistent and gentle.
How will cross-country moving affect my dog or cat (or both)?
Just as the changes and disruptions associated with moving are difficult for you and any children moving with you, they’re difficult for pets — and compounded by the fact that pets can’t express their anxieties or be made to understand what’s going on.
Dogs and cats thrive on consistency and routine, so the key to avoiding physical sickness, behavioral problems, or worse — a pet escaping and getting lost — is acclimating your pet slowly and patiently. The more “routine” you can make the cleaning, packing, and departure, the better they will respond.
Animal welfare groups like the ASPCA recommend introducing packing supplies and your pet’s carrying crate as early as possible, and carefully controlling your pet’s surroundings leading up to and immediately after the move.
Leading up to moving day, consider keeping your pet in a room they’re comfortable with, and making it the last one you pack up. It’s wise to send your pet to a trusted friend’s home or to a kennel on moving day, since noise, unfamiliar people, and doors propped open could spell disaster. Once you’ve arrived, keep your pet in one room with familiar items until they seem comfortable enough to be curious about/explore the new house.
If you’ve never moved with a pet before, it may be worth considering a professional pet transport service if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the idea of driving or flying with your pet. The International Pet and Animal Transportation Association has a database of expert pet movers that transport specialty pets like reptiles, in addition to dogs and cats. If this is an option you decide to pursue, verify your servicer’s active license by checking the U.S. Department of Agriculture list.
While the vast majority of pet transportation by air is safe and successful, injury or death of a pet while on a long-distance move is, unfortunately, not out of the question. See what your veterinarian recommends, knowing your pet’s history and individual needs, and you’re sure to find solutions that will get you and your pet(s) safely to your new home.
Final thoughts on cross-country moving
Some final takeaways to consider:
- Moving is a significant disruption in your life and the lives of loved ones in your household, of all ages (and species). Nevertheless, it’s a process that most people experience multiple times, and it can be done successfully and create long term benefits.
- The key to a successful move is plenty of time to assess your needs and make well-researched decisions, based on those needs. You especially need ample time to shore up emotional and financial resources for yourself and your family. This minimizes stress and enables the whole household (elderly family members and pets included) to anticipate, process, and adapt to a big change in a healthy way.
- There are plenty of online resources to set you up for success and safety throughout the process of planning, transporting, arriving, and unpacking a long-distance move, whether you’re striking out on your own, or moving the whole family and several pianos.