What to do when items are lost or damaged during a move

Though movers take several precautions to safeguard your belongings as they are being transported from your old home to your new one, things don't always go as planned. As your items are being unpacked, you might discover that a piece of furniture has been severely scratched or that a box of dishes has become a box of shards. Some belongings may have disappeared altogether.

Damage might be a result of rough handling or an accident, such as an item being dropped. And as they warn you on airplanes, contents may shift during the journey; a few big potholes could cause a box of fragile items to tumble to the floor of the truck.

Missing items may have been misplaced or stolen. Nicole La Capria, writing for the moving information site Movers.com, says movers often juggle several jobs and might accidentally deliver some of your items to another customer whose belongings are riding on the same truck. Theft can occur if a truck or storage facility is left unguarded, or someone might even take a box from the curb if they think a homeowner is giving it away.

Taking precautions

If you have a home inventory, you'll already have a handy list of your belongings. If you don't have an inventory, a move is a good time to start one. Make a list of what is in each box as well as items which will be shipped individually.

Research a few different moving companies. You can get a sense of their performance through ratings on the Better Business Bureau as well as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Keep a closer eye on some of your most valuable objects by taking them with you. If you are driving to your new home, you'll have some space to take things like family albums, jewelry, and anything else you consider especially important.

Make sure you read through the terms of agreement provided by the moving company. Kara Wahlgren, writing for HGTV, says the FMCSA forbids movers from having a customer sign any agreement that relieves the company of any liability from losses or damage.

While moving companies typically include some protection against damage, it is not very useful for more valuable items. The Surface Transportation Board, which is part of the Department of Transportation, says federal law allows moving companies to assume limited liability for loss in exchange for charging customers a lower rate. The liability is set at 60 cents a pound, so you'll only get a small amount of compensation for heavy and valuable items.

However, movers must apply full-value protection unless a customer decides to go with the limited liability rate. Under full protection, the company will compensate you for the full value of a lost or damaged item, replace it with a comparable item, or pay for repairs.

Insurance

Check with your existing insurance policies to see if they will protect you during a move. The Insurance Information Institute says homeowner's insurance or renter's insurance generally won't cover any losses incurred in a move.

Trip transit insurance will offer additional protection during a move, but only to a point. These policies will cover items that are lost, stolen, or damaged by fire; however, they won't cover any damages done by the movers or by flooding at a storage facility.

For your most valuable items, a separate policy may be advisable. These policies will cover artwork, jewelry, and other expensive items no matter where they are.

Unpacking

Make sure you have gone through your entire inventory to confirm that all of your belongings have arrived. Wahlgren says you should alert the moving company to any missing or damaged items and make a note on the bill of lading. If you rush through the process and confirm that all of your belongings have arrived in good condition, it will be much harder to track them down or file a claim against the movers.

La Capria says you should double-check your home before reporting an item missing. A box or piece of furniture may have simply ended up in another room. If possible, you can check with your landlord or real estate agent to see if the item is still at your former address.

The moving company might be able to recover a missing item for you. Many can track their shipments and identify if an item was delivered to the wrong address, left at a storage facility, or otherwise misplaced.

Filing a claim

If you need to make a claim with your insurer or the moving company, make sure you do so within the required time limits. Claims with the moving company must be filed within nine months of the move.

Wahlgren recommends turning down any offer to settle on the spot, since you can easily underestimate the value of a missing or damaged item. Instead, file a claim with the company in writing. Checking the mover's claims process before a move will also help you decide whether to work with the company.

The company should respond to acknowledge your claim within 30 days. They will follow this up with either a denial of the claim or an offer of compensation. This letter should arrive within six months.

You can also file a complaint against the company if you believe they are responsible for your damaged or lost items and have not taken responsibility. Complaints can be made to the FMCSA or Better Business Bureau.

Alternatively, you can seek arbitration in the matter. La Capria says the American Moving and Storage Association offers arbitration services for moving losses, and that a moving company must accept arbitration for losses of less than $10,000. Be prepared to pay an administrative fee to use this service.

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