Property: A break for the border? Don't expect an easy ride

Haulage companies who made a detour through Switzerland during the recent French lorry strike had a sharp reminder of the days of border bureaucracy. Such a firm's clients might have found themselves rattling around an empty home, while their worldly possessions were stuck at the frontier.

Penny Jackson reports on the perils of relocating abroad.

So used is everyone to the free movement of goods within the EU, that the requirements of those countries on the outside can be forgotten. A move to Zurich may seem, on the face of it, to be as easy as moving to Bonn, but it is far more complicated.

"At the border you have to produce proof of employment and a permit to reside in the country, as well as other forms, including an undertaking not to sell anything within 12 months. If you don't have the forms, the customs charge a bond which can stretch to thousands of pounds," says William Karslake, of Ward-Thomas Removals. "They can even impound the vehicle, although that is rare."

He suggests checking with companies offering a service to Europe that they are familiar with the concept of clearing customs. "Too many people learn the hard way. Everyone knows you need a lot of paperwork for eastern Europe, but they forget that places such as the Channel Islands and Gibraltar are not in the EU. It is the responsibility of the removals firm to have the correct documentation."

The cost of moving a household across the Channel varies between pounds 3,500 for, say, Paris, and pounds 5,500 for the south of Spain, at Ward-Thomas prices. It can cost a great deal more to move back into the UK, since services are costly on the Continent. One couple who moved to Denmark for long periods found it cost them pounds 2,000 to move there with a small operator, and pounds 5,000 to return. The second time round they employed a British company to collect their goods from Denmark.

It is also worth reminding people that where duty is payable, it is not a good idea to take new goods. "Make sure there are signs of use", is Karslake's advice, since anything spanking new will be spotted by customs. Not a problem for one family moving to France, who not only uprooted their Aga, but took two oak trees from their garden, roughly cut into lorry- length planks.

Even within EU countries, the detail of settling down can be harder than arranging transport. Most companies employ relocation agents to smooth the way, and a European association is in the process of being set up.

At present, the UK leads the field within Europe, with France having the second most organised relocation industry. According to Tad Zurlinden, chief executive of the Association of Relocation Agents, the emphasis differs. Some 86 per cent of the agents' clients in mainland Europe are companies, and 14 per cent individuals, while in the UK it is closer to half and half.

In Europe, 80 per cent want to rent and only 20 per cent to buy, whereas the figures for the UK are almost reversed. Patricia Roe, a partner in Map Relocations, based in Brussels, knows how daunting Belgian bureaucracy can be.

She says: "You have to know the right person to get things moving. Everyone must have commune registration and while some [areas] are very welcoming, others, like central Brussels, can take months. It is a nightmare because you need it for everything."

When it comes to leases, she finds the difference between a fixed term and an open-ended lease poses a trap for the unwary. "It is easy to make an expensive mistake if an assignment is suddenly cut short", says Ms Roe. Even inventories, or the so-called etat des lieux (which, roughly translated, means "the state of the place") require hours of an expert's time.

"They are massive documents which detail anything from cracks in the parquet to marks on the carpet. Unscrupulous landlords would make the most of them, but now tenants are beginning to be better protected."

In Germany, it helps to know that your accommodation may possibly be minus a kitchen, although in cosmopolitan centres it is becoming more common for them to be included, finds Helmut Berg, of RSB Deutschland, a German relocation firm.

Apart from help with registering and opening bank accounts, cross-cultural seminars prove useful. "If someone is working with a German team, it does help if they know about the culture and how things are done. This equally applies to the German employees, of course," adds Herr Berg.

But when it comes to orientation - part of a relocation agent's brief - spare a thought for Monique Lamontagne, head of relocation at the European Bank. When its staff started moving into the Central Asian republics, her logistical nightmares began.

She recently arranged for an English family to move to Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, which involved some 20 border crossings. "They took all their own furniture, since out there it is either extremely ornate or of a very poor standard. We also send out dried food twice a year. In the winter some accommodation does not have a regular supply of fuel, and we are having to arrange for their own generator to be installed. Then you have medical care and security to worry about," she says.

And now, after all that, she may well have to start all over again; the Kazakh government is looking for a new capital city.

Association of Relocation Agents directory, 01273 624455; Map Relocations, 0032 2658 8080; RSB Deutschland, 0049 69 6 0310 91; Ward-Thomas Removals, 0171 4980144.