Moving experiences to avoid

Smashed plates, broken piano ... with removal companies, the worst can happen. Anne Spackman explains how to get it right
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The Independent Online
Pickfords used to run an advertisement which showed a blue-and- white Habitat plate, underneath which ran the slogan "In our hands it's Meissen". I used to have a set of those plates, until the fateful day five years ago that the plates were entrusted, with all our other worldly possessions, to Pickfords. Not only did we end up two Habitat plates short; we also lost three small tables, a wardrobe, a television, a piano and countless other pieces of crockery when Pickfords dropped them off a forklift in its warehouse.

We waited on the doorstep for three hours, ringing regularly, and being told they were on their way. The first we knew that anything had gone wrong was when one of the crew arrived and said, "you mean you don't know?" There had been an accident, "but it's nothing to do with me", he added. We rang Pickfords in a state of some agitation. They couldn't send anyone around to sort it out until the next week because they were busy. Vesuvius- level anger was required to persuade them that they had better send someone round the next day.

During the weeks that followed we had dealings with various Pickfords staff, only one of whom seemed to grasp the enormity of the accident for us. She was in the legal department. "I'll take you to see the remains," she said gently, as if we had suffered a bereavement.

Which in a small way we had. Moving house is traumatic enough. Losing about a third of your furniture is a shattering blow. It's not only the sentimental attachment; it is the cost and hassle of trying to replace everything when you should be getting back to normal after the upheaval of the move.

Apart from the lawyer, we had one small but vital crumb of comfort: my husband had uncharacteristically read the small print of the document he signed in Pickfords' office. He noticed that we were not covered for replacement insurance unless he signed an extra bit at the bottom and paid a few more pounds. Although this did not prevent a lengthy wrangle, it did mean we eventually received compensation.

Ours was a particularly unfortunate experience. But plenty of other people have horror stories to tell about removal firms. How can you avoid it happening to you?

The British Association of Removers (BAR) - of which Pickfords is the largest member - sensibly suggests that personal recommendation is the safest option. However, if you are a first-time mover it is likely that none of your friends will have recommendations to offer.

It was a bad experience as a first-time mover that led Anthony Ward-Thomas into the removals business. Not only were the crew surly smokers, but they stole two pairs of his shoes. "It was the idea of someone trying on my stuff to see what fitted which was most appalling," he said.

He spent a week on the lorries of another firm in south London to learn the ropes. "It was most instructive," he said. "The petty thieving was staggering."

He bought his first lorry at auction, got a heavy goods vehicle licence and set himself up in business in 1986. Now he has seven lorries, 24 staff, a warehouse and moves about 35 houses a week. Almost all business comes by word of mouth.

"It is a question of attitude," Mr Ward-Thomas said. "The guys on the ground are what you are paying for. The brief of all crew leaders is to take the worry out of the situation and make the customer feel at ease. The men introduce themselves, explain what they are going to do and ask if you have any problems. We have never had a reported petty theft."

Alan and Jan Colls used Ward-Thomas Removals last week for the second time. "I rather navely asked if I could have the same crew," Mr Colls said, totally unflustered only one hour after moving in. "Of course I couldn't. But these were just as good. They were jolly, but incredibly efficient. They can't do enough to help. We had a huge loft where you couldn't even stand up. They set up a sort of chain gang and cleared the whole thing out."

The Colls were moving a few hundred yards within London. Most of Mr Ward- Thomas's business is in the Greater London area, though it also does international moves. It charges around £400-£600 to move the contents of the average three-bedroom Victorian terrace house. This is about two-thirds of the way up a price scale which starts at around £250.

For a longer move, which requires an overnight stay, the cost would double. Prices include packing all the goods up as well as moving them. "Packing is what makes moving such a miserable business," Mr Ward-Thomas said. "Also, if we pack, it is less likely that there will be breakages."

If personal recommendations are not forthcoming people have to resort to the Yellow Pages, where it is impossible to tell the good from the bad. Membership of the BAR gives certain guarantees that the firm is unlikely to disappear with your furniture or your money. The association only accepts members whose business is established, inspects the offices and vehicles of prospective members, and ensures that firms hold an operator's licence which allows them to drive large removal lorries. Essentially the association weeds out cowboys.

After that, the association recommends that people go to a firm's office, rather than do everything on the telephone, to get some idea of how it is run. It also advises people to check the insurance cover very carefully, especially if some of the furniture being moved is valuable.

If there is an accident and, say, your five-year-old sofa is torn, you will get back what the insurer deems to be the value of a five-year-old sofa, rather than the price of a new one - unless you take out extra cover. If you are not happy with the offer, or the service given, the BAR operates a consumer service desk to help customers and companies agree a settlement.

Insurance is particularly important if - like increasing numbers of people - you are putting your goods into storage between selling your old house and buying a new one. Some firms do not include insurance against fire in their warehouse cover. Compared with that, an accident with a fork- lift truck pales into insignificance.

I contacted Pickfords to ask if anything had changed in the five years since I moved. Yes, was the unequivocal reply. Linda Schofield, Pickfords' marketing manager, said the company had been running a training programme in both operational skills and customer service for the past four years."We are all measured on our performance and there are awards for the best. I do feel things have changed here and I am very sorry you had such a bad experience."