(MONEY Magazine) – Q. My movers were a disaster. They didn't bring tools, wouldn't move my sofa, then tried to overcharge me by claiming I had thousands of pounds more stuff than I did. I had to hire someone else to get the sofa out, and fight like crazy to get a price near the original $1,722 estimate. How could I have avoided this mess? LAILA HAZEN ATLANTA
A. Only one way: by not hiring crooks in the first place. Granted, the moving industry does attract some marginal characters, and the nature of the transaction creates a certain temptation to people predisposed to take unfair advantage. (When four burly guys have all your worldly possessions locked in their truck, they are in what you could call a strong negotiating position.) Still, finding an honest mover isn't fundamentally any more difficult than hiring a contractor or doctor or anyone else for a position of trust.
Start by getting references from friends and colleagues who've actually used the movers. It also can't hurt to ask for credentials. Check that your outfit is part of the American Moving and Storage Association (moving.org); that will at least help you avoid fly-by-night outfits. Better yet, ask a potential mover for its U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) number and see if they're properly registered and insured at safersys.org.
Get at least three quotes in writing, and make sure the bidders come to your home and evaluate your stuff. If a mover insists on giving an estimate over the phone or by e-mail, move on. Also, remember that bids are either binding or nonbinding--and a nonbinding bid is, essentially, no better than an unofficial estimate.
One red flag: a mover who charges by cubic foot rather than by poundage. There are federal rules on how to weigh shipments but not on measuring volume. And when considering bids, ignore lowball quotes that sound too good to be true.
If the same nightmare happens the next time you move, you should file a complaint with the DOT's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (online at 1-888-dot-saft.com or by phone at 888-368-7238).
Q. We just had our first baby, and my wife Beth will be a stay-at-home mom. Our income's down 40%, while our baby costs are spiraling. Even if Beth works a few days a week, we'll need to make do with less. Can you help? NEIL, BETH AND EMILY PERAZA BOCA RATON, FLA.
A. There's a lot you can do--and a good thing too, because first babies are pricey little critters ($11,000 in the typical first baby's first year). The loss of Beth's income may bite a bit less than you fear, since it should push you into a lower tax bracket and her work-related expenses will go away. Plus, you'll now get the child credit--an extra $1,000 a year for folks with incomes less than $110,000--and a $3,100 exemption on your 1040. Still, you're going to have to cut back somewhere to pay for baby and still stick to your long-term saving plan. (You do have a long-term saving plan, right?) Look for money-saving tips at miserlymoms.com and savingsecrets.com. I suspect you will come up with other money-saving tactics--like fewer nights out on the town--all on your own. Sleep deprivation does that.
OUR EXPERT AMY FELDMAN has been covering money topics for nearly 15 years.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY JUDY FELDMAN