You’ll need to think about what kind of moving services you’ll need, your timetable and the time it takes to get estimates. Puget Sound Consumers’ Checkbook can help.

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CONSUMERS’ CHECKBOOK

It’s time to relocate. You assess the situation:

1.The days when you could shove everything you owned into the back of a friend’s Subaru are long over.

2.You can’t remember how the delivery guys got your sectional through the front door — and can’t imagine how you’ll get it out.

3.You pack three or four boxes, do the math and figure the job will take roughly 600 hours and 1,200 boxes.

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4.Your back hurts. Already.

5.Your spouse is whining about doing manual labor. Already.

6.When you tell friends you’re moving, they break eye contact, grow silent and slowly back away.

Yep. You’re gonna need to hire movers.

Checkbook.org’s ratings of area moving companies will steer you to the best outfits. Through a special arrangement, Seattle Times readers can access Checkbook’s ratings of area moving companies for free through June 30 by visiting the website listed at the end of this column.

Before calling anyone, think first about what services you need. You’ll save a lot of money by doing work yourself — particularly packing your own stuff. But keep in mind that having a company pack saves you time and improves your basis for filing an insurance claim if damage occurs. No matter who does the packing, plan to pack and move fragile items, jewelry, framed art and other especially valuable belongings yourself.

If you’re planning a long-distance move, also think about your schedule. Long-distance movers usually cram several households onto each of their trucks; that makes it difficult to set accurate pickup and delivery dates because a delay with one load affects the others. If you’re on a tight schedule, focus on movers that offer a guaranteed pickup and delivery service. With this option, if the mover fails to pick up or deliver the shipment on the agreed-upon date, the mover will reimburse customers for the delay or cover living expenses (hotels and meals) caused by the delay. Although movers usually charge a premium for this provision, it may be worth the price if you are on a tight schedule.

If you need storage services, if possible inspect the storage facility. Also get proof that insurance will cover your belongings against theft, fire and other risks while in storage, because insurance for goods in transit won’t cover them during long-term storage.

For whatever help you need, be sure to get several estimates. Estimates should detail the services to be performed and include an inventory of items to be moved; otherwise, on moving day you may get into a dispute with a mover who wants to charge extra for work you thought the estimate included.

Checkbook’s undercover shoppers collected prices for three local moves and three hypothetical long-distance moves, and for each job found dramatic company-to-company price differences. For example, prices quoted to pack and move the contents of a three-bedroom house from Seattle to Vashon Island ranged from $2,461 to $5,984. And to move 9,000 pounds of goods from the Puget Sound area to Los Angeles we were quoted prices ranging from less than $4,996 to $9,202.

For local moves (moves within Washington of 55 miles or less), companies charge based on the number of workers and amount of time needed for the job. If you get help packing, prices will also include charges for labor and for any company-provided containers.

The only way to get a good price is to shop around. Ask several movers to provide written estimates. Some companies will provide an estimate with a cap; you won’t pay more than the cap and will pay less if the job takes less time than estimated. Most companies offer only nonbinding estimates, but because Washington law stipulates that movers cannot charge more than 25 percent above a written estimate, any written estimate in effect includes a not-to-exceed price.

For long-distance moves, moving companies must operate under a tariff system that calculates the cost of moves using weight and mileage, not hours. Company tariffs also stipulate special charges for packing and exceptional matters, such as storage, extra stops and waiting time.

However, a company’s specific tariff rate for a given move is somewhat irrelevant because it can still impose exceptions to its filed tariff rates. Usually a company agrees to discount its tariff rate, or portions of its tariff rate, by a specified percentage. It might, for example, offer a 35 percent discount for the long-haul part of its charges and a 20 percent discount for packing. As with local moves, for long-distance moves we advise you to get either binding estimates or estimates with a binding maximum.

Be on the scene — and attentive — when your belongings are loaded and unloaded. Make sure the moving company prepares an inventory of your belongings. Carefully read the bill of lading before you sign it. As your goods are unloaded, make sure each item is in good condition. Don’t sign the inventory or any other paper without first noting any damage that has occurred.

Finally, we advise you to stay away from internet-based companies when shopping for a mover. Often, these companies are brokers that do not own or operate any trucks or employ movers; they simply collect a deposit and arrange for a moving company to handle your move. The problem with such arrangements is that you have no control over who actually performs the work and you may get stuck with an inferior outfit. And because the broker typically collects its fee upfront, it may be uninterested in mediating disputes with the mover.