It was a blistering August day, and I — already stressed to tears over the endless preparations for moving out of the house where my family had lived for 14 years — stood speechless on the sidewalk as a dubious cast of characters loaded the truck with something that struck me as less than tender loving care.

Then our beloved family babysitter, to whom we had tearfully bid goodbye, showed up at my side. Beaming, she presented my son with a huge package, the contents of which was making suspicious scratching sounds.

It was a blistering August day, and I — already stressed to tears over the endless preparations for moving out of the house where my family had lived for 14 years — stood speechless on the sidewalk as a dubious cast of characters loaded the truck with something that struck me as less than tender loving care.

Then our beloved family babysitter, to whom we had tearfully bid goodbye, showed up at my side. Beaming, she presented my son with a huge package, the contents of which was making suspicious scratching sounds.

"It’s a hamster!" she proclaimed, apparently fulfilling my 5-year-old’s lifelong dream. I resisted the temptation to hand Billy, as my son promptly named him, to the movers and resigned myself to having one more responsibility.

But emblazoned in my memory — and ears — is the tedious, 35-mile drive to our new home, in a minivan stuffed literally to the ceiling with our personal items. Wedged somewhere in the detritus in the back, the rodent spent the entire journey running as hard as he could on his cage’s squeaky little wheel.

There’s a metaphor in there somewhere. Hamster-gifting probably is a rare enough occurrence that it probably doesn’t merit mention in a list of "how-to-keep-saner-while-moving" suggestions. But to me that moment has always underscored the thought that moving is stressful enough without piling on — that there ought to be ways to sidestep some of the tensions (and the costs, which are a source of stress unto themselves).

Five things to consider in simplifying your move (plus this tip: avoid last-minute hamsters):

1. Start thinking about moving as soon as you can. The American Moving and Storage Association, a trade association, has created a "Moving Countdown Calendar" at Moving.org that suggests a timetable for specific chores in the two-month period leading up to the big day.

On it are such necessities as interviewing three movers for estimates (60 days ahead), starting to gather and organize important personal papers (45 days), reserving rental equipment if you’re moving yourself (30 days), and getting the car serviced if using it in the relocation (12 days). Start packing 28 days ahead, the chart says in bold letters.

2. Do you really need to be told to get rid of stuff beforehand? Apparently so.

"The big thing you hear about organizing — you hear it again and again — is worth repeating," said Bill Sheehan, chief operating officer of Relocation.com, a referral site for finding professional movers. Sheehan himself has moved eight times in the past 12 years, and says he’s lost much of his inclination to accumulate possessions.

"People move junk all the time," he says. "Get rid of it, because you’re going to pay for moving it."

Sheehan’s firm says that, in a hypothetical move from New York to Los Angeles for a family with a three-bedroom house, 7,500 pounds of household goods typically would make the transcontinental journey. It assumed an average price tag of $6,500, though it said there were many factors that could affect those costs. 

Get rid of 10 percent of your belongings before you go and you’ll knock $250 to $400 off the bill, the company estimated. Start "editing" your belongings by getting rid of clothes. Among your household goods, pack only items you’ve used in the past year, Sheehan said.

3. Third-party companies that will handle the chore of stopping and starting utility services abound on the Internet these days.

"These are one-stop shops," Sheehan said. They can be time-savers. …CONTINUED

"The advantage is that you can get bundled service — phone, electricity, cable all in one," he said.

"The disadvantage is that a specific company has a specific bundle that you have to purchase," he said. "Maybe you want DirecTV rather than cable from another provider."

Allconnect.com and WhiteFence.com are among the utilities-connection services.

Another consideration: Some services may require submitting personal data that you’d rather not be sending out online, no matter how secure the service says it is.

4. Some of major moving companies have added "concierge" services that go beyond merely packing, moving and unpacking.

Mayflower and United, for instance, last year unveiled cleaning services available at your old or new house. In addition, in many locations they’ll do such things as network your computers or set up your home theater at the new place, or come back after you’ve settled in and remove unwanted boxes and packing debris.

Doing it all yourself? UHaul.com has a customer-to-customer message board for those looking to give away or acquire boxes.

5. Getting ripped off probably would count as the ultimate stressor in moving.

The typical sage advice is to get multiple bids from movers, which can vary by surprising amounts.

Sheehan said his company’s research shows that one of the biggest complaints after a move comes from customers who end up with a much bigger bill than expected.

"They say, they quoted me ‘X’ dollars and I went with them because they were the cheapest and they weren’t good," Sheehan says. "Just because a company is the cheapest doesn’t mean it provides the best customer service.

"You need to go onto consumer Web sites and go to the Better Business Bureau to see if they have complaints," he said. "All moving companies are probably going to have some complaints, so it’s worth going through them to figure out how serious they are. Do they have a few complaints, which is what you might expect, or do they have dozens?"

Further, he said, make sure the moving company is legit. There are many under-the-radar movers these days. You can ask to see proof that a mover is insured.

ProtectYourMove.gov is a site maintained by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration; it offers extensive information on researching moving companies’ credentials and legal responsibilities toward consumers.

Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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