Why are self-service moves potentially risky?

If you’re planning a move abroad, a long list of to-dos you probably never anticipated will quickly begin to form.
If you’re planning a move abroad, a long list of to-dos you probably never anticipated will quickly begin to form.

Questions such as “What will I do with my bank account? What’s going to happen to my furniture, or even my house and car? How will I forward any post to an overseas home?” will start to invade your daily thoughts.
Even when so much of a person’s professional and private life is at stake, people choose to move by themselves, without the help of a relocation company - commonly called “self-service moves” (or “DIY moves” for short).

There are advantages to this approach. You’re micro-manage every detail for one. Chiefly though, the main advantage for most is that DIY moves – in avoiding certain labor costs – can appear less costly than professional relocations (although there’s a risk in international relocations that these savings may fail to materialize).

Assuming you can find a competitively priced DIY moving option, the question arises: Why would someone choose a professional mover, what value do they offer?

Moving internationally: An anxious time

You may be surprised to learn there’s a small body of psychology that focuses on moving and relocating. While the focus of the research tends to be expatriate workers, a lot of what is revealed applies to anyone who relocates internationally. 
Homesickness is a recurring theme in many surveys of expatriate mental health, let alone the issues of managing an entire family relocation overseas. It also underscores something we miss when we think about moving: It’s not just about the process of moving your belongings, it’s the longer process of settling into your new home.  

Does this mean you should assume the worst? Of course not. There’s a complex interaction between excitement, anxiety and fear at play. The new opportunities, whether career, cultural or lifestyle related, are enjoyable to think about. The process itself however, with enormous to-do lists, is what gives people most unease at the outset.

This is the most obvious reason to use a professional moving company. It means you won’t be alone when it comes to dealing with the complexity of a move abroad. From the planning stages, through to transit and settling in, you’ll have an experienced, dedicated partner who has helped tens of thousands of people like you relocate before.

“First-time relocations are always the most difficult. There are almost certainly rules, regulations and best practices that you’re not even aware of, so it’s worth at least sounding out some advice from an expert.”
Hannah Bunce, Move Manager, Crown Relocations, London
“The whole process of moving is quite stressful and nerve-wracking. I often feel overwhelmed and not sure what to do.”
A millennial mover, from one of our market research sessions

What advantages should a professional relocator be offering?

Which leads us to what specifically a professional relocation firm does to make a move smoother? Let’s illustrate some of the advantages:
1. Properly surveying your property and possessions
The main reason why many choose a DIY move is the apparent ease of just hiring a “man with a van” to turn up and move their belongings into boxes, put them in the back, and take them to where they need to be.

The problem with this approach is that, in all but a few cases, there will have been no comprehensive survey of your belongings. In the case of a relocation firm, even a smaller one, what’s called a “home survey”, conducted either in person or through a smartphone app, is an absolute necessity. This establishes what needs to be moved, both in terms of volume of goods and type (for example, artwork needs to be handled slightly differently to cutlery). It also means operational teams need to know how many crew members to send to you, how large the truck needs to be, the type and quantity of packing materials required and so on.

Importantly, they’ll also know exactly what parking permits are needed and what the rules about loading and unloading are, which is crucial if you’re in a higher floored apartment. This is something that catches out some “man in a van” operations; improper use of loading and permit bays usually equals hefty fines.

Ultimately, it’s all about professional expertise. DIY moves can be well planned and executed, and they certainly have their place, but don’t underestimate how complex international moving is. 
2. Professional packing and loading
Packing items professionally entails more than you imagine. Custom-built crates (crating)  are often used for large and high-value items to prevent damage in transit. Different surfaces also demand different materials: For example, a good packing crew will:

  • Use kraft paper on the exterior of furniture to prevent scratching
  • Ensure polished surfaces are padded with soft material for the same reason
  • Ensure boxes are not overpacked to equally distribute weight, these can then be safely loaded onto vehicles
  • Label boxes clearly so they can be organized by room (e.g. kitchen) at destination
Bespoke crating is particularly important for artwork, antiques or other high-value items. You’ll want to give your comfortable mattress or prized TV more than just a box and foam. Moreover, the full range of materials they’ll have access to exhausts what you’ll be able to find at your local hardware store, such as reinforced cardboard boxes specifically created for housing large televisions, or wardrobe-shaped boxes designed to keep clothes upright.

No less serious is making sure you don’t hurt yourself. We’re all familiar with instructional videos on safe lifting techniques; but for many, a home move will be the heaviest and most labor-intensive task they’ve done in many years (if not ever). A key part of any large moving company’s training process will be how to safely handle, lift and move large objects.There’s also the issue of waste. Who is going to deal with all that wastepaper and cardboard scattered around your home? Reliable relocation firms will pack, deliver and clean any mess they cause.
3. Shipping (and receiving)
Have you ever dealt directly with a shipping or air cargo company? Probably not. It isn’t called “the secret industry” for nothing. International relocators have existing relationships with commercial shipping companies and organizations, making it easier for them to access better rates and arrange flexible timelines. You may find your arrival in your new home requires shipping to work in tandem with a company’s in-house fleet of vehicles to provide maximum flexibility.

Furthermore, what if you arrive in your new home after your goods do? You’ll have to start thinking about storage. If you’re doing a self-service move, this is another piece of the puzzle you’re going to have to put into place: uncovering storage firms at destination, finding out if they’re reliable, arranging for transport from the port to their facility and so on. If you’re using an international relocation firm with scale, they’ll often have their own storage facilities you can use. Another load off your back, and meaning you can rest easy even if you’re arriving weeks after your goods do.
4. Navigating customs
Port agents, clearance agents, export and import officers. Customs is probably the most complex part of managing your own relocation, and it needs to happen twice! At both origin and destination.
Did you know that Japan is particularly stringent on allergy medications like Sudafed because of strict rules about stimulants? Or that Australia bans the import of virtually every type of food product from overseas to protect its own ecosystem?

These are good illustrations, but they’re also deceptive in that many people have a smattering of knowledge about how strict Australia can be. This is merely the tip of an iceberg, and the rules are far more opaque than those described. Say for instance you happened to file out of date paperwork with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declaring your car’s environmental impact? Expect it to not only be impounded but to also to be hit with administrative charges -to add insult to injury! The rules governing pets (pet passports, vaccination records, rules for certain breeds) are even worse.

Can you remember, and did you properly itemize every item you shipped when issuing your inventory? Because one slip-up is enough for customs personnel in most countries to hold the entire shipment for months. Do you know what the value-threshold is for when your host country will apply sales tax to the items within your shipment? More importantly, did you know there are methods to recover some of these payments back?
The advantage of a professional firm here is expertise. Managing tens of thousands of shipments to dozens of countries means up-to-date knowledge about the regulations, laws and taxes. It also means they’re familiar with what to do in the rare event something goes wrong.   
5. Destination services
We’ve already established that the ’settling in’ phase of relocating is crucial to its overall success. Failure to adjust to a new country is the most common reason overseas work assignments fail. Now, not everyone moving abroad is doing so for professional reasons, but regardless of why you relocate, adjusting to your new home is going to be a challenge.

This is where the global scope of an international relocations company can put you at an advantage. Many provide people on the ground, in major destinations, to deliver expertise and destination services for just about anything. Want to arrange a trip in advance to get a feel for the place? That can be done. Want to understand which areas of a city are within your affordability range? Or even get an idea of how much a weekly shop for your needs would cost? This is also possible. Many even provide what’s called “spousal support” and can help your partner find work and local activities.


In conclusion, self-service/DIY moves are a solution for very particular sorts of moves, often ones made locally. However, if you’re looking at an international or cross-state relocation, you start to deal with exponentially more items to manage. It’s a ubiquitous cliché, but time itself is a valuable commodity, and managing everything from pet passports and identifying local schools for your kids to customs officials who may not speak your language is an enormous undertaking. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, always understand that the cost savings you anticipate may well fail to materialize. After all, dealing with a dozen different suppliers means you won’t be accessing the same level of economies of scale.