To deal effectively with moving companies, it helps to know how the industry works. A key is to know about the differences between local and long-distance moves.

Long-distance interstate moves—from San Francisco to Chicago, for example—are regulated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The FMCSA has rules regarding documents movers must provide to customers; the mover’s liability for loss of, or damage to, belongings; types of estimates that can be provided; and other matters. Intrastate moves—both local and long-distance—are regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission.

Along with differences in regulations, there are also big differences in practice between local and long-distance moves.

For local moves, you contract with a single company that does the entire job; for long-distance moves, the process is more complex.

For long-distance moves, interstate carriers (for example, Allied, North American, and United Van Lines) coordinate the operations of many independent moving companies throughout the country. The various small, medium, and large companies that own trucks arrange to carry customers’ belongings long distances, obtain loads to utilize their equipment for return trips, and find personnel to pack, load, and provide other services wherever needed.

The roles of interstate carriers, their local agents, and independent contract truckers vary among companies and moving jobs.

Some interstate carriers maintain employee-staffed branch offices, but most rely on independently owned moving companies to serve as their agents.

The agent sends a representative to your home to prepare an estimate and “order for service.” If you agree to use the agent’s affiliated interstate carrier, the agent will notify the carrier, which will dispatch a driver and truck to pick up and deliver your goods at the scheduled time.

Most local agents have their own trucks, which they use both for local moves and long-distance moves performed under contract with the interstate carrier. If your move is only a few hundred miles, the local agent will likely ask the long-distance carrier to give it the contract to do the haul, and the interstate carrier is likely to honor that request. But for longer moves, the interstate carrier’s dispatcher will use any trucks that happen to be in the area and are available to travel in the direction of your move. These will probably not be the local agent’s trucks.

Even if the interstate carrier dispatches a contract trucker from some other part of the country for your move, the agent that prepares your estimate and books your move is likely to have a substantial role in the move. Your agent can offer advice, provide packing assistance, and may arrange for local hourly labor to load your belongings.