Good service is only part of the equation—you also want a good price. You’ll find tremendous price differences from equally reliable moving companies.

Local Moves

For local moves, almost all companies base their prices on the number of workers and the amount of time needed for the job. If you get help packing, the price will also include a charge for any company-supplied containers.

The only way to get a good price is to shop around. Ask several movers to provide written estimates.

Most companies are willing to offer an estimate with a cap—you won’t pay more than the cap, and you’ll pay less if it takes less time than the estimate. But some companies offer only nonbinding estimates, and we found that some companies won’t commit to a binding estimate for the packing portion of moving jobs.

Maryland law stipulates that movers must provide customers with written estimates and must indicate whether estimates are binding or nonbinding. For nonbinding estimates, movers cannot charge consumers more than 25 percent above the total estimated cost. So if you’re moving to or from an address in Maryland, any written, nonbinding estimate in effect includes a not-to-exceed price.

If you are moving over 30 road miles within Virginia, movers’ estimates are based on tariffs they must file with the Department of Motor Vehicles. A mover cannot charge more than its maximum tariff, which is based on weight and distance, but a mover may discount its tariff.

Become a Smarter Consumer Get free, expert advice delivered to your inbox every Wednesday when you sign up for the Weekly Checklist newsletter.

In the District, movers are required to provide a written contract unless the total charge will be less than $50.

We strongly recommend that you get an estimate with a cap or a binding estimate. Otherwise, the company may work slowly, and you’ll pay more than estimated. Also, without a binding price from each company, you lack a sound basis for comparing companies’ prices.

Some companies argue that binding estimates have to be inflated to cover contingencies, and that nonbinding estimates usually mean less-costly moves. We doubt it. If a company knows it is competing with several other bidders, its binding estimate will be its best guess of the true (non-inflated) cost, taking all contingencies into account.

Make sure your quote details services to be performed and goods to be transported. Otherwise, on moving day you may find yourself in a dispute with a mover who wants to charge you extra for work you thought was included. Prepare a written inventory describing the rooms and major items to be moved; then have the estimate refer to this list, with an attached copy.

Maryland’s Household Goods Movers Act protects consumers from moving companies holding customers’ belongings hostage until they pay charges higher than previously agreed. For a move within Maryland, a mover must deliver your goods once it has loaded them onto its truck, even if you have a dispute over the final bill. But this law doesn’t completely protect you from excessive charges: If the moving company estimates your move will take 10 hours and it takes 15, and you insist on paying for only 10 hours, the moving company can still sue for the cost of the extra five hours of labor.

To illustrate the range of bid prices you can expect, the figure below shows illustrative prices for three local moves. As you can see, moving companies quote widely divergent prices for the same jobs.

Our Ratings Tables report hourly peak-season labor rates for two-, three-, four-, and five-person crews. The hourly rates varied substantially.

Long-Distance Moves

For long-distance interstate 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 simply agrees to discount its tariff rate, or portions of its tariff rate, by a specified percentage. It might, for example, agree to give you a 35 percent discount for the long-haul part of its charges and a 20 percent discount for packing.

If you wish to have your move governed by the tariff, less specified discounts, have the company give you a nonbinding estimate that shows its rates and the promised discount. Actual charges will be determined during the move itself. For example, the company’s estimate will include an estimated weight; the truck will be weighed before and after your load is added; and you will be charged for the actual, not estimated, weight of your load. With a nonbinding estimate, you will only be required to pay up to 110 percent of the estimate cost at the time of delivery (no more than 10 percent above the estimate); the mover can bill you for any remaining charges after 30 days from delivery.

Alternatively, a mover can offer a binding estimate. You will pay no more and no less, as long as you make no changes to the job. If you add work after the estimate is prepared—additional furniture, for instance—your estimate will be refigured.

In preparing binding estimates, moving companies consider the same factors as when they prepare nonbinding estimates—weight, miles, special circumstances, etc. Having estimators follow similar guidelines ensures carriers that different agents will prepare similar bids. That’s important because the revenue of carriers, independent driver-operators, and destination-city agents are all affected by the price charged by the booking agent. But guidelines for binding bids are important only for the company’s internal purposes: You pay the bottom-line quoted price even if the load weighs far more or less, or packing takes far longer or shorter than expected.

Many companies offer a third option: estimates with a binding maximum, usually referred to as a “not-to-exceed price.” You won’t have to pay more than the maximum, but you’ll pay less if your load is lighter than expected.

The easiest way to compare movers is to get binding estimates or estimates with a binding maximum. If you don’t yet know which items you will move, you can use a nonbinding estimate for the long-haul charges. Get estimates in writing, and understand what each estimate does and does not include. Not getting a binding total price for the packing and packaging materials portion of the job is risky, however, because you’ll have no way to make sure the company packs efficiently.

The figure below includes illustrative prices for three long-distance moves quoted to our undercover shoppers by phone. No packing is included (because estimates for packing can’t be given by phone). We for the most part found big price differences.