Planning a move? New rules apply and bear checking

It's spring, and for many people, thoughts turn to - moving?

It may not be the most romantic thing to think about as the crocuses and daffodils push through the ground, but nearly 1 in 5 Americans moves to a new home every year, and a big share of them do so in the summer, when the children are out of school.

It is true that with higher mortgage rates, more two-career families, and a growing reluctance to accept frequent transfers, the number of people moving each year has dropped from 20 percent of the population to 17 percent. But if you are pulling up stakes, there are some new elements to the moving business you should know about - unless you plan to rent a truck and put your back to the job yourself.

The changes in the moving business, growing out of the 1980 law that deregulated the industry, have prompted movers to come up with new ''products'' they could not, or would not, offer before.

For many people, the selection of a moving company is easy: The firm they work for has a contract with a major mover to handle all employee transfers. But others, including those who have to pay for the move themselves, will want to ask the movers which, if any, of the new services they offer and to compare them.

The most sweeping change appears to center around what are called binding estimates. With the average interstate move costing nearly $2,000, customers like to know they won't have to shell out extra cash when the furniture arrives, especially since movers won't unload until they get paid. So many moving firms will guarantee that the price they quote is the one you'll pay, even if the load weighs more.

Most of the time, however, movers overestimate the size of the goods, so you end up paying for someone else's poundage. As a result, some moving companies now weigh the truck before and after it is loaded and charge whichever is less - the estimate or the actual weight. Try to find a mover that gives you this advantage.

If your furniture arrives with a new hole in the back of the old chest of drawers, you'll expect some reimbursement for the damage. This is where insurance, or replacement value coverage, comes in. Before, customers basically had two choices. They could take the automatic coverage, which paid them 60 cents per pound for each item damaged beyond repair. Or, they could have the coverage increased to about $1.25 a pound by paying $5 for each $1,000 of protection.

Now, many companies are offering a variety of protection plans that let you replace the damaged item at today's prices, a nice thing to know if you have - er, had - a 10-year-old color television set. Rates and the types of coverage vary, so you'll want to compare companies on this.

Also, like automobile insurance, you can lower the rate if you are willing to increase the deductible, that is the amount of damage you will pay for. Some companies, for instance, will charge you only 5 cents per 100 pounds if you take a $1,000 deductible. You can get a lower deductible - say, $250 - for 30 cents per 100 pounds. The average weight of a household move, according to the American Movers Conference, is 5,500 to 6,000 pounds.

Of course, you can also lower the cost of a move by not moving as much stuff. This may help explain the proliferation of garage sales and yard sales in the spring, put on by people who have discovered that it is often cheaper to sell something and replace it than it is to move it.

Movers also suggest you draw a floor plan to scale of your new home, to make sure your furniture will fit. Better to find out the extra-long sofa won't fit in the living room before you pay to have it loaded, hauled, and unloaded, only to find it won't get past the front lawn. If possible, check out the doors, windows, and stairways of your new home to make sure you can get everything to the rooms where it belongs.

Finally, if you and the moving company have a dispute over costs, damages, or lost items, you can take your disagreement to arbitration. The Movers Conference and the American Arbitration Association recently devised a program under which customers may ask the association to appoint an impartial arbitrator to settle the argument.

Nearly 30 movers have agreed to participate and, before the move, they should give you a brochure describing your rights in case of a disagreement. If you want to know what companies are in the program, write the American Movers Conference, Dispute Settlement Program, 400 Army-Navy Drive, Arlington, Va., 22202.

Multiple IRA accounts

We want to open an individual retirement account (IRA), but we'd like to spread our money among more than one investment, even using different financial institutions. Is this possible? -W.H.

Yes, as long as your total annual contribution does not exceed $2,000, you can open as many different IRAs as you like. It's too early to tell which of the many financial insitututions offering IRAs will have the best performance, so if you have $2,000 to invest, you may want to spread the money around to minimize risk. You could, for instance, put $500 in a bank, $500 in stocks, $500 in a mutual fund, and $500 with an insurance company. Also remember that you can invest less than $2,000 - as little as you like - and still spread the total among more than one account. Of course, by multiplying the number of IRAs you may also be multiplying your management costs. So you should check any fees or other expenses involved.

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