Monday, January 19, 2015

Tips for Surviving a Domestic (or International) Home Relocation

So you’re moving, maybe even to a different country. Whether on your own or supported by a corporate relocation package, there’s bound to be a lot on on your mind: “Where can we settle that gets me to work quickly? Should we rent or buy? Are there subdivisions close to services and nightlife? Is it a safe location for me and my family?” Moving house is one of the most stressful life events people can go through. It’s often ranked right up there with the loss of a loved one, job loss, or serious illness. Our family has moved multiple times (6) in the last few years due to job relocations, and our experience has been that there a lot of resources that address your big questions. But here are some tips beyond the standard relocation firm checklist we wish we had known about before first-hand experience.

Getting Around
Map reading skills are invaluable, but if you're moving to an unfamiliar place consider investing in a car GPS (rent one if you're doing a house-hunting trip far from your current home). Nowadays, a Smart phone's maps app can serve the same purpose.

Relocation is stressful enough without getting lost, especially if it's a new country with different traffic rules. Windshield wipers in bright sunshine or sudden, erratic turn signals when it’s overcast are dead giveaways of the driver on a new side of the road. I have vivid memories of learning to drive on the opposite side of the road in Perth, Western Australia while my wife frantically tried to navigate with the UBD (the road directory that came with our rental). Our suggestion to cover the cost of a car GPS  to my HR department was adopted for subsequent expats, one of whom gratefully thanked me.

Selecting a House
Choose your Realtor carefully. We were burned badly the first time we purchased a home, but hit the jackpot with our next one. In that case, our Realtor was a referral from a colleague living in the area where we were being relocated. We ended up using that Realtor for three subsequent home sales and purchases. A Realtor who is willing to work hard for you and who is knowledgeable about the area is a golden asset (and will save you money in the long run). Also, a local expert often knows the best nearby contractors, which subdivisions are prone to basement flooding or were constructed by top-tier builders, which schools are the best, etc. In a large metropolitan area, such as Toronto, Canada, it's important to find someone who is an expert on your chosen suburb, once you've narrowed it down. Realtors may claim to “know” an area, but find out how many sales/listings they've actually closed in that particular neighborhood.

Open bank accounts ahead of time, possibly during a house-hunting trip prior to your actual relocation. You will need a check for earnest money if you choose to make a purchase offer or rental downpayment, and things go much more smoothly if it’s from a local branch. The house-hunting visit is also a good time to arrange for vehicle and homeowner’s insurance or at least check out some agencies. If you have the time, check out dentists, doctors and other essential services too. Your Realtor may be able to help in this area also. (Once settled, find out if there are any online neighborhood forums. They can be invaluable for locating a handyman or a hair stylist.)

If you see a house that feels like "the one," talk to your potential next door neighbors before putting in an offer to purchase or rent. People love to talk about their neighborhood, and you'll get a sense of the community to help balance your decision. This process has served us very well and provided invaluable information.

Check property tax rates to see if any bonds (school, etc.) are pending in your chosen community. We have been caught a couple of times by unpleasant surprise when our property taxes rose just after closing thanks to a bond being passed. Now we always ask our Realtor to investigate or do our own homework before making an offer. Sometimes it can’t be avoided if you really want to live in a specific neighborhood, but forewarned is forearmed.

Make sure you’re not moving into a zoned commercial area, unless you want to be. We moved from our first rural home (fortunately) just before a gas station was built across the corner. Our Realtor had assured us the area was strictly residential.

Don’t be pressured into a quick purchase. If your agent is too pushy, then find someone else. You are the one that has to live with the result of your decision. In some cases, it might be best to rent in order to discover which area you like best. That process, however, can be problematic if you have school-aged children; once they’re established in schools, it can be hard to move them.

Are you driving to work or taking mass transit? Visit regional websites of your new destination (for example Transperth in Western Australia, GO Transit in Toronto or the Octopus card in Hong Kong) to map out commuting options between work and local neighborhoods before you settle on a location. It may be worth putting a few dollars on a transit card and trying out your commute before committing.

Finding Schools
Though low property taxes are always nice, just remember they might cost your children a good education in the long run. On the other hand, property tax savings could pay a substantial portion of private school tuition. Research local schools online. Some examples include (U.S.) or (Canada), EQAO results (Ontario, Canada) and My School in Australia.

Standardized test results aren't everything, however; stop in at the school and ask about class sizes or pending school bonds, and ask a good sampling of future co-workers and local residents (including your Realtor). Taking a tour of the school can also give you a good feel for the scholastic environment. Once, we chose not to put an offer in on a house we really liked after visiting the area school. Our intuition proved to be correct as we later learned some unpleasant details about that area. If your children are older, involve them in the tour of the school and allow them to have some input on where they will attend. Changing schools can be very hard on children, so allowing them some control over the process can help ease their transition.

Once you've decided on a particular school or district, make sure to check the school zoning boundaries of potential homes carefully, and make sure those boundaries are not subject to imminent change.

If you are being relocated for a job, keep in mind that you have a rhythm of normalcy that aids in the transition. If you have a spouse and/or children, that might not be the case for them. High School aged-children, in particular, are in a phase of life where they typically need consistency of place and friendships so they can establish their independence within a safe framework. You may need to weigh the cost to them against your opportunity.

Getting Ready for the Move
We have been fortunate during our moves to have our goods packed up for us. Of course, it also has its downsides as we have to unpack on the other end and, if your packers are not organized, you can spend an inordinate amount of time searching for items, such as the TV remote. Logic dictates it would be taped to the TV or at least placed in the same box, but you know what they say about assuming?

Each move results in a competition of sorts for best head scratcher as to how certain items ended up where they did. For example, we found our missing bedpost in our son’s toy chest after one move. Our kitchen garbage can resides inside a wooden chest. You would “assume” that the mover would look inside before packing up the item. Nope. And yes our garbage was once moved across country—six states to be exact. Luckily the trash was mostly dry and less “fragrant” than it might have been. One of our sons was still in diapers at that time, and we have never been so happy to have a separate diaper pail. The winner for our latest move was the salt shaker in the piano bench, and no, the person doing the packing did not seal off the shaker...

Sometimes, what's in the box is anyone's guess.

Take the time and organize items in each room before the packers move in (or you begin packing). Get your kids to round up all the pieces for their board games and toys and consolidate them in one area. Making sure that items are where they need to be will facilitate the unpacking on the other side. Unless you have packers like we did who throw salt shakers in piano benches. When last seen, the shaker was in the kitchen next to its pepper mate; we're not sure what precipitated the divorce. Packing day is a good time for low-key supervision by you and trusted friends or family.

Don’t get too attached to your liquids. Some movers will only move solids whereas others are more lenient. Ziplock bags are a must for containing potential spills. Double bag everything. Any items considered hazardous or flammable (and that can include batteries which are considered corrosive) are a no go. Neighbors will love you, however, as they reap the benefits of your loss. We’ve given away at least five BBQ propane tanks. We finally got smart after our last move and switched to a natural gas BBQ.

Stage a perishable food/liquids giveaway party for the neighbors, and if you have the time, a yard sale can divest you of things you didn’t want to move anyway. No time or energy for a yard sale? Contact a company who will come and take away your unwanted items for a fee. Donations are often gladly accepted by charities such as Goodwill, but pick-ups must be organized in advance and can be infrequent, so plan ahead.

Importing Vehicles, Pets and Other Things
For a move between the U.S. and Canada (or two other contiguous countries), consider importing your vehicles at the nearest border crossing on a quiet day before your actual move. That could save some time at the border on the day of your formal immigration, and you'll especially appreciate that on a hot day with pets in the car.

As for importing pets, bring proof of vaccinations and health certificates dated within 10 days of entry. Each country has its own set of rules and regulations, so familiarize yourself ahead of time to avoid unpleasant border encounters. If it's an international move, be prepared for some countries to quarantine your fur friends for up to a month or more. For example, if we had brought our dog to Australia, he would have been quarantined for at least a month at our expense. And he's an Australian Cattle Dog.

Some rentals (and certainly purchased homes) don’t come with furniture, and your relocation package may include moving personal household goods. You may be tempted to bring Grandma’s antique pine hope chest, but if you don’t want it to be quarantined (and potentially incinerated), check the laws of your new jurisdiction. Some countries, such as Australia, are concerned with imports of exotic woods that could carry invasive species. The same goes for treasured souvenirs.

En Route to Your New Home
The hotel's whirlpool spa after a day in a cramped, packed-to-the-gills car is a luxury that transforms your experience. If you have a long drive to your new home, plan your route for manageable segments and book hotels ahead of time. The last thing you need is the stress of finding accommodation on the road. Keep one or two suitcases packed specifically for the hotel; that way you don't have to completely empty your carefully packed transport every night. If you have pets, call hotels directly to make sure they allow dogs and/or cats. Do not assume that the hotel’s website is always correct in regard to its “pet friendly” status.

Plan for temporary accommodation while your new house closes or as you wait for access to your rental. Choose a place with accessible laundry. Extended-stay hotels like Residence Inn offer breakfast and (limited) other meals, and many have kitchenettes that save on your food budget while adding some normalcy and routine during your transition.

Papers, Papers, and More Papers!
Be prepared for a lot of paperwork for all aspects of the move. I shudder to think about the number of trees that were killed during our multiple moves.

Keep a portable file of important documents on hand for reference. If a new school needs immunization records, they're no good in a packed moving van or storage. That also goes for any necessary medications. Set them aside ahead of time and keep a pile of essential items in a “Do Not Pack” area of your current home. And if it’s an international move, make sure that your passports do not get packed! This nightmare actually happened to friends of ours and created a huge hassle during an already stressful time.

Santa is not the only one who should make lists and check them twice. Making a list of move essentials is not a suggestion but a necessity. When we moved to Australia, my wife had four separate lists: one for items going with us on the plane in our suitcases, one for air freight, one for sea freight, and one for storage! For items going into storage, it’s not a bad idea to make a more detailed itemization than that done by the moving company and also videotape the items in case you need to make insurance claims later on down the road.It can also help prevent duplicate purchases when you return because after three years (in our case), it's easy to forget what exactly is in your storage locker.

Make sure you bring a copy of the inventory list of your moved household goods for an international relocation upon "landing," whether you accompany those goods or not. You may need to give an accounting at the border crossing.

This Too Shall Pass
Moving at any time can be stressful. Being organized and doing your own due diligence ahead of time can go a long way towards mitigating some of that tension. But even the best laid plans can go awry, so be prepared for that and above all else, try to maintain a sense of humor. Like wallpapering a room together, moving house can wreak havoc on relationships. Don’t let it. Realize that eventually things will settle down, and all will be right with the world. And you will laugh about it—someday. Until that time, Alka-Seltzer, a large bottle of headache medicine or a bottle of wine might just be your new best friend.

Don't forget the reasons you're putting up with all of this.