Packing (And Unpacking): How To Prepare For Your Local Move

A typically-organized person once summed up the 15-mile move to his new house this way: “This was my tenth move in 25 years, and I’m done. The only I’m moving again is if they carry me out in a box.” (Full disclosure: the quote was from this author, who as it turns out, may soon be preparing for yet another move.)

            The hassle of packing and unpacking an apartment or house, even if it’s only for a local move, is usually upsetting and often-chaotic. That’s why so many people dread the prospect of moving so much that they stay in a home longer than they should.

            A move doesn’t have to be an ordeal, though, particularly if a reliable moving company will be handling the transportation. Packing and unpacking your furniture and belongings doesn’t have to turn your life upside down.

            You simply need the right combination of organization, planning and patience. Here’s how to do it without making yourself crazy.

Before Getting Started

            Your movers will be happy to pack and/or unpack for you – and naturally, that will add significantly to the price of the move. But many people don’t want to do all the work that’s involved, while others prefer to have everything packed and ready to be loaded to minimize the chances that a treasured heirloom will be damaged or misplaced during the packing process.

An experienced moving company employs fully-insured professionals, and should be able to allay any of your fears about the safety and security of your property. But if you’d prefer to pack and unpack your possessions yourself or you’re working with a tight budget, the right choice may be to do your own packing, unpacking or both.

Bear in mind that a good moving company will work with you to devise a plan that makes the most sense for your preferences and budget. You can pack just your most prized or delicate items on your own and leave everything else for the movers to box up, you can do the packing and have the moving company unpack at your destination (or vice versa), and so on.

Want to do it yourself? Then let’s get moving.

Allow Enough Time

            If you’ve accepted a new job offer and have to move out of town quickly – or if the sheriff’s at your door with an eviction notice in his hand – you may have to pack and get out in a hurry.

            Otherwise, don’t leave everything for the last minute. As you follow this guide step-by-step, you’ll discover that a successful move requires more work than just throwing stuff into boxes. You’ll be deciding what to move and what to throw out, what has to remain accessible until moving day, and where you want everything to go in your new home. Those are just some of the ingredients of an effective moving plan, and they all take time.

            How long in advance should you start planning? Figure at least a month; you’ll probably have to give the moving company that much notice anyway, if you want to schedule your preferred date and time for the move. If you aren’t prone to procrastination, that should be plenty of time for the planning and organization. You might not even need that much time, if you don’t have to be at work or taking care of the kids every day.

            The more advance time you allow yourself, though, the greater the likelihood that your move will go smoothly without a last-minute crisis.

Get Rid of Stuff

            It’s incredibly tempting, especially for a local move, to just pack everything up. After all, going through your all of your possessions, and making gut-wrenching decisions to throw out the stuff you never use or wear anymore, is time-consuming and can be stressful.

            Remember two things, however.

  • The more boxes that have to be moved, the more it will cost.
  • You probably haven’t done a wholesale cleanout in years, and you certainly won’t want to do it once you’re setting up and decorating your new home.

            Right before a move is a perfect time for the dreaded purge. Think about it: do you really want to pay people to move your clutter from one house to the next?

            Put aside everything you won’t be taking with you and categorize each item as “sell,” “give to friends/family,” “donate” or “toss.” Some charities will pick up your donations (as long as you don’t try to donate worthless goods), Craig’s List will let you sell less-valuable items quickly, and if you have years’ worth of junk just rent a dumpster for the day.

            See why it’s a good idea to give yourself plenty of time?

Take Inventory

            Compiling a complete list of everything you’ll be moving will be an enormous help. That doesn’t mean listing every one of your paperbacks by title, of course, nor does it require counting all of the spoons and forks you’re taking to the new house. But knowing that you have about 200 hardcover books or 24 place settings of silverware will let you estimate how many boxes you’ll need.

            There are a few exceptions. Valuables which will be packed and moved should be itemized individually for your own protection and that of the moving company. The same goes for electronics, large and costly items, and important documents. You may want to take quick videos of these possessions as well, to document the condition they were in before the movers took them. Hold onto the videos after the move, too, because they’re invaluable if you ever have to make an insurance claim due to fire, robbery or some other covered disaster in the future. (One added hint: take videos or photos of the back of all video and audio components before you disconnect them. They’ll be a welcome resource when you’re trying to hook everything back up in your new home.)

            Here’s the biggest reason you’ll need an inventory list: it the key to a good packing plan. Identify each room in your new home with a letter, and then label each item on your list to designate where it will go. For example, everything labeled “F” – no matter where it’s currently sitting in your current house or apartment – will be destined for your new family room, and everything labeled “L” goes in the new living room.

            Once everything on your list has been labeled, you’ll able to group each room’s items together for packing; everything headed to room “F” will end up in the set of boxes, for example. That will save you an enormous amount of unpacking and sorting time.

Use the same lettering system for your furniture and other large possessions, by placing a piece of masking tape with the correct letter on each item. The movers will know exactly where to put everything once it comes off the truck, and you won’t have to constantly direct traffic at the destination.

Get Your Supplies

            Moving companies will be happy to provide all of the boxes you’ll need for your move. They’re new or gently used, sturdy, and available in an assortment of sizes. Of course, you’ll also have to pay for them.

            It’s a good idea to get “specialty” boxes from your moving company, since you’d just have to buy them somewhere else anyway. These include mattress boxes, narrow mirror boxes which are also perfect for framed artwork hanging, and flat wardrobe boxes which are used to hold and protect suits, dresses, curtains and other items that shouldn’t be folded. You might also want to buy dish packs for your kitchenware. One more tip: see if you’ve kept the boxes your electronics originally came in, since they’ll have protective padding and packing material you’ll otherwise have to pay for.

            If you want to use new boxes to pack everything else, your moving company can supply them or you can buy them at places like U-Haul and Home Depot. They’re also sold online. The most common sizes are 1.5, 3.0, 4.5 and 6.0 cubic feet, with the smallest size measuring about 16 x 12 x 12 inches and most commonly used for household items. The larger sizes can handle pots, clothing, linens and bulkier items. They all have a maximum weight capacity of 50-60 pounds.

            However, there’s really nothing “special” about the moving boxes you purchase. If you want to save money and have the energy to search a bit, you should be able to find suitable boxes at grocery or liquor stores, office buildings or recycling centers. Believe it or not, you can even find them being offered on Craig’s List or online person-to-person sales apps (in their “free” sections). Just be sure used boxes are sturdy and clean; it’s better to spend a few bucks for a moving box than to have the bottom fall out of a free one in the middle of your move.

            Before getting a full supply of boxes, do a few test packs to get an idea of “what and how much” will fit into each box. Then pull out your inventory list and use it to figure out how many boxes you’ll need for the move. Always estimate on the high side since you don’t want to be short on boxes when moving day arrives.

            Finally, you’re going to need packing tape, bubble wrap, packing paper, scissors and/or box cutters, masking tape (for labeling furniture and large objects) and sharpies. Make sure to have plenty on hand, since you can always find another use for the leftovers. A collection of screwdrivers and pliers for items which may need to be disconnected or have their legs removed may also come in handy.

Make Your Plan and Get Organized

            Don’t start throwing things into boxes just yet. First, you need a plan, which you’ll put together in conjunction with your inventory list. Your plan will ensure that you stay organized throughout the process.

            Rather than start at the beginning, start at the end. Go through the list and mark the items you’ll need right up to the moment you lock the door for the final time, and the ones you’ll need as soon as the moving men leave your new place. Toiletries, several days’ worth of clothes, your checkbook, and the coffeepot and toaster are examples of essential items you’ll want to keep available until the last minute, or have available on your first night after the move.

Then set aside a box (or however many boxes you need) and mark it “essentials.” That way you’ll be able to pack the final items just before leaving, and will know exactly where to find them in the new house. You can also put your personal and grooming items into a separate overnight bag, to avoid any confusion in a sea of boxes.

            One mistake people often make is to pack boxes room by room. That can cause problems, because the new home probably doesn’t have the same number and types of rooms as the old one. Imagine this nightmare: you bring boxes into your living room or bathroom and simply fill them up for the movers to take. When you get to the new house, you realize you want to put half of the “living room stuff” into your brand-new family room, or put some of your toiletries into that second bathroom you’ve always wanted. You’ll effectively be doing a second move, just to set things up the way you want them.

Instead, plan in advance. Using your inventory list, decide which items should go into each room of the new house. Then, mark each item on the list with the letter that represents the room where it should go. When you’ve done this, everything on your inventory list will have an “L,” “B,” or other letter next to it.

When you’re finally ready to pack, group all of the items destined for the same room together, so they can be packed in the same boxes. (Obviously, furniture and other large items don’t have to be moved now; they should just be labeled with the proper room identification.) You may find it annoying to move lamps, books, linens and small appliances around your old house when you’re getting ready to move, but trust us. You’ll thank us when you’re unpacking.

Catch your breath or get some sleep after that, because it’s time for the real work.

How to Pack

The First Steps

Start with your paintings, wall hangings and decorative items. Tackling this step before assembling smaller items into room groupings lets you accomplish it without having to dodge the stuff that will be laying all over the floor.

            Inexpensive paintings or photos can go directly into the mirror boxes you’ve bought (or found for free), but anything that’s valuable or framed with glass should be well-cushioned before packing. Put masking tape or painter’s tape (painter’s tape is a much better choice) around the border of the glass where it meets the frame, and make an “X” with the tape over the glass itself. Cover the glass with cardboard, wrap the painting in bubble wrap or blankets and secure it with packing tape. Put several inches of packing paper at the bottom of the box, and fill all of the empty space with more packing paper after the painting goes into the box. Finally, mark the box “fragile-glass” on all sides, along with the letter of the room where it will go.

            Since this is a local move, you may want to consider driving the paintings (and other valuables) to the new house separately, with a family member or friend guarding them in the back seat. Professional movers won’t damage your artwork – but it gives many people peace of mind if they do it themselves. Jewelry, and financial and important personal documents, are items you may also want to take with you personally.

            It’s a good idea to disassemble home theaters and audio-video setups before you begin the real packing work so you’re not dealing with a jumble of wires in addition to a forest of boxes. Put the components into their original boxes (or pack them in sturdy boxes with plenty of padding), and label each cable with its purpose before boxing them all together.

            Finally, many people find it helpful to pack their hanging clothes into wardrobe boxes before tackling everything else so they’re not dodging piles of clothes and stacks of smaller boxes. Nice curtains and draperies can also go into those wardrobe boxes so they won’t get wrinkled.

The Real Packing

            OK, you have everything else grouped by destination, so it’s time to fill all of those boxes you’ve acquired. First, though, here are some important tips to remember:

  • Use small boxes for heavy items like books and cast-iron pans, while saving large boxes for lighter items like linens and knick-knacks.
  • No box should be heavier than about 50 pounds when fully packed.
  • Use packing tape to close each box tightly (don’t just fold the tops so that they interlock), and reinforce the bottom and side seams with more packing tape if the boxes are old or thin.
  • Don’t go easy on the bubble wrap and packing tape. Use it liberally for all glass and decorative items, plates and keepsakes.
  • Be sure to have several “unpack first” boxes for the bedroom(s), since all you may want to do when you get to your new home is crash for the night.

All set? Fill up those boxes, but take your time. Put the heavier items at the bottom of boxes and the lighter ones at the top, just as you would when bagging groceries. As each item goes into a box, check it off of your inventory list; when a box is full, number it with your sharpie and put the number next to the boxed items on your list. If you find it helpful, you can also put notes on the box about what’s inside.

For example, your first box may be labeled L-1, which means it’s the first box you’ve packed that’s going into the new living room. When you’re done with the move and searching for the TV remote control, you won’t have to rummage through dozens of boxes. You can just look at your inventory list and see that it’s in box L-1. Make sense? Oh, and if there are items that you’ll want to unpack right away, try to put them all into the same box or boxes. That will save a lot of extra time and work.

Some items may not have to be packed at all. Clothes can stay in bureau drawers, for example; just be sure the drawers are securely taped or wired shut, and check with your moving company ahead of time to make sure that’s okay with them.

A few more helpful hints:

  • If you haven’t purchased dish packs, wrap breakable dishes in wrapping paper (some people use paper towels) and stack them vertically in a box, with bubble wrap in all empty space. Wrap up sharp knives, too. It’s harder to unpack when you’re bleeding.
  • Some moving companies will take your refrigerated (and even frozen) goods for short moves, but definitely won’t take them on longer ones. Check in advance of your moving day, so you’ll know if you have to take them yourself or throw them out.
  • Most movers won’t take hazardous materials like cleaning fluid, propane or motor oil. Ask ahead of time.
  • Put all containers of liquids and soaps into Ziploc bags or secure them with plastic wrap and tape.
  • Don’t stress out! You’ve given yourself plenty of time, right?

Moving Day and Unpacking

            Movers are experienced professionals but they still need help when they show up at your door, and after they arrive at the new house. You (or another family member you choose) should have the inventory list in hand and act as quarterback, answering any questions the movers have about what (if anything) stays in the house and what needs to be moved, which boxes you’d like to come out first, and so on.

Here’s the good news: you’ve already done a lot of the work ahead of time. Grouping the boxes grouped by “destination” room will make it easy for them to all be loaded and offloaded together. You can simplify things further by making and hanging signs labeling each room in the new house. That way, movers can look at the box and see that it goes into room “L” or “F,” so they only have to look for the “L” or “F” sign to know where it goes. All that leaves for you to do is check each box off your inventory list as it comes in, and be available to tell the movers which wall you want the couch to go on, or how to position the piano.

Oh, oh. The move’s gone smoothly, but now you’re confronted with a house full of boxes. What comes next?

Don’t panic. You’ve already prepared for this since everything will be in the right room, and the most important boxes are either labeled or are identified on your inventory list. Unpack your essentials box first, and if necessary, unpack your bedroom essentials box and take a nap.

Here’s how to proceed after that.

  • Remember that there’s no time limit. You don’t want to live out of boxes forever, but you can proceed at your own pace once you’ve unpacked the most important items.
  • When unpacking a room, make sure you know where you want to put everything first. That way, you don’t end up with loose items all over the floor with no idea what you’re going to do with them.
  • If you don’t need some sleep immediately start with the kitchen, with a focus on the items you’ll need quickly: coffeemaker, silverware, plates, glasses and pots. If you brought refrigerated food, be sure to get that into the fridge right away, too.
  • The bedroom and bathroom(s) come next, so you’re ready to get comfy for the night when fatigue finally hits. After that, focus on the rooms where you spend the most time, like the living room or family room.
  • That’s a good rule of thumb for the rest of the work. Unpack the stuff you use or need most first – and don’t forget, your inventory list will be your best friend during the entire process.

Again, you don’t need to do it all at once. Give yourself a break and work in stages. That gives you some time to enjoy your new home before you tackle your final moving headache: “What do I do with all of these empty boxes?”