Will you get the hump, or can you carry it off in style?

Published in the Daily Telegraph, 26Mar2005

Does the hefty cost of a professional removal firm guarantee peace of mind on the big day, or is it better to save the cash, hire a van and do it all yourself? James Trollope talks to people who have tried it both ways.

Delegate or do it yourself? If only the dilemma of how to move home was as easy to decide as describe. But the choice can be agonising. Do you pay a small fortune to a bunch of strangers to drive off with all your possessions, or shoulder the stress yourself without professional help? There are pitfalls whichever way you turn.

At the most extreme, the lorry containing all your worldly goods might be stolen, as happened to a family in Berkshire not so long ago. Let's hope at least one of the thieves strained his back or tore a muscle. Unfortunately, criminals are far less likely to get hurt than those of us unpractised in the art of shifting lorry loads of gear.

Even if nothing is stolen or broken, moving yourself may be a false economy. A saving of £1,000 or more isn't so attractive if it's followed by a lifetime of physiotherapy.

Then there's the mental strain of meeting the handover deadline. It only takes a child to drag a dirty nappy across a newly cleaned house (as happened to one friend) to tip you over the edge.

For many of us, cost will still be the deciding factor but there are exceptions. One lady recently paid £90,000 to move from London to Los Angeles. A bit steep, you may think, even though she did have a £6 million art collection, including a couple of Monets.
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The professionals

In his move from one part of west London to another, Sinclair Beecham was more concerned about value than cost. As co-founder of the sandwich company Pret A Manger (annual turnover: £150 million), paying the removal bill was not the problem.

His priority was to find a firm that could shift a lot of large furniture from a top-floor flat in Eaton Square, Belgravia, to another, three storeys up near Kensington Church Street. A crane and a stairlift were part of the solution.

"Watching your dining table and sofa dangling over the balcony on a crane is an interesting experience," says Mr Beecham. "I was most concerned about my car underneath."

He needn't have worried. His Golf remained uncrushed and his furniture was lowered without a scratch. And the only thing the sandwich tycoon lifted was a bag of warm croissants for the removal men.

"The boys were fantastic. They worked hard and were really charming. I just watched and they took care of everything."

Their croissants barely digested, the boys were erecting a stairlift outside Mr Beecham's new pad in Chelsea. After a smooth ascent, the flat took shape as Mr Beecham's possessions were arranged under his direction.

The bill came to £5,000.

When Mr Beecham is ready to move again, he says he will almost certainly use the same firm - Ward Thomas, which was founded by his friend Anthony Ward Thomas in 1986, the year he launched his own sandwich empire.

"Hopefully, the next move will be more straightforward and the bill a little less. But it would have been difficult to do myself and represents good value for money."

Anthony Ward Thomas, who started with one man and a lorry, now has a 100 men and 50 lorries, concentrates on the "London and larger country house market".

The former metal trader got the idea for the business after losing several pairs of trousers in a house move 20 years ago. He eventually discovered that some dodgy removal men were to blame.

"I used one of those big national firms and realised weeks later that some of my shoes and trousers had gone. Some of the guys had actually tried on my stuff and then popped it into their backpacks. That's when I went for a removals business based on honesty."

But honesty costs. For a basic move involving a lorry, three men and a four-bedroom house he charges about £1,200 and the price can rise sharply.

One client recently paid £56,000 to move from a mansion in Hampshire to a castle in Scotland. Over two weeks, six lorries and 12 men criss-crossed the border with a mountain of possessions, including a small herd of stuffed animals.

Not surprisingly, Mr Ward Thomas thinks anyone considering moving themselves needs their heads examined.

"The tripwire comes when they have started to do it and they realise that, actually, it's a hard job. There's a method in packing and loading, and people who have never done it before will fall at the first hurdle. By then it will be too late to do anything about it, because they are already halfway through the process. Then they will realise that all the money they have saved will have to be spent on medical, possibly psychiatric, help."

When it comes to choosing a firm, Mr Ward Thomas has this advice: "Look for one that has invested in plant and machinery and spent time and money on presentation. To take the cheapie-cheapie, white-van route can be a disaster waiting to happen."

The Lone Rangers

On a chilly February day, two white vans are parked outside a yellow terraced house in Brighton and the man sweating in a T-shirt assures me that they've got a brilliant deal.

Straining under the weight of a fridge-freezer, Neil Cranston isn't ideally placed to chat, so his wife, Lisa, fills in the details.

"To hire the vans for three days cost us £300 and the cheapest quote I got from a removals firm was £1,400. I wanted the extra grand for a rug and, besides, I don't know whether I would trust anyone else with our stuff."

As we talk in the living room, filing cabinets, armchairs and packing crates mount up with impressive speed as Neil and his mate Steve whizz between the vans and the house.

"Once you've started, you really have to go mental. Otherwise you just lose your enthusiasm," says Neil from behind a rapidly advancing pot plant.

Despite Mr Ward Thomas's warning, the couple who have had enough of the "madness and attitude of London" seem to be more than coping. Perhaps this is because they have moved themselves five times in the past five years. As Lisa explains, they have also enlisted the help of friends and relatives.

"Neil runs an entertainment company. He got friends who build rock-'n'-roll stages to help pack the vans. We then parked overnight at my brother's house on the outskirts of Brighton. And now we've got Steve and my sister-in-law Jayne to help with the unloading."

Just then I hear the tinkle of broken glass. A sofa has smashed into an outside light in the porch. It turns out to be their only breakage.

"It's fun seeing your stuff in a new place," says Lisa. "I enjoy it. I like moving, I don't want to get bored. In fact, I quite fancy moving to Scotland."

"What's that?" shouts Neil from an upstairs landing. For the first time there's a definite edge to his voice.