Packing & Shipping
I’ve declined to write this blog post for a long time because I feel like it should really be titled, “How Not to Ship Your Life to New Zealand.” We did so many things WRONG shipping our items here that I didn’t feel like I had any good advice to give, but people keep asking how to ship things to this little island country, so here is our story of what we did so horribly, horribly wrong.
If you’ve read my What to Bring to New Zealand post, you know that I am a proponent of bringing as much as possible if you plant to stay for a significant length of time. Since we plan on staying here indefinitely, we wanted to bring in a container of household goods. To be honest, we have another container of household goods to bring over, but we’re waiting until we buy a house and firmly put down roots to ship the second haul. After doing some research, we found that there are a few across the board items we found from moving companies:
They all insist on packing your home goods themselves if they are going to insure the container.
They all work with a series of subcontractors who may or may not get all of the details of a move.
We got several quotes for 40 foot containers from different moving companies, including I Love Moving, American Relocation and Storage systems, and NZ Van lines. The quotes ranged from $20,000 (+ insurance) to $35,000 (including insurance) and were all inclusive of MPI fees. In the end, at the recommendation of another American family that made the move about 18 months before us, we went with NZ Van Lines who outsourced the American side of their operations to a company called ITO, based out of El Paso.
The first mistake we made was coming over to New Zealand, planning on staying for ninety days, then deciding to stay longer. Instead of the whole family heading back to Austin to pack up the house, the kids and I stayed in Auckland - in an AirBnb - while my husband went back to the States for two and a half weeks to sort through the house, decide what to get rid of, what to put in storage in Texas, and what to have the movers pack. I cannot emphasise this enough: THAT IS A TERRIBLE WAY TO MOVE.
Jon would FaceTime me and show me piles of stuff and ask me to toss, store, or move. He was stressed out and overloaded with work. I was stressed out that he was sorting through things differently than I would. This was compounded by the less-than-stellar internet connection in our AirBnb which resulted in lots of fuzzy pictures and dropped calls.
ITO arranged for movers to be in the house for three days packing up all of the move items. Their movers were very professional and generally did a good job wrapping all of the fragile objects and padding and taping up the furniture. They did a horrible job crating up our artwork and labelling the boxes. Actually, I can’t sugar coat this. They didn’t crate our artwork at all despite our quote that explicitly said to crate and charge us extra, and my stressed out and overloaded husband didn’t notice or didn’t say anything about it. And their labelling of the boxes was laughable. It was just enough for an inventory list to give to the customs inspectors and MPI in New Zealand, but not actually helpful when it came to unpacking. Seriously, I opened this box labeled “50 Bottles Wine” and found throw pillows, bike pedals, and, yes, some wine.
Speaking of wine, bringing wine with us was an experience, and not in a good way. First, the moving company told us we couldn’t bring it at all. Then they said we could bring it, but it would be taxed at 3 times the value. We contacted INZ directly and confirmed that we could bring it in as part of our normal household goods and it wouldn’t be taxed. Then, the movers failed to mention that they would need a specific list of the booze we were transporting. They also told us after the fact that we needed to account for any prescription medications and have documentation from a doctor for each item. We were left trying to scramble for this information while our container was somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Needless to say, it was an incomplete and inaccurate list. Here’s another tip: if you find yourself needing proof of a prescription for zofran from two years ago, a copy of the medical records from the doctor who prescribed it will suffice. Also, the movers will act like they know what’s going on with customs. They don’t. Make sure you are informed and know what is and isn’t allowed.
Before the packing stage, spend some time reviewing the documentation you will need to provide to your movers and MPI. Clearly we did not do this properly. There are two forms in particular that I wish we had paid more attention to. First is the Unaccompanied Personal Baggage Declaration, which lists out each and every category of importance. The Personal Effects Supplementary Declaration page is the second. It gives you a very clear idea of which items might be concerning to MPI, and, more importantly, asks you to describe how you cleaned any potentially problematic items so they are ready for transport and arrival into New Zealand.
NZ Vanlines gave us two options for shipping. Option A was for about a week on land and 28 days on the water, plus an extra $1600. Option B was for a few days on land but three extra weeks on the water. It made more sense to get our stuff to New Zealand faster as our AirBnb would cost more than $1600 for those three extra weeks. We chose the expedited option, and our container was shipped off on July 28. Soon after, we got an email giving us an arrival date in Auckland of August 28. We were ecstatic! We knew our container would be subject to inspections that typically take 10-15 business days, so there was a fairly good chance our household items would arrive before we needed to be out of the AirBnb on September 17.
I don’t think we’ll ever know what happened, but a few days later, we received another email stating that our new arrival date was September 30. This wasn’t just a little off from the original date, it was a lot off. My blood boiled. Clearly there was a breakdown in communication somewhere. Our container was now on a ship going through the Panama Canal, and there was nothing we could do about it.
My husband, a very maritime-minded guy, started tracking our vessel, the COSCO AUCKLAND, using sites such as Vessel Finder and monitored upcoming arrivals at the Port of Auckland. From these websites, we learned that our container was not going to arrive in September. Most likely it would arrive late at night the evening of October 3. We knew this date several weeks ahead of the email the moving company later sent us with the new arrival date, so we were mentally - and logistically - prepared for this lengthy trip.
One thing we did right in all of this was negotiate the insurance rate down. The moving company insisted that we either insure everything or nothing. There was no way, according to them at the time, to only insure things like the expensive art or valuable family heirlooms. When our container was nearly in port, we finally negotiated them down to a 1.5% valuation rate for the insurance fees. This was half what they wanted to charge us in the initial quote. I’m not sure we would have thought to negotiate the insurance costs, but our friends who used NZ Vanlines mentioned they had done the same thing.
While our container ship was on the water, we signed papers to rent a house. Once we were able to get in and measure the rooms, we were able to determine where we wanted to put our furniture, and which furniture we would need to store. This is a packing and shipping tip: on you inventory spreadsheet, include furniture and artwork measurements. This made it so much easier to be prepared for unloading and unpacking.
Unfortunately, this gave us a false sense of confidence in what was packed. As part of the shipping process, the containers are unloaded and inspected. Certain boxes, like anything labeled “Christmas” that might be harbouring illicit pinecones, will be manually checked. Everything is then reloaded and delivered. We thought we were being so smart by giving the moving company a list of furniture and boxes that we didn’t want delivered and wanted them to keep in storage. Big, huge mistake. Take delivery of everything, unpack it all, and send back things only after you know exactly what is what.
I had about a week of absolute panic and terror that the American Girl doll I got when I was seven and was saving for my daughter was lost forever. We couldn’t find our kitchen trashcan anywhere. Half of my daughter’s books were missing. Finally, I made my husband go down to the moving company’s warehouse and bring back all of the boxes. We went together a few days later to look through all the furniture (where we found the kitchen trashcan nestled in a large butcher block island we had in our old kitchen but didn’t have room for in our new kitchen.)
Because of our rush to pack things, I’m still not sure if items are in storage in the US or simply missing and gone forever. Make a careful, detailed inventory of each box so you’re not like me wondering if you’ll ever see your grandmother’s ice cream dishes again. Fortunately, anything that was truly valuable and delicate made it. Here’s another moving tip: bring as many valuable things as you can on the plane. We manually brought over jewellery, my violin, and my mother-in-law’s fur coat.
By some miracle, Jon arranged for us to stay in the AirBnb one more month. We had to vacate by October 17, and that was the day our container was set to be released from inspections. I don’t know how he pulled that off, but it saved me from having to move the kids around to other AirBnbs for an unknown amount of time. I’m not sure my sanity would have been able to handle that.
Our container arrived on October 3 and entered into the 10-15 days wait for MPI inspections. While the inspections sound scary, they really aren’t. You will receive a list of boxes and items MPI is interested in inspecting. Anything that might be a biosecurity risk will be checked - so things like camping gear, bikes, garden items, etc. need to be thoroughly cleaned before packing. If these items might be hiding dirt that could hide spores, they need to be washed completely. Also, anything labeled “holiday decorations” or “Christmas” will be checked because pinecones aren’t going to make it through. Untreated wood is also problematic and will probably grab the attention of the inspectors. Oddly, none of our kitchen boxes were checked, and we packed some dried food items, like spices, that came through with no problems. If anything questionable is found during the inspection, you’ll be given the option to treat the item(s) if possible and at your expense. The inspectors found our brooms to be problematic (we chose to dispose of those as they weren’t worth much) and our outdoor table top - though strangely not the legs to the table or the six matching chairs that were made of the exact same wood. We choose to have the table top fumigated as it was part of a matched set and would be more expensive to replace. Still, the cost for treating the table top was a little over NZ$500. It isn’t cheap. Choosing to treat an item or two won’t hold up the rest of your container if it is all clear. We went ahead and got our household goods delivered, and a few weeks later the moving company delivered the last item.
As the container arrived, the NZ Vanlines folks were incredibly polite. They carefully moved in all of our furniture and boxes. We had one casualty when the mover dropped a box of wine on the front step and we ended up losing a bottle of Rasteau and corking another (which we quickly decanted to save for later.) The movers were sure to take all of their allotted breaks, but they were considerate about it and the lead man would let us know when they were resting and for how long.
After the first day, all of the furniture was in place, and there were only boxes left to be unpacked. The moving company sent a small group the next day to help us unpack and haul away the boxes and packing material. By the end of day two, there was only a small amount left. We agreed that we would call them when we were ready for them to come pick up the remaining pieces. This was when I started freaking out about all of the missing items. The combination of the poorly labeled boxes, incomplete descriptions on a bill of goods, and stupid idea to keep some items in storage before viewing meant that I was a hot mess about now. It wasn’t a good look.
As we unpacked, we kept a detailed list of any issues we came across. There weren’t a lot, but we had some broken items, including a computer monitor, a cut glass pitcher, a large iced tea pitcher, and a few other odds and ends. There was some damage to an end table, and The bigger problems came with the improperly crated artwork. We had three pieces that were damaged, though not destroyed.
It’s now six months later, and we’re still negotiating with the insurance company on payments. They’ve sent someone out to review our items. They’ve sent out art experts to determine how much it would cost to repair the damaged pieces. They’ve tried to con and cheat us. It hasn’t been fun. Fortunately, my husband is a very experienced negotiator and doesn’t get phased by this sort of thing. He’s been able to take it all in stride. If it was just me, I would’ve been crying in the fetal position months ago.
Despite the stress of this move, I’m still glad we did it. The moving pains are temporary and overtaken by the joys of living in New Zealand, two blocks from the beach. I can only hope you take away some lessons from our shipping and moving disaster. Here are my takeaways:
Get quotes from several moving companies.
Include both the moving company and subcontractors in discussions about shipping expectations.
Keep a very good personal inventory of what’s in each box. Take pictures if possible.
If something isn’t packed correctly, speak up.
Expect for the shipment to take longer than initial estimates. Prepare to be flexible.
Negotiate your insurance rate.
Anticipate MPI checking anything that is labeled
Take possession of everything, even if you plan on storing unneeded items.
Be prepared to fight with the mover’s insurance company. Don’t take their first offer as the best you can do.
I can only hope that your moving experience will be less stressful than mine. We’re contemplating another move (within Auckland) right now, and my anxiety is creeping upwards just thinking about it.
Also, I want to do a very unofficial poll. Leave a note below with info regarding the timing of your container of household goods. Was it on time? Early? Late? I’m curious to know what your experience was!