Moving hell: Removals industry under fire
IT'S a pain that almost everybody knows - moving house.
And an unregulated section of the Australian furniture removal industry made up of unlicensed "backyard businesses" is thriving off it.
Thousands of consumers claim they've been left significantly out of pocket after having to pay extra rent, storage fees and other costs because the removalists didn't show up on the scheduled date - or at all. Others have complained about receiving damaged goods.
One woman who this week moved from Sydney to the Gold Coast told news.com.au the removals company she booked and paid for in advance turned up two days late after failing to show on several occasions prior. It cost her extra rent payments for the home she was supposed to have cleared out days earlier.
"They're so dodgy," she said.
"They kept saying they were an hour away and days later I was still waiting."
An elderly woman who moved from Adelaide to Broome reported that the discounted backloading company she paid for in full one month in advance never showed up. Several days after the scheduled delivery date she was forced to pay another company for the service.
"I had to pay twice," the 73-year-old woman said in an online review.
"I am so disgusted that people can treat their customers this way."
The Australian Furniture Removers Association (AFRA) is an official body that helps regulate the furniture removal industry and accredits removalists that meet specific criteria. But even companies or individuals who don't have the necessary equipment, vehicles, premises and training to carry out the work, can legally operate in Australia.
AFRA executive director Joe Lopino told news.com.au that "anyone can buy a van" and advertise furniture removals services and that scores of "backyard businesses" were in operation throughout the country.
"They don't have to be licensed as a furniture removalist, trained or formally qualified," he said.
"A lot of these people work out of backyards, they don't have a depot or office. It's something anyone can do.
"It's a problem in this industry that anyone can pick up a van and start moving furniture for anybody."
AFRA receives an average of 20 complaints a week "mostly about non-members" which the organisation refers to fair trading or consumer affairs departments in relevant states and territories, according to Mr Lopino. Complaints about members are dealt with internally through mediation or tribunals at no cost to consumers.
He said the most common complaints were about companies not showing up for customers, removalists "holding goods for ransom", damages and quotes "with major discrepancies between companies".
"Moved from Perth to Bathurst. Our quote included four weeks' free storage and redelivery. The redelivery went over by three days because they could not deliver on my requested date and therefore they charged me an additional $570, which I had not choice but to pay if I wanted to see my goods again," one consumer review read online.
It was one of thousands more comments like it.
Other consumers claimed they also lost money on accommodation and flights to their destination while still waiting for the workers to arrive days after expected. Some found themselves in a serious predicament after not being able to vacate their properties on settlement dates because the home was still packed with their furniture days after it was supposed to have been collected.
While consumer affairs departments "don't generally comment on general investigations or businesses", state departments have collectively notched up thousands of complaints about removalists nationwide in recent years.
A NSW Fair Trading spokesman told news.com that it had received 1644 complaints about removalists since January 1, 2015, mostly related to "unsatisfactory/non-performance of the service, loss or damage to consumers' property, overcharging, and refunds". Of those complaints, 586 were received last year and 87 have so far been recorded in the state this year.
In Queensland, there were 192 complaints made to the Office of Fair Trading (QOFT) about furniture removal services in 2016-17. They included reports of "damage or loss of goods or property", "failure to provide refunds", and "accepting payment but not supplying the service or not supplying the service as agreed".
A QOFT spokesman told news.com.au the state "does not licence removalists, nor are they subject to industry-specific legislation administered by QOFT".
"However, as with all Australian businesses, removalists must comply with the Australian Consumer Law (ACL)," the spokesman said.
"If consumers have paid for a service that was not provided, they have the right to a refund under the ACL."
Consumer Affairs Victoria didn't respond to questions from news.com.au.
'BEWARE OF BACKLOADING AND BROKERS'
According to Mr Lopino, companies that offer backloading services should be treated with caution.
"Backloading is trying to find someone with an empty truck on their way back from somewhere," he said.
"So they're often delayed because they can't fill up the truck or put it in transit until there's more volume to justify going interstate.
"None of AFRA's members backload."
Mr Lopino said consumers often "don't know who they're dealing with" when they book removalists through "generic brokerage websites" that have a track record of "poor performance, lack of real contracts and processes dealing with consumers".
"Those companies put jobs out to several removalists or could be going through a broker," he said.
"A lot of times the companies use a generic website or email.
"And there's often no paperwork - just a phone call and couple of emails."
He said it was important for consumers to do their homework before booking removalists. He advised consumers to make their first step a visit to AFRA's website to find an accredited removalist and read the organisation's moving tips.
"Some (companies) talk about free insurance but consumers need to make sure they get a policy document in their name or run the risk of the removalist being insured but not them," he said.
"Consumers should get a written quote with terms and conditions of contract and read both."
Mr Lopino said contracts should include an expected uplift and delivery date and ask for a copy of the insurance policy and certificate of currency.
"Find out how the business is set up and ask if they have an office and a depot," he said.
Consumers with complaints about AFRA members can contact the organisation for mediation or to have the issue escalated to a tribunal at no cost to them.
NSW Fair Trading encourages consumers to seek advice about hiring a removalist via its website. The QOFT advises QLD consumers experiencing difficulties with a trader, and who have been unable to resolve the problem directly with the trader, to lodge an official complaint online.