Underground Movers: Starting a Moving Company

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With a VW bus in good working order, starting a moving company that specialized in small loads was a natural.
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People were surprised a woman was part of the work crew, but no one objected.

Student Movers was a child of desperation born when my man and I returned to New York in September of 1970 with barely enough money to take our tired VW bus across the George Washington Bridge. By spring, our moving company had grown from a struggling one-truck outfit into a full-scale, full-time enterprise. That homey little underground operation footed our rent, kept us well-fed, paid a year’s college tuition and took us out of the city and onto the land the following June with $8,000 in our pockets.

If you’re stuck in the city, starting a moving company or trucking company just might help you earn your way out too. All it takes is a second-hand truck or bus, a stable telephone number, strong arms, and a broad back. Here’s how.

Why Underground?

Underground, in the case of moving, means unlicensed and uninsured — strictly speaking, illegal. But there are dozens of underground movers in every big city that operate openly and even advertise in establishment newspapers without hassles from the police. It amused us to call ourselves the Bonnie and Clyde of the moving world, but we really weren’t trying to circumvent the law. Working underground was simply the best way to provide a cheap and efficient alternative to high-priced professional movers.

Our customers didn’t mind that we weren’t insured; our low rates made up for that. We made it clear that we couldn’t be responsible for breakage and we refused to handle very delicate or very expensive items. But if we did damage something—as happened a couple of times during the year—we paid out of our pockets rather than making the customer file a claim and wait months or years for reimbursement.

We did have a slight run-in with the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs in late spring over licensing. “You’re operating illegally,” their inspector told us sternly. “You’d better go out of business right away.”

“Yes sir,” we said, “right away, sir.”

The inspector called back a few weeks later. “Have you gone out of business yet?”

“Yup.” And that was the last we heard from him. The forces of law and order, it seems, have more pernicious enemies to wipe out than small-time underground movers.

Incidentally, you might avoid the licensing problem altogether if you call yourself “Joe’s Truckers” rather than “Joe’s Movers.” In some areas truckers don’t have to be licensed. You can check with the Small Business Bureau in your city about that.

Underground movers, working on a human rather than a corporate scale, can avoid the huge overhead in office, vans, advertising, etcetera that Allied and Mayflower pay. We worked out of our home, wrote our own ads, and used our VW van—our “family car”—as a moving van. That made it possible for us to specialize in light moving at low rates. We didn’t compete directly with the big guys, we only handled the small loads that they found unprofitable.

The big companies in New York City charge $40 to $50 an hour for three men and a van, but pay those men only $3-4 an hour. Is it any wonder that movers have a reputation for being gruff, careless, inefficient and even dishonest? They know they’re exploited.

With our low overhead, we charged about one-third as much as the biggies while paying our helpers $4 an hour — more than union wages and exactly what we charged customers for the men’s labor. We still made a fine profit from the use of our bus and from our own labor, but not by the sweat of others.

Another advantage of operating underground is that you don’t have to pay income tax on your earnings if you don’t want to. Just insist on cash payments from all your customers and keep your records to yourself. What Infernal Revenue doesn’t know won’t hurt them, or you. (Unless you get caught! This time-honored cash-payment method of getting around income tax is, of course, frowned upon by the IRS so I can’t recommend it … but, of course, it is done all the time.—MOTHER EARTH NEWS.) 

Getting Started

Our moving business was launched with a handful of yellow 5X8 cards:

Light Moving in a VW Bus
Low Rates—Local and Long Distance

My husband plastered the cards over every university, bookstore, and supermarket bulletin board in our neighborhood. We were fortunate to live near a university, by nature an extremely mobile community (students are always moving into or getting kicked out of apartments).

The fact that we were students ourselves—and made it clear in our advertising—got us lots of business. Everyone wants to help students finance their education and we even received a number of contracts with the university. If you don’t live in a student neighborhood, you still should advertise there anyway.

We also tacked cardboard signs up on the windows of our bus (which was patently illegal because we were advertising a commercial service and didn’t have commercial license plates) and we’d hold our breath when cops stared at the signs. No hassles. One of the policemen even jotted down the number and called us up to do a job.

Eventually we had our advertising Xeroxed (at about $3 for 100 sheets, three ads to a sheet) and spent a day pasting the pages all over town: at transient hotels, YMCA’S, churches, apartment complexes, other colleges and on outside walls and lampposts. Some got ripped down, but at that price it was no problem to replenish them. We also kept a bunch of these notices in our van to hand out to passersby who stopped us while we were on a job.

Finally, we began to advertise in the classified sections of the college paper and of other local newspapers. Each type of advertising paid for itself many times over and the jobs started pouring in.

Our office was in our apartment, but the constant barrage of phone calls day and night made the place seem at times more like a fortress under siege. A bulletin board over our desk contained rosters of helpers with and without trucks, their phone numbers, and the times they were available to work. A strategic diagram of our mini-van showed its length, height, width, and door dimensions. Would a 5X7 bookcase fit in? We could tell right away. Another sheet listed the vital information we had to give our customers: rates, non-responsibility for breakage, etc. We wanted to be sure there would be no misunderstandings at pay-up time.

We set a notebook by the phone, with a page for each day, and wrote down the jobs as they came in. For each appointment we filled in name, address (and how to get there if we didn’t know), phone number in case of changes, the time we were to come, the number of helpers requested and a brief description of the job—like, “two trunks to Brooklyn, five flights up”—or an estimate of the time it would take.

Estimating job times requires a bit of skill. You have to consider [a] what’s to be moved (will it take two trips?), [b] from and to where, [c] what time of day (rush hour jobs mean traffic jams) [d] if it involves stairs (they take longer than elevators.) … and then allow some for broken elevators, acts of God, and indecisive customers. Underestimates can be disastrous when you’re booking jobs back to back, so leave yourself lots of leeway in the beginning. You can schedule more tightly once you get the hang of it.

We tried as hard as humanly possible to meet all appointments on time, and we asked our customers to extend us the same courtesy by notifying us immediately of cancellations or changes in the location or size of a job. We absolutely refused to book tentative assignments. Occasionally we’d get requests for special rates or special services. We learned, the hard way, to simply turn such jobs down. The people who hassle you on the phone are usually the ones who hassle you on the job, and we didn’t need that.

To establish our rates, Chris and I checked the local newspaper (in New York, The Village Voice) used by other underground movers, then decided on a competitive price: $7.50 per hour for one man and a truck, $11.50 for two men. (Later on we upped our rates to $8 and $12 respectively, simply because that made it easier to figure fractions of an hour). That price included gas but not tolls. We set a one hour minimum for each booking, charging to the nearest quarter of an hour thereafter.

The customer was “on the clock” from the time we left home until we got back (we’d make a reasonable estimate for getting home), obviously with no coffee breaks or dallying on the way. That’s called travel time, and all professionals charge for it; you’re cheating yourself if you drive a long distance on your own time. If a customer was suspicious, we’d invite him to drive along. We never agreed to flat rates on local jobs; it’s too easy to mis-estimate the time involved.

We were more flexible on long distance rates. Those jobs were easier—mostly driving—and so profitable we didn’t want to lose them. We’d ask for thirty cents a mile (forty cents for two men) round trip plus tolls, and haggle down from there. A three hundred mile run might net us $80 for a full day’s work, but many customers told us that price was reasonable—if not absurdly low—compared to the rates charged by professional movers.

“All terms cash, no checks, no credit.” We got damn tired of repeating that, but it was necessary. In the city, unfortunately, you have to be very cautious about accepting personal checks from strangers. By insisting on immediate cash payment we avoided the hassles of billing by mail, bouncing checks, and incriminating records for the tax men. We’d make a rough estimate of what each assignment might cost, then ask the customer to have at least that much cash on hand to cover it.

Truck, Equipment, Labor:

The only major equipment you need to set yourself up in the moving business is some sort of small truck or van, and if you shop around you’ll probably be able to find a usable vehicle for a few hundred dollars. Our ’57 VW bus, which we bought originally to use as a camper, cost $300. For an additional $450, we had Volkswagen mechanics install a guaranteed rebuilt engine. Although our initial investment was repaid many times over, you should be able to get a much better deal.

Moving furniture is hard on a vehicle, but we kept maintenance costs down by doing our own repairs. John Muir’s How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive taught us everything we needed to know, from doing tune-ups to adjusting brakes to engine overhauls. Extra large tires on the rear wheels helped support heavy loads with less wear on the bus.

We were constantly amazed at how much we could fit into that little van, from sofas to double beds to small pianos to 2000 pounds of filled file cabinets to our own mattress and Coleman stove when we just had to get away to the hills for the weekend. VW’s are easy to maintain and park on crowded city streets, and they’re wonderfully cheap on gas (ours got 27 miles per gallon on long runs).

The small doors on the old bus, however, did present a problem in loading and unloading. After 1964, VW enlarged the back door, and after ’68 the bus itself was made a foot longer with larger sliding doors. These changes make a big difference in loading capacity. American-made vans (Chevy, Dodge, etc.) are more expensive to buy and operate than VW’s, but they have wider doors and a lot more space inside.

If you want to operate on a larger scale, you might buy a used mail truck or United Parcel van (see “Old Delivery Trucks: Keep on Truckin’“). Or you could, as one of our friends did, put plywood sides and top on a pickup or flatbed truck. With such vehicles, however, you might be forced to get commercial plates in some states, and that means higher registration fees, insurance, tolls, and restricted access to some highways. Larger loading capacity would justify higher rates than ours, but you should be careful not to price yourself out of business. Whatever the size of your truck, measure every dimension and keep the figures posted over your phone.

Other equipment which it’s good to own are a dolly for carrying things on flat surfaces and a hand-truck with creepers for going up and down stairs. These will save your back but aren’t really necessary at first unless you’re moving refrigerators, washing machines, or pianos. You might pick up an old dolly from another mover for a few dollars, and you can rent a handtruck from U-Haul for three bucks a day or borrow one from a kindly superintendent for use within his building. You should always carry a couple of old blankets to protect furniture from scratches, and it’s a good idea to collect a bunch of cardboard cartons or wooden crates to carry small stuff like dishes.

As for labor, that’s you and your closest friends. You don’t have to be a big husky guy to move furniture. You’ll develop strength and stamina gradually and a lot of the skill is simply pacing and know-how. For example, anyone can learn to balance a heavy box on on his or her shoulders. It’s much easier than carrying it in front of your chest.

Two people can get a sofa or dresser up stairs best if the strongest person goes behind, keeping the object level and high up, parallel with the front person. If the dresser’s too heavy, take out the drawers. If the Castro convertible is killing you, remove the mattress and tie the seat to the frame. Take those screw-on legs off coffee tables and beds and you’ll be able to maneuver much easier on stairs and in the van. When you have to move up five or six climbs of stairs, it’s best to do a couple of flights at a time and rest on the way down. Customers appreciate a steady, reasonable pace rather than a mad dash and the dropping and breakage that may go with it.

And women can do it too! At first we used to apologize to our customers, “Uh, the second man you’re hiring is a girl.” The response was either hysterical laughter, shocked silence, or a hearty “that’s outasight,” but no one ever objected. After working daily for a few months, I didn’t need to apologize anymore because I could do the job as well as the average man.

A few people became almost apologetic watching me lift and haul (I guess they thought I was straining my ovaries or something) and they’d plead with me to rest, despite the fact that they were paying me $4 an hour. I’d wither them with a disdainful grin and keep on working.

I even ran a weekly route by myself, transporting cartons of books to a warehouse in New Jersey. The first few trips, the foreman’s ferocious stares told me my female presence was unwelcome in that masculine stronghold. But once he got used to me, the foreman would greet me with a “hi, sweetheart” and call his men around to watch me heave boxes into the van.

I think that the uniqueness of a man-woman moving team even helped our business. People would call up for a job and say, “Make sure the chick comes along. This I gotta see.”

We encouraged our customers to help out with the labor too. If they were weak and clumsy, it made them appreciate us more (and was probably good for them) and if they were strong, it made the work go more quickly. Sure, that lowered the bill, but it let us feel less like hired help and more like friends.

Getting Big:

Student Movers began as a two-man, one-truck, part-time operation. By spring it had become a big business employing several vans, a number of our friends, and most of our time. Our reputation had spread through advertising and word-of-mouth, and we had tapped a vast market in the city and suburbs for a reliable but cheap moving company. When the schools let out and summer subletting began, we were inundated by pleas for our services.

It’s hard to turn down jobs even when you’re booked solid, so we recruited every bus and truck in our neighborhood to take care of our excess business. We worked on a commission basis, doing the advertising and phone work and taking two dollars an hour off the wages for our time. It wasn’t worth it.

Student Movers was our business, and the people we hired simply didn’t feel the sense of responsibility that we did. They would miss appointments, confuse schedules, overcharge. We’d get frantic phone calls at all hours: “Where’s your truck? I’ve got to move right now,” and it would turn out that the driver we’d commissioned had forgotten, broken down, gone to see his girlfriend, gotten drunk, or (this actually happened) taken off for California. Which meant that we’d have to juggle schedules, maybe rent a truck and do the job ourselves … as we should have done in the first place.

Another type of commission work turned out better for us perhaps because we hired only our friends, rather than any stranger who happened to own a truck. We advertised “experienced workers to help you move,” and found that, miraculously, people were willing to pay $5 an hour just for labor, no van. These were folks who needed help loading or unloading a U-Haul and people who were moving from one apartment to another within a single building. Once again our commission was small — $1 an hour — but we helped quite a few of our friends earn some extra bread. One truckless pal kept running this ad long after Student Movers shut down, and made several hundred dollars out of sheer bravado. If you can’t afford a van right now, you might try hiring yourself out as labor in this way.

During spring vacation and semester breaks we used our overworked bus to run groups of students to the New York airports at $4 a head. A comparable cab trip costs $13, but by packing in ten people we earned $40 for two hours’ work. Since we weren’t licensed to carry passengers for profit, this too was illegal. So we removed the signs from our bus, took payment before we left, and instructed our cargo to insist they were just friends being done a favor in case we got hassled by airport cops. We never got hassled, but the whole thing involved tight scheduling, extra advertising, and careful coordination of meeting times and places. Big money, big headaches.

Calling It Quits:

Big money, big headaches. By June that was the story of our lives. Our time was worth $8 an hour and the money fever had such a grip on us that we refused to waste a precious hour just breathing or sitting in the sun. We were working nine to midnight, seven days a week! Our bank account was huge but we had become walking zombies … or rather, moving zombies. We were exhausted and out of tune with ourselves and each other. It was time to quit.

On June 24th we pulled our telephone out of the wall, carried our belongings down the five flights of our tenement walk-up, and packed them into Old Brown Bus. Then, without looking back, we drove our last job: moving our own home to rural Maryland. When we unpacked, the New York cockroaches ran out of the furniture, took a deep breath of country air and sighed.

Sometimes we wake early in the morning and rush out of the house to work. Then we take a look at the mountains and the river running near our yard and we sit back down again. No more moving ever!

The money we earned last year will carry us through another 12 months of just being. Old Brown Bus rests placidly by the garden. Dried apples and green beans hang from her roof. Next spring, maybe, we’ll take her tired engine out and use her for a goat shed.