What you need to know before choosing a transporter

If you’ve been scouring the internet for the classic car of your dreams or just looking for a hard-to-find model that’s not available locally, here’s some good news. As more car buyers have turned to long distance buying through sites like eBay and Craig’s List, car transporting has flourished. There are more companies than ever vying for your business, and increased competition has led to lower rates.

The bad news is that as with any booming business, some of the shippers jumping on the bandwagon are more reputable than others – so it’s especially important to choose yours carefully. The U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has reported a dramatic increase in complaints against auto transport companies. Choosing the wrong one can increase the odds of paying too much, credit card ripoffs, delays, a damaged vehicle or some combination of the above.

Fortunately, there are plenty of tools available to help you choose the right transporter. A little time spent researching carriers and knowing what to watch for can make for a smoother and easier experience, and save you both headaches and more than a few bucks.

The best place to start is with a basic understanding of how the business works. Essentially, there are two types of vehicle transport companies. Larger and more established transporters such as Intercity Lines and Passport Transport have their own trucks, and the person you speak to on the phone works for the same company as the person driving the truck that will carry your car. These companies typically ship in enclosed trailers, use modern and well-maintained equipment, put an emphasis on customer service, and are generally the first choice for owners of high-end vehicles or valuable classics. They can also be the more expensive way to go, and the added security and protection of an enclosed trailer can add 50 percent or more to shipping costs.

The other option is using a transport broker, and there are plenty to choose from. Searching car transporters online will return plenty of hits, most of which will be for brokerage companies. Brokers work with any number of independent owner/operators, who look for vehicles heading in the direction they want to go or along their regular route. Brokers will quote you a price over the phone or online, and they make their money by taking a percentage of their quoted rate. This is typically charged to a credit card, with the balance due to the driver in cash or by certified check when the car is delivered.

While this option can cost less, it’s especially important to perform due diligence when using a broker. Because they’re working with a number of different contractors, any problems can become a frustrating exercise in finger pointing.

Regardless of who you choose, make sure you’re dealing with a reputable organization. All brokers and transporters must be registered with both the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Department of Transportation. Look for their registration numbers with each on the company website. If they don’t post them, keep shopping.

The FMCSA website also lets you check the safety record and other background information on a company by entering either their DOT or FMCSA numbers at https://safer.fmcsa.dot.gov/CompanySnapshot.aspx. Online car owner forums are another good source of information, gripes, and recommendations, and you can also find reviews at transportreviews.com. The Better Business Bureau (bbb.org) website is another good place to search.

Be aware that the business is ferociously competitive, and that you’re likely to get widely varying quotes. A recent inquiry about shipping a 1960s Buick Skylark from Ann Arbor, Mich., to the New York City suburbs brought quotes ranging from $375 to almost $700 from different brokers – all of which were immediately followed with questions about how their quote compared to others, and offers to match any competing bid. And then came a barrage of emails, texts and phone calls, even after the car had been shipped.

It’s also important to know that most brokers all use the same third-party database, which shows them cars that are awaiting shipment, what customers have said they’re willing to pay to ship those vehicles, and what has been paid for the same route in the past. The truckers use the same database, and will justifiably take the higher paying job if two cars going to the same area are priced differently. If you’re in a hurry, be willing to pay more. If you’ve got a bit more time, you can afford to bid less. Either way, don’t be afraid to ask your broker what comparables look like, and remember that bargaining can pay off. The cheapest quote isn’t likely to be your best bet, but don’t be afraid to stick to a reasonable budget.

In the end, the Buick arrived safely back east intact and on time. Perhaps a little dirtier, but none the worse for wear.

Shipping tips:

  • The car to be shipped doesn’t have to be registered, but it should be drivable enough to get on the trailer under its own power. Expect extra charges if it doesn’t run, and make sure to let the shipper know if it doesn’t ahead of time.
  • Avoid shipping extra parts or cargo in the vehicle if possible. This can also incur extra charges, and may increase risk of damage or theft.
  • Ask if there are any additional charges when you get your estimate, such as fuel surcharges or insurance fees.
  • Remove any aftermarket racks or accessories before the car is picked up.
  • Thoroughly wash the car before it is picked up, so any damage incurred during shipping is easier to spot.
  • Take photos from all angles, to have a detailed documentation of what your car looked like before loading.
  • Disconnect the car alarm if you have one.
  • Let the driver know of any idiosyncrasies with your car ahead of time – a faulty ignition switch, poor brakes, anything that might interfere with safe loading and unloading.
  • Thoroughly inspect the vehicle for damage upon arrival, and note any damage on the shipping paperwork. Make sure to get the driver’s signature, and report any damage to the shipping company.
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