Relocation is like childbirth: a) it’s painful, and b) total strangers feel compelled to regale you with their own irrelevant, traumatic and scary stories to make sure you approach the experience with an appropriate level of abject terror.
Sometimes, though, tips from the collective experience of those who’ve run the gauntlet before you can save you time and money. Here are a few thoughts for physicians from my "lessons learned" across hospital, corporate and private practice recruiting environments.
Many employers provide an allowance on a "use it or lose it" basis with a deadline for getting your expense report completed. They pay a mover directly (or reimburse you based on receipts) and reimburse you for specific expenses associated with getting you and your belongings from point A to point B. The IRS rules drive most relocation policies.
If you could deduct the expense on your personal income taxes, it’s likely to count as an allowable expense under a physician recruitment relocation allowance. Discuss options with the hospital or group if you think your expenses will be unusually low. During the negotiation phase, they may be open to shifting funds earmarked for relocation toward education loan repayment or sign-on bonus.
Be sure to include your employer’s preferred vendor(s) in your relocation bid solicitations. These companies have earned the employer’s trust and will work hard to rectify any problems in order to keep the referrals flowing. They love moving doctors! They know physicians and their families are reasonable, rational professionals who don’t do crazy things like forget the moving date, leave loaded guns in boxes or conceal explosive or flammable household chemicals in sealed cartons. They usually have an account manager on 24/7 cell phone access - an experienced employee whose continued employment and bonuses depend on keeping your new employer happy with positive relocation satisfaction surveys.
There are also excellent and ethical independent movers in every city. You usually can request a local mover if you have a strong preference. A referral from someone with personal ties to you and the moving company ensures any problems will remain on the owner’s radar once you are several states away.
The worst-nightmare relocations occur when physicians respond to a junk mail postcard from a mover operating off the grid. Going with the lowest bidder you can find sounds like a good way to preserve more of your allowance for other expenses. Beware. An unethical mover may be underbidding the major companies by cutting expenses that protect you. They might skip background-checking on employees or cut corners on vehicle maintenance and parts. If the moving company doesn’t have workers’ comp coverage, your homeowner’s insurance may take the hit if a worker is injured on your property.
At the darkest end of the spectrum, you might become a victim of predatory tactics. The low bid is a lure - the final cost will exceed the highest bids you received from others. How? The low bidder recalculates the cost based on an unexpected flight of stairs or oversize items you didn’t "disclose" until moving day. You could refuse to pay while your furniture is held as collateral in an undisclosed location, but most victims pay in order to get their belongings. (If you don’t pay, they sell the contents of the storage unit - just as the contract fine print said they would.) Once they’ve received the additional payment, the company disappears.
Several months often pass between the time you first discussed relocation and the time you move. You need to review and ask questions rather than rely on memory.
• When is the earliest date you could move? Due to the Stark Law, a hospital cannot reimburse you for any relocation expense incurred before the contract governing the terms of the recruitment assistance is signed.
• Can you store furniture while you rent and house hunt? Will they pay to have your heirloom backyard playhouse disassembled and reassembled in your new home? If you buy and install a trailer hitch to move yourself, will it be reimbursed? Ask if you don’t see your situation specifically addressed in the employer’s guidelines. Due to legal and IRS red tape, the common sense answer does not always prevail. For example, it might cost three times the value of your 10-year-old secondhand couch to move it cross country. Regardless of how much of a "win-win" it seems to just give you cash toward a new purchase at the destination, most hospitals and large employers will not do it.
• Ask for detailed instructions about reporting/separating out vacation stops or family visits along the way. If you choose to stop at a resort, your employer may pay only part of that room rate.
• Don’t assume that costs for guests (like a realtor or family members who don’t reside with you) are covered expenses on house hunting or relocation travel.
• Ask about rules for boarding/shipping pets. Policies vary widely.
• Review the process for documenting expenses. Do you need original receipts? Does it need to be the physician’s name (not the spouse’s maiden name or significant other’s name) on the credit card receipt? What is the deadline for turning in your expense report?
Don’t depend on one intense weekend of sorting, one garage sale, or one trip to Goodwill. It typically takes several weeks of working through your living space to get rid of things you don’t want or need. If you wait until the last minute, you will end up paying the moving company to pack what’s left. It’s an unhappy moment when you realize the unwanted poundage includes your full kitchen trash can, the baking supplies that expired months ago, and the weight set you promised to your neighbor.
Well-meaning friends might advise you not to tell the movers an item is valuable due to the urban legend that drawing attention increases risk of theft. Not true.
Anything in your home that has exceptional replacement value (typically in excess of $100 per pound) needs to be documented according to the mover’s process. Even if it was a gift and you don’t know market value, put it on the list. High-value inventory receives special packing attention and a supervisor will personally sign off that the item is there at each step of the move. The added documentation and valuation ensures more (and higher-level) oversight and makes the item riskier for an employee to pilfer. If the item is damaged or lost in transit, the high-value inventory handling lays the groundwork for reimbursement or repair negotiations.
One box has "high value" only to you and your employer: the box containing your documents for hospital credentialing. That box should never, ever travel in household goods shipment.
When the van arrives, you have the right to personally check off each carton and inspect each piece of furniture as it is unloaded. Do it. The very best chance of recovering lost items (or expediting repairs) lies in quick identification of the problem alongside the move supervisor who will physically verify that the carton is missing and compare delivery condition of damaged items to notes made at the time of loading. Your driver may encourage you to let his team do the check-off. It will save him some labor cost (it’s faster), but it’s not in your best interest.
The off-the-shelf software program that worked well for you during residency and fellowship was never designed to handle the complexities of your tax situation during relocation and practice transition. If you have a hospital income guarantee or other elements like federal loan repayment, use a health care CPA who has experience with those financial instruments. Every year, physicians lose thousands of dollars due to missed deductions and lack of tax planning.
Relocating is typically the last difficult thing in the entire process of finding your first practice or changing jobs. It only gets better after that last box is unpacked!
Therese Karsten, MBA, CMSR, has been recruiting physicians into hospitals, managed care and private practice groups for more than two decades. She is a senior in-house recruiter with HCA.