Tips for moving across the country

We moved from Virginia to Seattle in 2015. It was our first cross-country move. Everything turned out great, but here are some lessons learned from the experience.

General long-distance moving advice

  • Good, fast, cheap–pick two. You can spend money to make your move easier. Decide what's most important to you: moving cheaply, quickly, or with little risk (e.g. using a more expensive, more reliable moving company).
  • Identify what must be done vs. what should or could be done. For example, maybe your key need is being in your destination city on a certain date to start a job. It would be nice to have your permanent lodging lined up by then, but that's not strictly necessary.
  • Choose your level of effort for before vs. after moving. If you do more work up front (e.g. by getting rid of stuff), you don't need to do as much later.
  • Decide how quickly you want to settle in. If you dedicate more time right after moving, you can settle in more quickly, e.g. by unpacking your boxes.
  • Identify how you'll plan your move and how you'll share your plans. If you're working with other people on the move, engage everybody in the planning and make sure everyone can see the plans. In our case we used for building and tracking our plans.

Build a work breakdown structure

It can be extremely helpful to build a work breakdown structure (WBS) for the move, so that you have a way to track and group all the things that are happening. In our case, the breakdown looked like this:

  • Old house items we're not moving purged/emptied
    • Large furniture item #1
    • Large furniture item #2
    • Books weeded
    • other stuff we sold or got rid of
  • Old house sold
    • Realtor
    • House prepared for sale
    • House on market
    • House contract
    • House repaired per contract
    • House services cancelled
    • House title transferred
  • School for our kid
  • Place to live in Seattle
    • Contract for place to live in Washington
    • Washington address
    • New address communicated
  • Everything transported to Washington
    • People
    • Cars
    • Cats
    • Books
    • Essential house items (items we'd need in the first three weeks)
    • Non-essential house items
  • Old job completed
  • New job started
  • John's job transitioned

Everyone's way to break down a move will look different; this is what made the most sense for us.

WBS lessons learned

The most valuable part of the WBS for me was breaking down the different things that needed to be transported. For example, we were in a tight spot figuring out how to move the cats. Putting it lightly, they do not travel well. This WBS called out that I should do research on ways to move the cats, and we ended up finding Precious Pets Transport, a service that drives small pets across the country.

The "place to live in Seattle" item wasn't fleshed out very well; I was focused on getting an address and didn't know enough about the process of finding a place to live in Seattle. We lived in an Airbnb for three weeks while we found a place to rent for a year.

This WBS was also a bit ambitious; it turns out our old house didn't sell for another nine months. I also found out that, because the house didn't sell quickly, we needed special insurance for a vacant house.

Preparing a budget

I used the above WBS to identify things we should, or could, spend money on to help make the move easier. We ended up with the below one-time costs:

  • Airbnb
  • Airfare
  • Rental car
  • Car shipping service
  • Pet shipping service
  • Moving service

We could have made the move cheaper in many ways, for example by finding a place to live ahead of time (avoiding Airbnb), by driving our cars rather than by flying, by moving less stuff, or by transporting our pets ourselves. However, during this move I was still working and I was trying to minimize my time off work. Also, we were a bit overwhelmed with the amount of work involved and we were in a position to find ways to make the move easier and less disruptive to us.


Never having done a move like this, I was surprised by many things.

First, I was surprised at how emotionally difficult the move was for me. I am a very high context person: I like to understand how things work and why they work. The move removed all context: I didn't know how school was going to work; I didn't know how car parking worked; I didn't know how to do my job remotely; I didn't know how oil heat worked in our rental house; I didn't know how to work with our Virginia realtor remotely. Everything seemed new and strange. I felt like an alien trying to figure things out. It took me around 18 months to feel comfortable in Seattle.

Second, I was surprised at the process of finding a place to rent in Seattle. I had a lot of experience renting in North Carolina. Our Virginia realtor had recommended a Seattle realtor to help us find a place to rent, but that didn't really work because Seattle was (and still is) a seller's/landlord's market. I'd also forgotten that it can be really hard to find a place to rent that allows cats. The three-week Airbnb worked out great, but also created a huge time pressure. We ended up finding a rental home by going to the showing/open house with a check.

Third, frankly I was surprised by how many books we had and how heavy they were. Our moving company had given us an estimate but the estimate was too low because of how dense our shipping boxes were.

Fourth, there were many things left to do on the east coast after we'd flown to Seattle. Moving companies charge a lot of money to store your stuff, so we asked a relative to come to our Virginia place to meet the moving company once we were ready for our stuff to be shipped. It took longer to schedule our car shipping than I'd anticipated, so we asked another relative to meet the shippers in North Carolina to pick up the cars. We didn't schedule the pet shipping service until we knew where we'd live, so our cats stayed with another relative for a few weeks.


The guy who bought two pieces of our Virginia furniture pieces said that he had moved over twenty times; his approach was to sell everything at his old location and then buy things at his new location, so he didn't have to ship anything. Some people have a lot of moving experience and this kind of move is "normal."

On the other hand, while part of the American mythos is that people move, I think cross-country (or even interstate) moves are less common than one might think. The US census state-to-state migration flows show 3,105 ± 1,568 people moved from North Carolina to Washington in 2015. That's not really that many people. Although most people in Seattle don't seem to be from here, most people are from California. There are fewer people from the South.

Some people settle in quickly; we settle in slowly. We've been in Seattle for three and a half years and we're still settling in and getting used to a routine. On the other hand, we made friends with another family who moved here the same day as us, but they've already moved on to another city.

Finally, although we've only been here for a few years, because so many people move to Seattle we're starting to become the "experts." We've started to identify more as Seattleites than as North Carolinians. We have built traditions like going to VegFest or the Boat Parade.