People who travel a lot have their own system: things to prepare in the days before a trip, everything packed in it’s right place, printout of the flight itinerary in a front pocket in case the luggage goes missing, and so on.

I have a system for moving, because I’ve done that a lot. I spent seven years in DC and lived in just as many apartments there. Then, we moved to Denver, and now, seven months later, we’re moving to Chicago. And I know exactly what to do.

Update: I wrote a companion post about finding the new apartment in the first place.


  • Get rid of stuff. Lots of stuff. Start doing this a month before the move, because you have absolutely got a bunch of crap you don’t need. Donate it to Goodwill, and if it’s not stuff they’ll take, list it for free on Craigslist and it’ll be gone in no time. If it’s not even worth giving away, toss it. There’s a reason you never wear those torn up old jeans, and ain’t nobody else gonna want them either: get rid of ‘em.
  • Get boxes. When we moved from DC to Denver, we rented boxes from BungoBox: they have these big, re-usable plastic crates that they drop off and pick up. You rent them by the week, and they are awesome: they’re tough as hell, you can get them with wheeled dollies to move them around, and packing the truck is a breeze when all the boxes are the same size. Unfortunately, they aren’t in too many cities, and we haven’t been able to find similar services that are in both Denver and Chicago. If you can use BungoBox, do: it’s worth it. If not, go to U-haul and buy a crapload of boxes, focusing on small and medium ones (large boxes are useless for anything more dense than blankets). You can also look on Craigslist for used moving boxes, but the quality and quantity are a real crap shoot. Just buy new ones and take good care of them (easy with the markers), and then you can be the one selling used boxes on Craigslist for fifteen bucks.
    • Hang on to small boxes. In the weeks before your move, hang on to the boxes if you order anything from Amazon or buy shoes. You don’t want all your little stuff (like all that crap in your desk drawers) tossed willy-nilly into the main moving boxes; put that stuff in little boxes inside the big boxes.
  • Get some supplies. If you don’t already have some floating around from your last picnic, get a small pack of paper plates and plastic silverware, so you can still eat after packing up the kitchen. Get a shower curtain lines, rings to hang it, and a bar of soap. Make sure you’ve got clear packing tape, a few markers, a knife (for re-opening boxes if needed), a roll of masking tape, and some Ziploc sandwich bags. All of this will make more sense later on.
  • Stock the new place. If you’re moving within the same area and will get the keys to the new place before you show up with the truck, stock the fridge with some soda, beer, and bottled water. Whether you’re hiring movers, getting help from friends, or doing it all yourself, everyone will appreciate a cold beverage once the truck is unloaded. Also get some toilet paper, hand soap, and a roll of paper towels. You’ll get a chance to do a full grocery store run once the truck is unloaded, but you’ll probably at least want the option of using the bathroom before that if the need should arise.
  • Get a couple hundred in cash and find a safe place for it. This really only applies if you’ve hired movers: you may need to pay them in cash, and they’ll definitely appreciate a tip in cash. I like to put an envelope with the moving fee and tips in a kitchen drawer once the drawer’s contents have been packed (sssh), so I can find it easily once the truck is loaded and it’s time to pay up.
  • Make a list of all the places you need to change your address. USPS. Driver’s license. Car registration. Bank, credit card, and loan accounts. Lojack. National Bike Registry. Magazines. Amazon. Netflix.
    • Your free credit report is a great way to get accounts that you’ll need to change. It should list any loans (even if your student loans got sold all over the place like mine did) and credit cards (remember that card you got in college to get a “free” T-Shirt that you never use?).
    • If you use Amazon, you can use them to handle most popular magazine subscriptions. Then changing your address and renewing are dead simple.
  • Make sure you’ll have utilities at the new place. The practicalities of this one will depend on which utilities you will be responsible for. To be honest, I haven’t given much thought to water/gas/electricity at our new place in Chicago, because I’ve already got the DIY Comcast setup kit for the internet connection. So really, this step could be called Make sure you have Internet when you get there.
    • Property managers don’t always know what ISP the building is already wired for, especially if you’re renting in a house or small apartment building. Large apartment buildings typically have just one provider, so management knows who it is. Comcast and other providers will be happy to schedule an appointment with a tech (who may or may not show, grumblegrumble), which may wind up costing you a bunch of time if they need to run wiring. If you can, find out what service the previous tenant was using, because you know it’s already hooked up and ready to go. I have been known to bring a laptop and cable modem into an empty apartment to hook it up and see what it tries to connect to.


  • Start with books. Packing is one of those there’s-so-much-to-do-I-don’t-know-where-to-start kind of jobs. Start with your bookcase. You can make some quick progress and get the process moving. Besides, you want the heavy books at the bottom of the pile of packed boxes, so you may as well start there.
  • Mark your boxes. This should be a no-brainer, but I’ve definitely done moves where I didn’t bother labeling anything, and had the movers just dump it all in the living room. This was a mistake.
    • Mark boxes HEAVY if they’re over 50 pounds (that’s the limit that OSHA says could cause injury). You don’t want some overzealous friend lifting a seemingly small box of your pet rock collection, only to throw out their back. At least they’ll test it first or get somebody to help.
    • Mark boxes FRAGILE in bright marker and circle it 10^5 times. Unless you have professional movers, tell everybody to let you get those yourself. Your friends will thank you since they no longer have to worry about breaking your priceless collection of Star Wars figurines.
    • Mark boxes INTERNET if they contain your cable modem and/or wireless access point, because really, that’s the most important thing to dig out when you arrive at the new place.
  • Pack a carry-on full of clothes and toiletries. Even if you’re moving to another place in the same city, just fill the carry-on. It makes sense to pack clothes in luggage anyway, and who knows how long it will be before you get the rest of your clothes unpacked at the other end. This is especially important if your move will include any overnights (like driving between cities), since you’ll need this bag wherever you spend the night. The front pocket of the carryon gets the shower curtain, rings, and bar of soap (remember those from earlier?), along with a towel. After unloading the truck at the new place, especially if it’s summer, you’re going to want to take a shower without having to tear into every box marked “bathroom” to make it happen.
  • Leave a crappy old bath towel and a trash bag in the bathroom of the old place, and leave the shower curtain liner up. Pack the decorative shower curtain, leave the plastic liner hanging. Whether you shower right when you get up on moving day, or after loading up the truck, the last thing out of the apartment can be a trash bag with a torn old bath towel, the old curtain, and the rings it hung from (those are cheap, just toss ‘em).
  • Leave your cleaning supplies accessible
    • You might need to clean your old place before moving out. A little elbow grease could save quite a bit of money in cleaning fees depending on your current lease.
    • You will also want to clean your new place before unpacking everything. Vacuuming an empty room takes about 30 seconds. Wiping down walls and stuff is much easier without furniture in the way. Focus on rooms with the most furniture, like your bedroom, living room, or office. Skip the bathroom, hallways, and kitchen since you probably won’t be any worse off in a month when you finally get around to it (at least in terms of working around furniture. Please clean your bathroom more than once a month).
  • Make sure you know where your checkbook is. If you’re like me, the checkbook only comes out once a month for that one bill that you still can’t pay online. As such, my checkbook is just in a drawer somewhere, and would get packed in a box with all the other junk if I’m not careful. That’s a good thing to have close at hand during the moving process, just in case.
  • Make sure you keep track of your supplies. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone digging through a half-packed apartment looking for that roll of tape I JUST HAD A SECOND AGO HOW FAR COULD IT HAVE GONE. Keep your marker in your pocket, too.
  • Put small pieces in Ziploc bags and tape to the thing they belong to. If you’ve got bookshelves that you built youself, then they’ve probably got those little nubs that hold up the adjustable shelves. Put those in a Ziploc bag, then use marking tape to attach that bag to the shelving unit, so you know where to find them later (I told you those baggies would make sense later). Do this to any small parts or pieces: screws, dongles for electronics, anything that will get lost easily.
  • Tape anything that moves. Use masking tape to tape shut things that will come open: drawers on filing cabinets and desks, doors on entertainment centers, etc. It should go without saying, but make sure said drawers and compartments have been cleared out before you tape them shut.
  • Mark the cupboards that have been packed up. I put a piece of masking tape across the knob of any cupboard that has been completely emptied out. Otherwise, I find myself double- and triple-checking them each day leading up to the move.
  • Don’t think. Just put stuff in boxes. This advice comes from Paul F. Tompkins, on the Stop Podcasting Yourself podcast, right at the 21-minute mark:

We followed the advice that someone gave us—because we hadn’t moved in a while, and a friend of ours said, “here’s the best advice I ever got about moving: Don’t think. Just put stuff in boxes.” Which, inevitably, happens anyway.

Moving Day

  • Get the last of your stuff packed up. The first time I moved after college, one of the things I unpacked was a trash bag containing whiteboard markers, some dirty dishes, and a disgusting George Foreman grill, because I had somehow failed to pack (or clean) those items, and a friend that was helping me move just tossed them in a bag. Whether you’re hiring movers or paying friends in pizza and beer, make sure all your stuff is packed and ready to go out the door before your help arrives.
  • Trust the movers. You did hire movers, right? As much as I love my friends and appreciate their help on previous moves, none of us do that kind of thing for a living. Pay someone who knows how to properly pack a truck, and who is insured in case anything gets dropped.
  • Moving yourself?
    • Think about how long you think it should take. Now add a couple hours. Don’t forget that you need to return the truck, and probably need to do so before the U-haul closes for the day. You might need to quickly unload everything into your driveway/garage/sidewalk so you can get the truck back and not pay tons of money in late fees.
    • Moving trucks are generally much more expensive on weekends and the start/end of a month.
    • Forearm forklifts seem cheesie, but they work great. Even after you move, I’ve used them to move furniture around without dragging it.


  • Put together your bed first. I like to unpack as much as I can in the first day at the new place, but I always start with the bed. When I get to the point where I can’t possibly unpack another box, the last thing I want to do is shuffle around a bunch of junk so I can lay down the mattress that’s leaning against a wall. Our bedsheets are kept in under-bed totes that are easy to pick out among moving boxes, but you may want to stick those in your carry-on too, so that you don’t have to go hunting for them come bedtime.
  • Clean out the kitchen cupboards. Scrub ‘em before you unpack the kitchen, then maybe put down that contact paper, too.
  • Get furniture in place. I find it’s easier to shuffle the boxes around as needed to get furniture where you want it, and go from there. It’ll be easier than having a kitchen table buried under boxes, sitting where you want to put the couch. Or, opening boxes of books and having nowhere to put them because the bookshelves are buried behind a pile of boxes, and the spot where the bookshelves need to go is buried behind a different pile of boxes. This step is a pain in the neck because it often means moving full boxes to and fro around the room, but it makes unpacking the boxes a lot easier.
  • Unpack the boxes. I don’t really have a system from this point. I tend to start with the boxes that are tripping me up most often and go from there.
  • No really, unpack the boxes. I have a habit of opening and half-unpacking a bunch of boxes at once, because I just grab whatever is closest to me. This works fine for the first hour or two of unpacking, but quickly turns your home into a minefield of mostly-empty boxes. Finish a box off (or at least combine a couple that are partially empty), break it down to free up some space, then move on to the next one.

Once you’re settled a bit

  • Take a lap with a screwdriver. Every apartment comes with loose towel racks and doorknobs. It’s the kind of thing people just stop noticing and learn to live with. Tighten those up before you get accustomed to a bunch of wiggly crap.
  • Take stock of the lightbulbs. Let’s be honest: CFLs are usually crummy, mismatched wattages look like crap, and one dead bulb in the bathroom or kitchen makes all the difference in the world. I like to just replace all of them to avoid the mismatches and take care of the dead ones.
  • Replace the battery in smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. They’re probably supposed to be replaced before you even move in, but play it safe.

Piece of cake, right? Enjoy your new home!