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Moving to Houston: Relocation Guide

"Relocation Guide" provides a virtual checklist for those preparing to become new Houstonians, offering information on moving companies, utilities and the laws that make it safe to drive around Texas. Also included are helpful lists of area resources, power companies, packing tips and informative Web sites along with a checklist for establishing utility service.

With careful planning, moving can be a relatively problem-free process. Whether moving across the street or across country, a comprehensive plan can help with the step-by-step process of relocating.

Many Houston-based services designed to help make moving easier include temporary housing, storage, career counseling and job placement services. One of the first steps to planning and managing a move is collecting information.

Moving Companies
People moving from another state likely will require the services of a moving company. But those moving to Houston from less than 250 miles away might want to consider moving themselves. The extra time and effort expended in a self-move should be considered when comparing costs with those of a moving company.

Select a moving company by asking for recommendations from people who have used a moving company recently and by checking prices and information to determine what is involved.

Prices and services vary considerably among moving companies and can be based on an hourly rate, per delivery person or a flat fee. Most give free estimates based on the length of the move and the weight of the items to be moved. There are two kinds of estimates: binding and nonbinding. The binding estimate describes in exact detail the shipment and all services that will be provided. This type of estimate limits total charges to the estimated amount.

The nonbinding estimate approximates cost. Movers may not charge for providing a nonbinding estimate. However, the final bill can be more than the estimate, but not by more than 10 percent.

With a nonbinding estimate, every service must be outlined in writing. Do not sign or accept the order for service or bill of lading unless the amount estimate is entered on each form when prepared by the mover.

Moving companies can fall behind schedule. Search for a company that will guarantee a pickup and delivery day and make sure those times are in part of the contract. Do not agree to a pickup or delivery on an "as soon as possible" basis. It is best to move at times other than the end of the month or during the summer vacation period of June, July and August, which are the busiest times for moving companies.

Although a moving company provides liability insurance on items it moves by the pound, it might be wise to purchase additional insurance.

Before a moving company begins work, take an inventory of belongings even if the company promises to do one. Be sure to note scratches and other blemishes that will help verify a damage claim later. If the company does its own inventory, check it carefully against a personal inventory before signing anything. Listed below are a few points to remember.
• Try to get rid of any unnecessary items before moving.
• Do not use heavy containers to pack belongings. Use wardrobe space wisely by packing off-season garments in regular boxes.
• Consider mailing books because post office book rates are less than that of some moving companies.
• Remember that movers are trained professionals, and there is less chance of damage if they do the packing. Movers usually can pack in one day.

Be at the new home at the time when the company has agreed to be there. If no one is home, belongings will go into storage (usually for an extra fee). The moving company will expect payment in cash before unloading.

Moving Expenses
Tax deductions might apply to a move, but it is best to understand the law before moving in order to keep the appropriate records and to comply with any necessary provisions.

Keep in mind that a move must be at least 50 miles from a current home and involve changing job locations in order for expenses to be deductible. Records to keep include:
• travel, meals and lodging expenses incurred during the move;
• moving of household goods and personal items (this includes some storage expenses);
• cost of looking for a new home, home-scouting trips, lodging and meals;
• temporary living arrangements in the new location; and
• disposing of a former home and acquiring a new one.

Movers may call the Internal Revenue Service at 800-829-1040 or visit www.irs.gov to request a free booklet explaining exactly what can and cannot be deducted.

Temporary Storage
Temporary storage in Houston is relatively inexpensive compared to storage costs in many other areas of the country. Self- and warehouse-storage space is available in all sections of the city. Check on security arrangements at specific storage units, liability for loss or damage and availability of units.

Utilities
On Jan. 1, 2002, the electric utility industry's retail market in Texas was deregulated. For the first time in Texas history, residential and commercial consumers were able to choose their retail electric providers from a lineup of powerful competitors. Under deregulation in Houston, consumers can continue buying power from Reliant Energy, or they can switch to another provider. Reliant Energy provides a complete suite of energy products and services to approximately 1.9 million electricity customers, ranging from residences and small businesses to large commercial, industrial and institutional customers, primarily in Texas. Reliant Energy and TXU Energy have provided electric service to Texas families for more than 100 years. To compare the prices and services of retail electric providers (REPs), the customer should ask for the company's "Electricity Facts Label," which provides information on prices, contracts, sources of power generation and emissions. The Texas Public Utility Commission provides information about electric choices on its Web site (www.powertochoose.org) or call 866-797-4839 for more information.

CenterPoint Energy supplies gas to Houston area residents. Service requests may be completed over the phone or online. To apply for service and obtain information, call 713-659-2111 or visit its Web site at www.centerpointenergy.com.

The City of Houston Public Works and Engineering Department provides water and sewer services, which are available to City of Houston residents by calling 713-371-1400. Billing is on a monthly basis and is based on water usage. Water system improvements have earned a "Superior" public water supply rating for Houston since 1995. To promote a higher standard of quality, the Surface Water Branch joined the Partnership for Safe Water in 1996. The Houston Public Works Department tests and treats the water above and beyond state and federal requirements.

Municipal Utility Districts (M.U.D.s) provide water and sewer services to many Houston area neighborhoods. Be sure to ask a real estate agent or landlord if a new home is in a M.U.D.

There is no fee for residential garbage collection in the City of Houston. Garbage and light trash are collected weekly. Heavy trash is collected only on a call-in basis for some neighborhoods, while others may have monthly heavy-trash pickup. There is no garbage collection on municipal holidays. Some subdivisions opt to contract local garbage companies to collect refuse. Fees for these services usually are included in the homeowner's association dues.

For all utilities in Houston, new customers without established credit are required to pay a deposit that is credited to their account after one year of on-time payment.

Telephone Service
Service for the Houston area, including most of the surrounding cities, is provided primarily by SBC, but there are 67 total local service providers, including AT&T;, MCI, Sprint, Time Warner Telecom, Verizon and Westel. Houston is the hub of telephone communications for south Texas. Base residential rates include a one-party line, long-distance access charge, 911 fee, federal excise tax, sales tax and gross receipts tax. Custom calling features such as call forwarding, call waiting and call notes are available for additional monthly fees. These features are subject to federal, state and gross receipts taxes. Normal billing for local telephone charges per month ranges from $25 to $45, depending on the services requested. To order new telephone service from SBC, call 800-464-7928. Check the local phone directory for contact information on other available local service providers.

The City of Houston and the immediate surrounding area have three area codes - 281, 713 and 832. When calling from one of these area codes to the other and within the same area code, 10-digit dialing is required. Three other area codes 409, 936 and 979 are part of the larger 10-county Houston metropolitan area. When calling from the 281, 713 and 832 area codes to the 409, 936 and 979 area codes, long distance charges are assessed.

Telephones are available for sale at a variety of retailers, including SBC, which also provides wireless service.

When you call to request service, be prepared to provide the following information:
• Complete address for installation;
• A description of the types of modular plug-in outlets needed;
• Need for special features such as call waiting, call forwarding, three-way calling or call notes;
• Previous phone company information, including phone number and location;
• Identification information (driver's license or passport);
• Credit information;
• Employment information;and
• Employment and personal references.

SBC requires an average of two-to-three days to connect your telephone, and the charge is from $40 to $75 if there are existing outlets inside the house. The installation charge will be billed to customers with satisfactory credit histories, while others might have to pay in advance.

If building a house, arrange to have the telephone company wire it before interior walls are completed. This will prevent the need to put holes in the walls and save time and money.

Forwarding Mail
Four-to-six weeks before leaving the old home, ask the local U.S. Post Office for a change-of-address kit with which to notify each business, magazine or creditor that will need the new address. Also, fill out a change of address form for the postmaster giving the effective date when forwarding should begin. Only first-class mail can be forwarded.

Texas Driver's License
New residents must obtain a Texas driver's license within 30 days of establishing Texas residency.

New residents with a valid out-of-state driver's license and who own a vehicle and would like to obtain a Texas driver's license will need to provide proof of Texas registration, proof of liability insurance, a Social Security number and out-of-state license. The only examination required is the vision test.

If the out-of-state license has expired, a new resident will have to take a written and a driving examination as well as the vision test. Those who do not own a vehicle will not have to show proof of insurance, but will be required to complete an affidavit of non-ownership. At the time of application, new residents will be required to surrender their valid or expired out-of-state driver's license.

All original applicants for a driver's license or identification certificate must present proof of identity satisfactory to the Department of Public Safety, as well as take written, driving and vision tests. For information about documents that may be presented as acceptable proof of identity, go to the Texas Department of Public Safety's Web site at www.txdps.state.tx.us/geninfo.htm.

A beginning driver - 15 years of age or older - can apply for an instruction permit, which enables the holder of the permit to drive with a licensed driver who is 18 years of age or older in the front seat. To obtain a permit, one must pass the written portion of the driving test, while those under the age of 18 must take the classroom portion of an approved driver's education course.

In 2000, Texas passed a new regulation, which requires that first-time foreign applicants must prove legal U.S. residency before obtaining a Texas driver's license.

Call the Texas Department of Public Safety Driver's License Office in Houston at 713-681-6187 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday for information on locations and to obtain a booklet on Texas driving regulations. Bureaus are located throughout the area.

Auto Registration/Tags
Newcomers must register vehicles in Texas within 30 days after establishing residency. Call the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector at 713-368-2000 for information. Residents of other counties may register at their county tax office.

The following information is necessary to register a vehicle: the title; a sales or use tax affidavit; a current Texas driver's license; Vehicle Identification Certificate, Form VI-30-A, which indicates that the vehicle has passed a safety inspection; a current odometer reading; customs documentation if from a foreign country; and proof of insurance.

Members of the U.S. Armed Forces and nonresident students attending accredited Texas schools on a full-time basis are not considered state residents.

Fees for registration and certificate of title, which must be paid in cash, can include registration (front and back license plates) fee, title application, use tax and a new resident fee.

Other fees might include the safety inspection of your vehicle (varies with year and model), any needed repairs and any notary fees. The newcomer's county tax assessor will have the most recent information. Registration and license tags also must be renewed every 12 months. Texas residents can renew registration and tags by mail, in person or online.

Every 12 months, all Texas automobiles must undergo a safety inspection. New automobiles have a sticker that is effective for the first two years, after which the automobile must be inspected every 12 months. State-regulated inspection stations carry a designation as such and can include dealerships, garages or auto service centers. A vehicle that passes inspection will be issued a sticker that must be displayed in the lower left-hand corner of the front windshield.

Driving and Seat Belts
Texas law requires that the driver and front-seat passenger wear seat belts. The law also requires a state-approved car seat for children 4 years of age or younger. Rental car companies will provide their customers with infant seats upon request.

Highway traffic has the right of way and need not yield to entering traffic. Exiting traffic has the right of way on access roads. Turning right on red is legal in Texas unless otherwise indicated.

Texans also are required to have state license plates on both the front and rear of the vehicle.

Texas has a mandatory automobile liability insurance law. If you are stopped for any reason, you can be required to show proof of liability insurance, which also is necessary for other automobile-related transactions such as vehicle inspections, renewing registrations, etc.

A copy of the Texas Motor Vehicle Laws is available from the General Services Department, Texas Department of Public Safety, P.O. Box 4087, Austin, TX 78773.

Liquor Laws
The minimum age to buy or consume liquor in Texas is 21 years of age. Liquor store hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with no sales on Christmas Day, New Year's Day or Thanksgiving Day. If Christmas Day or New Year's Day falls on a Sunday, stores are closed the following Monday.

Supermarkets and convenience stores may sell beer and wine from 7 a.m. to midnight Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. on Saturday and from noon until midnight on Sunday.

Restaurants and bars may serve alcoholic beverages, which must be consumed on the premises, from 7 a.m. to midnight Monday through Friday, until 1 a.m. on Saturday and from noon to midnight on Sunday. If the establishment has a special license, it may serve until 2 a.m. No liquor may be consumed in a public place after 2:15 a.m.

Drivers are prohibited from consuming alcoholic beverages while operating a vehicle. Texas police officers strictly enforce the state's driving while intoxicated (DWI) laws, which usually carry a sentence of jail time, even for first-time offenders. Texas also has a driving under the influence (DUI) law that penalizes those who are under 21 years of age and have any detectable amount of alcohol in their system when driving a motor vehicle.

Pet Licensing/Leash Laws
In Texas, cats and dogs must be vaccinated against rabies by 4 months of age and receive a booster one year after the initial vaccination. Following the first two vaccinations, dogs and cats can be vaccinated at either 1- or 3-year intervals.

In Houston, cats and dogs must be licensed. City license tags cost $10 if the animal has been spayed or neutered. If the pet owner is more than 65 years old, the first-year fee is $5. Tags cost $25 for animals that have not been spayed or neutered. Annual renewals are $2. Any veterinarian can vaccinate animals and provide license tags.

Annual vaccinations can prevent several fatal animal diseases such as distemper and parvovirus in dogs and upper respiratory viruses and feline leukemia in cats. Dogs also are susceptible to heartworms, a disease carried by mosquitoes. All dogs should be tested and then given daily or monthly heartworm tablets.

In December 2003, Houston passed a "pooper scooper" ordinance that makes it illegal to be out in public with your pet without carrying a pooper scooper, plastic bag or some other kind of disposal device.

The City of Houston Animal Control may impound any dog or cat in Houston not restrained on a leash or without tags. If you have an exotic animal, need general information or need details for such issues as dog kenneling and horse restrictions, contact the City of Houston Animal Control at 713-238-9600.

For Harris County, call Animal Control at 281-999-3191.

The nuts and bolts of a move have the potential to be overwhelming, but if potential Houstonians do some planning before the move and utilize the tips listed above, their move will be smooth sailing.

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