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Uber-Style Moving Apps Draw State's Attention

A new breed of app-based moving companies has drawn the interest of the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, which wants to ensure that companies with names like Buddytruk and PICKUP are following state laws.

A new breed of app-based moving companies has drawn the interest of the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, which wants to ensure that the companies are following state laws.

While Texas cities debate how to balance regulating traditional taxi companies alongside nimble app-based competitors like Uber and Lyft, state transportation officials are confronting a different kind of disruption from Silicon Valley.

A new breed of online moving companies with names like Buddytruk and PICKUP has drawn interest from the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, which wants to ensure the companies are following state laws requiring moving truck drivers to be licensed.

“Anyone moving household goods in a pick-up truck for hire is required to register with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles and show proof of insurance in the amounts required by law,” reads a letter the department sent to Plano-based PICKUP in October. “Something bought at a garage sale for home use would qualify as household goods.”

Since May, the department has sent letters to four app-based moving companies, warning each that they may be violating state law, according to spokesman Adam Shaivitz. Along with PICKUP, they include Austin-based Burro, as well as HashMove and Buddytruk, both based in California but offering services in Austin.

“Providers that refuse compliance can be referred to law enforcement because moving household goods without a license is a crime,” Shaivitz said. So far, the agency has not referred any cases involving these four companies to law enforcement.

Department officials say the issue is more than just the state keeping track of moving companies. The agency has pursued unregistered movers in the past who demand more money before delivering goods or fail to show up for delivery at all. Often, such movers advertise their services on sites like Craigslist, according to officials in several states.

The past two years have seen the launch of more than a dozen Uber-style moving or delivery companies, most debuting in cities on the West Coast. Many advertise themselves as being more convenient than traditional moving companies. Like Uber, some encourage those with access to a large enough vehicle to sign up as drivers to make extra money.

“You need to have a smart phone, a full-size pickup truck legally registered to you and insured to State requirements,” says PICKUP on the driver sign-up page of its website. The company, which promotes its drivers as “Good Guys With Pickups On Demand,” launched in 2014, serving the Dallas area. Asked if the company requires its drivers be registered with the state as household goods movers, CEO Brenda Stoner said in an email that the company was addressing that issue.

“We are working closely with a very collaborative Texas DMV, other regulatory agencies, and our attorneys and consultants to ensure that customers can adopt this new style of delivery service in a trusted, safe, insured and compliant manner,” Stoner said.

Both Burro and HashMove only employ drivers that comply with state laws, according to company officials. Buddytruk declined to comment.

In 2011, lawmakers beefed up the penalties for someone who moves household goods for compensation without properly registering with the state. The new law was particularly stringent on repeat offenders, increasing the penalty on a third offense to a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine.

According to a House Research Organization report, the bill was aimed at a rash of “con artists who are not registered to transport household goods.”

“They often quote a small to reasonable sum to pack and move household goods, but they hold the goods hostage for a much higher ransom once they are in their possession,” the report reads.

Burro received its letter from the DMV in May. At the time, CEO Jason Ervin said, many people had learned of the company through its promotions in Austin as an Uber-style on-demand moving service. 

“People do that all the time,” Ervin told the Austin American-Statesman at the time. “If you knew a guy with a pick-up truck and say, ‘Hey buddy, can you help me out with your truck and I’ll buy you a beer or something.’ It happens all the time.”

Six months later, Ervin said Burro’s interactions with the DMV were productive and moot. The company's goal was always to focus on contracting with stores to deliver large goods on behalf of customers. That area of the moving market isn’t covered by the same state regulations as those for movers transporting someone’s personal items from one household to another.

“I can’t remember the last time we had a Craigslist delivery,” Ervin said. “It’s just not a good business decision to do that, in our opinion.”

Ervin confirmed that Burro has recently expanded service to Houston but said the company is also operating in other Texas cities not yet publicly announced, a strategy designed to stem the tide of competitors in what is fast becoming a crowded field.

“It’s a land grab right now,” Ervin said.

Along with Texas, officials in several other states have begun exploring how new moving apps fit into state law. In Washington, the State Utilities and Transportation Commission has been meeting with traditional movers and newer online companies to discuss possible tweaks to state regulations, according to assistant director Sharon Wallace. In the meantime, she said her agency has been more focused on punishing individual unregistered drivers than the app companies that may be connecting them with customers.

“There’s a genre of people out there that really want to work illegally in this business for some reason,” Wallace said.

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