How to Prepare for Unpacking Day

The Expatability Chat Podcast

Unpacking day!

How to prepare to receive your shipment – all the items that you packed into a lorry for container shipping.

Or, to be more accurate, Preparing for the day all your shipped items get delivered. Because the actual unpacking takes way longer than a day… 

How to organise yourself before the lorry arrives so your unpacking day can go as smoothly as possible. What you need to have and do before the unpacking crew arrive.

Tip: Don’t panic.

And always know where your inventory is… 😉

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The aim of this episode is to help you prepare for Unpacking Day. How to prepare to receive your shipment of all the items that you packed into a lorry for container shipping, or to be more accurate, preparing for the day. All your shipped items get delivered because the actual unpacking takes way longer than a day.

As an aside, I've talked about this topic several times over the years, including for another podcast where they forgot to press the record button. And I can't actually recall if you've heard all this before on my podcast. Apologies if you have. I couldn't see the title in my list. You're getting it again anyway. So, preparing for the arrival of your container. Exciting times. You're in your new home. Perhaps you stayed in a hotel for a while before moving in. Maybe you lived in temporary accommodation for a few weeks. Or possibly you moved straight into your new home on arrival in your new country and had to make do with the bare minimum of equipment. When we move, we generally go straight into a furnished home with a selection of kitchen utensils and so on that we can use until our stuff arrives. The items we ship, therefore, aren't beds, white goods or wardrobes, but things like books. So many books. Pictures, clothes, rugs, my husband's tools for tinkering with cars, coffee tables, kids toys. Well, I can't quite work out just how we managed to fill a lorry, but we do easily. It's stuff. Lots of stuff.

At some point, the exciting day arrives when you learn that all your packed up goods are finally heading your way to the unpacked, and you may not have seen any of your stuff for weeks or even months. And yes, it's perfectly normal to be slightly frustrated at the impending arrival of all that stuff when you've managed to live quite, well, minimalistically for a while. It's also perfectly normal to forget entirely what you've packed. Hopefully you will have plenty of notice of this exciting event so you can prepare. Well, this isn't guaranteed though, especially with the whole shipping system out of sync these days for various reasons, COVID, still. Our first move overseas, I was taken completely unawares one morning in Tokyo when I heard the sound of a very large lorry reversing up the very narrow street to our house. You know, the beep, beep, beep noise. I'd received absolutely no warning of this at all. Plus it arrived several weeks earlier than expected. Thankfully, I was at home. Anyway, let's go back a little and talk about how to organise yourself before the lorry arrives so that your unpacking day can go as smoothly as possible.

Normally you'll be told when your container has passed successfully through customs and then you can arrange a date for everything to be delivered to your new home. If you have children, try to make this date a school day. I promise you it will be less stressful for you all. If you have pets, arrange for them to be out of the way if possible. If this isn't possible, you'll need to do what we do. Keep the dog on a lead and with you at all times. And if you have a safe room, then you can put the cats in there or the dog if they'd cope with that. Just make sure there is a clear no entry sign on the door and lock it if you can. You need to gather some things together. So make a note of this list and I'll explain what they're all for in a moment. So you will need your packing inventory, pens, note, paper, sticky tape, drawing pins, thumbtacks, whatever you call them, scissors or a knife, camera, your phone, mugs, kettle and cash. Okay, let me briefly explain what this list is all about and then I'll go into more detail about some key points.

Your packing inventory. This is the paperwork you received when all your goods were packed up at your previous country. And if you've taken my past advice, you will have your inventory in an easy to find place. Of course, if not, find it. It's really important. Pens, paper and tape and drawing pins and so on. You'll be making labels to attach to room doors, scissors or a knife to open up boxes, camera, or these days, your phone to photograph any obviously damaged boxes, kettle and mugs, simply for tea and coffee for you and the crew. On our last move here back in the UK, the crew was so well organised they actually bought their own mugs and supplies. I was really impressed. And cash is to tip the crew when they're finished. If you're in a country where this is either expected or a nice thing to do, not in Japan, you don't tip in Japan. Right, this is what you need to do. I'm getting bossy here. Sorry, here's what I recommend you do to make unpacking day as stress free as possible. A day or two before the removal company's arrival, get your inventory out and study it.

Look at how the rooms in your previous home are named and translate this to the layout of your new home. For example, kitchen in your old house will also be kitchen in your new house. That one's fairly obvious. Easy so far, eh? Bedroom one in your old house will probably also be bedroom one in your new house. But bedroom 4 may now be the garage and dining room, could be this end of the living room and so on. Have a plan where you want your stuff to go. All the boxes will be labelled with your old home's room names. So write the names of the previous home rooms on paper and label all the relevant doors. This makes it easier for the crew to distribute the boxes as they come in without you having to be in six places at once and revise the names and quick location info for your own use, especially if you haven't been there long. So, for example, bedroom one equals upstairs, second room on the left. Dining room equals around there by the window and so on. And if there's a language difference, you may need to practise some fabulous sign language.

But personally, we've never had any problems with this. Now back to reading your inventory. If you're lucky, you'll be able to read the box numbers and contents on your inventory. Often translating the writing can be tricky and it will have been a while since you've seen everything and since it was all boxed up. So it can be confusing. I had a very confusing box once labelled, I'll spell this out H-A-M-B-A-K-S. But if you say it out loud, it's much easier. Handbags and bags. Now you may find it helpful to make a list on a new sheet of paper of which box numbers go into each room. So a list of all the box numbers that belong in a certain room. For example, box numbers one to 24 is bedroom one plus box numbers 77,78,79 and 117. Box numbers 25 to 67, kitchen and so on. Generally, when everything was packed up, everything from one room in the previous home would be labelled with a sequence of numbers. But again, that isn't guaranteed, especially if you had a very large crew doing the pack up. It's also useful to have all books, for example, go into one place for now, you're not going to be unpacking everything as you go.

Try and get them to move the book boxes close to where they'll eventually live, because books are by far the heaviest boxes and you don't want to be doing that much carrying. For example, when we moved to Africa, we didn't actually have any bookshelves whatsoever, so they just went and sat in a room until we could have some bookcases installed. And the same goes for pictures. Any wall art. Plan a space to store all of your wall art, all of your pictures, anything that goes on the walls, because you will not be putting them up all at once and you won't be putting them up for a while. So it helps to have them out of the way. But all in one place for now. So just to go back over that again, use your inventory to translate the old room names to your new home layout. Know which room is which and put labels on the doors. And I think this is the most useful bit. Know which box numbers belong in which room. Oh, and you will also need to have a plan for getting rid of all the packing materials.

Sort this out before everything arrives. Some removal companies offer a service where they will revisit your home within a time limit and take it all away for you. This helps immensely. Some don't offer this, or they may offer it, but charge you extra anyway. You need to find a way of getting rid of an absolute mountain of boxes and paper and bubble wrap packing foam. It all builds up really quickly once you get going. Next, make sure the route to your house and your main entrance, the doorway is clear so that the unloaders can have easy access and clear routes throughout your house as well. So there are no accidents, nothing gets broken, nobody has to squeeze past something. Some people choose to have the crew unpack their boxes and put everything away in their new home. Personally, I prefer to unpack myself, but if this is something that you're doing, you will need nerves of steel, even more so than when your home was packed up in the first place. Here are some tips to help that particular setup go smoothly. If you're having the removal team unpack everything for you, then you need to be able to split yourself into several people so that you can be everywhere.

As this isn't an option yet, you can solve this problem by having the crew unpack and deal with just one room at a time in your kitchen. Label cupboards and drawers with plates, glasses, saucepans and so on. If there's a language difference, use Google to translate or create labels with pictures and symbols on which are universally recognised. Okay, now for the actual day of the removal company's arrival. Exciting times. Depending on the culture of that country, they may turn up earlier or later than expected, so you need to be prepared. In Africa, ours turned up a couple of hours later than the time they set. This was impressive if you know Africa. But in Germany they turned up 3 hours earlier than the set time. They turned up at 6.30 in the morning. I do not do mornings. I was very not impressed. Anyway, on the day you need to be wide awake and completely on the ball. So you may want to start mainlining coffee as soon as you wake up, because when the unloading crew arrive, it all happens really quickly. What will you need to have to hand on this momentous day?

So you will need scissors or a knife to open the boxes. Yes, some will need to be opened right away, although the majority can be left until later. And you will need your camera, your phone, double check, all entrances are clear and there are easy routes throughout. Lock away the kids and send the dog to school. All the other way around if you like. Just keep them all out of the way. It's going to get busy when the removal company arrives. I feel I need to have a fanfare for this. When the removal company arrives, be prepared for any paperwork, signatures and confirmations. You'll probably meet the foreman for a quick chat first, just for them to find out about what's what, where and if there's any changes. Make sure all the paperwork is signed and so on, and then they're off. When the boxes are brought into your new house from the lorry, the removal people call out the box number and you need to direct them quickly and confidently to the correct room. They do not want or need to be left holding a heavy box while you faff about trying to work out which room that box goes into.

And they definitely don't want to make small talk. Not only that, there may be several people queuing up carrying boxes ready to be directed to. It's all pretty intense. What happens is this removal person staggers through the door yelling, box 128, and you must instantly tell them, bedroom one upstairs, second on the left. And they'll be rapidly followed by several other people all shouting out box numbers at the same time. Box twelve, yikes dining room, it doesn't exist, around there by the window. And you need to know that the box numbers never come off the lorry in numerical order, ever. So this is why it helps to have the list of box numbers and which room they go in all together in one place. As the boxes are brought in, quickly check them over for obvious damage. If any box is damaged, deal with it immediately. Take photos of the box and the damage on the box, making sure to show the box number. Unpack it as much as possible to check the contents for breakages. It's important to deal with damage as soon as you see it, because you'll be signing off the delivery when they've finished.

So if you don't tackle this immediately with proof, your insurance may not pay out. I had a special unbreakable metal strong box that I purchased from the packing company in order to protect my antique Japanese ceramics. During the packing, I was able to watch everything beautifully and carefully packed away. Then I padlocked this box myself before they carefully loaded it onto the lorry. In a moment of absolute and unexpected foresight for me, I immediately attached the padlock key to my UK key ring. When it arrived in our house in the UK several weeks later, the box was pretty badly dented. Something extremely heavy and solid had obviously been dropped on it, as it was supposedly unable to be damaged. The crew told me about it as soon as they brought it in, so I needed to find that padlock key to open it. Thank goodness I'd have that moment of foresight, because I quickly found my key and thankfully all the items inside were absolutely fine. Don't panic about having to unpack everything while they are there, just the obviously damaged boxes. And I'm sorry, yes, there will be damages. There is a high chance of you finding something broken in an outwardly undamaged box as well.

So for this reason, don't leave unpacking for too long. Your insurance coverage doesn't last forever. Check your contract for the details. And again, with all damaged items, photograph it for a potential later crate claim. Looking after the packing crew well. They'll need refreshment. Tea, coffee, cold drinks, which can be tricky if your kettle and mugs are in a box somewhere. Luckily, we've usually got enough temporary mugs, but as they say, our wonderful removal company here in the UK actually brought their own anyway. When you move around to different places, you have different experiences with people, but one thing that kind of remained similar with each move, I have some garden ornaments from Japan which have travelled on every move with us since. One of the items is a very solid granite bowl. I can barely move it along the ground, let alone lift it. Really solid granite. And we have always, but always warned the removal companies about the weight of this thing and we have told the individual crew members about it, too. Do not try and lift this on your own. Do they listen? No, they get all macho about it. In Berlin, one guy almost gave himself a rupture trying to prove me wrong about the weight.

And in the UK, the young chap who once again insisted on showing off his strength managed to actually dislocate his thumb. So if you have a first aid kit, you may find it useful. For the dislocated thumb guy, he simply ran it under a cold tap for a while, like the brave hero he was. Once all the boxes are off the lorry, you will sign off the delivery and tip the crew. The amount you tip will depend on your personal preference, your personal finances and the country you're in. As far as I know, it's not compulsory to tip, although it obviously is much appreciated. Then check the lorry yourself to make sure nothing is left behind and that no random cat has climbed inside. Yeah, one of my cats decided she wanted to go adventuring. She tried the same during our pack up, too, so I do know again. And then they drive away and leave you with a house full of boxes and feeling somewhat frazzled. So just heave a sigh of relief and crash out for a while to let the caffeine wear off a bit before tackling the interminable job of unpacking and putting away.

Don't forget to release the pets and get the kids home from school, though it's helpful to give the kids something to do. Perhaps they packed up their own special box of things before you left, so that's a great place to start. Depending on the time and their age and your situation, you may want to enlist your child's help to unpack their own boxes, as well as making the unpacking easier for you. Your child will be suitably distracted with all their nearly forgotten toys. It will take them ages and ages to unpack, and that's okay. And yes, you will have to tidy and sort it all out afterwards, but it's a small price to pay for their joy and fun if they're very young, or even if they're not. Try to get their rooms as organised as possible first, so they have somewhere comfortable and familiar to be, which is really helpful to help them settle, and useful while you try and unpack everything else. And the best part of all this is that everything has been out of sight and out of mind for so long. It's a little like Christmas, as they and you find treasures you've forgotten about.

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