Your PCS Problem Solver
by Lizann Lightfoot - September 8th, 2021
Guest = Todd Ernst, Founder and CEO of PCSgrades
I originally went to the Air Force Academy and served a total of 22 years: 14 years active duty, then the rest of the time in the Reserves. While I was in the Reserves, I was fortunate to be involved to get a lot changed in Congress that helped improve benefits for the Guard and Reserves.
In 2003, I had a buddy, Ollie, involved in an aircraft accident at Randolph AFB and he passed away. I was part of the Missing Man flight formation for his memorial. That day, I had the honor of being the jet that pulled up and flew solo. After I landed, I presented the flag to the family, whose children were 3 and 4 at the time.
Years later, Ollie’s wife came to me and said she received a strange letter in the mail. Since her husband was a Reservist, they took away all her Survivor Benefits. About 90 other families received similar letters. I became involved in a 5-year adventure, which ultimately turned out to be an oversight in Congressional Law. Ultimately, we were able to get a lot changed. I learned that it isn’t really the military that takes care of its own: it’s the government, and they don’t always do a great job. Sometimes you are just left with a 1-800 number. If we don’t recognize someone in need and reach out to help them, then it may never get done.
What is the problem in the community that PCSgrades became the solution for?
I’ve done many PCS moves as a military brat and a service member, and it seems like nothing changes. Even with the technology and review websites available, it seems that none of that is being brought to use for military families. We have base housing offices, but people don’t frequent them often enough for various reasons. What was needed was a site with reviews by and for military families that have been to that duty station and done it before.
What is PCSgrades, what makes it unique, and what advantages does it provide families?
There are several pain points in the PCS process. We move frequently, great distances, to areas where we have never lived before, and we don’t get much choice or control in the process. We are a team of veterans, reservists, and military spouses. We want to connect with our community and be relatable in the way they want to be connected with. 53% of active duty service members who bought a home said they moved because they had to, compared to just 16% in the civilian population.
We know that military moves are expensive. The resources haven’t changed much: there are social media posts where people keep asking the same questions, and bulletin boards in base housing offices with real estate agent business cards. For the past 5 years, Blue Star Families surveys have shown us that PCS moves are one of the top stressors for military families, along with financial issues (that are often caused by PCS moves).
At PCSgrades we try to solve the must-solve problems for the military community: where to live, schools, etc. All our reviews about on-base and off-base neighborhoods come from military service members or spouses. On our page, you can find street views, commute times, and profiles for off-base neighborhoods. For on-base neighborhoods, there is never enough info. We are one of the only places to see all the reviews, locations, amenities, and everything about base housing organized into one place.
We are doing this in an organized way so people can easily find all the information they are looking for, so you aren’t stuck asking people in social media chats. This way, you get feedback and opinions from the entire military community. It’s our community providing that feedback directly for us. Our reviews are all from verified members. You can see the time they have been in the military, the service member’s rank, and how many PCS moves they have completed on every review.
Our Area Guides and webinars are unique content that you won’t find elsewhere. We bring in so many connections and resources. We have some awesome content and we are proud to share it. Lost During My PCS is a closed Facebook group that PCSgrades moderates. We have a crazily-engaged community, which started as a place where people could track down items missing from a PCS move. We constantly see success stories.
It’s awesome to see that dynamic still, but now we also answer questions about PCS moves and household goods. It’s amazing to see how fast the crowd comes to support people. It is limited to service members and spouses, and is a great group and well-rounded resource. The moving industry knows about the group and asks for questions and feedback from them, but they aren’t allowed to join.
We have partnered with significant corporate partners. This year, we partnered with companies like Century 21 and Coldwell Banker. There’s a lot more good things to come!
Who is PCSgrades for, and what does it cost to join?
It’s for those who serve and their families, as well as veterans and their families. It costs nothing to join! Go in there and use the resources, whether or not you will live in military housing, whether you are looking to rent or buy a home. We do get funds through referrals and transaction fees, since we are a for-profit. If you choose to use a real estate agent through the Military Rewards Program, that’s how we make revenue and are able to send you the cash back after a real estate transaction.
What sets PCSgrades apart from other companies in the relocation space?
There are a number of companies out there at various levels, everything from Zillow to Veterans United to grassroots pages by and for military families. We are not a big stuffy corporation. We are truly a team of military veterans and spouses. A lot of others are trying to say they are the experts and will give you the answers you need. Instead, we are crowdsourcing and tapping into the expertise of our community.
We have a Give Back program. If you are buying or selling a home, there is a cash back rebate for working with a military-friendly real estate agent. There are different rules in every state, but the concept is that it is a giveback to make up for the pain points of PCSing and a way to say thank you for your service. A lot of organizations don’t have that. Our key partnerships are really starting to set us apart from others.
Megan: The big thing that draws me to PCSgrades is that it’s something FOR the military community, BY the military community. That’s what makes this company unique.
What is the biggest challenge facing military families as they PCS?
There are a lot of challenges. We don’t get to pick the timing. The time constraints themselves, to uproot from one location and set everything back up at a new location is very challenging. Your choices have repercussions for your children’s schools, your family’s well-being, and possibly your long-term financial situation.
The unknown is a huge challenge because we move to areas where we have never lived and need to figure out everything at once. We need to find that trusted information and find it quickly. Let’s be clear– PCSing is exciting too, it isn’t all doom and gloom. We always tried to include some vacation time and family time while we were travelling. It’s exciting to make new friends, for both grown ups and kids. Once you get into the PCS routine, you are ready for the next one after a few years.
At what point in the PCS process should families start looking at PCSgrades as a resource?
If you don’t know anything about us, leave a review for wherever you live now or have lived before. But as soon as you think you might PCS, go to our site now! It’s important for you to do research and decide whether to live on or off base.
If you’re looking to work with a real estate professional, we can help connect you to one who understands military families. Anytime you want to pay it forward, even if you aren’t moving or have already retired from the military, you can help everyone else out by filling out a review of any neighborhood where you have lived before.
If you could ask families to do one thing with PCSgrades - what would it be?
Leave a review, and use the site! We have locations where you can give feedback, and it always improves the more reviews and feedback we get. If you like what you are seeing, spread the word!
Why should someone leave a review on PCSgrades?
I’m sure people wonder what good one review can do. In the grand scheme that may not help many folks. But as we collect hundreds of reviews, it can help you or a friend next time they relocate. Data is power and drives decisions. If you want to impact the policy-makers and decision-makers at TRANSCOM and the DoD, reviews are the way to do it. When the data gets bigger, we cannot be ignored. If you want real accountability from moving companies, and more transparency and leverage, we can do that with data. More reviews mean more power for advocates. There are organizations out there advocating for change on the Hill, and imagine what they can do with access to our data.
Megan: I love the moving company reviews. At the end of your move you fill out a review for TRANSCOM, but no one else gets to see that. So putting a moving company review on PCSgrades can help military families who are preparing to move and use a certain company. The power of our voices collected in this forum is so powerful.