What's behind door number two? Storage auctions on the rise

Auctions of storage units are doing a brisk business these days.

Several newspapers around the country have been reporting on them in the last couple weeks. While it's long been a practice that if someone stops paying for their storage and abandons their stuff, the goods can be sold, it's happening more and more frequently.

Why? Well, obviously, the economy. If you can't pay your credit card bills, you probably can't pay for the extra storage. I have to admit -- and I apologize to anyone I inadvertently insult -- I've never understood why anyone would pay to use an off-site storage site indefinitely.

Obviously, it's understandable if you're in the middle of a move, and you're living out of a hotel while your belongings temporarily live in a storage unit facility. But people who just have a bunch of extra stuff, and pack it away in a facility to live because they don't know what else to do with it... that's always seemed like a huge waste of money. If you have that much stuff, why not sell it?

And that, of course, is what's happening. Auctioneers are selling off that extra stuff. So if you're thinking of going to an auction and bidding, here are some things to consider:
Where to find self-storage auctions. There's at least one Web site that promises to show you where (for $27), but I'd just call your local self-storage companies and ask. I bet they'll tell you for free if they're holding one in the near future. And if you live in Texas, Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina or Illinois and close to AAA Storage, you can get on their mailing list, and they'll alert you whenever there's an auction.

What you'll probably find: A lot of worthless stuff, like old clothes, beat-up furniture, documents that may have been important to someone else but sure won't be to you, or maybe somebody else's priceless photo albums. That said, due to the economy, auctioneers are seeing more high-end items than they used to. But in most cases, if someone is storing the Hope Diamond or a collection of fur coats, they're probably going to be able to come up with the funds to pay off their back storage costs.

No matter how excited you get, be cautious with your bidding. The last thing want to do is get auction fever and bid $800 on a pile of junk that you'd be lucky to resell for $18. You're only allowed a cursory glance at the unit you'll bid on because legally until the auctioneer yells "sold," that stuff belongs to the tenant who was renting the space (although in many states, they can't get their stuff until they pay the storage costs). The auctioneers couldn't let people rifle through the person's belongings, even if they wanted to, they say.

Because of that, you never know what you'll actually get until you've bought it. One man once paid about $500 and found a $10,000 Harley-Davidson motorcycle behind some piled up junk in a storage unit. On the other hand, a woman once paid $65 and found $44,000 in cash -- which sounds great, but it turned out to be counterfeit. Odds are, experts say, you won't get rich doing this. Or if you do, it's because you sell what you bid on, on eBay or in some other fashion.

In other words, getting wealthy off a self storage unit auction usually resembles work more than playing the lottery.

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).

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