Austin offers many advantages to its residents, and its strong economy and job market have encouraged its self storage sector to grow over the years. To find out how the industry is doing in the city right now, we asked a leading local self storage provider. They explained how they have adapted to the challenges presented by the current pandemic, enabling them to successfully respond to customers’ changing needs.
Austin has a well-developed self storage sector even by Texas standards. According to Yardi Matrix data, it offers 9.8 square feet of storage space available per capita — among the US’s largest cities, only Houston, TX, and Charleston, SC, offer more. The amount of local self storage construction currently planned or under construction as a percentage of the total inventory is holding steady at around 6.9%. The street rate of a non-climate-controlled 10’x10’ unit is currently about $96/ month, which is a lot more reasonable than in many of the US’s larger cities.
The health of Austin’s self storage sector is of course dependent to a large degree on the city’s economic well-being. Fortunately, not only is it the state’s administrative center and home to the University of Texas’s flagship campus, but it is also a hub for high tech, an industry which has plenty to do during these times when work is often better done online. This all helps to boosts employment prospects, which are generally strong compared to national averages.
To find out more about how self storage in Austin is doing right now, we talked to Amber Oatman of Watson & Taylor Storage, also known as Steelcreek. She explained how they adapted quickly, instituting contactless and online rentals in February — and they have since concentrated on virtual leasing — plus, of course, thorough cleaning processes and other precautions. With all these procedures in place, customers can feel comfortable with the storing process at their facilities and can make self storage a part of their lifestyle.
1: What is the self storage picture in Austin these days and what are the challenges it is facing?
On the East side of Austin storage took a little bit of a hit with the pandemic. However, the business has come back and evened out. We have been steady at 90% for several months. Our biggest hurdle right now is delinquency and taking care of those units that will not ever be paid, the lien units. Of course, our most important step for delinquency is communication. We start by contacting the customers every way we can, including utilizing automated emails and text. Once we are able to speak directly with them, we let them know we are willing to schedule a payment. Since COVID has led to restrictions on evictions and foreclosures we have reviewed every customer’s case individually and worked out a plan for payment. In some cases we’ve found that it has been in everyone’s best interest to accept a portion of the payment and allow the customer to collect their items.
2: Have any techniques been more effective than others for maintaining the excellent 90% occupancy rate?
Redirecting our rental procedures to include contactless leasing via phone and email AND having online rentals available. Out of 13 facilities, we have 6 doing online rentals and all of our locations are able to complete contactless leasing. Since beginning these two options, we’ve found that 10% to 30% of our rentals are now contactless or online company wide. That’s just really cool to me.
3: Could you tell us more about the ‘virtual leasing’ you offer?
For managers the process is very simple, they prep every unit when it becomes vacant to be rented without them. This means that they clean the space and place a dated seal on it to ensure it’s not tampered with before it’s rented. The units are refreshed weekly and add new seals. This process is really much easier than the traditional way — now we know exactly when the last time a unit has been refreshed or viewed. The customer goes onto the website, picks their size, and follows the prompts through the rental. After that the manager and the customer are contacted via email to follow up with ID verification and any additional forms that may be needed for that rental. These forms would be mainly for vehicles or military, things like that. And that’s it. Our managers have been shocked at how simple it is!
4: What in your experience are the most important extra services to offer customers?
The most important ‘extra’ service we offer here is compassion. On top of our high security and cleanliness standards, our continued understanding of customer’s pandemic struggles and ability to think and work outside the box to serve them.
5: Can you tell us anything about what sort of cars people store?
The parking question is kind of interesting. We were traditionally seeing work vehicles and personal vehicles that customers would store to get them off the streets. Now we are seeing more RV types, boats, and food trucks/ trailers. Both of our Austin locations have seen an upturn in parking over the last few months and are nearly at capacity.
6: Do you see Austinites storing things they didn’t store before as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic?
We’ve seen a lot of movement we weren’t seeing before. One specific ‘new’ customer behavior is the college crowd. In past years college students would store for a month or two, then go back to the dorms. This year many of them stored for upwards of six months, then moved home or to a new city for work. They went back to school virtually, this made them mobile.
7: We’ve all heard the phrase ‘Keep Austin Weird’! Do you have any amusing or unusual self storage stories you can tell us?
Austin can be very WEIRD! But that’s why we love it. For several years we have had vendors from the Formula One race store with us. These vendors were from around the world; Germany, England, Japan, Australia. They all know each other and the first year they were here they were all in the office after the races talking. It was very interesting to watch and listen to. Suddenly one of them ran out the door calling for the rest to follow. We went out to see what all the commotion was about and found they had stopped a group of cowboys who were riding down hwy 183. They talked and laughed about how this is what they’d always been told Texas would be like. The cowboys let them take pictures and wear their hats. It was very heartwarming to see so many different people enjoying themselves and each other.
Clearly the Austin self storage sector is adapting to the current climate, implementing procedures which minimize health risks and address the needs of a changing clientele. In addition, the attitude of goodwill and local pride that can be seen here assists customers who are in difficulties and maintains the industry’s reputation for helpfulness. And now the usefulness of procedures such as virtual leasing have been appreciated, these may be trends that continue after the pandemic has subsided. The self storage industry has responded well to difficult situations before and is doing so again, and Austin residents can be hopeful it will be continue to be there for them when they need it.