Whether you’ve just started binge-watching Storage Wars or you’re thinking about attending an auction yourself, these events have increasingly gained attention over the last decade or so. Their appeal is two-fold. First of all, Americans love self storage and use this service very frequently, being able to store everything they need to for a generally affordable cost. Secondly, mass media, popular culture and social media have given rise to stories of unbelievably valuable treasures found in abandoned self storage units that people purchased at auctions.

However, is this hype justified? What are these auctions and why do they take place? Also, ultimately, are they worth it, for storage facilities on the one hand and for potential buyers on the other hand? We’ll provide answers to these questions and tell you why auctions are being seen more often in the self storage industry nowadays.

What is a blind auction and when do they take place?

While it is indeed true that renting self storage is an inexpensive investment most of the time, there will always be a number of renters who default on payments. Sometimes life events can get in the way and this is not uncommon in the current economic climate. The pandemic played a part in this, but causes can vary from unemployment and economic hardship to life transitions, major events and even just forgetting to pay at the end of the month.

When a renter stops paying the monthly cost, the storage facility starts actively losing money, as the storage space is still occupied but they cannot rent it to someone else. This generally leads to an entire process where the facility will contact the tenant and will try to work out a solution, but if this doesn’t succeed, they are forced to auction off the contents of the unit. A common misconception is that storage facilities are eager to do this – they’re not! Auctioning off a storage unit takes an incredible amount of paperwork, legal procedures and care on behalf of the facility.

So, when does the manager decide that the auction is the only way to go? After going into default, there are a certain number of days before the auction takes place, and that is usually established by your state’s lien laws. Generally, expect it to be somewhere between 30 and 90 days. If you’re a tenant going into default, it is also recommended that you re-read your initial contract or lease, in order to be aware of your rights and responsibilities.

In that time span before the auction itself, the renter will be getting letters, e-mails and phone calls from the facility to try to work things out and possibly find a feasible payment plan. Eventually, if the two parties cannot reach an understanding, the storage center is obligated to inform the renter, by means of a certified letter, about when and where the auction will take place. Rules regarding making auctions public also tend to be state-specific.


What is the point of self storage auctions? Do they benefit the storage facility?

As previously mentioned, auctions are generally a drag for storage facilities. They have several demanding legal procedures to go through and that is why they will try their hardest to contact the defaulting renter and avoid auctioning off his or her stuff. However, if that is their last resort, they will do it, simply because they need to recuperate their loss. Even organizing the auction itself and making it public so that bidders can attend it is a time-consuming and difficult process for storage centers to go through.

So, the only reason they hold blind auctions in the first place is to get their money back – to cover the tenant’s debt, more precisely. Worst-case-scenario, when auctioning off the storage unit, the facility will not get enough money from the bidders to cover this debt, and that is a bigger issue. The person who owes the money might be able to pay the remainder of the amount, and in that case they are off the hook, but if they can’t do it, then their credit score is affected and the storage facility loses money. In most cases, however, storage centers manage to recoup their loss.

Which auctions are “blind” and is it worth buying defaulted units?

Good deals can come out of bad economic periods, and one person’s defaulted storage unit can be another person’s treasure. Proper planning and familiarizing yourself with the industry (along with a bit of luck, just like in any other field) are all necessary in order to turn a profit when buying a unit at an auction. A blind auction is just what it sounds like – the storage facility allows bidders to bid on defaulted units without them knowing or inspecting what’s inside. As bidders are prohibited from touching or handling the contents of the unit, they need to make educated guesses as to what they see and how much the items could be worth.

Let’s outline the advantages and disadvantages of blind self storage auctions. On the plus side, there is a fair chance of finding valuable stuff in defaulted storage units, as people often tend to store items like jewelry, memorabilia and artwork in these spaces. Expert buyers tend to look at aspects such as organization, cleanliness, brand names and proper containers in order to ascertain whether anything there is likely to be valuable. On the flip side, the unpredictability of these auctions is evident. It is not uncommon for buyers to bid too much and lose a good amount of money as they had evaluated the contents at a higher value.


Tips for first-time bidders at storage auctions

  • Make sure you pre-register on time. You might have to sign up online or at the facility, or you can even reach out yourself ahead of time to inquire about upcoming auctions.
  • All storage auctions are open, and the winning bid must be paid in cash upon winning.
  • Set a price limit or a budget for yourself and stick to it. This will prevent you from taking last-minute decisions or spending too much money at once.
  • Pay attention to details such as the type of boxes within units, larger items, brand names, secure packaging and sealed or matching containers, as these could indicate valuable stuff
  • If you win, you will have up to 24 or 48 hours to clear out the unit or rent it yourself.
  • Once you win, the items are yours, so you need to consider transport. Therefore, you should only bid on units that are conveniently located for you and not too far away.
  • Vehicles are often sold only for parts, in which case there is no title to turn over to the buyer.
  • Personal items such as legal documents and tax records should be returned to the facility or to the original tenant directly

If you were expecting a yes-or-no answer to whether these auctions are worth it, we’re sorry, there’s no clear-cut response. Some people typically manage to make a profit after years of hunting storage units, while others feel they’ve wasted their time and money at unpredictable auctions. The only thing we can say for sure is that the thrill of it is definitely understandable!


Matei is a creative writer for StorageCafe and has an academic background in urban development, governance and linguistics. Making use of these disparate sources of expertise, Matei has now turned towards the real estate industry, after covering the latest trends and projects in urban planning, regeneration and green city initiatives all over Europe.

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