Until about 10 years ago, I didnt even know that self-storage facilities auctioned off the contents of storage units when the renters fell behind on their payments.
Then I went to my first such auction. It was at the U-Haul self-storage business downtown, and if anyone had tried to make a TV show out of that event, it would have been a certain flop. Only one bidder showed up, and when the locker door was opened, revealing what looked like nothing but junk, the bidder turned and left.
In the last couple of years, though, the cable television show Storage Wars has made millions of people aware of the auctions. A&E, the network that carries the show, said its the most successful program it has ever aired.
Its easy to understand why. The featured auction-goers, most of whom arent very likable people, uncover all kinds of things, as varied as junk, hoards of silver, motorcycles and almost-new construction equipment.
The show has already spawned two copycat shows, and a fourth show is in the works.
I wondered, though, whether the show had spawned a lot of interest in these storage-unit auctions, which are held from time to time at virtually all storage facilities.
At the downtown U-Haul storage site – the place where only one bidder showed up a decade ago – I was told interest in the auctions has spiked. The manager said that a few years ago he might average five or six bidders an auction. Now between 20 and 30 show up for the auctions.
Its not like that everywhere, though. At one storage facility off Lincoln Highway between Fort Wayne and New Haven, the owners have never held auctions. Instead they hire an auctioneer to haul away the contents of delinquent lockers and have an auction of their own. The auctioneer gets a piece of whatever the sale raises.
The owner of another storage facility gruffly called Storage Wars and similar TV shows nothing but entertainment. Hes right about that. The shows are entertaining. He refused to talk about his business, though, only to say he quit having auctions years ago because bidders offered too little.
At Allstate Self Storage on Coliseum Boulevard, though, auctions have been held periodically for years, and for years there have been regulars who would show up and sometimes buy several units.
The number of bidders has waxed and waned over the years, but the last auction held there brought out dozens of bidders, which was unusual, manager Neal Jordan said, and a similar auction at a small operation in Markle not long ago attracted 75 bidders.
Prices, though, dont get out of hand the way they do on the TV show, which is shot in California. On television, bidders will pay several hundred and even thousands of dollars for a unit. Prices brought at auction here are more modest, though some people will bid up to a few hundred dollars for a unit.
A few years ago, Jordan said, someone actually bid $5,000 on a storage unit full of construction equipment, including trailers and tools.
How these lockers, some as big as a two-car garage, end up in auctions isnt clear, but Jordan has seen lots of things happen over the years.
For example, a person might store an entire household of goods in a locker preparing to move. Once in a new home, the renter may slowly remove items until theres nothing left that they want. Then they quit paying rent, leaving their castoffs for someone else to clean up.
A couple of decades ago during an oil boom, people were moving in droves to Texas to get jobs in oil fields, Jordan said. Making good money somewhere else, some renters quit paying rent on storage units and walked away from their possessions.
And some people die. Jordan recalls one client who filled a locker with sporting equipment, but the man insisted that no one in his family ever be told about the locker. The man died, and the contents were eventually auctioned off, just as he planned.
The rules for auctioning off locker contents are simple. Once the rent on a locker falls 90 days behind, the owner of the facility can take possession of the contents. When rent falls 45 days behind, a certified letter is sent to the renters, notifying them that in another 45 days the contents will be sold. Later, another certified letter is sent before the auction, and finally the sale is advertised in a legal ad in the paper.
Pam Smith, who works at Ardmore U-Store, said the number of bidders at auctions there had increased by 50 percent recently. But storage facility owners actually hate auctions, she said. Theyre selling other peoples stuff, she said.
Sometimes its not due to hardship or anything else. Smith said one man who owned a lawn care business fell behind on his rent, so the owner sent him letters, called him on the phone and even went to his home to warn him that his possessions could be sold it he didnt pay the rent.
Go ahead and sell it, the man told the owner. He didnt want it any more.
That unit, including a trailer and machinery, everything you need to run a lawn care business, went for $2,000.
So there are treasures, of sorts, to be found.
And a lot of junk, too.