Storage Facility Bidders Betting on Hidden Gems

Gloria Hillard profiles the little-known industry of people who bid on the hidden treasures in abandoned self storage facilities. They buy entire storage units at auctions, and then peddle the bounty at flea markets and on eBay.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

And here is a measure of just how much stuff Americans accumulate. Those store-it-yourself places bring in more than $18 billion. In fact, a trade group says that one in 11 households rents a self-storage unit and not all of them pay their bills. So a secondary market has developed for the belongings that people leave behind.

Gloria Hillard attended a mini storage auction in the self-storage capital of the world, Southern California.

GLORIA HILLIARD reporting:

In single file, about two-dozen people, some carrying huge flashlights, walk through the gate of the U-Store-It self storage facility. They're following auctioneer Dan Dodson, a man with a clipboard and a determined walk. On sun-baked asphalt, they pass one after another after another padlocked storage units. At unit number F2, they stop.

Mr. DAN DODSON (Auctioneer): (unintelligible)

HILLARD: The professional bidders with the giant flashlights are at the front of the line. They sweep their lights once or twice over the dusty unit and then step aside. The more novice bidders linger a bit longer, peering around the mildewed futon and refrigerator to the cardboard boxes in the rear.

It takes all of two minutes and the bidding begins.

Mr. DODSON: (unintelligible)

HILLARD: The successful bidder, a middle-age woman in a yellow T-shirt, steps forward, padlock in hand, and brings down the door. She'll come back the next day to clean out the unit and learn what's inside those boxes. Auctioneer Dan Dodson says that's how it's done at the self-storage auction.

Mr. DODSON: The folks that are well seasoned, they can look in there and they can see if there was pride in ownership and quality goods for what they can see. And then they judge accordingly for what they can't see.

HILLARD: Dodson says the regular crowd is made up of what he calls secondary sellers. Owners of antique and thrift stores or eBay and swap meet sellers. A lot of what they bid on is hauled to the dump, he says, but as newcomer Bob Lacitas(ph) found, you can get lucky. He recently paid $125 for a unit he thinks is worth thousands.

Mr. BOB LACITAS (Storage unit bidder): Three championship jerseys of Shaq O'Neal. It has pictures of the Lakers and at the parties. A camcorder with the 2000 Bucks in it. And all kinds of stuff. Nice clothes.

HILLARD: The found treasure stories do get around. Stories of valuable paintings and cash and jewelry stuffed in chest-of-drawers. And there are the horror stories as well. Dodson says he's seen about everything you can imagine and more.

Mr. DODSON: I saw one dead guy once. You know. Yeah.

HILLARD: Yes, a dead body. You don't want to know the details. Apparently a woman killed her husband and then made a trip to the storage locker. A few years later, she accidentally defaulted on the rent. 60 days later, the unit went on the auction block. The police were called, the woman was arrested. And the unlucky bidder?

Mr. DODSON: Needless to say, she's never come back and bought another unit from me. I lost a good customer.

HILLARD: Dodson averages two auctions a day, six days a week. The last one on this day held the typical bounty of the storage auction. Amid the household items, there were the cardboard boxes, neatly stacked and labeled with a black Sharpie, Kitchen, Maggie's Room. One was open. Stuffed animals blankly staring back at the bidders in the doorway.

For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

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