Storage Wars in Sarnia

Jim Smith rolled up the orange metal door of the storage unit.  Sunlight washed over the piles of disorganized stuff he had just purchased for $120 at this morning’s auction.  A wooden dresser, Patio furniture, an old VHS player.  A pair of brown work boots.  Tupperware bins.  Gym bags. Lots of boxes. “It was the boxes that interested me, ” Smith said as he began rifling through the personal belongings left more than 2 months earlier by a delinquent tenant.  “I was hoping they’d have something interesting in them.” We do this to try to make a little extra money – Auction bidder Jim Smith First, he opened the stereo-receiver box and to his delight, the original was still inside.  Encouraged by the discovery, he then moved onto the Nintendo Wii and Sega Genesis boxes.  Both were empty. Well, “Smith said, ” you win some, you lose some.” Hit-or-Miss Affair That, in a nutshell, is the essence of a typical self-storage auction.  Bidders observe a unit from the outside and take a gamble on what they can (and cannot) see.  By now, Smith is used to the ebb and flow of victory and defeat. Over the past several months, he has attended dozens of auctions like this one in Sarnia.  Averaging about three of four auctions a week, he sells what he can on Craigslist, Kijiji or at local flea markets.  And while reality TV shows like “Storage Wars” may foster the impression that storage auctions are a get-rich-quick scheme, the true reality often is more closely related to financial necessity. auction3“I lost my job a while back, so I do this to try to make a little extra money.” Smith said, “Plus I am drawn to the curiosity.  People start bidding, your adrenaline gets going, you see some interesting things inside and you get swept away in it all.  But it’s always hit-or-miss.” Standing back and surveying the unit’s contents, Smith mused that he probably could get $100 for the patio furniture.  Maybe $20 for the Cuisinart ice cream maker still in its box.  The stereo receiver might fetch a pretty penny.  And the VHS player? Perhaps $10.00. “This is the chance you take,” Smith said.  He was among about 20 people who showed up that Friday morning in late May to bid on seven units which were up for auction.  “Now, we move onto the next one.” ‘Do I hear 10 Dollars?’ It all began at 11 the auctioneer stood in front of a 5×5 unit, opened the door and revealed just three small cardboard boxes scattered around the floor. Launching into the fast-paced flurry of words which is the signature of auctioneers everywhere (“Do I hear 10 dollars? Tendollarstendollarstendollars…”). He conducted the morning’s first sale in less than two minutes, eventually awarding the contents to one of the bidders for a mere $5. After that, he quickly moved from one unit to the next, each time repeating the same ritual: Open the door, give the bidders a minute or two to look at the contents from the outside and then start the bidAuctionding. Around 11:30, the auctioneer opens the door to the largest unit of the morning, a 10×30 piled high with a home’s worth of assorted contents.  Antique dressers, old picture frames, lamps and countless boxes and bins filled with items that would remain a mystery until purchased.  This unit generated more excitement than any other; the bidders eagerly crowded around the doorway trying to gauge the value of what was inside.  “It’s going to be a lot of work,” someone uttered.  “But it looks like a lot of good stuff.” After about a minute of wide-eyed gawking from the bidders, the auctioneer stood in front of the entryway and said, “Nice big  unit folks.  A money maker.  How about five hundred to start?” You really have no clue what you’re getting into.  No clue. – Auction bidder Jim Smith ‘A Way to Pass the Time ‘ Since December, Smith has attended at least half a dozen local storage auctions “as a way to pass the time,” sorting through his bounty and then selling the stuff online.  This is the largest unit he’s ever purchased.  He had until Monday to clean it out; otherwise, he would lose a $50 deposit. Later that afternoon, as he sorted through some of the unit’s most easily accessible contents, Smith unearthed an array of abandoned possessions and an old top hat still in its original box. images8FIMANNX “That unit looked like it hadn’t been picked through at all, which is why it went for so much,” Smith said later that afternoon. “It looked like the contents of someone’s attic and basement all in one big unit.  That’s what you call a truly defaulted unit.” Most storage units which come up for auction have already been picked over by the tenant, who’s usually in a hurry to gather the belongings he wants to keep and leaves the rest behind.  But you keep doing it because you never know what treasures you will find. “But no matter how worthless that stuff may seem, the facility is legally obligated to go through this process.  And trust me, it’s always better for the facility if the tenant just pays his bill.” Auction Aggravation Despite the excitement that’s been generated by shows like “Storage Wars,” storage auctions are a hassle for facility owners and managers and rarely are they a significant windfall for bidders.  “Most of the people who are here today are supplying their used-furniture stores or their flea-market inventory,” Smith said.  “A few years ago, when the reality shows started cropping up, you had four times as many people at these auctions, all thinking they’d find gold or jewels or something.  But that’s not what this is about.  The regular buyers are here because they need to be here.” And the facility holds the auction because it must hold the auction.  Auctions are an absolute last resort for any facility and the process is tedious and time- consuming. Boxes in Unit Here’s how it works at most storage facilities.  Once a tenant is 30 days past due on his or her monthly payment, the facility sends a certified letter stating that the unit is in default and will go to auction if the bill isn’t paid within a specified amount of time. (usually another 30 days). If the bill goes unpaid, then there is always a final call to the tenant to resolve the issue and offer one last chance to pay the bill.  “Even once the tenant is a month behind on his payment, it’s still another six weeks before the auction takes place.  It’s quite a long process and even if the unit is filled with one empty box, we still have to go through the entire process.  The downside is that the unit is tied up for more than two months.  That’s two months that we’re not making any money on it”. “Auctions are something that we’re obligated to do, but there’s really nothing glamorous or profitable about them.” “And it’s actually a little sad, because for whatever reason, these tenants got behind on their bill and may have lost some valuable stuff.” Taking a Gamble Back at the auction, Jones  sorted through the contents of a 5×10 unit he’d secured for $120.  Children’s toys, an old mattress, bins filled with DVD’s and board games.  Jones is an auction regular who buys units and sells the contents at flea markets.  He’s been doing it for more than three years now. In that time, Jones said he’s unearthed some unusual items, including a motorcycle, two urns containing human ashes and $3,700 in silver dollars.  But those are the outliers. More often than note, the units he wins are just like the one he was combing through this afternoon. “It’s one-quarter skill and three-quarters gambling.” But you keep doing it because you never know what you’re going to find. At Campbell Street Mini Storage , we changed the way we do storage auctions.  We still go through the lien process but do something called “Online Auction” with a company called Bid 13. Everything is done from the comfort of your own home. Check it out!