A Guide to Self-Storage: Is a Mini Storage Unit Right for You?


Victoria Villeneuve
February 9th, 2018

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You have stuff and need somewhere to stash it. Maybe you are staging or remodeling your home or are moving to a new one. Maybe you’re combining, dividing or downsizing your household because of marriage, divorce or an empty nest. You may need to leave your residence between college semesters, between jobs or because of a natural disaster. You may have accumulated too many belongings on your own or inherited a loved one’s. Perhaps you have a thriving eBay business.

And so, if yours is like nearly one-tenth of U.S. households, you turn to self-storage, aka mini storage. Before you make the commitment, read this three-part series to find out how to get the right off-site storage for your needs and how to protect yourself and your things. After all, if they’re worth storing in the first place, you wouldn’t want to lose your treasures without any recourse or see them auctioned off on Storage Wars.

The First Step

Before you even start contacting storage facilities, be honest with yourself about why you are holding on to the stuff and what it’s worth. Does it bring you joy, in the words of decluttering guru Marie Kondo, pictured? Or are you delaying a bunch of emotional decisions that you have no reason to believe will get easier with time? Would you rather have your things or the money you’re going to spend on storage and insurance? Will your heirs want the items and, if so, could you pass them on sooner rather than later?

Give serious consideration to possible alternatives to off-site storage. Can you donate things to charity in exchange for a tax write-off? Can you scan any photos or toss any documents? Would it make sense to buy a backyard shed?

Types of Storage

The next step is to consider the kinds of storage available.

Full-service move-and-store companies
In the U.S., the business of moving and storing household goods began with Bekins Co., founded in 1891 in Iowa to provide relocation services by horse and wagon (and still around today as Bekins Van Lines). In 1906, it opened the industry’s first reinforced steel-and-concrete storage warehouse, in Los Angeles. Bekins and other full-service companies do it all: professionally pack, load, move, store, deliver and unpack, all while shouldering the bulk of the responsibility for their customers’ goods.
For a generally more DIY, accessible, flexible and economical (at least in the short term) storage solution, there is self-storage. In 1964, oilman Russ Williams and his stepson, Bob Munn, built what’s regarded as the first modern self-storage facility, in an industrial area of Odessa, Texas. The 30-by-100-foot structure of cinder blocks and corrugated steel was divided into garage-like units, each with an overhead door. A-1 U-Store-It U-Lock-It U-Carry-the-Key became the model for the rows and rows of windowless, single-story self-storage facilities that popped up on the outskirts of towns across the country — at a rate of 3,000-plus annually from 2000 to 2005. As the original’s name implies, at these places, the customer usually assumes responsibility for everything.

Portable storage
The late 1990s saw the rise of portable storage. These companies, like PODS, drop off a container, flatbed truck or trailer at your house for you to load at your leisure. The unit can stay on your property (depending on local ordinances), get taken to an interim storage facility or be brought right to your new home. There are a few considerations, however. This option may not work if your house is on a steep hill. Street parking may be prohibited or require a permit. Parking the unit in your yard could damage your lawn. If you live in a condo or an apartment, you may need permission from your homeowners association or landlord to have it parked outside. Keeping the unit outside will subject it to extremes in temperature. If you have the unit transported, you’ll need to secure the items inside.

Valet storage
The latest innovation in the industry is technology-enhanced valet storage. Venture dollars are flowing to companies like Clutter, MakeSpace and Trove, which let you schedule pickups and deliveries of even just a box or two and keep track of your stuff with their handy apps. Clutter, for example, photographs and applies a unique bar code to each item to make it easy to retrieve whenever you request it.

Self-Storage: A National Pastime

Market research firm IBISWorld estimates that self-storage alone earns $38 billion annually in the U.S. The national Self Storage Association reports that there are about 52,000 facilities in this country — nearly as many as all the McDonald’s (36,000) and Starbucks (24,000) in the world combined — and that 9.4 percent of U.S. households rented self-storage in 2017. Although self-storage has been a particularly American phenomenon, it’s becoming more common in other parts of the world, including Asia.

It’s also getting fancier. New self-storage buildings are more likely to be closer to the center of town, multistory and designed by architects. Some mix storage with retail or housing. Others offer specialized storage for things like vehicles, wine, clothing and documents.

Standard Sizes

If you’ve decided to go with self-storage, you need to figure out how much space you need. Unit sizes are usually given in two dimensions. Common sizes are 3 by 3 feet (often called storage lockers), 5 by 5 feet, 5 by 10 feet, 10 by 10 feet, 10 by 15 feet and 10 by 20 feet. Ceiling heights vary; standard units are 8 feet high, while storage lockers tend to be 5 feet or less. Vehicle storage that can accommodate RVs and boats is typically 14 feet wide and up to 40 feet deep and 16 feet high, according to Inside Self-Storage.

Think about your belongings in three dimensions, perhaps envisioning them stacked up in a corner of a room. Some companies provide a size estimator chart, such as the one pictured, to help you visualize how much a particular unit can hold. Others offer an online storage calculator. You enter the quantity of each type of item, and it figures out the best size for your needs.

Average Costs

Units typically rent month to month. The rate depends on size, amenities, facility location and unit location within the facility, as well as the local supply and demand and the time of year. According to SpareFoot.com, a marketplace for finding and reserving storage, the national average for the most popular size, 5 by 10 feet, is $63 a month. The second most popular size, 10 by 10 feet, averages $96.09 a month. SpareFoot.com also lists the average cost per square foot of storage for 200 U.S. cities in 2016. San Francisco had the highest rate at $2.63, while Montgomery, Alabama, had the lowest rate at 64 cents a square foot. The national average was 97 cents a square foot.

Self-storage owners bank on tenants who put off emptying their units. According to the most recent survey from SpareFoot.com, most tenants stay longer than they plan to, with the average rental period at just under nine months. “It’s work to get your stuff out, so people procrastinate,” says Alexander Harris, SpareFoot.com’s web editor. “Also, home renovations can take longer than expected.”

How to Save Money

Shop around and get several estimates. To economize, consider picking a facility that’s a little farther out of town or a unit that’s a few more steps from the elevator, provided you don’t need frequent access to your items. If possible, rent during the fall and winter, when fewer people are moving. “Peak season is May through September, which is when you’ll pay the most,” Harris says.

Pay only for the size and amenities you really need. Ask about special promotions or discounts for the military, students, seniors or members of organizations like AAA, or for committing to several months at a time. See if your homeowners or renters insurance already offers off-premises protection for personal possessions and what the limits are.

Do your research. Check the facility’s record with the Better Business Bureau and online review sites. Members of the Self Storage Association promise to stick to a code of ethics, but there is nothing nationally that specifically regulates the self-storage industry.

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