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Storage War's Casualties?

FIRST-PERSON

Posted: May 4, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: May 4, 2014 2:00 a.m.

A reenactment of Billy Whitaker's observations and lessons gleaned while attending auctions of abandoned public storage locker units. Julie Whitaker/Courtesy Photo

 

"Are you here for the auction?" this from who I assume is the owner, or manager, of the storage establishment; the person behind the clipboard, keys, and information on which spaces were to be sold today.

She carried a cheerful demeanor, one of which brought a relaxed feeling to the atmosphere. Her footsteps came quickly and decisively as she made her way towards me. I had arrived late today to the auction, and could see in the distance a group of people already gathered around one storage unit.

"Yes," I responded, wishing I could have made it to the first auction. There would only be three today. "Did I miss one?"

"Yeah, we sold the first one already. We have one more here and one down the road at our other place."

Bummer. "What did this unit sell for?"

"It sold for $1,500. I don't know why though. All there was in there was a bunch of weird stuff. It was a big unit though. Ten by thirty. You can follow me to the next unit if you like."

And with that we were off to an upper unit.

As we approached the upper unit the throng of potential bidders arrived shortly after, some talking amongst each other, while others simply kept to themselves.

They were a diverse group from different ethnic backgrounds, but all of them were here for one purpose - to find the diamond in the rough.

Bidding on a storage unit required that the winning bidder possessed enough cash to win the bid. As I only had $34 in my pocket I didn't feel confident at raising my hand to enter the bidding. I think I was even apprehensive to scratch my nose, just in case the auctioneer caught it as a signal to 'up the ante.'

Once everyone was present the owner cut the clip, and with the sound of metal grinding against rollers, rolled up the door.

The 5x8 unit resembled a small walk-in closet. There was a clothing rack situated in the back that held various articles of clothing. Nothing special, maybe a change of clothes for a roaming salesperson.

Among the items were about seven clear plastic bins that held other items that were almost unrecognizable due to the cloudy plastic that held them. The only other items visible were a couple coolers, one new and one used.

After everyone had a chance to look inside the unit, most using their flashlights to try and pierce the void between them and hidden treasure, the auctioneer started the bidding.

"I'll start the bidding off at $50. Do I have $50?"

Personally, I didn't see that much worth in the unit, but apparently the other bidders did. After it was all said and done, the unit went for almost $300. Even the auctioneer commented, "I guess they didn't want to go home empty handed."

I've been to auctions before, driven by the glitz and glamour of the hit show “Storage Wars,” and have seen how those auctions went. They went for a lot. More than I felt the units were even worth.

The first auction I ever attended stirred me to thinking about the person who may have owned the unit. Who were they? Why did they get behind on their payments? Was it an accident or irresponsibility? Who knows...maybe both?

All I can say is that I felt different about one unit that contained nothing but junk, and another unit that seemed to house an entire family's worth of history.

I remember that auction, the first that I attended, when the manager rolled up the door, revealing the items inside. It was disheartening. I was looking at a family's house. The unit contained books, furniture, kids’ bikes, toys, pictures, and a host of other mementos that probably took the family a long time to collect.

Within a matter of minutes, what had taken a long period to accumulate, was taking over by a complete stranger. I felt a slight pinch in my chest in spite of myself.

I wondered what went through the winning bidder's mind when he was bidding on the unit. Did he see what I saw? Or was it simply an opportunity to make money off of another's folly?

Don't get me wrong, I know there are those that make their living off of these auctions, who may also support a family of their own. I just wonder if it ever occurs to them the history behind the stuff they bid on.

One person I talked to recalled one such an auction that they won. The unit contained, much like this one, mementos of a family's past. Pictures, furniture, heirlooms, you name it, it had it. The person who won the bid had discovered a bunch of pictures and photo albums containing years of family portraits and events.

This bidder went on to find the previous owner, so they could return the pictures to them. A nice gesture, but the previous owner didn't feel the same way. Once they found that their stuff had been auctioned off to pay their debt they attempted to sue the winning bidder. For obvious reasons it didn't go anywhere. That was the last time the bidder tried to return personal effects to its original owner.

So who are the casualties of a storage auction? The previous unit renter, the storage facility, or the bidder? How about all three? It happens.

You see the storage facility rents to a customer based on the premise that they will receive payment for each month the unit is in use. If the renter falls behind they begin to receive notice of being late. After so many months of non response, or non-payment, the facility is forced to auction the unit, in an attempt to recap their losses.

Most, if not all, of the facilities try to work with the renters to remedy the late payments, working out a way to get caught up. In fact, a renter may even show up right before the auction to pay their bill, effectively canceling the scheduled auction. The previous owner can even go a step further and bid on their own unit in an attempt to win it, if they have enough cash that is.

So we see the possible outcome for the renter and the facility. What about the bidder? Do they ever lose when they win? Yes. Quite a bit in fact. I spoke with one manager some months back who recalled such an auction.

It was a large unit; a ten by twenty if I remember correctly, that was being bid on. The manager cut the lock and rolled up the door, revealing a unit full, from floor to ceiling, with brand new shoeboxes. The bidding instantly jumped by leaps and bounds, with the hopes of winning a storage unit worth of brand new shoes. The unit went for a whopping $3,500.

After the winning bidder returned to the unit the manager accompanied the bidder. The person rolled up the door and took the first shoebox out to inspect its contents. The box was extremely light, and when the person opened the lid they found . . . paper. That's it. Just paper. The kind of paper that accompanies new shoes to keep them from rubbing up against the sides of the box while in transport.

Except there was no shoe to be seen.

The person quickly grabbed the next box . . . paper. The next one . . . paper. It went like this until they grabbed the last box in the storage unit . . . paper. Every one of those boxes contained only the paper. Not one shoe was found. Ouch.

So you see, not everyone wins at these auctions. Sometimes the renter redeems the unit last minute. Sometimes the storage facility recaps their entire loss. And sometimes, just sometimes, the bidder walks away with a profitable unit.

I've met some of the bidders, and was able to delve into their past experiences. Most seemed pleasant. One that I did not meet personally, but was merely just an eavesdrop on my end, caused me to hold less than respect for them. Auctions can be a playground for the cruel and inconsiderate.

Of the auction I attended today one such a person was holding a conversation with another fellow bidder, recalling the last auction they attended in the valley. This bidder noticed a new person at the auction. Apparently they can spot the regulars from the newbies.

This woman was more than eager to bid on a unit and this person picked up on it. For whatever reason, other than to be a complete jerk, they bragged that they bid the women 'up' to $600 dollars more than the unit should have gone for. I failed to see the humor that these two individuals shared about the story.

But, like the people who lost the unit, and maybe the storage facility who didn't recap their losses, so goes the victim of cruelty for the new bidder.

A life lesson learned? Only if they knew they were the victim.

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