Behind the Door: Stories, Solutions and Advice for the Oddities in the Self-Storage Industry
Copyright 2014 by Virgo Publishing.
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Posted on: 05/05/2012



 

By Hayden Harrison

There are times in the self-storage industry that can brighten a day or make someone want to scream, but there’s rarely a dull moment. “The nature of this business creates stories,” says Marcy Gerhart, owner of Second Attic in Bessemer, Ala. In fact, there are enough odd, amusing and interesting stories to fill a book, which is exactly what Gerhart did.

Our American Stuff, which Gerhart recently self-published, relays all the wacky stories she’s come across during her time at Second Attic. She describes the book as the “flip side of ‘Storage Wars’” because it’s what happens behind the units being auctioned. The book includes short tales on everything from renters running moving trucks into her buildings, finding expensive paintings, a “mad hatter-type,” and a wife who hid her husband’s workout equipment in storage and then failed to pay the rent because he cheated.

Memorable experiences, good or bad, turn into great stories to tell in hindsight; but how a self-storage operator reacts during an unusual situation has in important impact on the outcome. Knowing how to handle odd situations with aplomb can help eliminate a little of the shock, and help you find solutions more efficiently. 

Interesting Finds

Almost every self-storage owner or manager has had a strange or interesting find inside a tenant’s unit, either when a door was up, sounds came from it, or it went to auction. Handling situations like this can be difficult or expensive, especially if what’s inside is a wild animal.

Mel Holsinger, president of Tucson, Ariz.-based Professional Self Storage Management, shares that many years ago, one of his managers was walking around the property conducting a unit inventory when he heard a growl coming from a unit. The door wasn’t latched, so he started to open it when “low and behold, there was a pet tiger chained to the wall,” Holsinger says.

Frightened, the manager called the tenant to remove the tiger immediately or else the authorities would be called. “If it's something illegal, we call the authorities,” Holsinger says. “If it's something that’s just strange, we'll usually give the benefit of the doubt and call the tenant first.”

Unfortunately, when odd items are discovered, the tenants are sometimes long gone and no where to be found. After a relief manager failed to sufficiently qualify a customer at a facility managed by Universal Management Co., the man was allowed to rent a 10-by-20 unit, which he filled with onions. He then abandoned the unit and the onions rotted, costing thousands of dollars in cleanup, says company president Anne Ballard.

Another unit spoiler, Ballard says, is renters filling units with old tires and leaving them—a very expensive cleanup if the tenant stops paying. No one wants to buy old tires at an auction, and they can’t be thrown away at a dump, so there’s no way to get someone to take care of them without spending a lot of money. “It’s important to ask ‘What will you be storing?’ and make sure it is a qualified use,” Ballard says.

A Sense of Danger

Self-storage tenants will sometimes do things that will cause others to question their sanity. Whether they’re always batty or anger has made them compromise their common sense, it's important that a self-storage operator can handle these customers. Unfortunately, it's sometimes part of the job.

“If [something] tweaks anything in your consciousness and makes you wonder, then there is probably reason to suspect, and you should probably investigate it,” says Gina Six Kudo, general manager of Cochrane Road Self-Storage in Morgan Hill, Calif. Sometimes though, a manager may not sense that something is amiss, and the tenant's weirdness emerges later.

One of Kudo's coworkers rented a unit to a man who "looked like he’d crawled out of the mountains,” she says, adding that he wasn’t particularly creepy, nor was he over friendly. After filling his unit, he vanished, and his unit was eventually scheduled for lien sale. A few days before the auction, the tenant came to get his stuff but was refused access because he was in default. It was then he began to act bizarre.

Kudo called the police for a civilian standby. They asked the man if they could search his car and unit and were granted permission. Afterward, they told Kudo she should allow him to get his stuff and leave, and if she ever saw his car around the property again, she should call 911. It turns out they had found dangerous equipment in his vehicle and unit, which, combined with a few missing pieces, could be used for making bombs. After discussing the situation with her attorney, it was decided that Kudo should let the man remove his goods.

Deciding when it’s an appropriate time to call the police for help can be tricky, Kudo says. “You don't call the cops all the time because then it's like Chicken Little, ‘The sky is falling,' But when there is a threat of harm to a person, I don't even care about property ... Bash a door in. But if there is any chance of any human being hurt, then you better have already hit the speed dial button for 911.”

Storage Affairs

One situation that leaves many facility operators not only uncomfortable but questioning whether to continue renting to a particular tenant is when the facility is being used as a trysting place. In reality, these occurrences violate most facilities’ “no inhabiting” rule. While operators have debated the issue on the Self-Storage Talk online community, there’s really no hard and fast rule about how to handle tenants having affairs in units, so operators must have their own guidelines.

Ballard relates the story of an affair that happened at a Los Angeles facility her company managed. A pharmaceutical representative was spotted on camera entering her unit with a man. Employees knocked on the door and told the couple occupancy was against the facility’s rule. They also discovered the couple had a cot in the unit and even candles—a huge facility violation. The tenant was asked to vacate her unit. “We lost a valuable customer, but you don’t want that kind of customer,” Ballard says.

Kudo has also come across a few affairs. Once, after a tenant failed to pay rent, she came to an agreement with him to settle his fees and remove his belongings from the unit rather than go to auction. He told her his ex-girlfriend was coming to help. Although the girlfriend soon arrived, the man seemed to be taking a long time to pack up.

Kudo decided to see what the hold up was. The unit door was open, and there was a moving truck in front of the unit, which was on the main aisle. When Kudo walked around the side of the truck, she turned “50 shades of red” when she spotted the man’s naked backside. Stepping back around the truck, she yelled at him to get off her property that very minute.

Not All Bad

Because everyone enjoys the wacky stories, the feel-good ones don’t get as much notice as they should, and neither do the good tenants. “Nice ones care, ask about your life, and miss you when you’re not around,” Kudo says. “They don’t get the recognition they deserve.”

One couple in South Carolina even married at a self-storage facility because they thought it was beautiful. They took wedding pictures all around the property, including in front of the wine-cellar door, Ballard says.

Some tenants even go out of their way to help one another. One of Kudo's customers left a message about boxes that had been left outside a unit. The door was open and no one seemed to be around. When Kudo went to check, she found a woman lying on the floor passed out. Because a concerned tenant made that call, the woman received the medical attention she needed. Telling your customers to let you know if anything seems off is a good way to prevent bad situations from becoming bigger problems.

Due to problems, people and unexpected situations, a day can go from great to boring to crazy to scary in a matter of seconds while working in self-storage. The most important thing to keep in mind is no matter what happens, “take care of yourself first and foremost,” Kudo advises.