By Tom Berlin
Self-storage has become significantly more competitive over the past few years. New facility construction is exceptionally strong in most markets across the country and shows no sign of stopping. The four self-storage REITS are continuing their market-share consolidation in the major metropolitan markets by purchasing many of the choicest properties. As an independent self-storage operator, you need to ask yourself how you can compete.
An often overlooked component of the "storage decision" is the appearance and maintenance of our facilities. With so many options, self-storage customers are more selective about which facility they choose for their storage needs. Small differences between competitors can decisively influence a potential customer's storage decision.
Maintenance is one factor playing a greater and greater role in the success or failure of a facility. It doesn't matter how old a facility is or what amenities are offered, if maintenance has been neglected, potential customers will go elsewhere and profits will decline.
The first impression a potential customer gets when they pull into your facility can determine whether they will rent space or move on to a competitor. A new facility that looks dirty will give potential customers a worse impression than an older location that is immaculately clean.
Storage buildings and lot. The area around the storage buildings must be kept free of all kinds of litter. This includes manmade litter, such as bottles, cans, paper, etc., and natural litter, such as leaves and twigs. Cigarette butts are often overlooked, but their presence around the office and storage buildings makes a store look unkempt, regardless of how clean it is otherwise.
Nothing should be stored anywhere outside, regardless of whether it is equipment used in maintaining a lot, trash bins, pallets for tenants or similar items. They should always be kept inside a unit.
The manager should patrol the lot at least once a day for a variety of reasons, one of which is clean-up. During the inspection, the manager should pick up any debris. Daily cleaning is easy and fast, and ensures an immaculate appearance at all times. Our managers have golf carts with 50-gallon, plastic trash cans on the back to help make clean-up a little easier.
Not only do our managers keep our facilities clean, but they pay attention to the area surrounding our sites as well. It is both neighborly and good business to help take care of trash on the other side of the fence. Rarely do people comment on how poor a job your neighbor is doing when trash sits on his side of the fence vs. your side.
Dumpster area. Dumpsters should be enclosed within some kind of privacy fencing to keep them out of sight. How often they are emptied will depend on the facility, but it should be often enough so that the lids can be kept closed at all times.
Whether you allow tenants to use the dumpsters is an individual decision. We do at some locations, but at others, tenant use is prohibited without approval from a manager. Experience should be your guide on this matter. If your manager is spending a great deal of time cleaning up trash left by tenants, you may want to leave your dumpster unlocked and encourage tenants to use it, or consider charging the tenant for its use.
Rental office. The rental office must be spotlessly clean. The floor should be vacuumed, swept or mopped at least daily. During the winter, this may need to be done several times a day. We have found it is cost effective to use a commercial mat service for office walk-off mats. The service will pick up dirty mats and replace them with clean ones on a regular schedule. Sundry-item displays should be dusted weekly and always kept fully stocked. Counters should be kept free of clutter and cleaned frequently. Pay careful attention to the area behind the counter--it should always be neat and clean. Nothing is less professional than a messy desk or a manager searching around piles of paper to find something.
One area that is easily overlooked by managers is the public restroom. It must be sparkling clean whenever it is used by a customer, and supplied with handsoap and appropriate paper goods.
Lawn Care and Weed Kill
Weed kill should be used regularly anywhere weeds may appear, but especially in the cracks between the building pads and the pavement. Weeds in these areas seem to grow faster than anywhere else and can look extremely unsightly. We have had asphalt crack fill installed in these areas with a great deal of success. All shrub and flower beds should be free of weeds and mulched regularly. Lawns should be cut weekly. We also have a professional landscape company apply fertilizer and weed killer to the lawn periodically during the summer months. Each of our locations has an irrigation system that automatically waters all lawns and flower beds.
Masonry and metal. Storage buildings need regular maintenance, regardless of their construction type. The exteriors of all buildings should be regularly inspected for damage caused by people or nature. Cracks in masonry buildings should be filled to prevent water leakage into the units. Rust on metal buildings should be removed and the area repainted in order to prevent further deterioration.
Tenant-caused damage. Damage to buildings should be repaired as soon as it is discovered. It could cause a potential tenant to question how secure his belongings will be at your facility. Most damage to storage buildings occurs on the corners when a customer misjudges the turning radius of his vehicle. An effective way to minimize building damage in these areas is to install bollards (metal pipes filled with cement) at each corner, approximately one foot from the building.
Roofs. Customers expect that their stored possessions will be kept dry; therefore, regular roof inspections are essential. Managers should always check the ceilings of units that have been vacated to determine if there is any evidence of water leakage. We believe roofs to be so important that we have a consultant inspect the roofs at our facilities every two years and provide us with a report of their condition. Necessary repairs are made immediately. One of the few certainties in life is that small problems will become big problems if they are not addressed quickly.
Gutters. One frequent source of water leaks and flooding is clogged gutters. The site manager should check the gutters frequently to make sure they are free of leaves and other debris. Our managers "formally" clean the gutters every spring and in the fall after most of the leaves are off the trees. Also, make sure down spouts do a good job of draining water away from the buildings; if not, consider extenders.
Doors. A door that is difficult to open will anger even the most easygoing tenant. Door springs need to be lubricated regularly to keep them operating smoothly. If the doors at your facility have a tension regulator, as many new models do, they should be adjusted as needed. While the procedure is very simple, managers need to be trained in the adjustment method.
Pull cords on units doors are essential for tenants to be able to get the door closed. Missing or worn pull cords should be replaced. Door latches should be lubricated frequently and should always be easy for customers to operate. Replacing latches is easy to do and goes a long way in maintaining positive customer relations.
Painting. Storage buildings, unit doors, bollards, keypad holders and the office should be repainted if they look "tired." Be sure to check with the manufacturer of metal buildings and doors for their recommendations on what kind of surface preparation and paint should be used. Not doing so could result in a paint job that will peel.
Vacated Spaces and Open Units
Storage units should be cleaned as soon as a tenant vacates and kept clean until they are re-rented. Our managers use a vacated-unit checklist to make sure that all rubbish has been removed, the unit is broom clean, the door springs have been oiled, pull cords have been replaced as needed, door latches are working easily, there is no evidence of leaks or bugs, and needed repairs are identified and made.
Open units are an invitation for trouble. Tenants may mistakenly move into the wrong unit or discover that they need more space once they start moving in and commandeer an empty unit. Occasionally, a tenant who is moving out of one unit will use a vacant unit as a receptacle for their trash. We have even had a case of someone living in a secluded, vacant unit at one of our sites. The easy solution is to lock all vacant units with inexpensive yellow padlocks that are all keyed alike. This also helps tenants feel safer because there are fewer places for people who do not belong on site to hide.
At our facilities, anywhere from 25 percent to 60 percent of our new tenants learn about us by driving by the location. Therefore, the main sign in front greatly contributes to a facility's success. Whenever the sign face starts to age or the lettering and graphics start to fade, we have them replaced. Don't forget that bulbs in signs also need to be replaced regularly. Over time, lamps will weaken and lose some of their illumination, and nothing makes a facility look shoddier than a sign with a burnt-out lamp. Unit numbers, building identification, directional signs, rules and other signage should also be fresh-looking and easily visible.
Paving should always be stripped as necessary and in good condition and repair. We inspect all paving every spring, and have repairs made and cracks filled before the start of the busy season. Regular maintenance of paving will help to prolong its useful life and delay the need for full replacement.
Seal coating is a good way to spruce up a facility's appearance. In addition, the asphalt industry maintains that seal coating replaces oil that evaporates from the paving and makes it last longer. We also have our lots swept regularly by a commercial sweeping service and whenever strong summer storms have dumped leaves and other debris on site.
Good interior and exterior lighting is critical. It is one of the best ways to deter crime and help potential tenants choose your store over another. Not only must there be enough fixtures to adequately illuminate all corridors, driveways and areas between buildings, but they must also be in working order. Bulbs and photo cells must be replaced regularly. Our policy is that a burnt-out light bulb must be replaced in 24 hours.
Gates and Fences
The computerized entry-gate system and the perimeter fencing are key components of your security system and how potential tenants view your facility. The key pads of the computerized entry gate need to be clean, with instructions for use. The perimeter fence must be free of holes and, if damaged by vehicles, repaired. The gate-operator mechanism should be regularly maintained according to the manufacturer's maintenance recommendations.
Create a Reserve
Identifying items that need maintenance and having the money to pay for them are two different things. A maintenance budget should be established at the start of each fiscal year for routine items such as lawn care. In addition, a reserve should be created and contributions made regularly so that funds are available when high-cost capital improvements, such as roof and paving replacement, need to be made.
Maintenance is one of the most important aspects of a self-storage operator's job. It is neverending, but the appearance of the self-storage facility can make the difference between a potential tenant choosing you vs. your competitor and, ultimately, success vs. failure.
Tom Berlin is vice president of operations for Pogoda Management Co., one of the largest owners and operators of self-storage facilities in the Midwest. For more information, call (248) 855-9676.