By Tom Brecke
The end of the century is shaping up to be an interesting time for the self-storage industry. After years of steady, unfettered growth, current signals indicate a possible slowdown in an industry that has done nothing but climb since the dismal days of the early '90s when a prosperous industry was blindsided by overbuilding and saturation of markets to the point of disaster.
But that was then and this is now--1999. Self-storage is an entirely different animal. Back in the early days, almost everything was a mom-and-pop operation--concrete buildings in industrial areas of town. But look where it's gone: Wall Street's now involved; buildings are sleeker, better built and fit in with the residential landscape better than anyone ever thought possible. Consumer knowledge of self-storage has sky-rocketed, planning and zoning boards have begun to see its importance, and they often embrace its presence in the community. Society knows now what we've known for a long time: Self-storage is a valuable product.
With that, however, comes some concerns. Namely, overbuilding, occupancy and available financing. This article will examine the state of self-storage, tapping the knowledge of some of the industry's top insiders. And while it didn't seem long ago that the year 2000 looked far off, here we are. Consider it a chance to take a look backward and trace the steps of how a niche industry such as self-storage truly came to the forefront as a viable, respected business.
A little more than 10 years ago, the outlook for self-storage business wasn't so rosy. By the mid-1980s, the idea of making money in self-storage was no longer a secret. The market went into a building frenzy, sent investors scrambling for capital and pushed it to its saturation point by over-supplying the demand. The industry that was once a shining star had lost its luster as stiff competition, low occupancy rates and high mortgage payments dogged operators around the country. This low point in self-storage continued into the early part of this decade as occupancies fell to their lowest point in 1990-1991 and the industry itself hit rock bottom from 1990-1992. Many facilities were repossessed by banks as well as the RTC, and values fell from the heydays of the mid-'80s.
By the middle of this decade though, things began to change for the better. Occupancy caught up with the heavy supply while the nation's economy strengthened. Financing firms loosened their tight reins and full-scale construction began again.
Where Are We?
The million-dollar question in all of this is: Will the good times last, or are we headed for a downturn? The nation's economy still looks to be in a bull market as outward signs show strength, but the foundations may be showing some cracks. Of course, it depends to whom you talk, but as the stock market has begun to gyrate and look more like a rollercoaster than an upward ramp, some people are holding their breath as to the true health of the overall economy. Not the least of which is the effect of the Asian economic crisis that has begun to spread to other countries, including the United States, where high-tech firms are beginning to report losses from the overseas slowdown.
For self-storage, over the past couple of years, "cautious optimism" seemed to be the key phrase many operators and industry vendors were uttering when referring to the state of the industry. For the most part, that still holds, though some have moved to a more "cautious" tone.
"I said the same thing last year, but I'm even more sure of it this year," says Maurice Pogoda of Farmington Hill, Mich.-based The Pogoda Companies. "We're on the other side of the mountain. In 1994, '95 and '96, we were definitely still heading up the mountain. When we look back, I think we're going to say that 1996 and '97 were the peak years, and in 1998 we suddenly started heading down the other side."
Pogoda, who works in the state of Michigan, says he sees occupancy rates declining from where they have been in the past couple of years, which he chalks up to increased competition. "I was looking at the Yellow Pages ads for new comparables for all my sites and I came across a couple of sites I was not even aware of, and I think I'm pretty well in tune with my marketplace."
Others, such as Dave Reddick, president of Sentinel Systems Corp. in Lakewood, Colo., concedes that he's been waiting for a slowdown from the spectacular growth that has occurred in the self-storage industry, but so far it just hasn't happened.
"We've had a very good run for a long time, just like the U.S. economy," says Reddick. "You just keep waiting for a something negative to happen and sort of look over your shoulder, but we just haven't seen it."
Mike McCune of Argus Self Storage Network in Denver, points to a quote by Federal Reserve Chairman Allen Greenspan when asked about the state of today's self-storage market: "The exuberance is out of the market." And while the bloom may be off the rose of the nation's economy, McCune says there is plenty of success to go around in self-storage today. He says some areas may be overbuilt, but the overall look of the industry is far from a crisis situation.
Overbuilding and Saturation
With facilities seemingly popping up all over the country, many are concerned that markets are being overbuilt, with little forethought into where the store will be located. Although money has seemingly been flowing readily in the past couple of years, proper due diligence, planning and feasibility studies are not being done by some, reminding people of the '80s downturn that led to the bad times of the early '90s. Like any smart developer will tell you, just because you own a piece of land, doesn't mean it's ideal for storage.
Not all markets are overbuilt, though, and like most industries, self-storage can be very cyclical, especially in different areas of the country. While one quadrant of the United States may be going strong, another could be struggling. The fact that self-storage draws clients from a three- to five-mile radius lends itself to clustered areas that may be seeing a slowdown, while across town it could be wide open for development.
According to Mel Holsinger of Executive Self Storage Associates based in Tucson, Ariz., that's exactly what's happening to many areas of the nation. Of the nine different markets in which Executive operates, he says some are growing, some are stable, others are in trouble.
"The reason the markets are so different is the timing of the development that has occurred over the last four to five years. Tucson, for example, has had an exceptional number of projects brought into the market in a short period of time, but the population has grown only slightly," explains Holsinger. "Phoenix, on the other hand, has had a lot of new product built, but the economy is such that it's also growing in population at a dramatic pace. The supply and demand is staying pretty solid."
Dave Cook of Tacoma, Wash.-based Tech-Fast Metal Systems believes some areas of the country are becoming overbuilt, but says most people are looking closer at the market for niche opportunities within particular communities.
"The level of activity, and probably the frenzy surrounding it, has softened a little bit, but the number of qualified builders and the number of contracts--from our perspective--is staying very strong," relates Cook. "I think what we're seeing is that over the last couple of years, we were getting a lot of calls from new people, and that's still the case. But, we've weeded through a number of people that looked at it casually. The serious builders, the people that have been building for a number of years, are staying strong. You're still looking at a lot of opportunity out there."
U-Haul International's Carlos Vizcarra agrees that there is plenty of opportunity out there, adding that U-Haul hasn't seen any slowdown at all. He admits though, that there is some congestion as far as facilities go, but that it's part of the business.
"We see too many facilities coming up, but that's just the nature of competition and everyone in the industry has to deal with it," he says. "We look at the markets with a very small radius, so it's hard to say that any one market--like Phoenix--is overbuilt. Success in the industry is based on the location, like any retail business. You may have a saturated market, but it you have the best location in that market, you're still going to be successful."
Kent Greenwald of real-estate firm CB Commercial, agrees and says more and more operators are looking at niche markets, rather than writing off an entire area because it's believed to be overbuilt. Much of that, he says, is because of the different role that self-storage is playing in society today.
"One of the things we're finding as we do more and more studies, is that the self-storage business is now really being perceived more as a retail use rather than an industrial use. Twenty-five years ago, we'd go along the freeway and build a warehouse as an alternative use, thinking it would be torn down someday," relates Greenwald. "What's happening now is that companies are willing to pay more money for retail frontage. We're starting to use high-tech devices like global positioning systems, mapping systems and other demographic programs to try and find areas within cities that meet a certain criteria. Phoenix has 5.4 square feet of self-storage per person--which many people would say is a saturated market--but there are still niches within this market that can provide a very beneficial return on a self-storage investment."
As an example, Greenwald points to the restaurant industry in Phoenix where the market is also very crowded, despite the fact that development continues. "There are restaurants coming here everyday because they provide a particular product in a certain sub-market that they think will be successful." As far as feasibility studies are concerned, he says the three- to five-mile radius is still used as a gauge, but adds that he's seen many operators in dense urban areas drawing a large percentage of their business from within two miles.
Buster Owens of Ocoee, Fla.-based RabCo Corp. says he hasn't seen much sign of overbuilding, except in a few markets such as Las Vegas. "We are seeing places that they are starting to shy away from because there are so many facilities going in," relates Owens. "But they're finding other places to go instead. It lends itself to the way that the self-storage market is--they draw from a small radius. So one side of town might be saturated, whereas the other side of town isn't. Instead of building in say, Orlando or Tampa, Fla., they're building in Bradenton or Winter Springs, Fla.--surrounding suburban areas."
Owens and others say the Northeast looks like a very promising market, after struggling somewhat to catch the wave that much of the rest of the country already has. "There's a lot of activity up in the Northeast, and not just conversions, but new construction that we haven't seen over the last few years," he says.
Doug West of Doug West & Associates, which supplies security systems to the self-storage industry hasn't seen any slowdown either, and expects business to keep growing for the upcoming year.
"What I see happening with vendors is that the little guys are starting to fade away or look at other markets," says West. "I think that's because the major players are looking at the vendors closely; what they are seeing is stability, and they're trying to make an evaluation based on stability and size."
According to Reddick of Sentinel Systems, also an industry software and security vendor, self-storage owners and operators are much more educated and informed about the industry as a whole than they were even seven or eight years ago. "You have a certain presence that you didn't have a few years ago with the REITs and certainly more visibility with companies like Storage USA and Storage Trust," says Reddick. "In the past, when you talked about software and automation, it fell on deaf ears for the most part. Now, nobody builds anything without putting in a software program or electronic gate controls--many are even doing door alarms. That's a result of education followed by competition and visibility."
Even though the market looks strong, veterans of the industry are still bracing for a slowdown, much like investors waiting for the inevitable correction that will come to the surging stock market. But like many will tell you, a slowdown in the self-storage industry wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. Like the stock market, a slight downturn in self-storage could serve to keep everyone in check and not let those that haven't experienced a sour market run amok.
"I wouldn't say that a slowdown would be alarming," says Tech-Fast's Cook. "It's a more mature industry that's going to follow trends of the overall national economy."
Others say a downturn would "skim the fat" so to speak, and probably won't affect the veterans in the industry that have been down this road before.
"I still think that the experienced, seasoned veterans that have been through these up-and-down cycles are going to be the ones surviving," says Executive's Holsinger. "I think there's a lot of trouble ahead for people who haven't been through a down cycle and are not prepared for it. Obviously, the people that leverage their product right are going to be in the best shape. Unfortunately, I see people out there going gangbusters and saying, 'It's been so great it has to continue.' They're looking at today; they're not looking at what's going to be happening three years from now, and I think that's a major mistake."
Financing, of course, plays a major role in determining whether self-storage is or will become overbuilt. For the past few years, banks and other lending institutions have become notoriously easy to obtain financing from for the self-storage industry. While not at the problem levels of the savings-and-loan crises of last decade, grumblings have begun to be uttered about the lack of experienced developers getting loans with little or no due diligence and feasibility studies.
The money is still there, but most in the industry agree that the money companies are feeling some crunch and beginning to inspect self-storage and other loans more closely-something most say is a welcome trend. "Lenders have got to get a little tougher now," says Pogoda, who agrees that money had gotten extremely easy of late to obtain. "I think people have kind of opened their eyes a bit and are worried about overbuilding. Lenders have started asking more questions than they were in the last year."
Dean Keller of Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.-based Bancap Self Storage Group, says financing has become more stringent, and in a very short period of time. "Financing has gotten real tight and has happened so quick that it's hard to tell how long this is going to last," he says. "It's still too early to tell if this is going to be short term, or if this is going to put a damper on the finance market for a few years."
Keller says the tightening of financing, especially the drop in conduit loans, which is how many self-storage loans are completed, is also affecting the buyers and sellers of storage property. "Everybody was doing great, but now we're starting to see the impact of all the new construction that's been coming on line last year and this year," he explains. "Suddenly, there's this liquidity crunch that is impacting the REITs and the private party's ability to buy property. I see it as a temporary phenomenon. It would concern me if it were a long-term trend, but it happened so suddenly that I don't thing it's going to last."
Mike Burnam of industry REIT Storage Trust, which recently announced it would merge with Public Storage, doesn't see a rebound quite as fast and thinks the financial slowdown will hit the private sector around the end of the first quarter of 1999. "What we're seeing is a slowdown in growth and supply in most markets and that's just the beginning, because the lenders are just now realizing some of the credit crunch that the public companies have realized over the past four months," says Burnam. "When that comes to fruition, I think that there is going to be a dramatic slowdown."
Cook says he believes financing will generally follow the the overall health of the U.S. economy. "Financing is still available and affordable, although that could be tightening up over the next few years," he says. "I see financing basically following the performance of the stock market and the availability of funds as long as interest rates are kept low, and I think that there is a good reliability to that. We are a large enough industry now that it really seems to be revolving around the stock market, interest rates and general economic growth and less on the peculiarities of our particular business and more so on the health of the nation's economy in general."
Argus' McCune adds that the tightening financial markets are going to force potential buyers and developers to do more due diligence and feasibility studies--something he says isn't currently happening as much as it should.
"The rates people borrow at have impacted the rates of return people can expect from owning or developing," explains McCune. "I think the best way to mitigate that is to encourage people to do a feasibility study to determine whether the market is going to be able to hold this or not. Fortunately, there are some institutional investors that are insisting on that now and people are doing more homework."
What the future of the self-storage industry holds is anyone's guess. Most signs point to a slowdown, especially for the REITs and their buying prowess. Industry veterans, most of whom have been through the ups and downs, don't seem to be worried. McCune says a slowdown may stop the "hyper-aggressive buying" that he's seen for the past couple of years, but the buyers will still be there--they'll just be more selective.
But as the turn of the century approaches, the industry seems poised to continue to grow as an industry, maybe not as fast as in the second half of the '90s, but it will grow. Like Pogoda says, a slight slowdown might "give everybody a chance to breathe."