Classic Mistakes in Self-Storage Development

Jamie Lindau Comments
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On paper, self-storage development seems like an easy project. The buildings are simple in nature, with only a roll-up door and metal partitions. The buildings have no real HVAC, plumbing or electrical components other than in the office. But the reality is several mistakes come up time and time again.   A number of self-storage developers are trying to be their own building contractors, which compounds into some of the problems I have witnessed. Back in the 1980s, the development process was significantly easier, which allowed prospects to act as their own contractors. In the last couple of years, the development process for approval has become more stringent and the developer has to be more adept in trying to minimize the problems the cities have created.

Stamp of Approval

The No. 1 hurdle developers face today is obtaining approval. The cities have a more stringent approval process and the developer needs to ask all kinds of questions to minimize problems that will show up later. Developers need to know the step-by-step process in attaining various approvals--site plan, drainage, curb cut, sewer system, architectural, parking variance (if needed), and so on. The mistake of many developers is the tendency to achieve the approvals one at a time. Instead, they should be submitting approvals concurrently to minimize construction delays.

The approval process takes an average of six months to one year. In some communities, it can take years. If you are not familiar with the approval process, it might benefit you to hire a local professional familiar with the town board (i.e. former city attorney or city engineer) who can easily expedite the process. This sounds expensive, but it can save a lot of time and may be the difference in achieving the approval.

Once you have planning approval, you may want to submit separate building plans for each phase so you can easily expand your facility without having to go back to the city for approval. Nothing drives an owner crazier than having no units to rent and the city holding up his next phase of development.

Remember: Planning approval does not mean that you have a building permit. You have to submit your plans and get the actual building permit to know for sure what you can build. Some problems that can arise when getting the building permit include orders for additional fire walls and sprinkler systems.

Lease Up

How fast will I rent up? This is a very important question all new developers ask. Before I answer, I ask them two questions: 1) Are you visible from a main street?; and 2) Will you be in the Yellow Pages the day you open the facility?

Believe it or not, about one-third of new developers are not in the Yellow Pages the day they open. If you are not, you will rent up half as fast as you would otherwise. Customers might know where you're located, but won't call you for a price because they cannot find you in the book. They end up calling a competitor.

It sounds like an easy mistake to avoid, but you will have to do a fair amount of planning and possibly have to gamble on putting an ad in a book before you actually know for you will be building at that location.

For example, if you plan to build a self-storage facility this summer, you would have had to put your advertisement in the Yellow Pages by the end of November 1999 (each city has different cut-off dates). The book comes out in April 2000. If you missed that cut-off date, your project that is completed on Sept.1 will not be in the Yellow Pages until April of 2001; thus, the project will be slow in renting up. If you are building in a poorly visible location, you might not rent at all. This is the most critical thing you can do to ensure the facility will get off on the right foot.

Avoiding Management Headaches

As an owner of a self-storage facility, I have come to find out that a number of my management problems were built into my project. If I want to minimize my management headaches (everyone's dream), I need to design them out in the first place. The site-planning process is critical to avoid possible mistakes in the development of your project.

The first aspect of the site plan to examine is the layout of the office and gate system. I suggest you use only one gate to get in and out of the project. This provides security for both you and the customer because it forces the customer to drive past your office to enter and exit. The gate should be located so a customer can get into the office without going through the gate. This is a very customer-friendly feature that ensures the customer is not intimidated by the office (note photo 1). The gate should also be no larger than 20 feet wide because it should open and close as quickly as possible to avoid cars tailgating each other.

The second aspect of the site plan to consider is the layout of the buildings. If you are building in snow country, you want to construct the buildings running north and south. This ensures that the snow and ice are melted during the day. If the buildings are running east and west, the north side of the buildings will have ice and snow build-up because the sun never shines directly on that side. If the layout of your facility has to be east and west, than make sure to purchase lean-to buildings with the water draining to the south side.

Improper water drainage is the classic construction problem found at self- storage sites. Typically, sites do not have enough pitch in the asphalt to properly drain the water. If water does puddle, this will damage your pavement and, in snow country, you have just made yourself a skating rink. Typically, you want to have the center of the driveway 1 foot below the finished concrete to make sure the pitch is adequate. The water should at least have a one percent to 2 percent slope down the length of the building to avoid any ponding. If you are using catch basins, these also should be installed 1 foot below the finished floor height of the foundation. A large number of projects out there have the catch basins too high.

To minimize any damage to the buildings, a 6- to 8-inch bollard should be installed on all four corners of each building. The bollard should be 4 feet below grade, and 4 feet above ground and filled with concrete. The bollard should be place 12 to 16 inches from the corner of the building. It will protect the building corners from damage by cars and trucks that cut the turning radius too tight around the buildings. It will be cheaper to install all four of the bollards than it will be to fix one corner of the building.

I have just mentioned a few of the classic mistakes I continuously see in the field. Take the time to study out the possible self-storage problems by talking to existing self-storage owners, or look at their sites to see if you see any errors you want to avoid. Every time a developer designs a new project he tries to learn from past mistakes and improve the function of his project. Of course, each new project is a little different from the last, and you can run into new problems you didn't think of originally. Every project has some mistakes that were built-in--you just hope they are small enough so you can live with them.

Jamie Lindau is the sales manager of Trachte Building Systems, a Sun Prairie, Wis.-based manufacturer of one-, two- and three-story self-storage building systems as well as doors, partitions and corridor systems. For more information, call 800.356.5824.

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