By RK Kliebenstein
Some people are fortunate enough to have the Midas touch when it comes to selecting self-storage sites. The rest of us, however, need concrete guidelines and a lot of luck. What would constitute the ideal storage site? One that is:
- Properly zoned for self-storage use
- On a corner of “Main and Main”
The site would also have:
- A willing, cooperative seller
- 10 acres of land
- Ingress and egress at both ends of the property
- Higher than average incomes
- Better than average density
- Minimal competition, or competition that is full, high-priced, first-generation or otherwise inferior.
The Scientific Approach
In the case of most development, the site will fall short of the mark in one or several of these categories. There are several search tools available to developers who are willing to make a greater than average investment in locating good sites. Keep in mind, however, that even the most sophisticated tools do very little if you do not have proper staff, experienced in self-storage, to operate them.
Demographic Applications and Services. There are demographic software programs that allow you to create layers and filters to search areas according to specific parameters. These criteria might include population density, income, land availability, traffic count, zoning, cost and size. To my knowledge, no single application catalogues all of these factors. One could be created, but it would be time-consuming and require data from a number of dissimilar sources.
There are a number of demographics services that can assist you in gathering data. The best are available online and integrate with mapping applications. Do not bother with those that are driven by ring studies. Markets are rarely circular (i.e., contained in a perfect radius). If there are any, I have yet to see them. There are a few sophisticated, GPS-driven mapping applications that allow easy data importing. The best two are MapPoint by Microsoft and Street Atlas USA by DeLorme.
Just a step down from the GIS interface is standalone chartography, which requires a dynamic link to demographic data. Adding zoning layers and parcel data will be labor-intensive but can be done. The better of these applications will permit you to import data, such as that collected from competitors in an area, from Access or Excel databases.
Computer Hardware. It would be very difficult to use any of these tools if they were only available through your desktop computer. The best solution is to create and gather the data on a desktop machine and network it via wireless connection to a laptop computer for field use.
The laptop should not just have wireless access but allow you to use the Internet even when you’re not in a “hot spot” (like at Starbucks). I suggest a CMDA or similar wireless card. Your desktop and laptop machines must have at least 1 gigabyte of RAM (memory), 100 gigabytes of hard-drive space and fast processors. From there, you can weigh your options for size, weight and screen size. The desktop computer should have at least one 24-inch LCD or plasma display. If budget allows, have more than one. Wireless keyboards and mice are a given.
Digital Camera. This will help you compare features of various sites once you’re back in the office. Again, you can debate the issue of physical size and added functions, but you need at least a 3.0 mega-pixel resolution and 1 gigabyte of storage. I personally opt for the Casio Slim Series, which offers form and function in a very small package. Transferring images from your camera to your computer is any easy challenge to address. The new cardto- CD direct transfer looks really inviting.
Transportation. This choice is governed by whether you have your own transportation or are traveling to markets where you must rent. A conversion van is my first choice. It gives you room to set up an onboard office and allows for easy placement of LCD monitors. The generators can provide continuous power. Give me an endless budget, and I would have that previously mentioned desktop computer networked into the van! If this dream machine isn’t practical, a good compromise would be a comfortable vehicle with an inverter and plenty of 12-volt power.
Seat of the Pants
Even if you equip yourself with a techno-office and ride, there is still an important component missing. It doesn’t even require electricity. It is the “H” factor, the most fallible of all: the human being. You can invest thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars and still not be at the top of the game if you do not have experienced eyes and ears to collect, interpret and analyze your data.
There is something that just feels good about the right site; and an experienced professional will be able to create a self-storage success even on a less-than-perfect location. Instinct will tell him traffic patterns, site con- figuration, visibility, access, and site size and price are optimal. In the end, there is no technological substitute for the self-storage development and ownership experience.
Let’s take a look at the “perfect” site selector. We’ll call this person “Sam.”
- Sam is 40 to 45 years old, mature enough to have been around the block, but young enough to have the energy to work in the field all day, and then head back to the office for desk time.
- Sam is physically fit, with 20/20 vision and excellent hearing. He/she is one of those blessed individuals with a built-in compass, the type who always knows which way is North, even in the dark and the rain.
- Sam has a doctorate in business administration and a master’s in economics. It doesn’t hurt that he/she also has a degree in chartography and accounting. For amusement, Sam teaches a Dale Carnegie course.
- The former mayor and chairperson of the city planning and zoning board, Sam comes from a politically connected family. Dad is the current chair of the zoning board; Mom is the head of permitting; and Tina, the sister, is the head loan officer at the largest bank in town. Let’s not forget Tom, Sam’s favorite uncle, who is in charge of personal investments for Bill Gates. He has held this position since he retired four years ago as Warren Buffet’s personal financial advisor.
- Sam has developed at least five very successful self-storage properties, three of which he/she still personally owns and manages. Two were sold to a major self-storage company backed by an institutional investor, one of Sam’s former employees.
Do you get the picture? Site selection is easy if you are incredibly wealthy, politically connected or superhuman. For the rest of us, it requires sound research, reliable data, experienced assistance and all the right tools.
RK Kliebenstein is president of CEO of Coast-to-Coast Storage, a self-storage consulting firm that specializes in site selection and feasibility studies. For more information, call 877.622.5508, ext. 81; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; visit www.askrk.com.