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The Legal Implications of 'FREE' in Self-Storage

Jeffrey Greenberger Comments

If you’ve been reading my column over the years, you probably know I’m creating a list of words that should be abolished from your self-storage vocabulary. This time, I’m adding the word “free.”

I see the word “free” often in relation to self-storage marketing. I’ve even written a critique about the self-storage offer of “free truck with move-in.” I’ve warned that, in the past, operators have had to buy toy trucks to hand out with move-ins to fulfill the obligation of literally giving away a “free truck with move-in.”

Further, I have cautioned you about making sure that the truck is really free, with no terms and conditions that cost money or change the deal. Some of you have told me that you do not take me as seriously as you should on this issue and maybe suffered consequences. Some realized the wording needed to be different, calling it a free use of truck.

Cell Phone Lawsuits and Lessons

Recently, multiple state attorneys general have joined together to file class-action lawsuits against all the major cell phone providers over the use of the word “free.” All cell phone providers have some variation on the following concept: “If you sign a two-year service agreement, you get the cell phone for free.”

That seems innocent enough; however, if you terminate your cell phone contract early, you have to pay an early termination fee. The explanation that the cell phone providers have given for years about the early termination fee is that it’s used to recoup the cost of the “free” phone. When you do not fulfill the entire service agreement, the cell companies have to recover that cost of the “free” phone. Guess what? It’s not free if the phone cost is built into the price of a contracted calling plan.

Turning again to the dictionary, as I am prone to do, there are multiple definitions of “free.” Here are two:

  • Provided without, or not subject to, a charge or payment (example: free parking or a free sample).
  • Given without consideration of a return or reward: a free offer of legal advice (perish the thought).

I have spared you the other 46 definitions, but I think you get the idea. When the cell phone companies say a phone is “free” but then say the cost is built into your monthly service charge, that phone is not, by definition, free.

Now let’s apply this lesson to self-storage. I have many operators who tell me that they work out a deal that if you will sign a 12-month lease, the “Xth” month is free. What happens if a tenant breaks the lease? Is the last month free, even if it’s not the 12th? If not, I could contend that the month is not free because it requires 11 months of paid rent.

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