Behind the Door: Stories, Solutions and Advice for the Oddities in the Self-Storage Industry

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By Hayden Harrison

There are times in the self-storage industry that can brighten a day or make someone want to scream, but there’s rarely a dull moment. “The nature of this business creates stories,” says Marcy Gerhart, owner of Second Attic in Bessemer, Ala. In fact, there are enough odd, amusing and interesting stories to fill a book, which is exactly what Gerhart did.

Our American Stuff, which Gerhart recently self-published, relays all the wacky stories she’s come across during her time at Second Attic. She describes the book as the “flip side of ‘Storage Wars’” because it’s what happens behind the units being auctioned. The book includes short tales on everything from renters running moving trucks into her buildings, finding expensive paintings, a “mad hatter-type,” and a wife who hid her husband’s workout equipment in storage and then failed to pay the rent because he cheated.

Memorable experiences, good or bad, turn into great stories to tell in hindsight; but how a self-storage operator reacts during an unusual situation has in important impact on the outcome. Knowing how to handle odd situations with aplomb can help eliminate a little of the shock, and help you find solutions more efficiently. 

Interesting Finds

Almost every self-storage owner or manager has had a strange or interesting find inside a tenant’s unit, either when a door was up, sounds came from it, or it went to auction. Handling situations like this can be difficult or expensive, especially if what’s inside is a wild animal.

Mel Holsinger, president of Tucson, Ariz.-based Professional Self Storage Management, shares that many years ago, one of his managers was walking around the property conducting a unit inventory when he heard a growl coming from a unit. The door wasn’t latched, so he started to open it when “low and behold, there was a pet tiger chained to the wall,” Holsinger says.

Frightened, the manager called the tenant to remove the tiger immediately or else the authorities would be called. “If it's something illegal, we call the authorities,” Holsinger says. “If it's something that’s just strange, we'll usually give the benefit of the doubt and call the tenant first.”

Unfortunately, when odd items are discovered, the tenants are sometimes long gone and no where to be found. After a relief manager failed to sufficiently qualify a customer at a facility managed by Universal Management Co., the man was allowed to rent a 10-by-20 unit, which he filled with onions. He then abandoned the unit and the onions rotted, costing thousands of dollars in cleanup, says company president Anne Ballard.

Another unit spoiler, Ballard says, is renters filling units with old tires and leaving them—a very expensive cleanup if the tenant stops paying. No one wants to buy old tires at an auction, and they can’t be thrown away at a dump, so there’s no way to get someone to take care of them without spending a lot of money. “It’s important to ask ‘What will you be storing?’ and make sure it is a qualified use,” Ballard says.

A Sense of Danger

Self-storage tenants will sometimes do things that will cause others to question their sanity. Whether they’re always batty or anger has made them compromise their common sense, it's important that a self-storage operator can handle these customers. Unfortunately, it's sometimes part of the job.

“If [something] tweaks anything in your consciousness and makes you wonder, then there is probably reason to suspect, and you should probably investigate it,” says Gina Six Kudo, general manager of Cochrane Road Self-Storage in Morgan Hill, Calif. Sometimes though, a manager may not sense that something is amiss, and the tenant's weirdness emerges later.

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