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Factors to Consider When Exploring Self-Storage Conversion Opportunities

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By Kenneth Carrell

Everyone knows location is the most important criteria when planning a self-storage facility. In many urban and suburban areas, it’s difficult to find suitable sites on which to build a facility large enough to make financial success. The next best option, then, is to convert an existing building. Standing structures offer opportunities to move into established neighborhoods that don’t often have enough storage nearby.

Another benefit of reusing an existing building is lower construction costs. Since the exterior walls, floor and roof are already in place, you can save money. And although the initial cost will be more than the price of empty ground, it’s generally less expensive overall. Many conversion properties also offer the potential to expand by adding buildings to the site.

Here are some key considerations when searching for the right conversion opportunity.

Site Orientation

How is the building positioned on the site? Is it to one side, tucked into a corner or in the middle of the property? Site orientation determines how customers will access the building. Most don’t want to walk any farther than they have to.

According to the latest building code, travel distance to an emergency exit can be no more than 75 feet in non-sprinklered buildings and 100 feet if a building has sprinklers. Make these your maximum travel distances if you can. The number of access points to the interior of a building should be minimized but still provide customers the shortest distance to their unit. I once converted a building in Pasadena, Calif., that had three separate entrances, which allowed tenants maximum access to their units.

Room for Expansion

If the building is in the center of the site, you can sometimes place additional storage outside. This can provide drive-up access to units without having to cut walls. Most drive aisles tend to be about 30 feet wide. If the property you’re considering has room, adding to the exterior of the building makes sense. This will help maximize the square footage for the site. I once added 20-foot-deep units to the outside of a building in San Diego.

If a site is large enough, you can add buildings around the perimeter. Conversions generally have a lot of parking because it was necessary for previous uses. Self-storage doesn’t require much, so jurisdictions often allow for a parking reduction, leaving available land on which to erect new storage structures.

Perimeter buildings can be beneficial because they provide security for the site. A 12-foot wall is harder to scale than a 7-foot fence. This strategy also can enable you to move the manager’s office and facility entrance closer to the street for better visibility. It’s generally best to phase in additional buildings after the existing structure is converted and filling up at a nice pace.

Building Interiors

When examining a prospective building conversion, what’s the internal vertical clearance? Can you install a second floor? The typical floor-to-floor height for self-storage is 10 feet. Depending on how a building is framed, the perimeter might be as low as eight feet. While that’s not ideal, it’s workable; but the ability to add a second floor can often almost double the available square footage. One thing to keep in mind, though, is fire sprinklers, which need a certain clearance to be effective. Generally, try to maintain 18 inches of clearance for sprinklers to work.

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