By Amy Campbell
This week I came across a lengthy article in the “Sun Sentinel” about people living in self-storage units. This is not something new to those who work in the industry. Most operators have heard tales of tenants taking up residence in a unit or even experienced this site violation themselves.
Living in a self-storage unit is not just illegal, but can be seriously unsafe for the tenant camping out, other customers and the facility’s staff. Operators who look the other way—even out of kindness—are setting themselves up for serious problems and even liability.
To be fair, most operators, including some of the ones quoted in the “Sun Sentinel” article, are likely unaware of the squatters. One of the renters said if “you’re like a ghost, you can maintain for quite a while.” The guy and his “drifter” friends claim they spend their nights at a Public Storage in Lake Worth. I’m betting that storage operator has put an end to that!
Another family featured in the article relayed how they avoided detection. Mom and Dad added the unit lock each night after their adult sons ducked into the unit just before the facility closed. How scary is that? What if there had been a fire, a medical emergency or someone panicked? And they claim they weren’t the only ones hiding out in the dark, sharing how many overnighters took turns washing up in the public restroom during the early morning before the facility opened.
It just proves there are some very clever people who’ve figured out ways to be “like a ghost” and take advantage of the lower-than-a-motel rental rate. Facilities vulnerable to these types include those that have limited office hours, but extended gate hours or 24-hours access. Big facilities can be more susceptible due to their sheer size. It’s easier to be a ghost among 1,000 units versus 400.
The reality is, however, it can happen at any facility. Case in point: Self-Storage Talk member A-team recently shared a “hotel self-storage” story. While doing a routine security check, the manager discovered the lights were on in a hallway. Further investigation revealed the tenant appeared to be sleeping in the unit, had been securing it from the inside, and even brought in a carpet, a queen-sized bed and a mirror. Others have chimed in on the thread with their own squatter stories and how they handled this rental-agreement violation, which has sparked some debate among SST members.
Fortunately, finding a tenant living in a unit is not a regular occurrence. Still, there are proactive steps operators can take to ensure tenants aren’t crashing permanently. The obvious is to be aware of what’s going on at your property. Do you see the same vehicle, person or group at the facility a lot? Does it look like they’re actually moving anything in or out of the unit, or are they simply “hanging out”?
Second, make yourself known. An operator who spends time making the rounds will be seen as a threat to anyone looking to do something wrong—whether it be spending the night, having an affair in the unit, storing something illegal or planning to steal. If your face is known and your eyes are always watching, with the help of a great security system, they’re less likely to think of your facility as an easy target for their misdeeds. Read this ISS article for some great security and safety tips. Also, make it easy for other tenants to report suspicious behavior.
Speaking of video surveillance. If the facility in which all of these people who regularly used the public bathroom every morning had a camera trained on it, they would have been found out quite easily. Cameras also act as great deterrents. If your cameras are few or outdated, it maybe time to upgrade. Check out this ISS article on how to build a superb video surveillance system.
Finally, make sure you have the “no living in a unit” clause boldly stated in your rental agreement, then point it out to new tenants during the rental signing. You might even want to consider putting a line next to this clause and request them to initial it. It might seem extreme but, again, you’re looking to deter this kind of behavior. It’s always better to prevent than to be forced to react after the fact.
Have you ever caught a tenant living in a unit? How did you handle it? Share your story by posting a comment below or on this SST thread.