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Construction mistakes

The Dirty Half-Dozen: 6 Self-Storage Development Mistakes to Avoid

For a self-storage development project to unfold smoothly, careful planning is critical. Challenges will occur, but here are six common mistakes inexperienced developers make that you should do everything to avoid.

A good self-storage developer makes facility construction look easy. The various trades involved in a project flow in, one after another, contributing their skills to build what will be an attractive asset. The premise is basic, but the reality isn’t that simple. For a project to move along as smoothly as possible, a lot of planning and preparation goes into getting the details right. Challenges are a given, so it’s about minimizing costly miscues.

Here are six common mistakes commonly made by self-storage developers. You should do everything in your power to avoid them.

1. Failing to Consult With the Right Professionals at the Right Time

Before you can develop a plan, you need to identify a market with a need for storage, locate a buildable parcel, and find the buildable area on that property. Figuring out storage demand requires investment in market research and, in most cases, the services of a consultant to provide, at minimum, a demographic report or possibly a complete demand study. After a parcel has been found, you’ll need to hire a local civil engineer to determine the specific constraints of your land.

Many new developers skip this preparation and ask their building supplier where they should build and for plans to be drawn on land they don’t own and on which they’ve conducted no survey. They also sometimes ask for a building price without knowing what they plan to construct. This isn’t a good use of anyone’s time. Don’t worry about unit mix early in the process. Instead, ask your building company for a ballpark price per square foot and worry about the design later.

2. Failing to Buy the Right Land

Deciding where to build is quite possibly the most important decision you’ll make in this process. If you spend too much, you’ll have a hard time breaking even. If you spend too little, settling on a location with poor visibility, rental activity will suffer. Do your homework up front with a demand study to help guide the parcel size you should be seeking. Of the few owners I’ve seen struggle in this business, most either overbuilt during a first phase or built too far away from their target client base.

3. Making Assumptions

During the planning phase, some details tend to get overlooked. Did you assume you could build the project without sprinklers or firewalls? Did you assume a retention pond wasn’t necessary?

Contact the government bodies that will approve and inspect your project early in your planning process to determine the restrictions you’ll face. Get answers in writing. Fire and storm-water regulations have changed in recent years. In one example, a developer neglected to consult the local fire marshal and insisted the state requirement for firewalls between each unit didn’t apply to his project. A year after completion (and it’s fully rented now), the owner is facing consequences with the fire marshal he ignored.

4. Being ‘Old School’

Old-school motorcycles are cool; old-school self-storage facilities are not. Consumers respond well to high-tech features and security. Plan from the beginning to install wiring and electrical service to support gates, cameras and an automated kiosk. If you can’t afford the bells and whistles in your first phase, install conduits and devise a layout that’ll make it possible to add them later.

5. Setting Unrealistic Timelines

Within the first hour of the Inside Self-Storage World Expo in April, three different people asked me for a price on a three-story building they planned to build this summer. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but no three-story building that has yet to be designed is going up anywhere in three months. The process of buying land, planning a site, acquiring entitlements and building permits, preparing the site, pouring foundations, and erecting buildings can easily stretch into years.

The more complex the project, the more time it will take to design and receive approvals. The reality is during the development boom we’re experiencing, most projects will take a little longer to complete. Workers involved in construction—from the people issuing permits to those seeding the lawn—are in high demand.

6. Underestimating Mother Nature

When designing a facility, maximizing rental space is a high priority. Equally important is preparing for local weather conditions. If your site is in a snowy area, think about where plowed snow will be deposited as well as how your roof pitch and building orientation will impact snow accumulation. Snow slides off high-pitched roofs and can be a hassle to deal with unless snow blocks are installed.

It’s also important to ensure your unit doors are correctly wind-rated. If you’re buying your doors separately from your building, it’s critical they meet local codes or they could be the weak link when severe weather strikes.

With proper planning, your self-storage development should go relatively smoothly. Surround yourself with experienced professionals and listen to their experience. Go into the project willing to invest in your design stage, because this will ultimately result in the best possible outcome.

Keep in mind your timeline will be in flux, and weather is unpredictable. If you build a site and have regrets afterward, you’re in good company. “I wish I had built a nicer office” and “I wish I had more land” are two common refrains. However, with proper planning, you can minimize your qualms and establish a path for future expansion as the business prospers.

Steve Hajewski is marketing manager at Trachte Building Systems, which designs, manufactures and erects a full line of pre-engineered and customized steel self-storage systems, including single- and multi-story, portable storage, interior partition and corridor, and canopy boat/RV. He also owns a self-storage facility in Wisconsin and is a frequent contributor on Self-Storage Talk, the industry's largest online community. For more information, call 800.356.5824; visit www.trachte.com.

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