Choosing the Right Site for a Self-Storage New Build, Conversion or Mixed-Use Project

Deciding on a site for a new self-storage project is one of the most important decisions an owner will make during the development process. Here are some important design and construction considerations for new builds, conversions and mixed-use projects.

Steve Hajewski

August 4, 2014

8 Min Read
Choosing the Right Site for a Self-Storage New Build, Conversion or Mixed-Use Project

If you’ve researched supply and demand and know a certain community has a need for an additional self-storage facility, the next challenge is to pick a location. Deciding on a site for a new storage project is one of the most important decisions you’ll make during the development process.

Many developers focus on one location, and that in itself can be a mistake. If a deal falls apart, they’re back to square one. Instead, looking at multiple sites or even several communities will not only help you move ahead with the best possible project, it can give you a “plan B.”

Whether you’re considering a new build, a self-storage conversion or a mixed-use project, here are some important considerations to keep in mind when choosing potential sites.

New Build

Here are some things to consider if you’re seeking a site for new construction. In addition to the major factors, you need to understand what other limitations or expenses are associated with the land, such as storm-water management, easements, site prep and soil quality, and others.

Regency Safe Storage in Roy, Utah, was built with a three-story tower to address poor visibility of the actual units on the property. The tower features false doors behind the windows.Visibility. Ideally, the self-storage doors should be highly visible. Your greatest source of business is usually drive-by traffic. In some areas, you can use height to overcome poor visibility. A corner tower that features signage or displays doors through large windows—normally false ones for show—can serve as a beacon to draw clients to your business.

Accessibility. A site with good visibility is not always readily accessible. Poor accessibility is a problem if there are competing sites with good access (and vacancy), but don’t rule this site out.

Proximity to population. The closer the site is to a populated area, the better. A facility close to a dense population can do very well even with poor physical visibility or access, as long as it has good visibility on the Internet. In established areas, you can safely pick this type of location if you’re closer to the population than other competitors and there’s no other land that’s more visible.

Trindle Self Storage in Carlisle, Pa., takes advantage of the site’s elevation change with a two-story structure built into the side of a hill. The facility also includes a UPS Store.Topography. A flat, level site is the easiest on which to build, however, don’t overlook sites with elevation changes that could facilitate the construction of a two-story structure built into the side of a hill. When both levels of the building can be entered at grade level, you double your rentable square footage and increase your ratio of rentable space to pavement.

Parcel shape. A rectangular parcel is ideal, but one of the great things about self-storage is you can adapt to odd-sized parcels that might not be useful for other purposes. The ideal location allows for buildings running north to south to facilitate ice melting, as the sun hits both sides of each building over the course of the day. For greater security, a layout where you can see between the buildings from the main road is preferable.

Cost. All things being equal, cheaper land is obviously better. But what’s more important is to weigh the land cost against the rental rates. When developing a facility on a more expensive parcel, it makes more sense to consider multi-story and temperature-controlled storage to maximize land coverage. When looking at land cost, also consider the cost of site preparation.

Size. Too big and you’ll be carrying a loan for land that isn’t producing income. Too small and you won’t have room to grow. The “right” size varies depending on your local demand and how quickly you need to break even. In most cases, you’re looking for two to five acres of land. Expect that you’ll be able to convert about 30 percent to 35 percent of it to rentable space for a project with drive-up units. To reach the breakeven point quickly, phase the facility rather than build it all at once.

Storm-water management. If you haven’t developed in a while or are new to the process, this topic is important to understand. Storm-water and runoff regulations have become significantly stricter in recent years, and municipalities are requiring more and larger retention ponds than in the past. Even if a seller tells you the land is served by an existing pond, check with your city engineer to be sure it’s sized properly to handle your proposed development.
The cost to simply engineer the pond can be significant, and it’s an upfront cost that you’ll likely incur before you have financing in place. A pond can also eat into the developable area, so you need to know what size you need when working up site plans.

Easements. Check with the office that manages land records for your county or city, and understand all setbacks and easements. Utilities, highway setbacks, intersection sightlines and access easements can quickly reduce the actual buildable area.

Site prep and soil quality. When evaluating sites, estimate the cost involved with preparing for pavement and buildings. How much will it cost to remove topsoil? How much fill will you need to bring in? Does the site have any poor-quality fill that impacts your project? The cost to prep a site can quickly add up, so one that doesn’t need as much work is a big plus, even if it costs more to purchase. Extensive site prep can also add time to the development process and delay your opening date.

Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) districts. Is the land part of a TIF district? If so, the seller may require that you agree to a development schedule or minimum property-tax agreement.

Conversion Projects

Your best location might not be vacant land. Scour your target area for large, empty warehouses and you just might find a building ripe for a self-storage conversion. These projects offer a number of benefits. First, a conversion might be the only option for placing a project in an established area. In addition, a conversion is often faster to bring to market, since it’s a renovation project rather than new construction. You’ll also avoid the cost of grading, paving and bringing in utilities. In most cases, the buildings are already temperature-controlled, or they easily can be through the replacement of old equipment.

Cedarburg Storage Co. in Cedarburg, Wis.***

Cedarburg Storage Co. in Cedarburg, Wis.***
Cedarburg Storage Co. in Cedarburg, Wis., is a great example of a conversion as well as a mixed-use property. In addition to offering large units and interior vehicle storage, the site is home to the owner’s snow and landscaping firm and an Internet-based business.

The challenge is to effectively convey the building’s new purpose as self-storage. The same location factors noted earlier also apply to conversion projects; however, as you consider properties, look for areas where you can install a bank of doors visible through large windows. If the city allows it, false doors can be installed across a section of the exterior.

Here are some additional factors to consider when purchasing a building for conversion:

  • Is there a good location to set up an indoor loading/unloading area? Most new facilities of this type will have indoor loading or, at minimum, a well-sheltered area. Loading docks of existing buildings can be converted by filling in the sunken dock.

  • If it’s a multi-story structure, does it have a good elevator? These are expensive but necessary.

  • Does the building have adequate fire protection? Find out what the sprinkler and firewall requirements are before buying. Adding either will greatly affect the construction budget.

  • Does the property offer additional land where traditional units could be built? If converting a former retail location, the parking lot is probably large enough to hold a new building as well.

Mixed-Use Projects

One of the great things about self-storage is it can complement many other businesses. It can be developed in combination with carwashes, apartments, restaurants, construction firms, car-repair businesses and more. Including an additional business may also increase city council or planning commission acceptance of the project.

In most cases, mixed-use projects are treated as separate buildings on the same or adjoining parcels, but they can also be built as a single building that houses multiple businesses. Typically, one business exists first, and then a second is added to provide greater revenue and take advantage of existing support and infrastructure.

Every mixed-use project is different. For the more complex ones, an architect or local general contractor can be a valuable resource for the office and portions of the construction other than the self-storage structures.

Whether you pursue a new build, conversion or part of a mixed-use development, it’s important to remember the fundamentals. Go into the process armed with accurate data on supply and demand in your market as well as realistic rent projections, and you should do well.

Steve Hajewski is the 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’s also a frequent contributor on Self-Storage Talk, the industry's largest online community. For more information, call 800.356.5824; visit

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