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The Eyes Have It

Some might argue security systems have changed more than anything else in the self-storage business. The evolution has been good for customers, the industrys image and insurance companies.

Brief History

Basic security features appeared on the scene fairly early. Open access to units and the flimsiness of low-quality locks soon drove many facilities to install fences and gates, and promote high-security locks to tenants.

Improvements in door latches and locks prevented many storage burglaries. Crime dwindled even more with the advent of hardened-case disc locks, high-security cylinder lock and latch systems. Further, outdoor lighting eliminated the cloak of darkness that criminals relish. These passive, simple solutions removed facilities from the list of easy targets for many thieves.

Big Bucks

These days, security focuses on high-tech developments such as alarm and surveillance systems, access control, tenant screening, and management software integrated with security devices. A good management software system, coupled with active and passive security features, indicates when tenants come and go, which units are entered with permitted access, and where forced entry occurs.

Savvy operators use security to their marketing advantage by increasing its visibility and promoting features to customers. Consumers value security and will often decide to store at the facility they perceive as safest.

As an insurance underwriter, Ive watched security steadily improve over the decades; however, I never fully understood the investment aspect until I spoke with Tom Litton of Litton Property Management Inc. According to Litton, a new facility may spend $100,000 to $150,000 for features such as access control, alarm systems and surveillance equipment. Self-storage owners likely invest more in security than a typical bank does, excluding vault costs.

Insurance Rates

If youve already made a substantial investment in security or are planning one for a new facility, Randy Tipton of Universal Insurance Facilities suggests informing your insurance agent. The insurance industry has responded favorably to the heightened security at facilities across the country. Properties with advanced security systems are far more desirable and attractive, and win favorable rate credits. Check with your agent for guidance.

Criminal activity has decreased over the years, but break-ins still occur and drug trafficking remains a risk. Effective security will always require vigilance. Advanced security features are great, but they cant take the place of a diligent managers watchful eyes.


Managers should conduct periodic reviews of gate logs for suspicious activity. Business tenants may need to visit storage units often, but homeowners rarely make numerous visits and their time onsite is usually short.

Criminals may stay longer and observe what is being stored in other units, all the while planning a future break-in. Long, recurrent visits following a move-in may indicate a tenant is conducting a business from his unit. Frequent late-night activity could be a sign of illegal goings-on.

Insurance claims show more homeless people are living in facilities, increasing the likelihood of fires from cooking or heating. Also, such occupancies are illegalanother liability.

If thieves arent caught, they will sometimes burglarize units over a period of days, weeks or months at one facility. Should a break-in occur, Litton suggests consulting gate logs and calling customers who were on premises the day of the burglary, alerting them and asking if they noticed suspicious activity. In doing so, you will likely shake the perpetrators confidence, possibly halting repeated crimes.

Unless you have individual unit-door alarms, the most effective method of noticing a break-in is through personal inspections. Thieves may avoid early detection by replacing broken locks with new ones. Some facilities use break-away colored stickers on locks, making it easy to spot replacements.

Daily walk-throughs help identify break-ins, lighting problems and other hazardous conditions. Observant managers may spot tenants unloading large drums of unknown substances, or notice strange odors associated with malicious activitysomething no security system can do. The mere presence of resident managers deters crime; potential thieves know a witness is waiting in the wings.

A Note on Guard Dogs

While there is little doubt guard dogs have intimidated criminals and prevented break-ins, their bites can be worse than their barks. The trade off for heightened security is they increase your liability exposure. Once again, a managers vigilance provides the greatest peace of mind when it comes to self-storage security. 

Scott Lancaster started his insurance career in 1976 as a licensed insurance agent and broker in California. He is now the regulatory compliance officer for Deans & Homer, where he was hired as a commercial lines property and casualty underwriter in 1985 and has worked in the self-storage division since 1993. Deans & Homer has provided insurance products designed to respond to the unique risks of the self-storage industry since 1974. For more information, call 800.847.9999; visit  

For more information about self-storage security, check out "Security: Choosing Tools, Protecting Your Investment," a 32-page e-book available through the Self-Storage Training Insititute. Click here for more info!


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