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Self-storage is meant for storing stuff, not people; yet some renters will spend hours hanging out at the facility or even try to live in the space. This unsafe behavior can lead to liability for your business, so you must shut it down. Here’s what to do.

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The intent of self-storage is for customers to rent space for the storage of personal or business property on a month-to-month basis. A rented unit is not meant to be used in any way for residential purposes. These structures are built to store property, not people.

However, as the issue of homelessness grows, many facility operators are finding tenants using their rented space as a temporary residence, which is a violation of the written terms of the rental agreement and state law. Similarly, they’re contending with renters who believe paying their monthly bill entitles them to remain on the premises for as long as they wish, thereby creating a loitering problem.

Again, self-storage is intended for storing property. There shouldn’t be a need for customers to be at the facility for indefinite periods of time, and there’s certainly no basis for a tenant to reside inside their unit. In fact, this can be dangerous, as self-storage facilities aren’t built for such use. For example, there have been instances of fires caused by people living in units.

Ultimately, if you a tenant is sleeping in one of your units and do nothing about it, you could be held liable for any injuries to persons or property resulting from this conduct. As such, it’s important to prohibit this behavior in the rental agreement and strictly enforce those terms with noncompliant tenants. Standard language might address these two issues as:

  • There shall be NO HABITABLE OCCUPANCY of the space by humans or pets of any kind for any period whatsoever, and violation of these prohibitions shall be grounds for immediate termination of this agreement.

  • Occupant shall not loiter at the facility, spend excessive or unnecessary time in or around the space, or interfere with the use of the facility by other occupants. Any access to the facility outside of access hours is considered trespassing.

Take Action

So, what should you do if you encounter tenants who overstay their welcome or are discovered sleeping in their spaces? The first action is to notify the customer of their violation of the terms of the rental agreement. This can be done verbally but should also be accompanied by a written warning. If they violate a second time, you reserve the right to refuse renewal of the tenant’s lease for an additional month.

If you elect not to renew the lease, a written notice must be sent to the customer’s last known address by mail and email (certain states still require Certified Mail) and should be posted on the tenant’s unit door. The customer should be provided advance notice of this nonrenewal—effectively a lease termination—and a clear deadline to vacate the space in accordance with the notice period provided for in the lease, often up to 30 days.

If the tenant doesn’t vacate at the end of their current lease term after a notice of non-renewal and vacate, they become a tenant in holdover. This will require you to file an eviction action in your local court. You can’t use the lien foreclosure process, as it’s reserved for nonpayment of rent. At this stage, it’s critical to not accept rent from the customer for the next monthly term or the nonrenewal notice may be deemed null and void.

Even after a warning or termination notice has been given, these tenants often continue their loitering or habitation behavior. In that case, what action can be reasonably taken to control their access until the deadline to vacate arrives? This interim period can be tricky since the tenant is still paying rent and storing property. Still, their unacceptable behavior can create life-safety concerns that can’t be tolerated. You have an overarching obligation to maintain a safe environment. Moreover, you aren’t only entitled to protect your site, including the buildings and structures, you must seek to protect other tenants and their stored goods.

If the offending tenant continues to violate the use provisions of the rental agreement, you can impose control over their facility access, denying gate entry or even unit entry without an advance appointment. This way they aren’t barred from accessing their property but are limited from unfettered admittance. You can even accompany the tenant while on the premises to ensure no additional damage is done to the unit or property. This can be addressed in the rental agreement with a simple provision:

If owner terminates this agreement, owner has the right to deny vehicle-access entry to the facility during the termination period and control occupant’s access on the facility, including but not limited to, requiring occupant to be escorted by owner’s agents or employees while at the facility.

There’s no “conversion” of the tenant’s property because they still can retrieve it, but the customer isn’t entitled to freely come and go like a non-breaching tenant. This right to “control” access is consistent with the right any operator has to control their facility for its protection and that of other tenants. It’s comparable to the way you might close the site and deny access during a strong winter storm or following a hurricane or fire. Again, you have certain overarching obligations that require you to prevent damage to the facility and the property of other tenants.

The key to handling self-storage renters who use a unit or facility for non-storage purposes is proper language in the rental agreement. Address these issues with swift, consistent enforcement of your lease provisions when any renter fails to comply.

Ashley Oblinger and Scott I. Zucker are attorneys with the Atlanta law firm of Weissmann Zucker Euster Morochnik & Garber, P.C., where they specialize in business and self-storage law, advising operators nationwide on all legal matters, including lease preparation, lien enforcement, tenant issues, tenant-claims defense, and employment policies. To reach them, call 404.364.4626, or email [email protected] or [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Ashley Oblinger

Attorney, Weissmann Zucker Euster Morochnik & Garber, P.C.

Ashley Oblinger is an attorney in the Atlanta law firm of Weissmann Zucker Euster Morochnik & Garber, P.C., where she specializes in business and self-storage law, advising operators nationwide on all legal matters, including lease preparation, lien enforcement, tenant issues, tenant-claims defense, and employment policies. To reach her, call 404.760.7434; e-mail [email protected].

Scott Zucker

Partner, Weissmann Zucker Euster Morochnik & Garber P.C.

Zucker is a partner in the law firm Weissmann Zucker Euster Morochnik & Garber P.C. in Atlanta, which specializes in business litigation with an emphasis on real estate, landlord-tenant and construction law. He’s a frequent speaker at self-storage industry events, author of “Legal Topics in Self Storage: A Sourcebook for Owners and Managers,” and a partner in the Self Storage Legal Network, a subscription-based legal service for storage owners and managers. For more information, e-mail [email protected]; visit www.wzlegal.com.

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