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Onsite or Online: Which Lien-Sale Option Is Best for Your Self-Storage Business?

Lien sales are an inevitable part of running a self-storage facility, but should you hold your auctions onsite or online? Compare the two options to determine which is best for your business.

No self-storage operator likes to lose money, but sadly, all it takes is just one delinquent tenant. If a customer refuses pay, you’re often left with one option to recoup your loss and reclaim your space: hold a lien sale. After you’ve followed all state protocols for contacting the customer and publicly announcing your intention to sell his goods, you need to host an auction. The question is, what’s the best way to go about it?

For years, operators have been debating the merits of live vs. online auctions. There’s a lot to consider, and the conversation has only become more complex in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Let’s compare the two options to help you determine which is the better fit for your business.

Live Auctions

Live auctions are the traditional way to hold a lien sale. To host one, you need an auctioneer or a facility employee to oversee the sale of past-due units to a group of bidders. These bidders view unit contents in person to get a sense of what’s in the space, though with restrictions. For example, they can shine a flashlight into the unit but may not enter the space, or touch or move any of the unit contents. There’s a certain level of fun and excitement, as bidders get to see their competitors face to face.

Like many events, a live auction requires marketing and logistical planning. You have to pick a date and get the word out, knowing it could be disrupted by unpredictable weather. You need ample parking and possibly security, depending on the crowd size. In a time of COVID-19, you have to ensure people are social distancing. You also need rules and regulations for bidders to follow. And, you need to ensure the event doesn’t impede the ability of existing tenants to access their units.

Live auctions can last a few hours or an entire day, depending on the number of units and locations covered. It generally makes sense to wait until you have a bunch of units to sell, so you can maximize the cost and effort involved in planning an event. Live auctions can be productive, but they can also be a lot of work. It really depends on how well you prepare and the support you have available.

Online Auctions

Online auctions are held on a variety of platforms that function similarly to eBay. They rely on the power of the Web to attract a large bidder base. Individual units can easily exceed 300 viewers. I’ve seen some units with clearly visible, desirable contents reach more than 1,000 viewers! The beauty of doing lien sales online is they can attract shoppers from a larger market, often up to 120 miles. So long as the winning bidder is willing to come pick up the goods within your designated timeframe, he can really come from anywhere.

With an online auction, you don’t need to worry about crowds, the mess they can bring (i.e., coffee cups and cigarette butts), or related security and health risks. You don’t need to concern yourself about social distancing or disruption to staff or existing tenants. With an online platform, auction marketing is typically included with the service; and data shows that online sales tend to get higher bids, too.

There are a lot of benefits to hosting auctions online, though like a live event, they do require some preparation. For example, consider your end time and date; you don’t want your auction to end in the middle of the night when people are generally sleeping. You also need to make sure you have good, high-quality photos so people can see the unit contents and are enticed to bid. Mostly, the most common drawback is self-storage operators’ reluctance to try something new.

Which Is Best?

Ultimately, choosing between live and online auctions depends on your business goals. Some self-storage operators find it more important to empty a delinquent space as quickly as possible and rent it to a paying tenant. Other operators like to wait until they have a stack of past-due units so they can host a robust event that generates a lot of interest. Market size may also play a role. If you’re in a small market and need to reach more bidders, pursuing an online sale may be the wiser choice.

Weigh the pros and cons. Every storage operation is unique and has distinct needs. From a legal standpoint, be confident that both methods follow the same legal processes and are reliable, viable options.

Getting Support

Whether you choose live or online, you’ll need someone to run your auction. For a live sale, you’ll hire an auctioneer or train someone on your team in auction hosting. There can be advantages to hiring a professional, but keep three things in mind:

  • Cost: Auctioneers may charge a 25 percent to 35 percent commission, with some form of minimum in place. This could include a percentage of each sold unit, a set amount or both. Do the math to ensure the cost won’t negatively impact your earnings too much.
  • Scheduling: Schedule your auctioneer as early as possible to ensure he’s available to work on your preferred day and time.
  • Attendance: Auctioneers almost always bring a base of followers, which can certainly benefit your sale. They’ll also handle marketing. Just be aware that some auctioneers host sales in a “caravan.” If your sale is later in the day, some of his followers may drop as the day wears on. It’s best if you can host your sale before other facilities.

When choosing an online platform, investigate is the website’s local presence. Assume the role of an online bidder, google “storage auctions near me” and see if the website you’re considering appears in the search results. If it does, how high in the search rankings is it?

It’s also wise to examine each platform’s pricing. Most auction websites offer a 90/10 split on winnings, though there’s usually a cancellation fee if an auction listing needs to be ended early. For example, if the tenant pays the past-due rent and you have to pull the action, the platform might charge $20, which you can either pay yourself or pass on to the tenant.

For every self-storage operator, unit auctions are an inevitable part of the business. Choosing the lien-sale option that’s best for your needs is an integral part of maintaining a high-performing facility.

Lonnie Bickford has developed and owned five Appletree Storage facilities in Greater Baton Rouge, La., and is a board member of the Louisiana Self Storage Association, where he’s worked closely with the national Self Storage Association to make changes to the state’s lien law. He’s also the founder of, a provider of online self-storage auction services. For more information, phone 866.944.8530; email; visit


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