Self-Storage Site Planning: What You Need to Know

September 1, 2008

5 Min Read
Self-Storage Site Planning: What You Need to Know

Some significant changes in the development process have evolved adding complexity to the already challenging process. The emergence of city planning boards focused on architectural appeal has made it much harder and more expensive to find a site for construction. When combining the scarcity of land zoned correctly and affordable enough to build on, the search becomes a treasure hunt of sorts.

Municipalities historically have often outlined specific zoning requirements for self-storage development. Now they also typically add a clause that you need “conditional approval.” This allows the board to veto your project at any time for almost any reason, eliminating the builder’s argument of “Use by Right.”

The Money Game

City review boards have increased their expectations to the point where the self-storage project should be as aesthetically pleasing as approved strip malls or office complexes. The result of the tighter regulations is that industry newcomers are having an increasingly difficult time navigating the approval process, which can be extremely long and expensive.

The economic feasibility of self-storage development has also changed. In the past, a developer only had one question to consider when determining the feasibility of the project: “Can I fill the site?” The economics of the industry were rock solid. If the target area had enough demand, the developer knew the project would be a profitable venture.

Today, many issues should be considered before a developer can be confident the project will be successful. Land and construction costs have dramatically increased, while rental rates have only increased a fraction of the percentage of everything else. Now the question one must ask is: “Can I afford to pay $6 per square foot for land ($12 or more in some areas) and still make this project work?”

Site Plans

To answer this and any other scenario, look at the financial viability of the site. Site layout becomes critical; the question becomes, what is the net rentable square feet you can secure? In addition, you must calculate the estimated cost of construction, land cost, rental rates and management expenses. These numbers must be put into a spreadsheet to see where your project breakeven lies, and what your potential profit is. Analyzing the financial aspects of the site will lead you to restrictions on building your self-storage property.

Site layout and design are the first critical elements. For example, in an ideal situation the site would be designed with all drive-up access units since they are the easiest to rent. However, after considering the financial feasibility you may find to increase income flow you’ll need to expand the site’s square footage.

One way to accomplish this is to design very wide buildings to maximize the net-rentable square footage while minimizing driveway space. A project was built last year where the land was 210 feet wide and 600 feet long, and the owner built just one building that was 150 feet wide by 500 feet long for a total of 75,000 square feet. Thus, space was maximized, without the need for multi-story construction. The cost to develop was significantly less than a multi-level facility, so the breakeven analysis showed a significantly improved outlook.

The other option is building multi-story facilities to get the amount of units necessary to make the project feasible. Perhaps a developer finds a great site with awesome visibility at an affordable price, but its only 2.3 acres. Then what? These properties may only be profitable with a three- or four-story building.

When you build wide buildings or multi-story facilities, you’re forced to include numerous interior access units, which often need to be climate controlled to attract customers. When you look at the options of wide buildings or multi-story construction, be cautious to the feasibility of the site; a full-blown feasibility study is always recommended.

Leasing Up

Appearance, convenience and security are the critical factors in making sure you can rent all your units in today’s market. The planning departments may force you to build the site more aesthetically pleasing than you originally wanted, but this usually pays for itself over time. The curb appeal of your project is one of the keys to a successful site. The interior layout of the office has been upgraded to the same level as any hotel reception desk. I refer to the example of the hotel because I have seen the convenience level of self-storage facilities match one of a nice hotel.

The newest trend is for a customer to park under a canopy that leads to the office, protecting tenants during inclement weather. To take it one step further, the access to the building will have an automatic door opener. The customer doesn’t even have to open the doors as he moves his items into his unit. Automatic door openers are almost standard for elevator access in multi-story projects. This convenience factor helps offset the developer’s worries of renting the upper level units.

Security has always been an important issue, but with technology it has escalated. The office with only a controlled access gate and possibly door alarms has now been eclipsed by the new-style office, which is bigger and more professional looking. Typically, the new décor includes at least one large flat-screen TV that shows numerous pictures from surveillance cameras. The customer gets an impressive view of the entire site, all driveways and inside all corridor areas. The goal is to provide an excellent comfort level for your potential renter.

The new world of self-storage is just a microcosm of what we are seeing in all other commercial developments. Build your site not by yesterday’s standards, but based on how you will need to compete in the future.

Jamie Lindau is national sales manager for Trachte Building Systems in Sun Prairie, Wis. Lindau has criss-crossed the United States and Canada for 23 years helping people plan, develop, build and profit from self-storage. Drawing from his own experiences as a former self-storage owner, he has also led more than 200 Trachte seminars since 1988. For more information, call 800.356.5824; visit

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