After a short pause due to the coronavirus, self-storage development is back on track. If your market hasn’t already seen an influx of newly built facilities, it could be on the horizon. That means more competition for customers, who tend to gravitate toward what’s new, even if all other offerings are equal. Are you confident your property will be chosen over a freshly opened site?
Depending on the age and condition of your storage facility, it may be time for an upgrade. Faded or broken unit doors, chipped paint, aging roofs, deteriorating pavement, and outdated security send the wrong message to prospects and existing tenants. Even the best customer service and marketing can’t overcome these detriments.
“Facilities of all ages can be renovated and updated to provide customers a positive impression when they enter your facility. A fresh-looking facility can be a key factor in how you stand out to customers and having an edge on your competitors,” says Rod Lockard, vice president of business development for Storage Construction, a construction-management company operating in the mid-Atlantic and New England markets.
While improvements can greatly improve aesthetics, they can also create a safer, more efficient operation. But to make a smart investment, you must first evaluate your facility’s needs. Then, determine which renovations will provide the best return and enhance the customer experience.
Evaluating Your Site
Before making a project list, you need to assess your site. You want to pursue upgrades that are cost-effective and will make a positive impact. Ask yourself: Will these changes make a difference in how the property is perceived? Will they improve safety for staff and customers? Will they allow you to charge higher rental rates?
“Don’t waste time on renovations that might not be meaningful to your operations or your customers. Study your market, your competition and, most importantly, your customers,” Lockard says. “Learn what’s most important and follow those findings to make the most out of your upgrade investment.”
It was easy for Todd Snook of Valley Storage Co., which operates 30 facilities, to determine what upgrades were needed for his Akron, Ohio, location. “It was an older facility and just started to have that run-down look,” he says of the eight-building site. “The buildings are masonry and had good bones, so we were able to salvage all of the walls and just replace the roof systems and roll-up doors.”
Of course, the look of the property is important, but you must consider safety. For instance, if your roll-up doors are running off the tracks or difficult to open and close, they could pose a risk, says Troy Bix, president of the R3 Division for Janus International, a supplier of self-storage doors, hallways and technology. “Old doors that are hard to operate are dangerous doors, plain and simple,” he says.
One of the best ways to determine what your facility is lacking is to survey your competition, particularly newer sites in the market. “Study how your competitors stack up in terms of curb appeal. If you have the oldest facility in your market, chances are you could use a renovation to brighten up your facility and give it a fresh new look to become more inviting to customers,” says Matt DePrato, vice president of affiliate services for Automated Security Corp., which provides commercial-security products and services.
Finally, get an outside opinion. Invite input from family and friends, ask your tenants, or hire a consultant. “Ask another manager to walk your property for suggestions on improvements that can be made. Yes, it can be hard to take criticism, but it’s good to see your facility from another’s viewpoint and with a fresh pair of eyes,” says Anna Smith, facility manager for Tower Self Storage in Monroe, La., which underwent a major renovation last year. “When you see the same thing day in and day out, you’ll start to overlook things. Some of the changes we made came from ideas gathered while looking at other storage businesses.”
Upgrades to Consider
While options can be limitless, many self-storage operators find the most value in upgrades that improve the user experience. “Tenant selection of a storage facility is influenced by the overall tenant experience,” says Tarik Williams, vice president of TLW Construction Inc., a general contractor specializing in self-storage. “If by improved access, aesthetics and technology a renovated facility is on par with or exceeding its competitors, lease-up acceleration and lease rates should improve.”
Doors. One project that makes an immediate difference is unit-door replacement. Many older facilities can really benefit from this upgrade, according to Lockard. Doors should be replaced every 20 years, or 15 if they aren’t high-quality, Bix adds. “When you start to notice chalking on the face of the door, which is a white oxidation that occurs as the door ages, the color of the door fading, or the doors are no longer functioning as they should, then it’s time to replace them.”
Roofs. A worn or damaged roof can allow leaks and, therefore, operator liability. “Good roofs are important, and many old sites have screw-down roofs. These can be replaced with new standing-seam roofs in Galvalume or brand colors,” says Lockard, noting that new roofs should be retrofitted over existing materials to minimize disturbance to tenants and their stored belongings. “An approximate budget for roof replacement, trim and gutters is $6 a square foot.”
Lighting. These days, there’s an abundance of lighting options on the market. Many will help you save money, provide better illumination, and improve security and safety. Also, retrofits can be easy to install.
Asphalt. Inspect your parking area. If you have potholes or cracks, consider resurfacing. Asphalt patches are much like a band-aid—they fix the problem now, but not over the long term. Making the same repairs over and over can be pointless and expensive. Another option is a sealcoat, which shields the surface from weather and reduces wear. The same consideration should be given to your driveways. Finally, add fresh striping to the parking spaces.
Building exteriors. Consider the condition of the paint but also the structures themselves. You may find a crumbling corner that was struck by a vehicle or damage from a recent snowstorm. Address any issues immediately to prevent further erosion. Take a good look at your bollards, too. Damaged and scratched bollards should be repaired and painted. Replace the plastic sleeves as necessary.
Management office. Replace worn carpet or chipped tile. Evaluate window treatments, countertops, signage and banners, and even seating. Are your security monitors outdated? Also, take a good look at your retail center. Do you need new displays and signage?
Security equipment. Even a great-looking facility can be vulnerable to crime. “Customers place a lot of value in the security of the facility that’s protecting their belongings,” DePrato says. “Renovations to your access-control system and camera system are just as important as renovations to your building components.”
Cost, Time and Quality
How much it’ll cost to improve your self-storage facility largely depends on the project. “The best way to get a true estimate is to have a company that specializes in these renovations come out and evaluate your site,” Bix says. Start by creating a maximum budget and then prioritizing the various scopes of work. Once everything is priced, you can see what should be done now and what will need to wait.
Just don’t let cost be the only deciding factor. When it comes to choosing suppliers and products, think long-term. “Don’t just seek out the lowest price and risk renovating your facility into worse shape than it originally was. Shop the price and quality of your proposed renovations,” Lockard advises.
Like cost, your timeline will vary by project. While crews can replace up to 25 doors in a day, the process can last weeks if not months when working with occupied units. A roof replacement can be time-consuming and take weeks for an average-size facility, according to Lockard.
Consider how the coronavirus pandemic might impact your efforts. The construction industry, like many businesses, is facing labor shortages. There have been disruptions to the permitting process as well as the supply chain. Any of these factors could delay a project. “Certainly, COVID-19 is changing how we work. Meeting the proper protocols on site definitely has slowed down the process,” says Lockard.
Working With Vendors
Whatever renovations you pursue, be involved. Ask questions about the products and plans. “Whether you have a general contractor or you’re hiring subcontractors, do not hesitate to ask for specifics. Then have those specifics written out in the contract,” Smith says. “It’s important for your expectations to be on the same page as what they are planning.”
And don’t be afraid to speak up if you disagree with any part of the project. “You know your facility better than anyone. If a contractor recommends something that you feel will not work, take your stand,” says Smith, adding that there are great benefits to hiring professionals who are familiar with self-storage. “These buildings are not like homes or even regular businesses. You need someone who can understand our unique needs.”
Working With Tenants
Unless your facility has zero occupancy, you’ll need to ensure your renovations don’t negatively impact your customers. Communicating with them about what’s happening and when is critical. They need this information well in advance, so they can be prepared. “Post signage around your facility to advertise your schedule and how customers might be affected,” DePrato says. “Facility management should also provide the plan from the contractor to all tenants.”
Take precautions to keep customers and staff physically safe and to protect yourself from liability. This could mean limiting access to some areas of the property or even relocating tenants to units that won’t be affected by the project. If you plan to replace unit doors, video record the entire process, so you have a record of how the customer’s unit was handled during the work, DePrato says.
If you suspect your self-storage property needs a renovation to remain competitive, don’t delay. Review your site to determine where upgrades can be made to improve customer appeal, operational efficiency and general safety. Don’t wait for your components to deteriorate and become a liability.
“Customers want a clean, updated and safe facility to store their valuables, and research shows they’re willing to pay more for it,” Bix says. “If your competitors take better care of their property or have more modern conveniences, they’ll choose them over you.”