By Marc Goodin
Common design and construction mistakes can cost a self-storage owner immediate extra expenses and possibly long-term financial losses or aggravation because they can’t be easily corrected. The best self-storage designs require input from several professionals including a building manufacture, architect, civil engineer, contractors and, most important, an industry consultant.
In fact, one of the reasons we see many of the same construction mistakes repeated time and again is because the property owner didn’t hire someone with industry experience to oversee the development. While the design group typically has enough experience to do a good job for its specific expertise, the coordination and self-storage particulars are often left to the novice owner.
Don’t fall prey to common blunders. Here are 25 design and construction mistakes to avoid when building your next self-storage project.
A big mistake many first-time developers make is poor communication, whether with planning and zoning boards or vendors involved with the project. Be informed and communicate openly with all parties to avoid these errors.
- Not including all details in your site plans: Omitting information about phases or even the location of signage may require additional approvals from the city planning board, which will delay your project. If you’re not sure how many phases there will be for completion, show more. You can always combine phases and build more than one at a time. Likewise, include your site signage in your plans.
- Driveway radius at the town road is too small: A minimum radius of 25 feet for cars and a preferred entrance radius of 45 feet for large moving vans should be provided.
- Not including contractor specifications: You need more than good site plans to ensure construction is done right and on budget. In addition to having a solid construction plan, it’s important to include specifications for bidding and construction.
Everything should be in writing, especially plan changes and associated fee changes. The contractor’s payment schedule should be included in each proposal. Any holdbacks should also be built in. All contracts should state, “The contractor shall review and accept any existing work related to his work prior to starting.” A 15 percent construction budget contingency is a must.
- Not realizing your development will likely take longer than you think: This often causes the biggest heartaches. Finding land, creating the site plan and building design, gaining municipal approvals and financing, and bidding and construction can all cause delays. If you work diligently but are prepared for these setbacks, you’ll enjoy the journey.
Site Selection and Design
From choosing the right site for development to deciding on the unit mix, this is where self-storage owners make the majority of mistakes.
- Choosing an out-of-the-way location: Certainly, veteran storage developers and novices have read why they should avoid this many times. However, we continue to see facilities that can’t lease up due to poor location. We often hear, “But I already own the land, so it’s free.” Don’t do it! Sell the land and buy on Main Street.
- Narrow drive aisles: The minimum aisle width required by most zoning and building regulations is 24 feet. Some owners can get away with tighter passageways, but it gets difficult to accommodate two-way traffic as well as safe parking and passing when the drive aisles are narrower. If you go tighter, it’ll be noticeable to your potential clients, and they’ll seek the competing facility that has wider aisles down the street.
- Not placing larger units on the facility perimeter: With 24-foot drive aisles between buildings, a car can just barley get into a unit. But along the outside edge of the facility, drivers have a couple of extra feet to maneuver. Bad drivers can use a couple of feet of grass, which is much better than hitting your building. You should also consider using 9-foot-wide doors for all 10-foot-wide spaces or at least for any units that will be dedicated to vehicle storage, notably the 10-by-20s.
- Access aisles for boat/RV-storage not large enough: A large RV or boat and trailer can be well over 45 feet long, requiring an equal length to pull out of its parking space. Wider or angled spaces can reduce the overall access aisles required.
- Storage units not visible from the road: You may have a lot of traffic on your road, but if potential customers can’t see the doors, it’s like being in the back woods with no traffic.
- Adding dead ends: I understand you can get more units by adding a dead end or two, but maybe you should consider a larger piece of land instead. Dead ends don’t make for prime, first-class self -storage. No one wants to do a K-turn to exit a facility.
- Choosing odd-sized buildings: They cost more and there’s often no reason for them. Since the raw building material comes in even, 10-foot lengths, 10-foot increments should be used for the building dimensions to minimize waste. I’ve also seen entire facilities with 10- and 20-foot-wide buildings, which doesn’t make sense because they can cost 30 percent more than the standard 30-foot-wide buildings.
- Not enough variety in unit sizes: Even if it’s clear you that need a high concentration of a certain unit size, it’s important to have a variety of sizes for faster lease-up and more profit. Just because the facility down the street is out of 10-by-20s doesn’t mean the majority of your units should be that size.
There are a lot of factors to consider when determining unit sizes. For example, college towns and areas with high apartment density typically need more small units. During phase 2, you can adjust the units to better meet local demand. Here’s an ideal 100-unit ratio for a new facility:
- Not adding “show” units near the office: Typically, you take potential tenants for a site tour to help them determine what size unit they need and promote your facility. It’s nice to have one of each unit size just outside the office so you don’t have to walk to the back of the property.
- Not offering 5-by-5-by-4 units: These are small units stacked one above the other in a climate-controlled building. You may not need too many, but they’ll provide your highest rental rate per square foot. Since they’re the lowest-priced unit, they can also aid in your marketing efforts. You can truthfully advertise, “Units starting at just …”
Curb Appeal and Access
If your future customers are confused about how to get from the parking lot to your office, they won’t make the effort. Your site should be welcoming and easy to navigate. Here are some major flaws found at many properties.
- No office built during phase 1: Without a managed office, your lease-up period will be difficult and take much longer, and you may have to substantially reduce your rents. People don’t like to call for an appointment. Many rentals start as a simple inquiry from a person driving by.
- Office sales area that is missing or too small: A nice office and sales area with packing and moving supplies makes an important first impression and will increase your rentals and product sales. Don’t forget about windows. A lack of natural light in the office will make the area dim and feel crowded. Instead, think big and bright. It’ll help your clients get that “just feels right” sensation and rent from you.
- Sparse landscaping: Often the first impression people get of your facility is based on what it looks like when they drive by. What makes your facility stand out? An abundance of landscaping makes for a great drive-by impression. Manicured green grass and flowers are a must for curb appeal!
- Difficult navigation to the office: The office should be outside the security gate and perimeter fencing. It’s much more pleasurable to drive directly to a parking area near the office without going through a gate or fenced-in area. Also, tenants prefer the security gate to be closed even during business hours.
- No easy access to a customer bathroom: Your customers will use the bathroom. They shouldn’t have to look for it or need to go behind the counter to access it.
- Not including a 4-foot man gate: Since you’ll likely take potential clients for site walks to see units on a regular basis, a walk-through gate is convenient and makes the process quicker. Not to mention you’ll be in the “yard” several times a day doing chores. This makes the man gate a must for you as well as for potential clients who are coming to the office to find you.
A quality security system is absolutely mandatory to the long-term success of a facility. This is not a place to cut corners. Here are some common mistakes often made by facility owners.
- Limited security measures: Perimeter fencing, computer-controlled access gate, site lighting and cameras are considered the minimum standard in the industry today.
- Lack of bollards: Bollards protect the keypads, gates and building corners. However, they’re often left out due to the $500-plus cost per bollard. It only takes a couple of accidents to make you wish you had them.
- Lack of site lighting: In addition to having enough lighting around the property, a light at the site entrance is also a nice touch. LED lighting is a must.
- Access keypad not properly aligned with gate limits: The keypad is often pushed to the edge of the pavement so it doesn’t appear to be in the way. But because it’s typically close to the gate, even a small offset makes the turn to the gate difficult for most drivers. The keypad location is often set before the gate is in place. Developers forget the gate is much smaller than the 24-foot driveway and don’t realize how much the offset truly is. Always stake out the gate opening and keypad, and then do a check with your vehicle before it’s installed.
- The gate-safety trip wire not installed under the final pavement course: This is the wire that’s installed on each side of the gate. It registers each passing car so the gate doesn’t shut on it. Too often, if the paving and gate contractor are not coordinated, a saw cut is made in the pavement to install the trip. In cold climates, this cut will never patch well, and the pavement will deteriorate year after year.
Whether you’re getting ready to embark on your first, fourth or 15th self-storage construction project, heed the above warnings to ensure you build it right the first time and enjoy a long and successful investment.
Marc Goodin has designed hundreds of site plans for self-storage facilities and other businesses over his 25-year career as a professional engineer. He owns three facilities he designed, permitted and built, including one in Canada. He’s also the author of two books, both of which are available in the Inside Self-Storage Store. To reach him, e-mail [email protected]; visit www.selfstoragemarketing101.com.