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September 1, 1998

18 Min Read

Kicking The Tires
A Companion for Buying Self-Storage Properties

By John Wilson

Selling a property has often been referred to as a kind of courtship, with progressingsteps from awareness to consummation. Long before the courtship reaches the stage ofhiring professionals to evaluate the physical condition of the existing buildings andother improvements, it is necessary that a potential suitor be able to get a good idea ofthe condition and probable care that an installation has received over its life sinceconstruction. This article is designed to provide a checklist and explanation of theimportance of each item to the prospective buyer or his representative who may not beexperienced in building maintenance or construction.

This article does not attempt to address financial issues such as market, rents orreturns, but addresses potential problems with the physical installation.


It is important to know the age of the property before beginning the inspection. Thiswill give you a good idea of what to expect. If a property is fewer than 15 years old butis in dire need of repair in several areas, then you can expect that maintenance has notbeen performed in a timely manner, and that several other areas, such as supervision ofaccounts, is probably not in good shape either. In any case, once a facility has passed 12to 15 years, you can expect to replace the HVAC systems, the asphalt paving, and theshingle or asphalt roofs.


It is critical to be aware of the surrounding businesses--are they likely to have apositive or negative impact on your business? If a concrete batch plant, for example, or amajor distribution warehouse, or a new school are recent additions to your area, it islikely that you will experience problems from high traffic, street deterioration orvandalism.

Also be sure that the property is properly zoned. Many times, particularly withsuburban properties, existing properties are "grandfathered" in with temporaryzoning as a part of annexation, but when the property changes hands or an attempt atexpansion is made, then the facility must be rezoned and/or brought up to city-codestandards, which can be very expensive. The new owner may also be required to do anenvironmental investigation and pay for a cleanup.


The entry driveway is the pavement that gets the most wear. On many installations, itis also the point where storm water exits the site. Look closely at the condition of thepavement. It should be concrete at least from the street to the gate. Also, it is a goodidea to look for dark silt deposits that indicate that water has stood on the paving. Thiswill eventually destroy the paving, even if it is concrete. It is a very good idea tovisit the site, or have a representative do so, after a rain, so the quality of drainagefor the whole site may be determined.

Traffic at the entry is another problem. If the entry is on a busy street--and many ofthem are--you may be required to revise it, as part of your changing requirements, toprovide stacking of two or three vehicles, either in your facility or on the street. Onceagain, check the city ordinances and zoning requirements.

Lighting at the entry is a liability issue. For this reason, the night is also a verygood time to visit a prospective property. If the fixtures are clean, and the lamps areburning and in good repair, it is a good indication that the facility is well maintained.If the driveways, especially the entries and exits, are not well lit and an accidenthappens, you can expect to be a defendant. If you plan to have night-time hours, you mustexpect to provide good lighting and graphics.


Most new owners plan some change in signage to put their stamp on their acquisition.However, the same equipment with new graphics is the most commonly used approach. Again, anight visit is the best way to tell visibility and location. The signs should be lit fromthe inside with fluorescent lamps and show no damage or corrosion. The power for the signsshould be controlled automatically with a combination photocell and time clock.

If there is to be a separate entry and exit, or a separation with an island, the entryand exit should be clearly marked with internally lit signage.


The office location and entry should be clearly marked with well lit graphics. Thereshould be easy and convenient access, both standard and ADA-accessible. In general, mostfacilities only need one or two wheelchair-accessible spaces, along with ADA compliantwalks and ramps, and four or five other types of spaces, but this varies greatly fromlocation to location. Once again, someone may have "grandfathered" around rules,but it is likely that you will have to bring the office up to current accessibilitystandards, regardless of whether you plan other changes or not. It is also a problem ifoffice parking is inside the gate, or if customers must cross traffic to get to the officefrom the parking areas. This parking is in addition to the employee parking, which shouldbe near the office but can be inside the gate. You will also want parking for a golf cartto carry prospective customers around the property quickly.

Inside the office, it is necessary to provide a public rest room that is wheelchairaccessible. Take note of the condition of the room and its fixtures. Ask how long sincethe restroom was updated. If it was more than five years, it is likely that you will needto have it renovated. Inspect the office for display and work space. The counter shouldhave room for a computer, fax, printer, check and credit-card machines, and variousdisplays. There should also be slots for standard forms, files and inventory ofpublications. There should be space for seating, display of locks, boxes, movingaccessories and merchandise. It is likely that you will want to have a wall forsecurity-system displays, so look for space behind the counter for this installation.

If the existing office does not have all these features, or at least space for them,then it is likely that remodeling will be required.


The apartment that is included with many facilities is not only an enhancement for theprospective managers, but actually required by city ordinance in many places. If there isnot one on the prospective site, you can expect to have to add one, particularly if thesite is over 30,000 rentable square feet. If it is smaller, you may get away withelectronically controlling the site at night, but someone must be available at all timesin case of emergency or you may be liable.

As in the case of the office, you may be required to provide an ADA-compliantapartment. Many facilities have two-story apartments, and cannot be ADA compliant. Checkwith local officials to determine your exposure. Remember, the instrument for ADAenforcement is the lawsuit, and anyone can be a self-appointed compliance officer.

Tour the apartment, and check for the same items that you would if you were buying ahome: roof, evidence of leaks, caulking integrity, age of appliances, painting, plumbingfixtures, etc. Ask to inspect the attic. Look for evidence of leaks and the quality ofinsulation. Inspect the air-conditioning ducts. The underside of the roof deck should showno evidence of water staining, mildew or rot. The insulation should be at least 6-inchesthick and cover the entire ceiling. The air-conditioning ducts should be neat and clean,and show no evidence of repair.

If the ducts are primarily made of flex ducts, then the system is questionable andshould be expected to give problems. In general, flex ducts should be no longer than 10feet, especially in a residence. Most systems will be made of fiberglass duct board. Theseshould be tightly taped, neat and quiet. If the units are in the attic, most buildingcodes require that a walkway of plywood be provided from the attic access to and aroundthe units. Most building codes also require a light fixture in the attic.

Check to see if the toilets run continuously or the faucets drip. Look under the sinksfor mildew and leaks. Turn on the faucets and the shower, and flush the toilets at thesame time. If the water system makes noise, it probably is undersized and likely togenerate complaints from the manager. Shut off the faucets quickly to check for waterhammer.

Tour the outside of the office-apartment. Look for evidence of water entry, mildew,cracking and rot in the eaves, corners, windows and doors. All eaves should be guttered,all joints caulked. Look for cracks in masonry and foundation. Do not be overly concernedwith cracks that are at least 4 feet apart and less than 1/32-inch wide. These are normalconcrete or masonry shrinkage cracks. Patterned cracks, larger cracks or spalling likelyindicates structural problems.

Sight along the surface of the roof. If there are sags or bumps in the decking, thenthe roof structure has problems. If the roof has shingles, the edges and corners should becrisp. If they are curled or rounded, the roof likely needs replacing. If the roof iscovered with metal, check for hail dents, misaligned seams or missing trim.


Most facilities have asphalt-paved drives. When inspecting a facility, it is necessaryto walk or drive down every one of them. If there is a problem, it is not usually in allareas, and the areas near the office have likely been repaired on a regular basis.Potholes and cracks are easy to find, but closer examination is necessary to find othertypes of tell-tale problem signs. Areas where silt or sand has collected is usually anindication of poor drainage and collection of standing water. As stated above, the besttime to visit the site is within a day of a rain. Poor drainage and leaky guttering areeasy to see then. One indicator of imminent problems is "alligatoring." The namecomes from the grid-like pattern of the cracks that develops when the surface mastic layerhas broken down and the water is penetrating the pavement and leaching out the fines. Thisallows water under the paving and is the precursor to breaking down the subgrade and thepavement. In cold climates or locations with expansive soils, the water will cause thepavement to heave up in big pieces. In other locations, it will take a little longer tojust disintegrate.

In facilities with concrete drives, (especially if salt is used as a de-icer), orindustrial areas with polluted air, standing water will penetrate the concrete (which issurprisingly porous) and cause the reinforcing to corrode. When this happens, thereinforcing expands and causes the concrete to break out in chunks called"spalling." Look for areas with either dark patches or silt accumulations, andyou will see an area of standing water that cannot be permanently patched. Also, concretedrives, pattern cracks and/or areas where the pavement has obviously raised inrelationship to surrounding structures indicates swelling-shrinking soils that will breakthe pavement.

In either type of pavement, areas that stay wet or seep moisture through cracks, evenafter the surrounding streets have dried, indicate wet weather springs or moistureaccumulation that will require special extensive repairs. Moisture will always destroypavement from the bottom.

Building Roofs

No facility inspection can possibly be considered complete until every building roofhas been inspected. Before a site is visited, arrange to bring along a ladder to see theroofs. Otherwise, it's not worth your time.

There are facilities with every type of roof imaginable. We will deal with the fourmost common:

Standing Seam Roofs. This type roof is the best all-around roof for self-storagebuildings. It is the longest lasting, requires the least maintenance and is the mostdurable. It should never, however, be used in any application that includes rooftop airconditioners or other high-traffic roof applications.

When inspecting this type of roof, be aware of several types of problems. The mostcommon is improper installation. The roof, when properly installed, includes long straightsections of metal, 26 gauge or heavier, with galvalume or equal coating that snap togetherover insulation and purlins, and are fastened with gasketed screws at the eaves. This roofmust be flashed at the edges and guttered at the ends. It is important, in all but thedriest climates, to insulate the underside of this roof so the insulation is between thepurlins and the roof deck. If this is not done, the roof will sweat and drip on thecontents. The screws at the ends must have gaskets that are covered with metal thimbles orthey will deteriorate and leak.

When inspecting a metal roof, look for silt accumulations, especially around the screwsat the eaves, which may require repair. The roof panels should be sloped at 1/4-inch perfoot and overlap the edge of the building at least 3 inches to insure that there is nowater backup under the eave. The roof should be guttered or rake trimmed on all edges,flashed and sealed. Any penetrations should be flashed and sealed to form a neatleak-proof construction.

Standard Metal Roofs. This type of roof, usually called a "screw-downroof" was the type originally developed for metal buildings. The screws are in apattern across the entire sheet and penetrate the deck in numerous places. The sheeting isactually the same type as metal-building siding and depends on seal tape and screw gasketsfor sealing. This type of roof is often improperly applied--like the standing seamroofs--with a shallow slope. The only application that is proper for this type of roof iswith a steep slope, similar to an asphalt shingle roof (three on 12), and even then it canbe expected to leak when the seals on the screw gaskets deteriorate. The roof screwsshould be the type that have thimbles over the gaskets to protect them from the weather,but they often just have a washer that accelerates the deterioration.

Built-Up Roofs. This type of roof, which is the most common type of commercialroof, often called a "gravel roof," is very common in facilities that were builtbefore 1980. These roofs, if installed properly and of good materials, will last anaverage of 20 years. They are generally composed of a corrugated metal deck over joists orpurlins, insulation board, felt sheets and a reinforcing sheet of fiberglass netting orother material, with a layer of pea gravel or other ballast to protect the mastic thatgoes between each layer from being destroyed by the sun.

When inspecting a facility with a built-up roof, it is necessary to walk the roof. Thereason for this is that, when moisture begins to break down a roof of this type, itusually shows up as blisters or soft spots when the heat of the sun causes the moisturetrapped between the layers to evaporate and expand. If the roof is in good shape, it willseem a solid unit. Another way to find leaks from the top is to use an infrared imagingcamera in the late afternoon. The areas with trapped moisture will not cool as fast as therest of the roof and will show up as bright yellow on the imaging screen.

When inspecting a built-up roof, inspect the eaves and penetrations for the conditionof the flashing and sealing. In general, it is safe to assume that it will have to bereplaced after 15 to 20 years at best, and replacing a built-up roof with a metal one is avery common upgrade. As in the case of the asphalt (which is essentially the samematerial), look for standing water or silting, and alligatoring.

Shingle Roofs. These are usually on wood buildings. As stated above for theapartment, look for sags, rot and deteriorating shingles. Also watch for too shallow aslope, which should be at least three on 12.

Skylights. The type of skylights (usually fiberglass roof panels) that arenormally built into self-storage projects are not high quality enough to last the years.Expect to replace them as soon as possible.

Building Walls

As in the case of the roofs, there are self-storage buildings with every type ofexterior and interior wall construction made. The general types are masonry and concrete,metal, wood or plastic.

Concrete or Masonry Walls. The concrete or masonry walls are the most durableand, naturally, the most expensive. Generally, problems with these types of walls show upwith cracking or spalling. There have been cases where the mortar or concrete mixcontained contaminated chemicals and the walls actually disintegrated in place, butgenerally the problems in this type of wall indicate the problem with foundation or otherstructure. When inspecting this type of wall, look inside for white or other discoloringstains. Both concrete (as stated above) and masonry are highly porous and must be sealed.This sealant, depending on the climate, must be redone every 10 years or so. Stains on theinside indicate that either the roof has been compromised, there is condensation or thewalls need to be resealed. Unfortunately, once stained, the walls cannot be cleaned andmust be painted to hide the stains.

Metal Walls. Metal walls are generally corrugated sheet metal secured to formlight-gauge steel framing with self-drilling, sheet-metal screws. Interior walls arecoated with galvalume or galvanizing, and the corrugations are run horizontally forstrength. Exterior walls are usually galvanized and then coated with an enamel paint. Themain problems with these walls are structural strength, which shows up as dents and tears,corrosion, which shows up as rust and paint deterioration, and sealing problems, due totheir corrugations. Corrugated siding, even with the enameled colored siding, is generallyconsidered to be less desirable in appearance than masonry or even wood siding and willnot be accepted by many cities as a building exterior that is visible from the street.Screws that attach the siding to the building on the outside should be the thimblegasketed type as described above.

After reviewing for rust and physical damage, the best way to determine weathertightness is to go inside and look for water streaks down the walls and have the doorclosed with the lights off and look for light leaks. This will not work onclimate-controlled spaces. The most common place that is left unsealed is at the bottom ofthe sheets next to the foundation, where the corrugated seal is left out.

Wood or Plastic Siding. This material is generally over wood studs in woodbuildings. This should be inspected closely for caulking, rot and mildew. It is also goodto push on it with your hands to insure that it is tight.

Unit Doors

If there is one area where the industry has reached a consensus, it is doors. Oneveteran self-storage operator told me, "If you're in the mini-storage business,you're in the door-repair business." This statement is quite true. When inspecting afacility with the intention of purchasing or recommending it for purchase, you shouldimmediately assume that any unit doors made of anything but steel should be marked forreplacement. Masonite, wood or any other material will not stand up to the use. Also,sectional doors, which look like the average home's garage doors, should not be retained,as they contain too many parts to be maintained. Units less than 10-feet wide should have3-feet metal swing doors, while those wider than 10 feet wide should have roll-up doors.In some cases, non-operable doors, called "dummy doors," are used in the placeof walls to showcase the type of building on what would otherwise be a plain wall. Thereare now special contractors that do nothing but paint mini-storage doors. The inspectorshould open a few doors on each building to determine their condition, looking for loosebearings, poor-working latches and rusted parts.

Climate-Controlled Mechanical Systems

It does not require an air-conditioning technician to make at least a basic inspectionof the building's mechanical systems if he knows a few important things to investigate.The first is the age of the units. This can be easily determined by looking on the unit,which has a "born-on" date. Most residential-grade split systems, depending onthe climate, are only good for 12 to 15 years at best. Commercial-grade systems are goodfor up to 20 years, if maintained regularly by a commercial technician. It is easy todetermine this by looking at the units. If a service company is taking regular looks atthese units, they will have the service company label with a phone number on the units.One other quick way to tell is to slide the filter out. If it has recently been changed,then it is probably getting regular attention. Also find out how the condensate is drainedout. If it is making a puddle on the roof or parking lot, that is a sign of futureproblems being created. The condensate should be drained to a dry well, the sanitary seweror a landscaped area.

Interior Lighting Systems

As with the doors, the industry has come to a near-consensus on interior lighting: Usefluorescent strips along the walls or ceiling that shine into the units, reducing unitlighting requirements. These lights should be on either a twist timer, or better yet,motion sensors that will prevent them from being left on once the building is unoccupied.The larger units should have lights as well, but these should also be controlled as arethe hall lights. Many existing facilities contain pull-chain lights in the units. Theseshould be earmarked to be controlled with the hall lights and, for best results, replacedwith fluorescent. Incandescent fixtures should be eliminated altogether from the halls,entries and building exterior.

Security Systems

Security-system requirements vary widely with facility age, location, company policyand budgets. At the very least, a modern facility should have CCTV cameras at the entrydriveway and main drives, an automatic coded gate and intrusion alarms in the office.


The greatest potential source of information about the facility is the manager. Even ifhe has only been on staff for a short time, it is likely that he has heard stories aboutthe construction or operation of the facility or its neighbors. It is always worthwhile tospend some time over coffee or lunch with the manager and his spouse, too, if available.

Attached is a checklist covering the items in this article. It is a good idea to carrya tablet and key notes from the list items to the tablet sheets that will allow longerdescriptions.

John Wilson is a registered professional engineer with licenses to practice in 25states. His architecture and engineering firm, John Wilson & Associates, has beendesigning self-storage projects since 1983. You may contact him at (210) 495-5736; fax(210)495-5967.

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