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Managing Site Maintenance: Getting Outside Support for Your Self-Storage Facility Upkeep

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If maintaining all the physical elements of your self-storage property is putting a serious drain on your work time, there may be a better way to function. There are many aspects to facility upkeep that can be outsourced to a third party. Here are some good reasons to consider outside support, plus how to properly weigh your options.

Last week, you discovered one of your self-storage unit doors isn’t working. Then two days ago, a storm broke branches off several trees on the property. You also just learned that one of your security cameras is on the fritz, and your front gate is squeaking. While you can likely address some of these issues in house, is that the best use of your time and resources?

Keeping a storage facility operating to its full potential requires dedication to sales, customer service, marketing and a host of other critical responsibilities. If you’re also expected to fix every maintenance problem, there’s less time to focus on the core business of renting units. A good way to reclaim some precious hours is to outsource some or all of your maintenance needs. As a bonus, you’ll guarantee these tasks are handled correctly by skilled professionals. You might even prevent future problems!

“By finding a good vendor partner, you can keep systems up, and it’ll be less costly when you have regular maintenance performed, as they can often catch an issue before it becomes a much larger problem,” says Susan Haviland, owner of Haviland Storage Services, a third-party consulting and management company.

Let’s look at the key factors to outsourcing self-storage maintenance, and some pointers for evaluating and choosing contractors.

The Skills Factor

Those of you who’ve traditionally taken the do-it-yourself (DIY) approach to self-storage maintenance might be skeptical about hiring a third party to handle this work. In fact, it’s been common practice in this industry to go it alone.

“In the early days of self-storage, facilities were not very sophisticated, so managing maintenance was much simpler and could typically be done by a property manager,” says Jamey Fawcett, president of Accent Building Restoration Inc., a nationwide provider of painting and maintenance services for self-storage and other commercial industries. “Over the years, facilities have become much more sophisticated, so specific expertise is needed to maintain and service things.”

Storage properties now contain more complicated components, such as automated gate systems, HVAC units, elevators and security cameras. “You want to have the most up-to-date information when it comes to maintaining and servicing those items,” Fawcett notes.

To maintain certain components in-house, you have to consider your own abilities and those of others on your team. You also need to think about the time required as well as the cost of tools and other resources you’ll need. Then there’s the overall quality of the work. For example, if your building exteriors could use a fresh coat of paint, can you afford to spend several days or weeks on that project? What about the hassle and expense of purchasing supplies? Finally, will it look professional?

“Owners need to have a clear idea of their employees’ duties, time management and skills. They need to understand how long it would take an employee to complete a larger project and what other duties may be neglected, and compare that to the time and cost of outsourcing the work,” says Teresa Sedmak, president of Everbrite Inc., a manufacturer of protective coatings for metals. “Skilled, experienced contractors can complete projects much faster than employees who have no experience with a project scope.”

The Cost vs. Risk Factor

For most self-storage owners, the primary drawback to outsourcing facility maintenance is the price tag. While it’s true that a DIY approach might be less expensive in terms of labor, it can cost you in other ways. “At face value, it may seem that hiring someone to take care of your maintenance is more costly. In the long run, it’s probably more cost-effective,” says Fawcett, noting that maintenance on some items, such as a gate, could be botched by someone who’s unskilled and lead to a more expensive fix.

A big risk is injury. “If your manager attempts to change out a roll-up door spring and is injured because they didn’t really know what they were doing—and I’ve seen some pretty serious injuries in relation to roll-up door springs—that cost and headache becomes your problem,” Fawcett says.

The Control Factor

Another reason many owners shy away from hiring third parties is lack of control. First, these workers aren’t your employees, and some vendors experience high turnover, which can be a concern. You must trust that your partner hires skilled professionals who’ll respect your property and customers.

Second, taking a DIY approach typically means the work happens on your schedule, but when you outsource, you need to accommodate the vendor’s timeline. It’s possible that you’ll have an emergency, like a stuck entry gate or a tree limb blocking a drive aisle, and the company won’t be immediately available. That vulnerability makes some self-storage operators uncomfortable. You need to factor these possibilities into the equation, and be prepared to be at least somewhat flexible.

The Hybrid Factor

Ultimately, you need to weigh all the pros and cons to determine the best fit for your self-storage business. Often, the best option is a hybrid approach that balances time and costs with staff willingness and expertise.

If employees have the time, tools and know-how, they can handle many maintenance tasks, Sedmak says. But if a job is complex or dangerous, or mistakes are likely to be made, a licensed and insured contractor can ensure the job is done correctly, safely and on budget. Even if you have a handy manager or a dedicated maintenance crew, there are still some tasks better left to professionals, such as elevator and HVAC repairs, or unit-door replacement. If you aren’t sure or don’t have the right equipment, it’s best to get help.

Plus, when you work with a third party, prevention becomes a focal point. “When you outsource your maintenance, typically a preventive maintenance calendar is made, so that your equipment is being serviced proactively, rather than reactively when something isn’t working right or broken,” Fawcett says. “Over time, this can save thousands of dollars.”

The Contractor Factor

When outsourcing self-storage maintenance, you must vet your candidates! Even if the person who runs a company is a friend of a friend, conduct thorough due diligence. Visit their website, check online reviews and ratings, and look up their standing with the Better Business Bureau. Talk to past clients to see if they were happy with the vendor’s work.

It’s best to get at least three bids for large self-storage maintenance projects, or ongoing contracts for services such as landscaping and pest control. While price is always a consideration, it isn’t the most important. Fawcett encourages owners to “go with their gut” when interviewing candidates. “Remember, you’ll be working with this person or company for a period of time. You want to make sure you’re comfortable with who is on your property, doing your work. Make sure you speak to references they’re currently working for as well as maybe some that they’re no longer working with.”

A candidate’s familiarity with self-storage properties is also important. “Contractors experienced in self-storage know how to perform the work while protecting customer property,” Sedmak says.

The License and Insurance Factor

In particular, ensure each business you hire to perform maintenance at your self-storage property is licensed and insured. You don’t want to land in court after someone from ABC Roofing falls while cleaning your gutters. If the provider subcontracts any of its work, make sure it lists your business as an additional insured on its policy.

“This protects you if they outsource and hire labor that isn’t insured. That way, if [the worker] gets hurt on your site, the vendor has you covered,” says Haviland, who has experience with this situation. A person trimming trees for one of her third-party management clients fell and is now disabled for life. The man wasn’t wearing a safety harness. “He keeps trying to claim he was our employee with the labor board, and it keeps getting rejected. The vendor who hired him let his insurance lapse but was covered at the time of the incident.”

Even if you get a good vibe about a company, always independently verify its credentials before hiring. “Each one has to be licensed and bonded. I don’t trust the information on their bid sheet, nor their business card,” says Gina Six Kudo, a former self-storage manager turned business consultant in San Jose, Calif.

Other Important Factors

Contract. There’s always a possibility for disputes to arise over the scope and quality of the work. This is why it’s paramount to have a comprehensive contract isn’t in place—and that it’s signed and dated by both parties.

Time. It’s vital to find out how long it’ll take to complete each job or project. A repair that’s going to take weeks because the vendor has a skeleton crew may not be the best choice.

Business impact. consider whether your tenants will be inconvenienced in any way. Ask the vendor what you and your customers should expect during the project—and get it all in writing. Mutual respect. You may be the “boss,” but you also need to be willing to heed the vendor’s advice. “You’re hiring someone because you believe they’re experts in whatever you’re hiring them for, so be willing to listen to what they have to say,” Fawcett says. “If you truly have a good partnership, each should have the best interest of the other in how they operate.”

Ongoing evaluation. Whatever maintenance contractors you choose to hire, don’t become complacent with their services. It’s easy to assume they’re getting the job done, but that might not be the case. Regularly assess their performance, just as you would any new vendor. If a company isn’t performing up to standard, don’t be afraid to move on to someone new. Finally, shop each contract annually or as it expires to see if you can find a better deal.

In the End, Fewer Headaches

When you and your self-storage team no longer have to worry about mowing the lawn, cleaning security cameras and fixing every broken door spring, you’ll have time to focus on more important tasks. Ask yourself what it would truly cost to do to the work in-house, considering time, staff ability and willingness, equipment required, and more. In the end, you may find it benefits your business in more ways than one to outsource facility maintenance.

“Often, I see [self-storage operators] trying to be so frugal and not getting the right work done or [taking] the cheapest bid, which in turn costs them more in the long run,” says Haviland. “Maintenance items fall into the old adage: You get what you pay for.”

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