Building Boat and RV Storage

October 1, 2005

7 Min Read
Building Boat and RV Storage

As the economy recovers, the American public enjoys more disposable income, and many have taken to the road and water for recreation. At the same time, most communities have restrictions regarding the parking of boats and RVs in streets and driveways, providing an excellent opportunity for self-storage owners to meet the resulting need. Smart operators not only provide storage for these vehicles but a host of complementary services.

Before you can reap the rewards of boat and RV storage, you’ll need to decide the type of storage you will offer and the services you’ll provide. Following are considerations for a smooth ride on this ancillary adventure.


The economics of the local area are a significant factor in deciding the type of storage and services you offer. While boat and RV storage can be as primitive as outdoor parking spaces, structures for large vehicles come in three basic configurations.

The simplest is a canopy style with only a roof. The manger style has a roof and is enclosed on three sides, and can include individual partitions. The third is a completely enclosed individual unit. You might think it’s less expensive to build canopy or manger units, but that isn’t necessarily true. All three styles require deeper footings and additional structural strength to accommodate greater heights and widths as well as wind resistance.

Boat and RV storage units vary in height, width and depth. Keep in mind that in addition to the vehicle, the space will need to accommodate add-on fixtures, such as motorcycle racks, tow bars, air-conditioning units, collapsible tables and chairs, ladders, awnings, trailers, radio antennae, ski racks, and large toys such as jet skis. Some owners will rent a separate unit for peripherals, but others will wish to keep all their items in one space.

Typically, the minimum unit width is 12 feet, and the maximum depth is 45 to 50 feet. The most common unit size is 14 feet wide with mixed depths up to 40 feet and an eve height of about 16 feet. When determining the best size, consider the cost to build vs. potential income on a per-square-foot basis. For example, a 14-by-40 unit consumes 560 square feet of land. You could use that land for several traditional storage units, so determine which will be more profitable before you build.

When it comes to weighing costs, many operators forget to consider whether their storage canopies and mangers are considered “buildings” by their local tax authority. This will have a significant impact on the tax assessment. Fire sprinklers, which increase construction costs and ongoing operational expenses, are another overlooked outlay. In some areas, even canopies of more than a certain size require sprinklers.

Obviously, construction itself is the greatest expense in adding boat and RV storage. The additional structural strength required by oversize units increases the cost of building components. The total price usually ends up slightly higher than that of traditional self-storage but significantly less than climate-controlled storage.

A traditional metal structure is made from cold-formed steel and built on a 5-by-10-foot grid with 4-inch, 16-gauge Cee studs, girts and Zee purlins. (Cees are vertical supports, Girts are horizontal supports, and Zees are the roof members.) To expand the building to greater heights or widths and maintain structural strength, the builder must use more Cees, girts and Zees, or stronger members (6- to 8-inch and 14-gauge). Additional strength can also be obtained by building with clear span or rigid-frame buildings, but these can be even more expensive.

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Adding height to a building also increases the need for greater wind resistance. In canopy units, the roof will catch the wind like a kite or parasail and must be appropriately anchored. The more walls the structure has, the less uplift there is against the roof. The actual “muscle” required depends on the height and width of the building and wind-load regulations for the area, which are typically determined by the structural engineer or metal-building provider.

On enclosed units, doors must also meet higher wind-load requirements. Roll-up doors larger than 14-by-14 feet become unwieldy, catching so much wind deflection they can jump their tracks. Any door larger than 100 square feet should have a chain hoist or other door-opening mechanism.

Other construction considerations are the drive aisles and turning radiuses necessary to accommodate large vehicles. “Pull-though access” is often promoted in advertising for boat and RV storage because operators recognize the value of easy maneuverability. Backing into a unit in tight quarters is an invitation for disaster. Placing bollards throughout the parking areas can help prevent accidents. Drive aisles for open-air storage should be 50 to 60 feet wide for perpendicular spaces and at least 35 feet wide for spaces angled at 60 degrees.


RVs and boats can cost anywhere from $500 to well over a million dollars. Whatever the cost, each one is someone’s treasure, so security is paramount. The features you offer will depend largely on clientele. At a minimum, you’ll need perimeter fencing, which can consist of anything from chain link and razor wire to solid block walls.

As 24-hour access is often a requirement of this type of storage, camera surveillance and key-coded entry gates are common. Ingress and egress keypads should be positioned at 42 and 66 inches from the ground to accommodate the window heights of cars and RVs. It’s wise to have a camera aimed at vehicle license plates as they enter and exit the facility. You can also use proximity card readers, adding limited-access zones for only those tenants with stored vehicles.

More sophisticated security measures can also be used, such as infrared beams with silent or audible security alarms. Table-top motion sensors can be rented for tenants to place in their vehicles.

Finally, good lighting is essential for security and safety. When planning your lighting, consult local codes. Many municipalities are adopting “dark sky” ordinances, which prohibit lights from aiming into the sky. It’s prudent to follow dark-sky standards even if they’re not currently mandatory in your area. This will avoid costly renovations in the future.


The ancillary products and services you offer in conjunction with boat/RV storage also depend on your customers. People like to stretch their vacation time to the max, so the more convenient it is to store at your facility, the more likely you are to earn and keep tenants.

The most desired services are utilities such as electricity and water. Water is usually offered for free, and electricity can be metered or offered for a flat fee. (A word of caution: When you offer these utilities, you make it very easy for tenants to become residents, so vigilance will be necessary.) Other popular add-ons for boat and RV storage include dump, wash and propane stations, and the sale of valued commodities such as ice, coffee, glass wipes, air-fresheners, etc. Some facilities offer vehicle prep and clean-up services.

When deciding what ancillaries to offer, consider the initial cost and potential income vs. risk and expense. For example, if you offer vehicle-prep services that involve accessing a tenant’s boat or RV, you take on additional insurance and legal responsibilities.

Society’s perceptions of boat and RV recreation have changed for the better. Concerns regarding homeland security as well as an improved economy have encouraged people to opt for family-based travel and entertainment. The nation’s parks and waterways invite outdoor recreation and sports. As Americans go about the business of enjoying life, the need for boat and RV storage will remain strong. This ancillary offering represents a voyage worth undertaking.

Donna May is president of Cross Metal Buildings, a member of The Parham Cos., which provides high-quality commercial, agricultural and self-storage buildings throughout the South and specializes in assisting first-time builders. May is the former president of Joshua Management Co. and a commercial real estate broker. She has been a partner in 11 startup storage projects totaling more than 703,500 square feet. For information, call 210.477.1260; e-mail [email protected]; visit

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