I was in panic mode.
I was at Extra Space Storage in Columbia, where they were holding a storage unit auction, but there wasn't a parking space to be found.
Lots of people spilled outside of the small white office, looking anxious and ready. It was 11:40 on a chilly Wednesday morning, and the auctioneer was 10 minutes late. The crowd paced, checked their watches and listened intently to the manager’s instructions.
“Everyone must sign this form,” said the manager, Brendan McKay. “If you do not sign it, you will not be allowed to participate in today’s auction.”
In a nutshell, a storage auction is a foreclosure on units for which owners did not pay their monthly storage fee.
The new television reality series on A&E, Storage Wars, has boosted attendance tremendously at storage unit auctions, according to McKay.
On Storage Wars, several professional buyers bid aggressively against each other as they attempt to win storage units, some of which have contents that yield hidden jackpots, while others bring the buyers a low return on the price paid or no return on their investment at all. Some even lose money.
(A similar show, Auction Hunters, is broadcast on Spike TV.)
After the Extra Space auctioneer arrived, he went over even more rules. Bidders cannot enter the unit. They cannot open boxes. In fact, he said, they cannot touch anything at all. A deposit is required. All payments must be made in cash. That day. At auction’s end. All of the unit's contents must be removed that same day. Units must be swept clean.
Bidders do have a chance to view the unit, but the inspection time passes quickly and, again, can only be done from outside at the entryway.
Many of the bidders seemed to be working in groups or pairs, discussing the pros and cons of the contents as they peeked inside the first of two units up for auction.
The first unit was full, stacked high with what appeared to be a lot of household items. Cream-colored chairs were piled haphazardly next to a dining room hutch, which in turn was stuffed with knickknacks and small accessories. Boxes sat crushed under the weight of other, larger brown boxes.
Every corner of the 80-square-foot unit revealed remnants of home life. Large vases with dried flowers, artwork, blankets and small tables were in full view.
“Pretty nice,” I thought – and apparently so did the lady next to me who pushed through the crowd for a third peek. She stood, hands on hips, hogging the entrance, scouring the unit.
You couldn't help but wonder what meaning these belongings had for the owners.
Are some of these boxes filled with personal memories that can’t be replaced? They put them in storage; they had to have some significance. It's sort of sad that strangers, unconnected to those memories, will soon become the new owners.
The crowd was ready – there was little or no talking as everyone waited for the opening bid.
“Say something,” I told myself. “Put a number out there. It is, after all, why you came, isn’t it?”
“Do I hear 900?” said the auctioneer.
“Did he just say 900, as in dollars?” I thought. Suddenly the five $20 bills in my jacket felt grossly inadequate. Anxiety hovered. The unit was really nice. Perhaps there was an ATM around?
The pushy woman was in the thick of things. She was winning the bidding, which at that point had gone up to $1,500, which of course dispelled all plans of me finding an ATM. A woman nudged her husband. He was reluctant. She nudged him again. Harder.
“Can I get $1,550?” asked the auctioneer, who by then had picked up the pace three-fold. He got that bid and then asked for more. A lone man standing in the corner gave the nod for $50 more. He’d been quietly bidding all along.
The woman’s husband shouted out “$1,610,” which got lots of laughs from the crowd. Bids of this size go up by at least $50 increments; anything less is considered frivolous or humorous.
The bidding went up to $1,700. The lone man had the last bid. He leaned against a wall in silence. The woman urged her husband to bid. He refused. The pushy woman, ignoring the rules, was now in the unit, looking around and shaking her head in a quandary.
The auctioneer is looking for higher bids, for more money. He waited, stalling a bit, looking to see if the woman in the unit would take it to $1,750. She didn't. The lone man got it. He smile a soft smile. He was satisfied.
The next unit was smaller with far fewer contents. A set of golf clubs. Boxes of frames. A DVD, maybe. In a corner was a large painting of an African American woman who might have been a singer of some sort.
Half of the crowd walked away after viewing it.
I rubbed the bills in my jacket pocket with hopes of getting in on the bidding.
Did I know any golfers? Nope. Did I need picture frames? Nope. What about wall space to hang large artwork? Not an inch.
The auctioneer began by asking for $50. He got it and moved up in increments of $10. Two postal employees, there on their off day, wanted the unit – one wanting it more than the other. The winner of the first unit was also there. He bid once but was soon outbid by another.
Back and forth, bid by bid, the price rose to $160. At that point, the postal workers were the high bidders. The woman and her husband were there. He bid. It was apparent that nobody was too excited about this unit. It was almost barren with lots of floor space showing.
But the two employees from the post office kept at it, winning the unit for $180. David Nixon, one of the winners, looked happy. I wasn't so sure about how the other felt.
It was over for me – but not for the others. They got in their cars and followed the auctioneer to his next location.
Note: There are several self-storage facilities in Columbia that hold auctions. Check on line or call for their schedule. Remember, rules may differ for each business.
Self-storage units in Columbia include:
- Extra Space Storage, 10400 Old Columbia Road, 410-290-9660, www.extraspacestorage.com
- ezStorage, 8221 Snowden River Parkway, 443-539-3000, www.ezstorage.com
- Mini U Storage, 9425 Snowden River Parkway, 410-381-4400, www.miniustorage.com
- Fort Knox Self Storage, 9597 Berger Road, 410-381-7121, selfstorageserviceinc.com
A few tips if you plan on attending a storage auction:
- Try to get there 15 to 20 minutes ahead of the scheduled time
- Bring cash – for most auctions, this is the only acceptable form of payment.
- Call ahead to find out sizes and the number of units up for bidding.
- Make transportation arrangements ahead of time.
- Bring plastic bags for the trash and undesirables.
- Bring a lock to secure the unit until you pay your fee.
- You might need loading help.