Economy

Too Much Stuff! America's New Love Affair With Self-Storage

Americans are putting more and more stuff into self-storage purgatory. It's now a $22 billion-per-year industry, but what does it mean for the soul?
A strange new shadow land has grown up in America. It's a world of cinderblock villas and plywood hallways, garish under halogen security bulbs. It clings to the underside of Western towns like Roman catacombs, pushes up funereal fault blocks in urban centers, and festoons suburban freeways with palaces styled after castles and forts. If you could peer inside those locked rooms, you'd see, well, practically any object you could imagine: a pair of skis, five toadstool-style cookie jars, twelve years' back issues of Martha Stewart Living, a single broken bed frame, all waiting like Egyptian tomb dressing to serve in some afterlife. But you'd rarely see a person, because all these new, gray places are for stuff.

The "self storage" business started small three or four decades ago, as a few "mini-warehouses" around military bases in the Southwest, according to industry legend. Now it's a $22 billion-per-year industry, and maybe a whole way of life. Like VCRs and cell phones, self-storage is a product Americans didn't need until they discovered it, and now they can't live without.

The numbers are astounding. According to the Self Storage Association, an industry advocacy group, square footage of rentable storage has increased 740 percent in the past two decades; a billion square feet of storage space was created between 1998 and 2005; and there are now 6.8 square feet of storage for every man, woman and child in America. Chris Sonne, a storage expert at Cushman & Wakefield Inc., estimates there are 45,000 storage facilities today compared to zero 50 years ago.

"That's a pace of two or more self-storage facilities opening every day for 50 years," he says. "That beats McDonald's."

It's been a great ride for savvy investors, who watched the business produce impressive rents from inexpensive buildings. Industry giant Public Storage Inc. had total returns of 41 percent, 33 percent, 25 percent and 47 percent for the years 2003-2006, according to Morningstar. Though growth has slowed recently, due to high supply and tight credit, it hasn't stopped, with new development continuing in little-served areas like urban centers. What the hell is going on? Why do Americans crave all this space when they apparently lived fine without it 30 years ago?

There aren't many answers in the press. Storage tends to make the news only when something criminal or titillating happens -- like when a murderer stores body parts in his unit, or Paris Hilton forgets to pay her rent, and her purported party photos and Amsterdam drug notes are auctioned off to the highest bidder.

I walk into the office of a Public Storage facility and talk to "Jack," the manager on duty. (He tells me he could get fired if I used his real name.) With his beard neatly trimmed and his shirt tucked in, he seems grounded and efficient. I ask why demand for his service is so big.

"I guess there are just a lot of pack rats out there," he says without skipping a beat.

That's the same initial reaction I got from the majority of the 20 people I talked to for this story, from Wall Street analysts to everyday customers. But draw those conversations out a bit, and those pack rats "out there" start looking like everyone you know. The problem isn't just with the crass and slavish mob; more thoughtful types use self-storage too.

Building on Inertia

Part of the storage boom comes from use by business: Self Storage Association President Michael Scanlon says that perhaps 30 percent of customers are businesses storing records, equipment, inventory and the like. Still, the lion's share of the expansion has come from plain old folks storing their possessions. And every one of them has a story when they show up at Jack's desk.

"When people come in here, they are stressed out," he says. "Maybe their grandma died and left some furniture. Maybe they're moving. Maybe they got a new job."

These are "life events" in the parlance of industry analysts, and they're a gateway into the self-storage universe. Whether the event is good or bad, its high emotions come loaded with the job of dealing with a small mountain of stuff. That's where Jack can step in. A big part of a storage manager's job is unlicensed crisis counseling -- talking the client down a bit, figuring out their plans for the next few hours or months, and getting their possessions off their hands so they can move on with their lives.

"When they leave the office," Jack says, "I want to make sure at least this one thing is resolved for them." Like all of the self-storage managers I met, he is a down-to-earth, no-nonsense person who seems truly interested in helping.

Getting into self-storage is so easy it can be a big relief to someone in the throes of a "life event." There is no need to bother friends or family. There are few, if any, credit checks, reference checks, deposits or long-term leases. The service looks cheap, with typical monthly rents from 50 cents to 2 dollars per square foot. It's getting out that can be the challenge.

Consider a customer like Raeven (yes, her real name), now a preschool worker in Portland, Ore. Nine months ago she was in Ann Arbor, Mich., having a "life event." Her marriage was going to pieces. She retreated to her parents' home in Salem, Ore., and got her stuff into storage there. After a few months, she moved to Portland to start a new life. Now she occasionally goes down to Salem to retrieve things. On a recent visit she extracted some kitchen gear, some books on Jewish studies and 50 pairs of shoes. (There are more.) Her idea is to extricate the rest of the stuff and be out of the unit in a few months. It's a typical plan -- and if Raeven is a typical client, she won't succeed.

"You start off by asking, 'how long do you plan on renting it for?'" says Scanlon. "Almost everybody says 'a month or two.'"

They end up staying a lot longer. Average tenancies nationwide are somewhere between one and two years, say Scanlon and Sonne, and some renters simply never leave.

"I have one renter who's been here since we opened -- in 1990," says Dawn Spencer, a manager at Clackamas River Mini Storage outside of Portland. "He pays automatically, by credit card, never comes in. Lives in another state now."

"It's an industry that builds on inertia," says Paul Adornato, an analyst for BMO Capital Markets. "People would much rather have $150 withdrawn automatically out of their checking account every month than have to wake up on a Saturday morning, rent a truck, move out the stuff, do something with the stuff … see what I mean?"

Incident in the Garage

One factor that does not explain the storage boom is lack of space in American houses. Over the last three decades, the average new American home has grown by about 900 square feet, according to Census data, while the number of people per household has declined slightly.

"Most of the people we rent to have a garage, an attic and a basement -- can you believe that?" says Scanlon. Seventy-five percent of them own their own homes, he says. They simply have more and more stuff to wrangle. Rick, a real estate agent in Macomb County, Mich., is one such "premium residential customer," as Scanlon calls them. He's familiar with self-storage from his job, where he encourages customers to use storage to remove nonessential items and "stage" their homes for sale. He even plays a "decluttering" game with customers a few months later, after the sale, when they're ready to reclaim that excess. Can they even remember what's in there? Almost never, he says.

Rick had his own storage-inducing life event when he moved his father-in-law, who has "a touch of Alzheimer's," into assisted living.

"His house was a nightmare when we moved him out," relates Rick. "His basement was full of crap. His garage was full of crap. His extra bedrooms were full of crap. It's like, 'What do you need this stuff for?'" There wasn't room for it all in his assisted-living apartment, but Rick says his father-in-law couldn't distinguish between irreplaceable items, like old pictures, and replaceable junk like a prefab shelving unit. He wanted to keep it all.

Still, Rick and his wife couldn't exactly throw that crap away. On occasion, the father-in-law asked for specific things -- an old picture, or a book -- and they could hardly deny him such wishes. Rick didn't want to clutter up his own house. A storage unit was the logical solution. Getting a second unit seemed logical, too, when Rick's college-age son went abroad to study and left some things behind -- furniture for his future apartment.

Finally, there was an incident in Rick's garage, which was getting a little crowded with his own stuff. A pile of it fell over and nearly damaged his prized MG roadster. Rick broke the mental seal and put some of his own stuff -- some sports gear and old business papers -- in his father-in-law's unit.

"I've encroached on it 30 percent," he says. Then he works out some math about his storage expenses.

"There's a bit of me that says -- gosh, I'm paying, combined, about $100 a month. … I've been doing this for three years …"

He trails off before he gets to the surprisingly large total.

I ask if the stuff in his two units is worth anything near $3,600.

"Nope."

Will he keep a storage unit when his father-in-law passes on and his son gets an apartment?

"Probably," he says, after some fumbling. "Just a smaller one."

The Future Beach House

I can't help but get the impression that, like Rick, a good many Americans are in danger of literally getting pushed out of their houses by stuff. It seems odd in a time when eBay, craigslist, freecycle.org and charity pickup services make getting rid of possessions easier than ever.

Adornato has been thinking about those services too.

"All of that helps us to rotate our personal inventories," hey says, "but ultimately, we like to accumulate."

The deluge of stuff springs from a combination of instinct and economics, says Cindy Glovinsky, a psychotherapist and author of "Making Peace With the Things in Your Life" (St. Martin's). Humans are programmed to hoard, she says, and "things have gotten cheaper, and more widely available, and more quickly available than ever in history."

It hasn't helped, she thinks, that so many households now have two wage earners. Homemakers used to have time to sort through things and edit them. "But when you work all day," she says, "it seems like a huge burden." Especially when those two wage earners might have completely different ideas about their possessions.

For Eden, a hi-tech sales rep in Boston, her life event came two years ago when she moved from Idaho to Boston so her husband could go to grad school. It meant downsizing from a big suburban house to a standard apartment. There was no way all her husband's things, including a full cocktail bar setup -- he is a mixing aficionado -- could come with them.

"My impulse was to get rid of all that stuff and simplify," she says, "but he just has this gene that makes him accumulate stuff."

The compromise was leaving the bar, some furniture, tools and other miscellany in storage in Idaho, a place they weren't likely to live again, ever. It's still there today, rent prepaid, waiting to be rediscovered and reanimated. On some days, thinking about it bothers Eden a lot.

"People in third world countries couldn't even fathom this," she says. "Their houses aren't even as big as our storage unit."

Nonetheless, the storage unit has its usefulness. It prevents a major relationship crisis. And it makes a little down payment on a dream she and her husband have of building a beach house in British Columbia. When they get around to doing that, Eden says, all that stuff could be really useful.

People Substitutes

What's in storage, says Scanlon, doesn't often have great cash value. "It's mostly stuff people have an emotional attachment to," he says. "They think, 'I might need this someday, or the kids might want this.'… That's really what is motivating this."

It doesn't matter if such ideas are patently unrealistic, says Glovinsky: "Parents ought to ask, how much is the kid really going to want?" Rather, she says, they're powerful impulses, tied to instincts about survival and relationships.

"It's normal for people to be attached to objects," she says. "We tend to make do with them as people substitutes, like children with teddy bears, or Tom Hanks with his volleyball (in "Cast Away"). We all do some of that; it's really just a matter of degree."

The first step in addressing a problem with stuff, she emphasizes, is not hiring a dump truck, but acknowledging the powerful emotional interactions everyone has with things. Once you do that, it's easier to be selective -- to pick some objects that represent memories or people or plans for the future, and get rid of the rest.

The Ugly Un-American

It seems so easy to blame the ugly, consuming American for the storage boom, to see spending $50 or $150 a month to store junk as a spiritual failing unique to the United States. But Americans aren't storing junk, they're storing dreams -- of days when there will be a better house to move in to, of days with time to read all those magazines and make all those recipes; of kids who honor family ties by keeping grandma's dresser; of doing things they once did again, if only they could get interested again. And it could be those kind of dreams aren't American, they're simply human.

That's what industry pros like Adornato are thinking. The business is already firmly established in Australia and Europe, and Adornato has been talking with storage executives about the experience there.

"The executives said over and over again that once people are aware of the product, their habits were indistinguishable from Americans," Adornato reports. "That is, they like to accumulate stuff; they had more stuff than they wanted to keep in their residence; and they had the same inertia about taking it out."

Sonne is bullish on that mother of all markets, China. "One of the developers in China told me the idea of self-storage works everywhere, because people aren't that different." While it might take time to introduce the concept of storage to Chinese consumers, Sonne says, "once it gets in the psyche of people … it sort of becomes part of their life."

That means on my next trip to Beijing I might be able to glimpse two Forbidden Cities. The ancient one, full of treasures of jade and calligraphy and hand-wrought bronze, is a museum now, open to the public. But the brand new storage palace, full of magazines and junky bed frames -- or the Chinese equivalent -- will be walled off and secret. I wonder what dreams will lie in state there.
Martin John Brown is a writer and researcher specializing in historical and environmental topics. His work has appeared in Air & Space, Smithsonian, E/The Environmental Magazine, SAIL, Cat Fancy, American Spirit and elsewhere.
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