How to score big at storage-unit auctions

Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionSeptember 6, 2013 

  • Tips for storage auctions

    • If you are new, observe what others do. (Especially watch where other bidders focus their flashlights.)

    • Set limits on what you will spend before the auction.

    • Take a flashlight and gloves.

    • Dress according to the weather, and remember you will get dirty.

    • Carefully research the items you buy before you sell them.

    • Be respectful of other attendees.

    • If you have questions, don’t be afraid to ask the auctioneer.

    Fran Kass and Julie Rutherford

  • Rules to remember

    • An online search for “storage unit, auction, (your town)” will produce a number of websites that list where and when they take place.

    • If you are going to bid, take cash, a padlock and your sense of humor.

    • Check times and dates before you head out to an auction.

    • Arrive before the start of the auction for the sign-in process.

    • Listen to the auctioneer for specific rules.

    • Cash is the only accepted method of payment, and you must have it on you, no running to an ATM.

    • Bidders are to remain outside the unit and cannot touch its contents at any time.

    • If you win a unit, you have a set period to clear out and clean the space.

— “Don’t forget to pay the lady!” That line is uttered on every episode of the A&E TV show “Storage Wars” as the auctions for unpaid storage units conclude and the winners ante up for their as-yet-unknown treasures inside.

Experts say buyers are more likely to find dirty clothes, empty boxes and broken furniture than gold, valuable jewelry or a Harley Davidson, as happens on the show. While the show glorifies these strokes of luck by concentrating on units when an old painting or a unique piece of folk art is uncovered, auction attendees stress that they take it as a serious business, and with hard work they can make money at it.

Fran Kass has been bidding for a little more than two years as a part-time job. With patience and research, she has done well, but said it isn’t easy.

“You will be tired and dirty at the end of the day, and that’s a great day,” she said.

Kass says she studied the television shows and picked the brains of Atlanta’s experienced bidders to learn the business. Now she details her own exploits under the name LadyLocks58 on Facebook.

Though it is a business, there is a common and sometimes heartbreaking thread woven through it. There are people in trouble behind the storage units being auctioned.

“Somebody had a tough time in their life,” and fails to pay rent, said bidder Julie Rutherford. “It could be medical problems, legal issues or a death.”

Mark Shirey, owner of the Quality Self Storage chain, said he tries to work with each customer who may have problems paying rent. He called selling their items a “last resort.” “The last thing a storage site wants to do is auction off their goods. We always end up losing money.”

Rutherford started her journey as a bidder when she found herself unemployed and fighting leukemia. Being a fan of the TV shows, she attended auctions as an observer. Then she took the plunge and bought in, taking four units in one day.

Now, Rutherford hits auctions within 50 miles of her Alpharetta, Ga., home and resells the contents on Craigslist and eBay. Others sell in second-hand shops and at swap meets.

Part of Rutherford’s strategy is trying to profile the former owner by what can be seen.

“I mainly go for high-end furnishings and always look for boxes in the back of the unit,” she said.

Recently, Rutherford was surprised when she bought a unit containing a rare military vest. She also profited well from an executive desk from another buy.

Kass once took a chance on a unit at a moving company auction. Figuring it was owned by an elderly person, she thought there might be an antique or two in the boxes. It turned out that some were filled with vintage china and crystal.

“You never know,” said Kass, smiling.

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