10 Things You Need To Know About Storage Auctions

As man of you know, I’m obsessed with the show Storage Wars. I’ve been watching it like crazy since Baby $ was born (‘cuz they replay them back to back to back in the middle of the night), and lately I’ve been REALLY itchin’ to pull the trigger and go out and see what it’s all about in real life.

Is it really as easy as it is on TV? Can I too score some massive amount of treasures off just a couple hundred dollars??? I’m sure the answers to both are “HAH! Good luck with that,” but I’m a man who needs to experience things first hand before backing away ;) The only major thing standing in my way right now? I have had nooo idea where to even begin on where to go, and what to do when I got there.

So as always, I Googled and I happened across a pretty killer site called Storage Treasures.  I plugged in my zip code on where I’d be interested in hitting them up, and they kicked back a dozen or so storage units who all do auctions every few weeks – pretty much solving that half of the equation in a matter of seconds :) Next was the HOW.

Do I just show up with my money and get to bidding? I know on the show they say you can only bid with the cash in your pockets (no going away and hitting up an ATM, etc), but other than that, are there any other kinds of rules or laws to follow?  I poked around the site a bit more hoping for some inside knowledge to spill out (two of the co-founders I found out are Dan & Laura Dotson, who as you know are the auctioneers on Storage Wars), and came across their newsletter which pretty much promises to make you a pro if you pay attention. So naturally I signed up ;)

And a couple of days later – voila! I get this KILLER email sent to me on the Top 10 Things You Need To Know about storage auctions, and it was *exactly* what I was looking for. So much so that I emailed the author of it, Leslie, and asked permission to re-post it here today so y’all can learn along with me :) Maybe it’ll help anyone else looking to get in on the action too?

Here it is, courtesy of my new best friends, Leslie and the entire Storage Treasures team:

1. What to Bring

The necessities are a valid id, money, a flashlight, and padlocks. The sky’s the limit from there. A hat & sunscreen are a must for me. And water & snacks. If you plan to bid you’ll want tools to a) inventory your unit (like gloves & a box cutter), b) empty your unit (a vehicle, someone to help, ropes etc) and c) to clean your unit (garbage bags & a broom). You’ll need to empty the contents to get your cleaning deposit back, but a quick sweep will go a long way with the facility manager.

2. Learn About Sales Tax and Resale Licenses

Facilities are required to collect sales tax on units sold at auction but lucky for you, many facilities don’t know this. Be sure to find out whether it’s collected so you can adjust your bid. Don’t get caught off guard. Your $100 bid could quickly become $120 with sales tax and a premium. You still have options though. With a resale license (issued by your state) you don’t pay sales tax when you win units, only when you resell the stuff inside.

3. Find Out If There’s Entrance Fees or Buyer’s Premiums

Usually you can walk away with all your money in your pocket if you don’t win a unit. Some facilities, however, are now charging an entrance fee simply to enter the auction – normally $5-$10. Other facilities have begun collecting buyer’s premiums. This only applies if you win a unit, which is then collected at the end of the auction. But it’s important to calculate it into your bid amount. You don’t want to come up short when it comes time to pay the lady.

4. Call to Confirm

The local storage manager isn’t always available to answer the phone, so it’s best to try to call a day or two before the auction. Also ask how many units are going to auction. If it’s 1-3 there’s a better chance the auction might be cancelled. But also a better chance there’s a light crowd. So if the facility is close by, it might be worth stopping by to scope out the situation. You can also ask the manager if they think any of those people are going to pay up. Often managers know if the tenant has moved & they don’t have any way of notifying the tenant their unit is even delinquent. Or they may be in communication with the tenant and know the tenant plans to pay up before the auction. But always, always, ALWAYS call to confirm.

5. Show Up Early to Register

Usually 15 minutes will suffice, but remember – it’s better to be early than miss the auction. Extra time will also give you a chance to ask the manager what information they have about the units and their former tenants, as well as asking the other bidders about their businesses too. It’s also a good idea to chat with the auctioneer so he knows who you are.

6. Check to Make Sure It’s a Live Auction

The vast majority of storage auctions are live auctions. A handful of facilities, however, also do silent auctions. They usually have viewing hours throughout the week, take bids written on a piece of paper, and then answer the highest bidder at a specified day and time. Silent auctions can be a great way to get units really cheap, but as you can imagine, there is room for insider dealing because only the facility sees all the bids.

7. Don’t Forget About The Cleaning Deposit

If you purchase a unit, you will usually be required to pay a cleaning deposit to ensure you empty the entire unit. It varies, but this will usually be around $25-$50. In certain instances it might be worth forgoing your deposit to save yourself the time of emptying the rest of the unit. But be careful, the facility will not look too kindly on this. Try to find another bidder at the auction that will maybe take the stuff off your hands.

8. Keep In Mind The Time to Vacate

You usually have 24 to 48 hours to empty the unit, but some facilities will ask you to vacate that same day. Don’t be afraid to ask for more time if you need it. And if you want to keep the items in the unit for a short period of time, negotiate a highly discounted short term rental. Just remember that this cuts into your profits.

9. Educate Yourself

Just like with anything, you can either wing it and rely on chance, or prepare and do everything within your ability to succeed. Utilize the resources available to you. Read our past emails, learn from our Auction PRO Contributors, ask your questions on our forum, and later check out our video training that will take things to a whole new level. And of course get out to some auctions! If you think you’d be too tempted to buy, leave your money at home and just go watch. Your hard earned money is on the line, so it’s okay to take it slow the first times around.

10. Have fun!

Regardless of why you are there, storage auctions are fun. So is refurbishing things and selling them for a profit. But decide whether it’s a hobby or a business because that changes things. For example, are you factoring your time invested? You might decide you enjoy it & it’s better than going to the gym so you’re not concerned about the time. Or you might decide you’d rather be fishing & if you’re going to do this it’s got to be worth your time. Just think it through because this will affect what units you buy and how you resell.

Pretty good stuff right? I like that last part about figuring out WHY you’re interested in storage auctions to begin with. Personally, I just want to go EXPERIENCE it and see what the whole thing’s about. If I ever did spend some money and buy a unit, it would 100% be considered for entertainment purposes kinda like playing the lottery – at least at first. If I get good at it I can’t promise it wouldn’t supply my new consignment venture, haha… You need a good outlet so you can UNLOAD everything, right? :) You can’t make a profit if you don’t sell anything to anyone! Which is probably one of the main reasons people don’t give it a shot – you have to figure out what to DO with all that stuff if you win!

Either way though, it definitely makes for good TV :) And hopefully I’ll be back here soon telling y’all how my first experience went. I don’t know if I’d have the balls to throw down some money the first time around, but I guarantee it’s just a matter of time until I do. The whole thing just fascinates the crap out of me.

How about you guys? Anyone else like this stuff too? Or even better – anyone else BUYING UP storage units themselves? I wanna hear about it if so! Daddy needs some more tips!

Photo credit: rasdourian

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  1. Lance @ Money Life and More September 24, 2012 at 7:09 AM

    I looked up local storage auctions once or twice but never actually went. I think you’re in a good location to find some decent things in these units. I’m in a poorer area of the country so there is probably more junk in storage units where I live.

    That said I seem to remember reading somewhere that this show is rigged. I don’t know if it is true or not… but that’s what I remember reading. Obviously the prices they use for what the items sell for are all estimates and my guess is they’re higher than what they actually sell for so I wouldn’t except any crazy profit margins… and how long is your money tied up waiting for items to sell?

    All of that said I do think it’d be neat to go watch and maybe bid on once or twice. You could sell on ebay but watch out for fees!

  2. MB @ 12 Year Career September 24, 2012 at 8:11 AM

    Haha, this is definitely my husband’s sort of thing. I think he actually looked into storage unit auctions as well. He never got into that specifically, but he did get into what we jokingly called “video game arbitrage”. A lot of people have old video game stuff and sell it for cheap, without realizing some of the games are collectible. So if you know which games are worth more, you can make a little money. He spent a lot of time on it, though, and it was really hit or miss.

  3. Aaron September 24, 2012 at 8:32 AM

    Thanks for this info! I’ve always wondered about how folks get into this. On the show it seems like the “stars” are the only ones bidding – even when there are tons of folks around. Maybe they don’t have that much cash on hand? :)

  4. Noah September 24, 2012 at 9:42 AM

    I also did enjoy watching Storage Wars until I read several articles about it that disclose that it is completely fake. It’s not like most reality shows that have some dose of reality; it’s 100% fake. The entire show is scripted and the items are planted in the storage units. The auctioneer is the mastermind behind the show and hopes the show drums up more business for his industry. I haven’t watched the show since this discovery. I don’t have any links handy but google will help uncover enough to persuade you that this isn’t a good money-making venture.

  5. Samantha September 24, 2012 at 10:12 AM

    I’m not sure why, but this seems absolutely crazy to me. It would definitely be a gamble, almost like a very expensive lottery. And I’ve heard the entire show is scripted and set up, not unlike almost all other “reality” shows.

    Hopefully you can get your kicks just hanging out at the auctions, and you don’t lay out any actual cash.

  6. Trinnie September 24, 2012 at 10:39 AM

    A co-worker of mine does storage auctions. Obviously, he’s not making enough to quit working, but after about 5 lockers, he’s $4000+ in the game. The show itself is definitely ‘staged,’ according to him. It’s really hard to find the rare stuff like they do. He’s found quite a bit of jewelry he’s been able to sell as scrap…that’s where all his profit is coming from.

  7. J. Money September 24, 2012 at 10:45 AM

    @Lance @ Money Life and More – Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of these reality shows are fake for sure, but it still doesn’t mean it doesn’t go on in the real world pretty similarly :) To me it’s a good representation of what’s possible if you go out and learn the industry. I’ve talked to people in my area who all do this and they say that while it IS harder than it looks on TV, it’s still fairly profitable. But again they also have their own stores which they then go out and fill up from these finds – unlike the average person like you and me :)
    @MB @ 12 Year Career – Cool! You’re husband’s a little hustler over there – I like it :) And didn’t know about “collectible” video games really either – you learn something every day!
    @Aaron – That or they only show us the ones the Stars actually win :) You do see others bidding on a lot of them, but they always get outbid in the end on the ones we see. I bet they have like 20 at a time – not the 4 that we only get to watch. Unless the whole thing is fake as others have already mentioned.
    @Noah – That could be true about planted objects, cuz if not it would mean they’d have to be followed and filmed like a thousand times a month until something super crazy popped up, haha… so it makes sense tv show/business wise why they’d do that. But it doesn’t botter me much. I love the entertainment and I know people do this pretty good for a living too. I just wanna finally try it myself! :)
    @Samantha – I think it would be worth it even if I did buy one of them just to go through the process from start to finish. Maybe if I can get a unit for around $100 or $150? Though that would also mean a unit probably filled with more crap than treasures… It’s all fascinating to me either way :) And you’re right – it IS a big gamble!
    @Trinnie – Awesome!! I know it’s def. possible for sure to find hidden gems, but yeah – not as fast/easy as on the show :) I wonder how much your friend will make when all is said and done? I’d be happy with breaking even the first few times, but after that I’d need to be making some sort of profit for it to be worth all the time and effort. Tell your friend I’m glad to hear he’s giving it a shot :) I need to man up!

  8. DebtsnTaxes September 24, 2012 at 11:40 AM

    My buds has done the storage auction thing before but hasn’t had any luck with it. He said people go all crazy and overbid. He has had better luck with vehicle auctions though. I don’t think I would do the whole storage auction thing though. I don’t think I could tell what would be valuable or not.

  9. RichUncle EL September 24, 2012 at 12:05 PM

    Sounds interesting and I’ve seen the show, but there is another show that is better than storage wars and it is called auction hunters. Those two guys make a killing and I enjoy watching this show as these two guys can make up too 15K in one episode. Crazy profits.

  10. Gillian @ Money After Graduation September 24, 2012 at 12:19 PM

    I absolutely love that show. However as far as actually participating, it’s too much risk for me. Very interesting article, I would love to see what the whole process was like in real life, as it seems to be somewhat staged for television.

  11. Mrs. Pop @ Planting Our Pennies September 24, 2012 at 12:29 PM

    Do you listen to This American Life on npr? A year or two ago, they did an amazing show where they followed a group of storage auction participants around for the day. It was awesome, but also kindof depressing the things that people would leave behind. One storage unit was discovered to be a former drug addict’s and it was kindof emblematic of their disintegrating life… Storage auctions seem even more personal than foreclosures, so I’m not sure I could do it.

  12. Christina Marie September 24, 2012 at 12:47 PM

    I also love the show, but all of those auction shows are “fake”. I watch it more for the info they provide about stuff (history, etc.). So if I ever come across it in a yard sale, thrift store, ect., I’ll be sure to snatch it up.:) I’m an avid book collector and find myself slowly turning into a picker.

    Also FYI, I read somewhere that you are in the DC area. If you ever want to take a drive, there is a guy way out in Mt. Airy, MD who sells stuff out of his barn. (I went to one of his sales once looking for books.) I think he buys storage lockers and resells the stuff, so you might go and ask him a few questions. He has a FB page called “Estate Liquidators”.

  13. Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager September 24, 2012 at 1:16 PM

    So when is your first auction?

  14. Leslie "Voice of Reason" September 24, 2012 at 4:44 PM

    I’m glad everyone’s interesting in this topic…I think all of us like searching out a great deal or a great find, and storage auctions combines those two. A few thoughts based on the feedback…don’t assume poorer or more rural areas don’t have great stuff. Often people put their family heirlooms in storage (because it’s not their style, or they don’t have room for grandma’s stuff) and these items can have value. And as for the show being fake, they film many of the episodes at facilities we manage, and those are real storage auctions & real storage units. I have heard that some of the other shows are staged…but I know at least a few of the episodes aren’t, so who knows. Now could they be slipping one or two cool items into units without anyone knowing? Of course they could. It takes hours to inventory a unit & find the cool stuff (and sometimes there isn’t anything cool), and if you’ve been on a filming set you know that’s just not possible. But cool stuff does happen…like Paris Hilton’s unit really did go to auction & was bought, by someone we know. And most really cool stuff you don’t hear about, because the buyers are smart & they don’t want the owners to come after them and drag them into a lawsuit. But yes, most of the time you’re looking to turn $50 into $300 or $200 into $1000. You’re probably not going to retire off of storage auctions & don’t mortgage your house or liquidate your 401k to bid!!!!

  15. Brent Pittman September 24, 2012 at 6:15 PM

    You can also watch the shows for free online. Oh man. I love this show too, and my father in law wants to meet Barry when he comes out to L.A. I just can’t imagine how people leave this stuff…another reason to include your storage unit info in your will.

  16. Mrs Smith September 24, 2012 at 8:57 PM

    Hi J$! This isn’t about the auction shows, but you mentioning consigning again reminded me to ask if you have gone to children’s consignment stores yet? They are a spectacular way to get kids clothes, shoes, toys and room decor for WAY cheaper than retail. Seems right up your alley. I’d love to read a play by play of your first visit to one because I know you will be mad impressed with how much you save.

  17. J. Money September 26, 2012 at 10:57 AM

    @DebtsnTaxes – Yeah, that’s what my friends here have said too. The show made it SUPER popular and now they always have to deal with crazy bids and people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing, haha… I guess like me ;)
    @RichUncle EL – Huh. I’ve been watching Auction KINGS, but not sure I’ve seen Auction Hunters before. I’m gonna go look for it tonight, thanks :) The best shows to me are those which SHOW the people making money after they’ve found/bought something. Cuz the rest is just “in theory.”
    @Gillian @ Money After Graduation – Oh yeah, I’m sure it is but the gist of it is probably the same. Whenever I do it I’ll be sure to blog it up afterwards!
    @Mrs. Pop @ Planting Our Pennies – Oh man, that’s crazy… I bet people find all kinds of crazy stuff in there like that. I know my Uncle once lived out of his storage unit so everything in there was set up like a real home! Though obviously very illegal and he has since been living appropriately ;)
    @Christina Marie – YES!!! I’ve been to his FB page before actually, and randomly went to one of his estate sales he was doing too :) It wasn’t until later that I realized it was the same guy. I haven’t been to his barn yet, but man I want to… maybe I’ll venture out there this weekend to even just see it ;) Thanks for the reminder! And I totally agree – you can learn a LOT about history from all these shows, it’s great. Esp. Pawn Stars and Auction Kings.
    @Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager – As soon as I grow a set!
    @Leslie “Voice of Reason” – Hey friend!! Thanks so much for stopping by :) And again for allowing me to respost your awesomeness – this is great. I had no idea about Paris Hilton’s unit??? That is hilarious!! You have to tell me about it later offline – I’m super curious now ;) Interesting info on being sued and all that stuff too – hadn’t thought about that before. I guess I woulnd’t be showing off all my steals either!
    @Brent Pittman – Hah! I’d love to meet Barry too :) I bet you could pretty easily if you did a little research.
    @Mrs Smith – Yup! I sure have :) Some of the consignment shops I go to normally have a kids section in them which I like to peruse here and there. There are always great finds in ’em though, you’re so right. I can’t even imgaine a kids-only shop though! Woo!

  18. Dustin October 1, 2012 at 4:45 PM

    I recently went to a storage unit in Houston, Texas, as they were starting an auction. I wasn’t going for the auction, but stayed to watch the action. There were only four units available that day, and maybe a handful of people who signed up to bid.

    After seeing the first unit, I asked about how busy it gets, and one of the women that worked there told me that unfortunately, it’s not like how it is in Storage Wars. She said her nephew was a production assistant in the show and he told her everything is staged, which isn’t difficult to believe. Needless to say, I think the reality of storage auctioning isn’t as pretty as the TV-version of it, but it’s still interesting to see what kinds of things you can find at these places. Just don’t expect to make a living or retire from it!

  19. J. Money October 1, 2012 at 8:05 PM

    Oh yeah – I mean TV after all is about entertainment :) But I’m sure some of the awesomeness still occurs in the real world, just not *as* often as we probably think… I’m def. looking forward to giving it a shot sometime soon though.

  20. Adam Hathaway October 7, 2012 at 3:29 PM

    Hey J! I too am obsessed with this show. However, I just dont have the courage to throw down the amount of money these people throw regularly and then walk away with nothing. I would love to see the J-Money winnings. I did look into it in my area and apparently state laws make it hard to do this so they are limited.

  21. J. Money October 8, 2012 at 10:38 PM

    You’d have to go into it as “entertainment” only really the first few times :) Then if you happen to get GOOD at it, do it more for the investment/return. I’ll holler once I give it a shot though for an inside scoop! It will be nice to check it off the list at the very least :)

  22. Kirk Hilles October 9, 2012 at 11:24 AM

    I haven’t watched Storage Wars, but have Auction Hunters on my DVR and its 100% fake. I’ve never been to an auction nor buy anything, but I’d imagine that newbies find themselves paying big money for junk and then having additional costs after that, that they didn’t think of. In these shows the winners find rare, perfect condition antiques, guns, even vehicles.

    Now, stop and think. What would you put in a storage shed? You don’t put valuables there, you don’t put neat stuff there, you put the junk that doesn’t make it into your house. You put extra washing machines/dryers, mattresses and lots of extra, worn out clothes that don’t make it to yard sales. Value? Not much unless you’re willing to work really hard on it. Is that 10 year old washing machine worth something? Maybe with some TLC. Does ANYONE really want an used mattress with the bed bug scares nowadays? No!

    People forget about that they legally own all of that crap now and are responsible for it. These shows imply that you take what you want and leave the rest. NO!!! You have to dispose of it and not in the storage area’s dumpster – you’re going to have to rent a dumpster to get rid of all of that crap. You’re going to have gallons of point to dipose of, used motor oil and other automotive fluids (you ever try and dispose of brake fluid – good luck!), etc. There might be rodents and roaches there, spoiled food, etc.

    I understand the appeal of finding an unopened “treasure chest” but these aren’t it. Now that these shows have come out, bids have doubled (or more) and any profitability is pretty much eliminated.

    There are lots of ways to find treasure by buying things that people don’t know are valuable. My co-workers scours eBay and finds rare Hot Wheels. Other people play the flea market game. Its there, but you have to work for it.

  23. mario October 9, 2014 at 10:58 AM

    I am really interested and looking forward to be in the storage auction business. Do I need a license or certificate to be able to do it? Thank you.

    1. J. Money October 10, 2014 at 5:22 PM

      I don’t think you do, but it’s a good thing to hit up good ol’ Google for and double check. From my understanding anyone can buy a storage unit? you may have to pay taxes and do more business-stuff if you end up buying/selling in large quantities, but I’ve never personally heard of a storage unit license/certificate…

  24. christina March 2, 2015 at 1:41 AM

    well my experiences have been good so far i am a swapmeet vendor so this was right up my alley yes we get these high rollers that way overbid it makes me mad cause i dont stand a chance but the ones that are up my alley they usually dont want those on all the units i won so far i trippled my money on all very addicting

    1. J. Money March 2, 2015 at 10:36 PM

      NICE WORK!!

      I’ve since stopped thinking about this stuff now that i have kids as they completely take over my free time (hah) but I do love watching the show every now and then still. And hitting up yard sales for some quick flips too, but I do wish to give this a shot one day when the stars align :) Glad it’s working out for you so well – thanks for sharing!

  25. Allie April 16, 2016 at 8:54 AM

    These shows seem cool until it’s your life up for auction. I’m a single mom and put my lifetime belongings in storage because I was going through an eviction.
    After 7 months of paying on time, I fell behind on the storage rent and this particular company didn’t do partial payments so there was a time when I was only $35 short and they wouldn’t take the bulk of the money because of the $35 shortage. Then they kept adding late fees every time I came close to paying. Finally they auctioned off my unit. At one point, before the auction, I was standing in the office with $700 and they wouldn’t accept it because I was short of the $250 in late fees.
    (Some storage companies work with people. This particular company will not accept anything less that the full amount.)
    They sold off my life because of $250 and now my daughter and I literally own nothing except our backpacks. My kid’s baby photos are gone and every personal gift I ever gave her is now just somebody’s merchandise. Storage auctions are a dirty business and I hope that whoever bought my life and everything I worked for, never has a peaceful day in their life.

    1. J. Money April 18, 2016 at 11:32 AM

      Well that sucks, sorry to hear :( I don’t think any ill will should be sent to the buyers though – they have no idea as to the reasons why people aren’t paying their bills, just that they haven’t.

      1. Allie April 19, 2016 at 1:53 PM

        The storage facility gave the buyer my phone number and nicely asked him to return my birth certificate and my daughter’s baby albums and he threw them out anyway.
        So I have ill will towards the buyer because the office explained the situation to him and he still tossed out all of our personal items instead of turning them into the office. Now I have no photos of my daughter as a baby, and none of my documents. He didn’t have to do that.

        1. J. Money April 19, 2016 at 2:52 PM

          Ugh, yeah.. that’s a dick move for sure.

    2. Jan August 10, 2016 at 12:05 PM

      You should have hung around and watched the buyer who bought it and asked them for your pictures and such. I am sure they would have been happy to give those personal items to you since they don’t have any need for them.

  26. Mary May 23, 2016 at 2:31 AM

    I recently bought a unit for $10 I’m looking at making $100 with alot of work. It was fun and we found a watch that we can’t find on the Internet so need to take it to a jeweler. Bought another one for $20 that had a couch love seat and chair withe a couple other bigger items. We haven’t sold those yet. But we will make a little. It’s fun and to be able to help others that can’t afford alot with a yard sale is always rewarding to me. Now a days there is just some stiff people do not want to our can not pay full price for.

    1. J. Money May 23, 2016 at 10:55 AM

      Nice!! Sounds like a magnificent way to spend some time and have some fun. I have still yet to give this a shot! :)