INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Take a quick look at the boxes and bins stacked inside the storage unit.
Uh-uh. No peeking under that tarp. No opening up the boxes.
Now, how much cash are you willing to risk on the chance that maybe, just maybe, those boxes are filled with bags of gold doubloons, or that a hidden tin inside a bin is keeping safe a rare Babe Ruth baseball card?
Not likely, of course. But that's not stopping folks here and across the nation from participating in the latest real-life treasure hunt: bidding at auctions of abandoned self-storage units.
Whether they are lured by tales of yard-sale Picassos – or more likely, just the hope of finding a good deal in tough times – people are flocking to these auctions, which have been popularized by reality TV programs.
“Some people do get the fever. Some do get a rush,” said Allen Haff, co-star of the popular Auction Hunters on Spike TV. “And some people getting into it are gambling because they hope those boxes contain treasure.
“Sometimes, it's just dirty laundry.”
Here's how the auctions work:
The owners of self-storage buildings are legally allowed to sell the contents of unclaimed lockers when the rent is at least 90 days past due.
At a sale, auctioneers cut off the locker renter's padlock, throw open the door and give the gaggle of bidders a minute or two to squint into the dark room. They must keep hands off and stay outside the door, but they can shine flashlights to peek into the nooks and crannies of a pile.
Then, the bidding begins.
“You can make money,” Haff said, “but the best advice is to only spend what you can afford to lose.”
Auctions have been used to sell the contents of abandoned lockers for many decades here.
Several advertised storage locker auctions a week in Central Indiana would draw a handful of regular bidders. But the idea caught fire, and the number of bidders has exploded in the past year, with some auctions often drawing hundreds of people, according to auctioneer Jason Strange of Strange Auction Services.
Most of the newcomers say their appetite was whetted by TV shows such as Haff's Auction Hunters and Storage Wars on A&E – both in their second seasons and spawning spinoffs – that make treasure hunting at storage sales look easy, fun and profitable.
Producers of the shows admit they're playing to the gambler in everyone: A touch of greed is good.
After a locker is won, the new owner searches through the boxes, pulls open drawers, upends the plastic bags – the moment of discovery known as the “dig” – to finally get the big payoff for these modern treasure hunters.
The shows sometimes portray a get-lucky and get-rich image of storage unit buyers finding bags of money, vintage automobiles and motorcycles. Episodes have shown them rediscovering rare phonograph records, antique furniture, vintage video and pinball games, personal watercraft, tools and celebrity clothing.
But reality TV and reality are often quite different.
Auction veterans Steve Jones and Kenny Goff, both of Indianapolis, have been to hundreds of storage sales during decades in the business.
“Auctions are a gamble,” Goff said, “and they are hard work.”
And they often are filled with disappointment even for a savvy bidder such as Jones, who has been at it for nearly 40 years.
Recently, Jones and anther local auction regular were competing on a locker piled high with sealed home electronics boxes.
“It looked really good,” Jones said, with the eye of an experienced bidder.
So tempting that the bids went back and forth, higher and higher, until Jones won the locker's contents – for $1,025.
Then Jones dug into his presumed treasure-trove of appliances and electronics.
“When I got into it,” he said, “I found all the boxes had been opened. Everything had been taken out, and someone had taped the boxes back up. Only two or three had anything still in them. The rest were empty.”
Goff's advice: “This is reality. This is not the TV show.”
And in reality, there is a lot more trash than treasure.
“I don't know anyone who has found a bag of gold coins or a stash of rare comic books,” he said. “Do you really think someone with a jar full of money is going to leave it in a storage locker?”
That said, the experts do have some advice.
For example, said Auction Hunters co-star Haff, nondescript plastic bags probably are filled with worthless clothes or trash. Neatly closed, taped and stacked cardboard boxes, on the other hand, indicate someone was careful with the valuable contents.
“However, just because a box says ‘crystal’ on the side of it doesn't mean it is nice glass,” he said. “It could be a girl's name.”
Even with their knowledge of bidding strategy and resale values, Haff and his co-star Clinton “Ton'' Jones might buy 10 or 20 lockers to find one with an awesome find worthy of a TV episode. They make 20 shows in a season.
“At the end of a 16-hour day, we may be worked out and dog-tired,” Haff said. “We may be sleeping in the back of the bread truck. But it is still a good day if we feel like we can collapse on the field of battle, victorious.”
Most veterans of Indianapolis storage auctions said they sell their finds in newspaper and Internet ads, at flea markets or yard sales and in their own resale shops.
Goff goes to several auctions a week and then trucks the resellable items to a family-owned auction in Kentucky.
His idea of a good buy?
“A great discovery is a sofa with all the cushions.”
At one recent auction in Indianapolis, about 150 people crowded into the All My Sons Moving & Storage warehouse on the Northeastside. Some were curious; most took bidder numbers assigned by Strange, the auctioneer.
A half-hour before the 10 a.m. start, he had handed out nearly 60 numbers, with 50 more people in line, including Jodi Bratch, Fortville.
It was just her second storage auction, “so we're cautious bidders,” she said. But she'd seen the TV shows and thought it looked easy enough.
“We hope to go home with some discoveries from the lockers she (might) buy,” said her father, David Sizemore. “We could get a building, and this could be inventory to start a shop or flea market.”
As the crowd of bidders moved down the rows, the doors of 32 storage bins were pried open, the bidders got a few seconds to size up the value and Strange used an auctioneers' machine-gun chatter to conduct the bidding.
Chris Lambert of All My Sons said such auctions are necessary to clear space in the warehouse. Past-due fees may total several thousand dollars.
“I really don't like to sell them,” he said. “I give the renters as long as possible to claim them because these vaults contain someone's life.”
On this particular day, the auction of 32 vaults brought a total of $8,700.
Auction regular Michael Jacobs, who has been buying and digging through lockers for many years – he was the lucky “loser” outbid for those empty electronics boxes – came the closest to striking gold at the All My Sons sale.
Jacobs paid $675 for a locker packed with furniture and clothes that looked like they could have been the possessions of an elderly woman.
Stored in a dresser was a small jewelry box.
Inside, he found a man's wedding band, and women's earrings and necklaces. They were old and worn.
“That's about $600 in gold,” Jacobs figured, “so it pays for the locker.”
And although it wasn't a Charles Dickens-signed first edition of Great Expectations, in the world of storage auctions, it more than met expectations.
Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com
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