WINCHESTER, Va. (AP) – It's 10 a.m. on a Thursday. Temperatures hover around freezing. A light breeze makes the cold bite.
Despite the miserable weather, upward of about 200 people have assembled – outdoors – at Apple Blossom U-Store-It to take part in a modern-day treasure hunt.
Years ago, auctioneer Brian Hash said, five or six people was a good turnout for a self-storage auction sale. Thrift store owners and flea market entrepreneurs were the main buyers.
The 23 storage units up for sale – two to three times the norm – is one reason so many people have gathered on a cold March morning. But the A&E Network reality show Storage Wars likely deserves most of the credit.
“Most of the auctioneers I talk to through (the Virginia Auctioneers Association and National Auctioneers Association) credit it to the TV series,” said Hash, who founded Hash Auctions nearly 17 years ago and is serving as the VAA's president this year. “People have started to pay attention and come out to buy units, because it's kind of like a treasure hunt. People wonder what's in the boxes back there that they can't see.
“I saw the same thing when Antiques Roadshow came on. There was an explosion of people buying things at auction.”
Storage Wars follows four competing California storage-unit buyers and pronounces a winner each week based on who got the best value out of the units they bought. The show premiered in December, and a late-January episode drew 3.3 million viewers.
The units are sold because renters have fallen behind on their payments. The facility owner obtains a lien on the unit and, after paying the auctioneer, keeps the proceeds from the auction.
Sales rules vary, but commonly the lock is cut off the unit and the door is opened. Buyers can peer into the unit but are not allowed to enter it or touch items.
Sometimes what's revealed is an empty space. Sometimes its boxes that can contain valuable merchandise or junk. Antiques, furniture, guns, heavy equipment – you name it, it's been sold.
In October, Hash threw open the door on a unit at Apple Blossom to unveil an MG sports car that was far from being in running condition but had value for restoration or parts. He heard that a unit full of antiques recently sold for $27,000 in Manassas, Va.
In past years, when attendance was lighter, facility owners seldom came close to recovering what was owed on the units. The increased interest has helped push up auction prices, industry officials said.
As a result, buyers looking to turn a profit on a unit are finding margins narrowing.
“If you've got an outlet (for sales) and you watch what you buy, it's money there to be made, but you've got to work for it,” said Ronnie Miller, 55, of Haynes Drive outside Winchester. “You can make a little money, and sometimes you can lose a lot if you're not careful about what you bid on.”
Miller, who seeks units with items he can resell for a profit to supplement his disability income, doesn't have a good outlet. But he knows folks who will buy antiques or tools from him, consigns items to auction, and sells other merchandise at yard sales.
He's bought units he didn't break even on, but he's also had some good finds, including an antique tigerwood table and a new big screen TV still in the box.
“Sometimes you get a good storage unit,” he said, “and sometimes it's bad. It's a gamble that you take.”
Thillai Sandstrom regularly rolls the dice on units. She estimates that 80 percent of the merchandise she sells in Aha!, the antiques and thrift store she owns in Gerrardstown, W.Va., come from storage auctions.
She attends sales in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, buying units and sometimes approaching other buyers to let them know she'd consider buying items they're not interested in.
“All the time I look to buy cheap because people come here looking for good stuff and good prices,” said Sandstrom, 46, who moved to America from Brazil five years ago and opened Aha! in the house next to hers 10 months ago. “I need to all the time do my best when I buy.”
Not everyone is looking to turn a buck at storage sales, though.
Joan Nicholas of Augusta, W.Va., said the Apple Blossom sale was her first storage auction. She and her husband, Bill, like to attend auctions to seek bargains.
She bought one Apple Blossom unit with the goal of giving Bill something to do.
“My husband likes to putz with things,” said Nicholas, 52. “It keeps him busy.”
She wasn't successful in that that effort, but she said the purchase wasn't a bad one. Tools that weren't visible until she started going through the unit prevented it from being a bust.
Michael T. Scanlon Jr., president and CEO of the Self Storage Association, an international industry trade group based in Alexandria, Va., said self-storage properties have generally held their own through the recent recession. Industry growth has slowed from thousands of new businesses a year to hundreds, but there's still growth.
Changes in lifestyle – retirement, marriage, divorce, death – drive the use of self-storage units, he said. Moving once drove rentals, but that's fallen off in the weak economy.
Defaults by renters have been up since 2008, Scanlon said, but the change hasn't been significant.
“It's been tapering off since (January),” he said. “I think the worst of it was in 2009.”
Apple Blossom's owners know the economic difficulties their customers are facing and have tried to work with them, said Laurie McClary, a partner in the business with her brother, Bobby Kirk.
Their father, Jerry, built the 600-plus unit facility in the mid-1990s, and Helen Kirk inherited it when her husband died four years ago.
She turned it over to her children a year later, meaning they took charge of the business just as the economy soured. The number of people behind on their bills and number defaulting on payments has risen significantly, she said.
“We've worked with people the very most that we can,” said McClary, a Middleburg, Va., resident who was a commercial real estate agent in Loudoun County before going full-time at Apple Blossom. “It's typical for places to have auctions once a month, but we've been having them every eight or nine months.
“We have to change that. It gets to be a ridiculous amount money (owed) that you can't hope to recover.”
Hash said some auctioneers do as many as two storage sales a week, though it's a minute segment of his business.
The big buyer at the Apple Blossom sale was Chris Hansen, president of CIE Surplus. He was the high bidder on five units, spending $4,500 for them.
His company buys and sells used assets, but federal government property is its forte. The storage auction was something he did on a whim to remind him of when he bought and resold units as a student at Old Dominion University.
“It was more for nostalgia,” the 35-year-old Leesburg, Va., resident said of his return to the storage auction scene. “I was overwhelmed by the amount of people there.”
CIE Surplus sells most of its items on its website, its auction site auctacity.com or eBay. But the Apple Blossom units didn't have a lot that was conducive to Internet sales, so he said most of what he bought will be taken to Hash's auction center for resale.
“It's not going to be as worthwhile as the surplus business,” Hansen said of searching for bargains at storage auctions. “But it was a good exercise, and I got some neat stuff out of it. Sometimes it's nice to mix up the day.”
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