Auctioneer Paul Maglio casts an eye over the ragtag band of bidders congregating in the cold and dreary alley of a Westminster self-storage facility.
“Fair warning,” he calls out in his Massachusetts accent. Then: “Sold!”
It’s a Wednesday morning at about 10 a.m., and some 50 bidders have shown up from around the region to gamble on the contents of abandoned self-storage units. Some are pros: New Hampshire resident Skip Sullivan pulled up with a small entourage in a black SUV painted with his company’s name, JSB Sales. Others are hobbyists. Some are just curious.
Nearly all of them are hoping to turn a profit by snapping up the contents of abandoned storage units and reselling them at a higher rate. It’s a practice that’s caught on as people look for creative ways to supplement their incomes, and a popular reality television show is ostensibly showing them the way.
Maglio lays out the ground rules, and he makes it clear: Cash is king. So, with empty pockets, I end up falling in with Vernon resident Rodney Moore and his friend, Philip Ortega. Originally of Plaucheville, La., Ortega is living in Vermont while his wife works as a nurse in Springfield.
Moore, the quieter of the middle-aged duo, is the old hand, and he’s been showing the gregarious Ortega the ropes for a few months. While we wait for the auction to start, the men joke around with some of the other bidders. Ortega is a teacher and coach, but, now out of work, he’s taken up the auction circuit.
“It gets in your blood,” Ortega says in his thick Southern drawl. “It’s addictive. I don’t have a job right now, so I travel.”
This morning it’s Westminster, and then on to Brattleboro, for a total of 11 units on the auction block. But many bidders will travel far afield in pursuit of a good buy. “Are you going to Hyannis?” Maglio asks one regular. Maglio is employed by Storage Auction Solutions and conducts auctions for storage facilities all over the Northeast. The Hyannis auction the next day is a big one — 35 units.
In Westminster, our first auction of the day is a small unit. One of the employees of Casey Storage Solutions unlocks the door and Maglio calls out, “Get a look, get a look, get a look.” The bidders shuffle past in single file. We’re allowed to look but not touch, and we can’t enter the dim, shadowy cave. I see a few boxes of what look to be books and CDs, some trash, a mound of clothing. It looks pretty dismal.
But when we step to the side, Ortega and Moore put their heads together and begin comparing notes in hushed tones. They noticed a few instrument cases, which I had missed entirely. Still, it’s a small unit, and they set their ceiling low. When the short spate of bidding tops out at $250, there’s a “holy shit” from the crowd behind me.
“That should have been a $50 box,” Ortega explains.
Nationally, industry watchers such as Lance Watkins, who founded the website StorageTreasures.com, say the number of people attending auctions is up dramatically. It’s no different in Vermont. Watkins attributes that in large part to the popularity of a TV show called “Storage Wars” on A&E.
In Westminster, everyone seems to have an opinion about the show, which debuted in 2010. “Storage Wars” follows a handful of professional auction hoppers in California. Its second season premiere in July 2011 was the channel’s highest-rated episode at the time.
The Vermont bidders have something of a love-hate relationship with the TV show. Most are avid viewers, and kid about their compatriots being a “Dave” or a “Barry” or one of the reality show’s other stars. They also complain, though, that the show falsifies the auction experience. Some, like Sullivan, think the auctions are staged. They gripe that the publicity attracts novices who get caught up in the excitement of bidding and drive up prices.
“You have to be an eagle eye and know what you’re looking for,” Ortega advises. Then again: “A lot of it’s unknown.” Often it’s impossible to even guess what might be hiding in the crowded units or mysterious boxes. A buyer might open one crate to find a valuable coin collection, only to purchase another lot and discover a bizarre papier-mâché sculpture of a donkey.
That’s among the strangest items that Ortega has found in a unit.
Montpelier resident and frequent auction-goer Tim Beavin has discovered the cremated remains of bodies in other units — a heartbreaking reminder, he says, of just how personal these belongings can be.
But there are occasional big wins. Moore bought the contents of one unit that contained a brand-new washer and dryer. He estimates he nabbed $3000 worth of merchandise for a $300 bid. Sometimes strange items have value that the bidders might never have predicted. Moore resold a Flowbee — the 1988 invention is a vacuum-cleaner attachment meant for cutting hair — for $47.
“I was going to throw it in the trash,” he says, shaking his head a bit. “You never know.”
Another auction-goer puts it this way to a friend in line at one unit: “It’s a little like the lottery. Except with some work thrown in.”
That’s because bidders are on the hook for emptying out the unit they purchase, often within 24 hours. “That means the good, the bad and the ugly,” Maglio warns. The only items buyers can and should leave behind are personal papers such as photographs or tax returns, a rule that’s intended to protect against identity theft.
The self-storage industry is big business in the United States. According to one trade group, it brought in more than $20 billion in annual revenues in 2010, and the Self Storage Association says self-storage has been the fastest-growing segment of the commercial real estate industry over the last 30 years.
Plus, the trade group boasts that the industry is practically recession proof. One analyst told the Wall Street Journal that the foreclosure crisis has boosted demand for storage space as families move into smaller rental units.
Curiously, though, storage-unit auctions are at an all-time low nationally.
“Because of the economy, it makes sense to think that delinquencies and foreclosures would be going up, but they have been decreasing,” Watkins says.
Sales happen only after renters fall behind on their rent. According to Vermont’s lien laws, the storage facility has to first send two notices of default to the person’s last known address, and then post an advertisement for the sale in a newspaper for two consecutive weeks. Only then can the facility auction off the contents of the unit. The storage facilities can take what’s owed in back rent, but if there’s money left over, the renter can claim the balance. Otherwise, the balance goes to the Vermont treasurer.
Most bidders focus on the stuff, not the people behind the stuff — though occasionally there are some obvious reminders. In Westminster, the manager jimmies open one of the metal doors and suddenly we’re looking at a mountain of household goods, most of it children’s belongings. One box is marked “Dylan’s toys,” and I spy a Christmas stocking with “Dylan” etched across the top.
Ortega recently had trouble moving children’s stuff at the New Hampshire auction house where he resells goods. That may be why he passes on this one. The unit goes for $125 to Duane O’Dell of Arlington, Vt., who started attending auctions about six months ago out of curiosity.
“Anybody that tries to make a living doing this is crazy,” O’Dell tells me. Before today, he’d bought 15 or 16 units, by his estimate. By the end of the morning he’s added three more to the list. He’s seen dead rodents and live rodents — not a big deal; his day job is in the animal-control business — and estimates that one out of every three units contains pornography.
Still, “it’s sort of like Christmas morning,” O’Dell says of his new hobby. “You never know what you’re going to get.”
O’Dell carries a heavy-duty flashlight that he aims into every storage unit, and his pockets are full of a tangle of locks. After the bidding is complete at each unit, the facility manager yanks the sliding door down again. The winning bidder must lock up and can’t come back to examine the contents until after he’s settled up.
Toward the end of the morning, Ortega brings up the old adage about money: “You have to have it to make it.” O’Dell’s three units total $1125, but he estimates that the most expensive — an $850 bid — will churn out around $3500 in resale value. It’s one of the tidier units, and Maglio calls out to the crowd, “A lot of nice product, folks. Don’t miss the opportunity.”
This, after all, is what brings people back to auctions again and again: opportunity. Ortega says that in tough economic times it’s an attempt to make a little money, even if the auctions are a gamble.
O’Dell looks giddy after his big buy. “I think I need to slow down a little,” he says.
But he doesn’t. Once the Westminster auction is over, everyone piles in their cars and heads south. The same crowd, with the same auctioneer, reconvenes in Brattleboro, where the group eagerly speculates about the possible contents of a massive shipping container.
“There’s probably a Corvette in there,” someone jokes. Suddenly it doesn’t feel that improbable, because by then I’m wondering, Just what does someone store in a unit this size?
Not much, it turns out. Once the door opens, I puzzle at a large stack of what appears to be flooring before Maglio explains that it’s part of a bowling alley. The unit goes for $100, and Ortega and Moore agree it’s a good buy.
It is possible to make money at this. In fact, Moore says he makes about $600 a week. He also buys at estate sales and has been a regular vendor at the Newfane flea market for years. Ortega is newer to the biz and is taking classes to learn more about the value of different kinds of jewelry. Both men try to turn around their purchases quickly. Some items go to consignment shops or eBay, and many get doled out at the New Hampshire auction house that Moore and Ortega frequent.
But today, the men leave empty handed, and don’t succumb to the frenzy of last-minute bidding that drives one seemingly worthless unit up to $200.
I get conflicting advice from Moore: You have to be cautious. But you have to take some gambles. But most of all, he says, start slow.
“If you get right into it you’ll start piling stuff up instead of turning stuff over,” he says. And that’s a recipe for ending up on another A&E classic: the TV show “Hoarders.”
Additional reporting contributed by Natalie DiBlasio.