Learn to buy and sell antiques and collectibles

"Storage Wars" and Mini Storage Auction Tips

Expert Advice For Buying Storage Units

Storage Auctions are a hot topic right now, but watching "Storage Wars" isn't a good way to learn how to buy units. <

I watched a few episodes of "Storage Wars" recently because I've heard people talking about the show.

Last month, the manager at my mini storage told me the attendance at her monthly auctions has doubled since "Storage Wars" started airing.

A few days later one of my friends told me he likes watching "Storage Wars." He likes to see what people find in the units they buy while dreaming about maybe someday finding something interesting.

Then I got an email from a reader telling me he's in the running to be on Storage Wars next season.

Now, I don't watch TV, but hearing about the show three times in a week got me interested. So I went online to watch a few shows.

I wasn't impressed with "Storage Wars"

Based on the two episodes I saw, Storage Wars is about gamblers and idiots competing to buy stuff with the hope they'll make a killing.

In the first episode I watched a buyer assume because some of the boxes were marked fragile there would be something good in them. This is actually a good assumption, but the word "fragile" was printed on the boxes, not written there by the person who packed them.

This is like assuming a Budweiser box in a storage unit contains beer.

No. You need labels or markings added by the person who packs the box.

Years ago, back before eBay came along and changed the antiques and collectibles markets, I used to have some regular sellers. They bought storage units at auction. Whenever they got trains or toys, they called me.

When eBay took off, they stopped calling me and started selling on eBay.

After watching "Storage Wars," I got to thinking about techniques and tips for mini storage auctions. I called "Jack" up for some information.

(Jack isn't his real name. He agreed to share his knowledge with me so I could include it in my article as long as I didn't use his real name. He doesn't want the people he sees at the auctions to know he shared his mini storage auction secrets.)

I've been to Jack's place many times while buying trains and know he's the real deal. Here's some tips about mini storage auctions.

How to Choose What Storage Auctions To Attend

When I asked Jack how he decided what auctions to attend, he said he goes to all of them. I pushed and asked, "what if there are two going on at the same time?"

He said if he had to choose, he'd go to the storage auction in the better area. This means he's looking at the neighborhoods around the facility. Areas with lots of middle class people are better than the poorer areas of town.

He also said poor areas with lots of businesses around them can be good, but he doesn't like them because he concentrates on personal items rather than business items.

What Do You Need To Bid At A Storage Auction?

  • Cash because most auctions don't take checks or credit cards.
  • Simple average clothing like jeans and a tee-shirt. This is for two reasons - one you'll get dirty and don't want to damage your clothes, and two you don't want the other bidders to think you're wealthy and bid against you just for fun.
  • A flashlight so you can see into the storage units. You'll only have a few minutes to look in the unit and a flashlight allows you to see into dark corners. Obviously if you see something valuable don't shine the flashlight on it. You'll only increase the number of people who spot the item.
  • Locks to put on the units you win. After each unit is sold, you'll pay and put your lock on it so you can go bid on other units. The facility will give you some time to empty the unit. The auctioneer will explain the policy before the auction.
  • A truck or van to empty the units you buy. Usually you'll empty the units you buy the same day, but you can make other arrangements with the facility manager. Talk to the manager before bidding on a unit if you won't be able to empty it the same day.
  • A place to sort the contents of the units. Jack has a building in his back yard he uses. One of the people I used to buy from rented a mini storage unit he sorted stuff in.
  • Lastly, you need a plan for what you'll do with the items you buy. If you are looking for stuff to sell on eBay or antique malls, you don't want household items and furniture. If you sell at flea markets and yard sales, household items are OK.

How To Assess The Value Of A Storage Unit During An Auction

Jack told me he'll bid $100 on any storage locker that contains household items neatly arranged. The $100 amount is easy to recoup, and if the unit turns out to be a dud, won't hurt him.

Jack will only bid more than $100 on a unit if he sees reasons to do so. Here's a few things to look for in the unit:

  • Is the unit well organized? Because you don't get to do more than look inside the storage unit how the items are arranged within the unit can be a clue. If the boxes are neatly stacked the renter probably cares about his stuff meaning there is a higher chance of valuable items.
  • In one of the "Storage Wars" episodes I watched, there was a pile of clothes and childrens toys dumped into the unit with little packing or organization. (All Guns To Port episode from 3:40) Jerrod bought the unit for $300, and later in the show after sorting through the contents doubts he'll break even on it. This is an example of a poorly organized unit.
  • What kind of boxes are used for packing? The types of boxes also show the value placed on the contents by the renter. If the boxes are a haphazard mix of types and sizes, little value was placed during packing. If the boxes are all similar types like apple boxes or paper boxes more effort went into packing the items. If the boxes were purchased (file boxes, moving and storage boxes, or, best case, special boxes for comic books or baseball cards) the items inside are probably more valuable.
  • Are the boxes labeled? A label provides information about the box's content, and demonstrates the person packing them spent some time and effort.
  • How much stuff is in the storage locker? Obviously the more stuff in the unit, the higher the chances of finding something valuable. Also a group of twenty low valued items will surely be worth less than 200 items. That's just simple multiplication. Can you see anything valuable? In the Storage Wars episodes I watched, the bidding was based on the presence of visible tools in one unit, an organ in another unit, and a kitchen table set in a third unit.
  • One last way of deciding the value of a unit is to watch the reactions of other bidders when the door is opened and when they examine the unit. This is something you'll learn as you see the same bidders over and over again, but if the bidders get excited or start to huddle in whispering groups there might be something good inside.

    Then again, they might be trying to get other bidders to waste their money by acting excited. Jack said that as floods of new buyers come to storage auctions, the regulars have started trying to screw the new bidders in the earlier sales.

    The idea here is to discourage buyers who overpay from coming back, and to get buyers with limited funds to spend their money on poor value units so they don't bid on later units.

Deciding how much to pay for a unit is an art. As you spend more time at storage auctions, you'll learn.

Remember, you won't make a killing on every unit, but in time you'll make some money on most of them. You just keeping turning the stuff over, and now and then you'll get a great unit. The churning of units where you make some money pays your bills and keeps you going. Don't expect to make a fortune on every unit.

One last example here from Storage Wars. . .

In the Long Beach episode Jerrod says the shelves in his thrift store are empty so he needs to buy some units. This attitude is setting him up for failure. His desperation to have product means he has to buy something, and later in the show he bids more than he thinks a unit is worth.

The time to go bid on some storage units isn't when you need inventory for your store, it's whenever there is a sale. Also, there is no rule that says you have to buy or even bid at an auction. Don't feel you have to buy something.

Bidding at Storage Auctions

You might think bidding is just a matter of raising your hand to signal the auctioneer, but it's quite deeper. here's some tips for bidding on storage auctions:

  • Before bidding you must determine what you'll pay. I went over this above. Once you decide how much you're willing to pay, don't go over the amount.
  • If you're interested in a unit, make sure you are near the auctioneer, or one of his spotters, so he can see your bid. I've been to auctions where people in the back try to bid at the last moment and aren't seen by the auctioneer. You can start in the back and move forward as you bid, but don't assume the auctioneer will see you as he's downing the auction if you haven't been bidding.
  • Remember, you aren't putting on a show or trying to impress other bidders.

There are techniques you can use to get other bidders to stop bidding, but when you first start attending auctions, don't think of bidding as a contest between you and the other bidders. It's really a contest between you and the amount you decided to pay.

After attending a few dozen storage auctions you'll start to recognize some bidding techniques. I'll write an article about specific bidding techniques in the future. Until then, just pick your amount and stick to it while watching how other bid.

If you aren't a subscriber to my free newsletter, sign up and I'll send you the article on advanced bidding tactics when I write it. I write a new article most weeks for my newsletter readers, but don't put all of them on the website. Use the form in the upper right corner of this page to subscribe.

Ok, so now you've won a storage unit auction. Lets move on to sorting through the stuff and selling it.

Sorting Your Storage Auction Winnings

You need a place to sort where you can be comfortable and take your time. Read my article on sorting antiques to sell them for information about going through the unit's contents. Here's some more tips:

  • While sorting, don't forget to look for hiding places. There might be money or small valuables hidden behind or under drawers, or in clothing.
  • Don't throw things out just because they are broken. I once pulled a large Roseville vase out of a garbage can at an estate sale that sold for $335 on eBay. The estate sale operator threw it out because it had a chunk the size of a golf ball out of the rim. I figured based on the size - it was about 20 inches tall - I'd take it home and look up what unbroken ones sold for on eBay. If you have doubts, you can always throw it out later.

Where To Sell Storage Auction Items

Where you sell the items in the unit will depend on the size of the items, what you find, how fast you want to get your money back, how much time you have, and how much storage space you have.

I know one person who pulls out items to sell on eBay, and then drops everything else off at a auction house for sale in box lots. He doesn't get as much for the general household items as a yard sale or flea market seller would, but he gets his money quickly with little effort.

Jack goes through everything and tries to get top dollar. He sells in all the different avenues, but buying storage units is all he does. He's got the time and space to get top dollar.

Some of the ways you can sell storage unit contents:

  • Ebay is good for small, easy to ship items worth more than $30. My Auction Revolution eBay System will help you get better prices on eBay.
  • For small household items in good condition and books Fulfillment By Amazon is a good choice.
  • Craigslist is good for most anything if you're willing to deal with telephone calls and people coming over to look at the stuff.
  • Yard Sales are good for general household items.
  • Antique shows and antique malls are good for selling collectibles and desirable furniture.
  • Flea markets are good for almost anything depending on the character of the market. See my Comparison Of Selling Antiques At Shows Versus On eBay for more information.
  • Local auctions are a good way to sell almost anything. You won't get top dollar, but everything will sell. Pick an auction house that sells the types of stuff you have.
  • Don't forget direct sales to collectors and dealers. In my article on sorting antiques I mentioned taking boxes to a store that specializes in vintage clothing. I know the buyer makes a profit, but I'm willing to take less for the easy sale.
You should get familiar with all these different places before buying a storage unit. Where you sell effects the prices you'll get.

A Few Last Comments About Storage Auctions

Buying storage units at auction can be fun and profitable, but most people don't spend the time. They go out and buy a unit for too much and then get discouraged and stop. This has gotten worse since Storage Wars started airing.

Remember storage auctions are a business and there is a learning curve. Chances are you won't make a fortune, but when you get good at deciding what to pay and how to sell the items


PS Curious about my methods of buying estates and finding antiques and collectibles? I have a book that shows you how I get into estate sales before an estate sales operator is hired, and a large package full of strategies for finding and buying antiques.

The package contains the estate sales report, and information on negotiating, garage sales, buying in antique malls, ads and scripts, 83 different ways to find and buy antiques and more.

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