Originally created 05/04/04

Abandoned storage units can bring money for company



We're pack rats.

Clothes that don't fit. Appliances that don't work. Artwork that would make an art critic cringe.

We've all got things that we'd rather box up and hide away for future generations, or just for the heck of it.

Self-storage units give people a place to store their excess stuff, but sometimes out of sight means out of mind.

For reasons only known to them, many people abandon their goods, leaving storage facility owners with no way to recoup uncollected rents. The storage owners do the next best thing: They auction off whatever is left behind.

On April 27, Affordable Self Storage, one of about 40 facilities in the Augusta area, held a silent auction for the contents of 10 units - six from the 436-unit facility on Augusta Tech Drive and four from the 600-unit facility on North Leg Road.

Marie Miles, opened the Augusta Tech Drive location in 1986 with her husband, David, five years after they entered the business with a facility on Old Evans Road. She estimates they have four or five auctions a year, with at least five units' contents on the block each time.

A unit's owner has to be at least 30 days late on rent before auction proceedings begin. Mrs. Miles said they cut the locks, take a picture of the contents and send it via certified mail with a written description of the locker's contents to the renters' address. A control tag is placed on the door to make sure no one disturbs it, and after they receive confirmation of the letter's arrival, two auction announcements are placed in The Augusta Chronicle's classified section.

Even then, Georgia law states the auction cannot be held until 15 days after the first announcement. Mrs. Miles said they also send a second letter in the regular mail, just in case the person doesn't get the certified letter. Most renters eventually pay up, and by the time a unit is up for auction, it's often three or more months due.

"The phone calls and the letter writing are a lot of effort, so obviously we're not looking to get to this point," she said. "This is the part of the business that you try to avoid. You try to keep a good relationship with the customer; you don't harass them, because you genuinely have people who have sent things that got lost in the mail."

The April 27 auction started at 9 a.m. and was followed by a 10 a.m. auction at the North Leg location. Some facilities hold live auctions; this one was a silent auction. Shortly after 8:30 a.m., Bill Florence, an 18-year veteran of the auction scene, arrived to sign in at the small office. Like many regulars, Mr. Florence started attending auctions after he retired. He still remembers the first unit he bid on.

"I paid $90 for it," he said with a chuckle. "It had a washer, a dryer and a big TV, but the washer and dryer had no motors in them, and the TV had no guts, so it was a big loss."

Over time, he has become better at assessing an items' value in a moments' notice. One of the rules of the self-storage auction is you can only bid on what you see from outside a unit; no rummaging or close inspection of any kind is allowed.

"Most of our eyes are pretty well trained on things; we'll know right away what we want to pay when they open the door," he said, referring to longtime buyers.

The trick is to focus only on items that can be resold. He doesn't notice differences between neighborhoods - only whether a facility is climate controlled - and although many of the faces he sees are familiar, Mr. Florence said newcomers appear from time to time, lured by curiosity and the possibility of finding the next Mona Lisa.

"Suppose I see a china cabinet and a dining room set and a kitchen set. Right away I'm thinking I'm going to probably get $500 for it, so if I can get it for $300, I can make a profit off it," he said. "The rest of the things in there, like toys, exercise equipment, lawn mowers are extra."

The six lockers that were auctioned at the North Leg location drew winning bids from $80 to $450, with contents ranging from old couches and used tires to working television sets and 1960s-era furniture.

One of the rules of the auctions is that any personal effects left behind should be returned to the self-storage office. Mr. Florence said one of his most unusual finds - $2,700 in savings bonds - was returned just the same as wedding pictures or legal documents would be. The 10 or so regular buyers he sees would do the same.

"These boys here are all honest," he said. "The only time we're not friendly is when we're bidding against each other."

He stresses that like most everyone there, he's not getting rich on auctions.

"I don't like buying someone's belongings, and it's a shame that they lose it. Sometimes they can't help it, you know; they've got bills they can't pay," he said. "But if I don't, someone else will."

Reach Patrick Verel at (706) 823-3332 or patrick.verel@augustachronicle.com.