Stowing Your Stuff

Full: Renting a self-storage unit may be just the thing to unclutter a life too filled up with things.

February 16, 2003|By Joni Guhne | Joni Guhne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When the inherited furniture from Grandma arrives or the kids announce they're moving back home, more people are looking beyond their attics and basements for a place to store those cumbersome but cherished possessions.

Today, there are about 30,000 self-storage facilities in the United States and seemingly more are built every day. The growth has concerned some industry experts, who worry that the market is saturated.

But some center owners say there is plenty of business, propelled by people whose homes don't have enough storage space. A recent survey by the National Association of Home Builders found that almost two-thirds of new homebuyers were not satisfied with the general storage available in the house.

"It's an event-oriented business," says Michael Belanger, operations manager for U-Store, a family-owned business since 1975 that has nine sites in Maryland. "Mom and Dad may reach a point where they have to move in with the kids. There's divorce, death, even the kids moving back home for a little while."

Belanger says the reason for renting self-storage space may be as uncomplicated as an apartment dweller needing an extra closet or someone selling a home.

Costs vary depending on location, but rental fees can reach more than $1 a square foot, according to the Storage Association, a trade group in Springfield, Va.

Some units are as small as a closet or as large as a garage that can hold the contents of a six-room house. Given the increased competition, local prices can range from about $40 to as much as $400 a month, depending on the size of a unit.

Insurance coverage also can be purchased. Most centers have some sort of security available, and many require that renters provide their own padlocks.

When Mike Ciurca's father died, he helped his mother move out of the family home into a townhouse. But what to do with all the extra furniture and memorabilia? The solution was right down the street.

After donating some things to Goodwill and selling others at a flea market, Ciurca rented a unit at Storage USA on Fort Smallwood Road in Pasadena.

It was his second unit. He had rented one last spring to house his lifetime collection of work paraphernalia when he retired after 33 years from his teaching job in Anne Arundel County.

Ciurca filled the second unit with keepsakes such as family photo albums, his father's collection of tools and his own fishing and crabbing gear. Ciurca opted to use a storage facility close to his home even though there were less-expensive ones within driving distance.

He pays about $100 a month per unit because he wants his belongings to be as close as possible for the occasional trips to the units to pick up a tool or deposit another box of books.

Safety factor

"Safety is another factor," Ciurca says.

He chose Storage USA partly because of its good safety record. And, he says, the farther you go away, the less you feel you have control over your belongings.

Self-storage units are not a new concept. In the 19th century, well-to-do Britons stored their prized possessions in bank vaults while they traveled abroad, according to the trade group.

The first warehouse designed specifically for household and personal items was built in England in the 1850s and was the forerunner of the public self-storage industry.

Charles Ray Wilson, whose Pasadena, Calif., consulting company tracks self-storage facilities in the United States, says that building starts for larger self-storage facilities - those that are at least 30,000 square feet - generally are down across the United States.

More of smaller units

But, he says, there has been an increase in the building of less-expensive facilities - those that traditionally have fewer than 20,000 square feet.

Wilson says there are 300 self-storage facilities in Maryland. Construction began on 12 centers in the state during the past two years, compared with three in 2000.

The Storage Association examined the question of overbuilding in the October/Novem- ber issue of its trade journal SSA Globe. The group found that construction of new storage facilities has slowed across the country because of a surplus of storage centers and the slow economy.

The self-storage business seems to go through 10-year cycles, says Belanger, the manager of a local storage company.

He believes the industry is in danger of becoming saturated. At one of his Baltimore sites, a competitor has built a storage facility across the street.

"The new building will have an impact on our bottom line," he says of the facility that was built in 1985. "Right now they're popping up everywhere."

Growing fast

Todd Manganaro, vice president of operations at ezStorage, doesn't share the same concern. His 14-year-old Maryland company has 26 facilities and four under construction.

Manganaro says the new storage facilities include more of the amenities that consumers want, such as climate control and elevators. He says 80 percent of his customers are residents who have run out of closet space.

Neighborhood concerns about the appearance of the storage centers also have pushed the industry to improve the design of the facilities, several experts say.

And homeowners aren't the only ones who use them.

Midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis rent public storage units for their personal belongings during summer deployment, says Dolly Webster, who, along with husband, Fred, has sponsored more than two dozen Mids in the past few years at their home.

"When we run out of room in our house," says Webster, "the Mids put their things in public storage."

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