A self-storage unit is waiting to serve you

350 facilities in Maryland and more are on the way

May 30, 2004|By Judy Hevrdejs | Judy Hevrdejs,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Open the corrugated door on one of the millions of self-storage units in this country. Take a peek at America's stuff.

Books. Futons. Wine. Barbecue grills. Treadmills. Christmas decorations. Sunoco gas pumps. Computers. Computer boxes. Televisions. Pianos. Motorcycles. Toilet paper.

Here are items that have survived spring cleaning rituals and summer garage sales, plus legions of professional organizers, hundreds of clutter-busting books and the coaching of cable shows such as TLC's Clean Sweep.

We have so much, in fact, that the industry estimates there are 37,000 to 40,000 self-storage facilities in this country, with demand for them doubling within the past 10 years.

There is probably one in your neighborhood.

While the demand for self-storage among consumers and business people continues to rise, according to Nancy Gunning, president of the Self Storage Association, the market is quickly becoming saturated with too many storage facilities.

In Maryland, there are about 350 facilities, and Gunning, who heads the trade group from her office in Rockville, expects construction of at least 10 more in the next year.

"In the past five years or so, we've actually seen most facilities go from around 90 percent occupied down to between 85 and 80 percent occupied," said Gunning, who owns 19 Self Storage Plus facilities in the area. "It [is] not that people have stopped using self-storage, but more self-storage facilities continue to be built."

One reason, figures University of Notre Dame sociology professor Eugene Halton, is that "people have too much stuff.

"The super-sizing of America is not limited to the food products."

Yet, we are more than a nation of pack rats. Halton, who studies our relationship to material things, cites another reason for the vast number of self-storage facilities: It is the functional role they play in our lives. They have become a practical response to changes in the way we live, the places we choose to live in and how we work.

Sometimes called mini-storage, self-storage units range from small lockers to the popular 10-by-10-foot option to outdoor spaces.

Rates vary

Monthly rates depend on location and size.

"People use storage when they're moving or when they have to clean out a house after someone dies, or something along those lines," said Richard L. Sellers of the Maryland Self Storage Association.

"We're seeing a lot of people using the climate-controlled units for wine storage or other units for document storage, or even for antique cars."

The number of people who use self-storage units is difficult to pin down, according to the Self Storage Association, a trade group based in Springfield, Va. The group's last consumer demand study in 1995 found one in 17 Americans was using self-storage.

The group said its customers often are dealing with change, whether it's a business growth or downsizing, or a personal life change - birth, death, divorce, relocation.

Moving dates that don't jibe with closing dates, home construction delays or renovations all send people to self-storage.

The other typical client? Home-based businesses that have outgrown basements, extra bedrooms or attics.

Self Storage One

Kathy Diehl, the facility manager for six Self Storage One facilities around Baltimore, said her company provides office space to business people who are using storage facilities. Diehl said many of the people who use her facilities originally were operating their businesses from home.

Experts said a competitive market is causing self-storage facility owners to become more creative in promoting their services.

Many storage centers provide amenities for businesses including office space, meeting rooms, telephone rooms for salespeople and high-speed Internet connections.

Mike Singer, owner and president of Service Master by Singer and Singer Restoration Inc., operates his business out of Perry Hall Self Storage.

"It's nice to have the flexibility to rent space when needed and not be committed to a big warehouse," Singer said. "It's like an extension of the home for a home business."

Others point out that many baby boomers are downsizing to condos and townhouses and often are foregoing basements and attics. And although some homes may be larger than ever, there may be less space suitable for storage.

`Life-management tool'

For Kirsten Francissen, self-storage units have been what one industry exec calls "a life management tool."

When a job change several years ago caused Francissen, 30, and her husband, Vernon, to move from Oregon to a two-bedroom townhouse in a Chicago neighborhood, they lugged along a whitewater kayak, a wind surfer, a tandem bicycle, golf clubs and a taste for French wine.

When cases of wine began to stack up in the den - and keeping it cool and the Francissens warm became a challenge - they rented a climate-controlled unit. When their son was born a year ago, a crib moved into the guest bedroom and a double bed joined sports equipment in a second storage unit.

Although a new home is in their future, Kirsten Francissen expects to keep their wine, some purchased as an investment, in storage.

"So we can prove that the entire time we've had possession of the wine it's been stored at the proper temperature," she said.

How we value things at different points in our life determines how much we are willing to hang on to them, said Halton, the University of Notre Dame professor.

"I think we all know people to whom these valuable things are so valuable that you keep them in a box that you never even open," he said.

"And then you finally face some moment when you realize it didn't really mean that much."

Sun staff writer James Gallo contributed to this article.

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