Storage units keep clutter out of trash bin

March 17, 2007|By Suzanne Gannon | Suzanne Gannon,New York Times News Service

GAITHERSBURG -- On a recent Saturday afternoon, Marcus and Imal Wagner stood in a U-Haul storage warehouse, surrounded by their castoff possessions: a papier-mache candy dish, LPs by Cream and the Ventures, a computer printer, a ceramic figurine of a gnome atop a turtle and 25-gallon tubs filled with old files and five years' worth of paperwork.

Imal Wagner, a 56-year-old book publicist, spotted a van tire wedged amid the jumble and gave her husband a knowing look. "I didn't want to throw it away, so I brought it here," Marcus Wagner, 53, said, a little defensively.

The Wagners have been bringing their things to this storage warehouse rather than discarding them for two years. "It's very much a part of our house, even though it's not in the house," Imal Wagner said.

They are not the only ones taking this approach to clutter. According to Michael T. Scanlon Jr., president of the Self Storage Association, a trade group, 11 million American households currently rent storage space, an increase of 90 percent since 1995.

In the past two years, close to a million more households joined the ranks of storage renters, and there is now more than 2 billion square feet of rental storage space in the U.S., earning more than $22 billion in gross revenue in 2006.

For many, the appeal of storage space is the way renting seems to represent the pursuit of simplicity: By transferring excess stuff to a storage unit, people can free their rooms from years' worth of clutter.

Oddly, though, it's the opposite of neat-and-tidy that seems to be true for many storage-unit renters. With newly available space, they are able not only to avoid getting rid of things but to accumulate even more. Dee Dee Whipple, a homemaker in Northbrook, Ill. was tempted down this road when she rented two units last year while preparing to sell her house. Her real estate agent suggested renting units after taking one look at Whipple's home - with its 400 dolls, 46 boxes of Christmas decorations and six artificial Christmas trees. He thought prospective buyers might be "overwhelmed."

One year and $3,000 later, Whipple, 59, said her units are "packed up to the ceiling" and the vacuum that resulted in her home - which she has yet to put on the market - has been filled with more purchases. She also has rented a third unit.

Whipple is learning something the Wagners discovered: Renting storage space can have a gateway effect, with one unit filling up and leading to the need for a second, and so on. They rented their first unit in 2005 and filled it within six months, then added a larger, 10-by-15-foot space down the hall.

They now pay $335 a month for the two, or roughly $4,000 a year, a figure that Imal Wagner said took her by surprise when her husband recently checked the bills. She said she was seduced by the out-of-sight-out-of-mind aspect of renting storage space. But she now sees renting storage as "not really a wise decision - it's probably wiser to eliminate things."

Dr. Gregg Jantz, a psychologist and author in Seattle who has treated patients with hoarding issues, said hoarders can lose the ability to appraise the worth of things, attaching sentimental value to nearly everything they own.

Easy access to storage space, he said, makes the problem worse. "With the availability of storage units, there is the perception that A, I don't have to throw everything away, and B, I'm supposed to save everything," he said.

Meanwhile, the storage industry has found ways to make rented storage space harder to resist. Companies have introduced automatic billing and promotional schemes like U-Haul's free first month with a truck rental.

And storage warehouses themselves have become increasingly sophisticated.

"The first generation was garages in a row," said Clem Teng, a spokesman for Public Storage of Glendale, Calif., which began 34 years ago with a single structure in a remote stretch of El Cajon, Calif. The company now operates more than 2,000 warehouses in 38 states.

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