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What Is Self Storage and Who Uses It?

What is self storage? If you're thinking, "Well, it's where you rent space to store your stuff yourself," you're missing an important part of the equation. You see, when you rent self storage space, there's a contract involved, written by lawyers, and that makes the answer a bit more complex. The Self Storage Association (SSA), the industry's not-for-profit lobby organization, defines self-storage as "the term applied to facilities offering rental on a month-to-month basis where the tenant applies his lock and has sole access to his unit." That's an important legal distinction because it protects the self storage facility from creating a condition called bailment, whereby it would assume responsibility for the care, custody or control of a customer's goods. Unlike a dry cleaner, for instance, who might be liable for burning a hole in that cashmere sweater you dropped off, the self storage facility has no responsibility for the care of your stuff, other than what's stipulated in the rental contract. Instead, you're required to provide proof of insurance (or purchase it from the facility) before you can rent the storage unit. In other words, you're responsible for the care of your own stuff. And once you've signed the contract, the storage facility owners won't enter your unit unless they have really good (as in legally defensible) reason to think you're violating the terms, which will stipulate materials you can't store and activities you can't conduct from the rental unit.

Okay, legal stuff out of the way. The basic function of self storage is to offer people a secure place to store possessions they don't have room for where they live or work, or that they don't need on a daily basis. Most facilities self storage units offer a range of sizes from 5 feet by 5 feet up to 10 feet by 30 feet. The more space you require, the more rent you pay. Contracts are typically month-to-month. The better facilities feature climate-controlled units that can maintain a constant temperature and humidity. SSA says other popular features include:

  • Outdoor parking for storing RVs and boats
  • Automatic entry gates with keypad-computerized access
  • Surveillance cameras and monitoring stations
  • Alarms on individual storage units
  • Drive-up loading docks with direct access to outside units
  • Elevators for multi-storied facilities
  • Complimentary use of dollies and furniture carts

Some self storage facilities, such as Uncle Bob's, also offer customers complimentary use of moving vans with the rental.

A Growing Industry

While there have always been people or businesses willing to rent space to others for temporary storage, America's first commercially viable storage operation wasn't founded until the early 1900s, by Martin Bekins. His company served the storage needs of families who were moving west and eventually became the well-known Bekins Moving & Storage Company. It wasn't until the 1960s that the modern self storage industry as we know it today came into being, according to a New York Times article by Jon Mooallem. For the two decades that followed, Mooallem writes, "storage remained a low-profile industry... For the most part, storage units were meant to temporarily absorb the possessions of those in transition: moving, marrying or divorcing, or dealing with a death in the family."

Not much has changed since then, except we Americans tend to do more moving, marrying, divorcing and dealing inherited stuff than ever before. Consequently, the self storage industry has grown to meet the demand.

Today you can find self storage facilities all over America - about 50,000 of them. SSA's fact sheet claims there are 78 square miles of rentable storage space in the United States, or 7.3 square feet of self storage space for every man, woman and child in the country.

They're in locations that range from the traditional industrial corridors to areas zoned for retail and even multi-family residential neighborhoods. SSA's Introduction to Self Storage says these newer, third-generation self storage facilities "emphasize aesthetics in construction, designed to blend in with the nature of the neighborhoods they serve." Many even include attractive landscaping. The goal, according to SSA, is "creating a stable, secure, upscale image that develops a strong perception of trust among local consumers." Like many other businesses, self storage has come to recognize the importance image plays in communicating quality and value.

Who's Renting Self Storage Units?

So who's using all these self storage units? A great deal of them are rented by individuals. According to SSA, one out of every 10 households in the country rents a self storage unit, while businesses account for 30 percent of self storage customers. Members of the military are big consumers, too. SSA estimates that 4 percent of the nation's self storage units are rented by military personnel. According to the SSA fact sheet, "in communities adjacent to U.S. military bases, military occupancy can be from 20 percent to 95 percent of all rented units."

What Are We Storing?

It would be easier to say what we aren't storing. Individuals put everything in self storage from holiday decorations to seasonal clothing, sporting equipment, furniture and vehicles. Businesses use self storage for documents, excess office equipment and furniture, tools, inventory, and supplies. Unless it violates the terms of the facility (ammunition, perishable items and live animals are a few of the commonly restricted items), it can and is being stored.

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