More self-storage can mean more abandoned goods

The day’s events could be called Storage Wars, The Local Version.

From Shelby, Michelle Francis showed up nearly 50 miles away at Cherry Road Self Storage in Rock Hill on a recent Monday morning to shop for her thrift store.  She’s usually out scouring self-storage units somewhere in the Charlotte area a couple times a week.

Dusty Rogers and the rest of her Hickory Grove, S.C., family turned out to give daughter, Ciera Vela, her first experience as a storage unit treasure hunter. And, said, Rogers, “We just like the TV show.”

Related: As possessions expand, so do self-storage businesses

Amanda Graham and longtime partner James Burris, both of Rock Hill, decided to see what they could find after only a month of searching for unexpected gems in self-storage units that regularly come up for grabs after customers don’t or can’t pay rental fees.

Just like the eight-year-old reality television show “Storage Wars,” the competition was tough, and the buyers were risk-takers, hoping to find something valuable for not too much money.

As the number of self-storage facilities is increasing across the Charlotte region, providing more places where residents can put their possessions, nonpayment of rental fees remains a persistent issue. Under state laws, residents get a certain amount of time to pay up. If they don’t, their belongings can be auctioned to the highest bidder.

The auctioning of furniture, equipment, jewelry, clothes and other mystery items in self-storage units has created a unique marketplace, both online and in person.

“It’s like a ballgame,” said Butch Evans, an auctioneer and owner of Matthews-based Auctions Unlimited.  “You’re going to have a certain number of people who strike out. When people have problems paying bills, the first thing they let go of is storage.”

In Rock Hill, a crowd of 30 showed up for the recent auction, led by Evans, who has focused on auctioning self-storage units for nearly three decades. His wife, Jean, worked from the back of their SUV to collect cash-only payments.

The interest in buying the contents of self-storage units, Butch Evans said, “comes and goes” and the prices people pay range from $50 to thousands.

“These people become a part of your life,” added Jean Evans, pointing out that some become regulars on the circuit. Once, a buyer won a storage bin with an unknown covered item sitting on top of a washer and dryer.  It was a new casket.

At Cherry Road Self Storage, manager Sharon Jones unlocked 17 storage units as each was sold. Hopeful buyers lined up for several minutes to inspect each of the units, which ranged from the size of a walk-in closet to a one-car garage. Nothing could be moved to peek to the back of the units. 

“OK, here we go,” said Butch Evans, standing in front of a unit packed to the ceiling with black plastic bags, a QVC box, an air mattress bag and other items. His rapid-fire calling began, starting bidding at $50. Michelle Francis won the unit for $275. “It’s always a risk,” she said. “You don’t know if it’s going to be good stuff or not.”

Dusty Rogers, who frequently attends auctions, coached her daughter, Ciera Vela, as they watched bidding on several units. Then a unit with visible furniture caught their interest.  “OK, here we go,” said Evans. “This is a pretty good-looking unit here.” Three bidders, including Vela, nodded and waved and raised fingers to show they would pay as the price moved higher.  Vela whooped when she had the winning $250 bid.

But she wouldn’t see everything she bought until she unpacked the unit, which had to be done in 72 hours.

“This is shopping but in a different way,” said Rogers, who spends about $500 a month at auctions for items she will keep or sell.

Amanda Graham and James Burris didn’t buy a unit on this excursion, but they talked to other treasure hunters, including one man who has a spot at an indoor flea market and has been attending auctions for nearly 40 years to find things to sell.

“We got hooked,” said Graham, indicating the couple plans to sell some of the items they find at flea markets or to store owners. “This is something we will be doing as often as we can.”

Their first unit, said Burris, was packed with treasure. It included antique furniture and a diamond ring.