The state of self-storage in the U.S.

The New York Times ran an incredibly well-researched and informative article this weekend on the current state of the self-storage industry. The article gives insight into how the downturn in the economy is affecting storage units in terms of capacity and purpose of use. Additionally, the article confirms that the majority of units remain full of clutter, but it paints a vivid picture of people who are using the spaces for other, non-clutter reasons.

Some of the more powerful quotes from the article:

The Self Storage Association, a nonprofit trade group, estimates that since the onset of the recession, occupancies at storage facilities nationwide are down, on average, about 2 or 3 percent. It’s not a cataclysmic drop but enough to disorient an industry that has always considered itself recession-resistant, if not outright recession-proof…

“Human laziness has always been a big friend of self-storage operators,” Derek Naylor, president of the consultant group Storage Marketing Solutions, told me. “Because once they’re in, nobody likes to spend all day moving their stuff out of storage. As long as they can afford it, and feel psychologically that they can afford it, they’ll leave that stuff in there forever.”

After a monumental building boom, the United States now has 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space. (The Self Storage Association notes that, with more than seven square feet for every man, woman and child, it’s now “physically possible that every American could stand — all at the same time — under the total canopy of self-storage roofing.”)

A Self Storage Association study showed that, by 2007, the once-quintessential client — the family in the middle of a move, using storage to solve a short-term, logistical problem — had lost its majority. Fifty percent of renters were now simply storing what wouldn’t fit in their homes — even though the size of the average American house had almost doubled in the previous 50 years, to 2,300 square feet.

Maybe the recession really is making American consumers serious about scaling back, about decluttering and de-leveraging. But there are upward of 51,000 storage facilities across this country — more than seven times the number of Starbucks. Storage is part of our national infrastructure now. And all it is, is empty space: something Americans have always colonized and capitalized on in good times, and retreated into to regroup when things soured. It’s tough to imagine a product more malleable to whatever turns our individual life stories take, wherever we’re collectively heading.

Be sure to check out the article, which tells a fascinating story.

27 Comments for “The state of self-storage in the U.S.”

  1. posted by Sarah on

    It’s a huge industry. I worked for several years for a company that did nothing but make and sell software for self-storage facilities. And it had many competitors.

  2. posted by Lose That Girl on

    If people weren’t so attached to their stuff, that land could be used for so many more beneficial purposes. Perhaps I’m in the wrong business!

  3. posted by Celeste on

    We had a storage rental for a few years. Every time we went there, somebody’s stuff was being set out because of lack of payment. It was never anything but junk.

    In our case it was a reaction to having a child and losing one room in our small house, plus a decision to turn the garage (our former storage hut) into a woodworking area. When we finally couldn’t stand the expense, we were confronted with a lot of deferred decisions. I sold and donated a lot of the stuff that was mine, but sad to say quite a bit of it is still in tubs.

    I have been pretty good about purging child related items as they are outgrown, but I think we still have junk. I am doing some hard thinking about it all right now.

  4. posted by gypsy packer on

    I recently read an article on a homeless unemployed exec who moved his household goods to storage, slept in parks, and changed clothes and his stoage during his hunt for employment.

    I suspect that economically distressed families are selling any excess goods they have, rather than storing duplicates and surplus goods.

  5. posted by gypsy packer on

    Excuse typos, please–new encrytping software converts my posts to bar code and I can’t check for errors!

  6. posted by martha in mobile on

    I have mixed feelings about storage spaces. I don’t have one because if it’s valuable to me, I want it close by, not in an unconditioned space where it will mold; also, housing is pretty inexpensive down here, so you can get a lot of storage space in your home for not much money. I have relatives who live in a very small house in a very expensive place and who like to decorate seasonally, so a storage space makes sense for them. I would imagine the money they save on heating/cooling pays for their storage space(s).

  7. posted by Peter (a different one) on

    You have to weigh the cost of storage against the value of the stuff. Paying $100 or $200 a month for a storage unit to house $3000 worth of stuff doesn’t make sense in the long run, and if there is that strong of an emotional attachment it shouldn’t be in storage or the money may be better spent seeking counseling as to why you have such an emotional attachment to “stuff”

  8. posted by Sam on

    I rented a storage space last month because I had a week of homelessness between moving out of my old apartment and into my new house, so we put everything into storage one weekend, went on holiday and got it out the next weekend. I was rather amazed at the people telling me they’d stayed in storage longer than they had planned. That place was costing me £50 a week; I wanted my stuff out ASAP. Even the guys owning it were surprised when we showed up to give the keys back on the day we said we would.

    I couldn’t imagine putting stuff into storage without a clear deadline for when it was coming out.

  9. posted by Rebecca on

    I love these articles about storage units – their uses, the industry’s smirking attitude about laziness, etc. A couple decades ago we used a unit while we staged and sold our house – you know, the usual “take out the chair to make the room look bigger” kind of thing. Other than that, I don’t see the appeal of paying for storage, even if it’s climate controlled. Certain family members of mine think nothing of storing stuff, trash, broken things, and a few valuables all mixed together in boxes in storage, and I’ve never understood how they justify that expense month after month, with no plan to ever move it all out.

  10. posted by Scott on

    I think a big culprit also is that even though new homes are much bigger on average than they used to be, they have LESS storage space than the smaller homes of years past. They increase the size of the homes, while decreasing amount of storage at the same time.

    My wife and I have been house-hunting recently, and it is downright offensive to me that these houses are seriously being considered places to live in, with almost no consideration for storage.

    So what happens? Almost every new neighborhood has all of their cars outside, because all the extra stuff is in their garage, and there are self-storage places popping up everywhere.

    And I think a lot of that has to do with competition…there was so much competition during the housing boom, builders built their houses to have the biggest wow factor…and people these days are obviously wowed by high ceilings more than realizing that other than a largish master closet…there is almost no other closets OR actual attic space…

  11. posted by Dawn F on

    I have begged and pleaded with my husband’s parents to stop storing items in their TWO storage units. It’s expensive and nobody really has a clue what is in the bottom of the piles of stuff.

    I mentioned that they could have a garage sale, sell the big items on Craigslist, take the books to a resale shop, donate items to a favorite charity, give special items to family members to enjoy, etc., etc., etc.

    I can’t imagine how many thousands of dollars have been wasted and how many items are now destroyed from sitting in storage in dust, heat and possibly bug-infested storage units while crushing other items, etc.

    I have been in tears practically asking for pictures of my husband from his childhood years. It’s odd – they don’t want to take the time to dig through the boxes – the boxes that are so precious to them that they continue to shell out countless dollars to store them.

    I just don’t get it… the long-term use part. Short-term use/in between moves, I get. Forever until death do us part, I just don’t get.

  12. posted by Christine on

    I don’t understand the appeal of self-storage, unless you’re mid-move. If I care about something so little that I will store it in a place I will rarely access, what is the point in keeping it in the first place? And PAY to keep it, nonetheless.

  13. posted by infmom on

    I must admit I have been tempted to insist my daughter rent a storage unit so we can get all of her stuff out of our house. She moved out more than three years ago and all this stuff is still here. She and her partner have a shoebox sized apartment with precious little storage space, so the amount she can take there is minimal, but ye gods, there’s so much junk here that could just be summarily tossed out and she keeps making excuses not to come over and just for pity’s sake do it.

    If she had to come here, pile it all in a rental van, and schlep it somewhere else for storage, you know that’d be the motivation to give most of it the heave-ho.

  14. posted by Karen on

    I had a storage unit for several years. I was living in a tiny studio apartment close to work, and it was easier to pay for storage than to live somewhere larger that came with a longer commute. I’m sure it wasn’t all valuable, but it had a lot of sentimental value – my parents had just died and I wanted to keep some of the family mementos and heirlooms for later on. I wish I’d been able to keep more – I had to give away a lot of larger items that had a lot of sentimental value. A picture or a scan just isn’t the same as having your great grandmother’s china cabinet that you can feel and touch.

    I don’t see the difference between renting a storage unit and living in a small house, vs. buying a bigger house that has more storage. Lots of people buy houses with garages and big closets. But if you live in a small apartment instead and rent storage, you’re “wasting money”.

  15. posted by Consultant Calamities on

    wow, what a really depressing article. 🙁 I”m sure is all basically true (I see storage facilities EVERY.WHERE around where I live…) but, still…depressing that people store JUNK in them and pay for it.

    Yes, I do see the use of these facilities for in-between moves, etc…but just “to put stuff?” sounds like a huge waste of money…

  16. posted by Annie on

    You know, of course, that the google ad that accompanied this feed in my reader was for a storage place!

  17. posted by Julie on

    I’ve actually got a somewhat different take on self-storage units. I go to a 2-week, 10,000-person medieval camping event once a year (Pennsic), and some people really go all-out. Just my own 50-odd person group has a huge communal tent (about 30×30 feet), various smaller tents, kitchen gear, a camp shower, etc. None of us need this equipment during the rest of the year, and given that we’ve got people coming from as far away as Texas, it doesn’t make sense to transport it. So the group chips in for self-storage to hold it for the year until we need it again. Multiply this by hundreds (maybe thousands) of groups in similar situations, and the local self-storage industry does quite well for itself.

    I’m not saying this is the most common use for self-storage. I doubt it’s even particularly common. But it definitely has a use beyond “storing clutter.”

  18. posted by Amanda on

    We have a storage unit to store my husband’s motorcycle (we have no garage) and my grandparents’ bedroom set that (dimension-wise) doesn’t fit in our attic.
    But aside from that – it’s amazing how the crap-creep goes. My husband won’t part with boxes and packing materials from our TVs, an old metal file cabinet, and a chair from his PhD advisor with a busted arm. Seriously.

    I sent this to him. We are SO doing a fall cleanout next weekend. (I’m not sure how I’m going to convince him about the boxes, though…)

  19. posted by Linda on

    oh. my. goodness.
    That’s just….. incredible!

    I have often wondered how it could be possible that house-sizes have doubled while family-sizes are down by more than 50%…. again: incredible! And it’s not just in the USA either, I see it happening around me as well….

    Greetings from the netherlands!

  20. posted by Mike on

    Amanda – not parting with the packing crap from TVs and such saved our hides when our house got robbed. We still had all our original boxes with serial numbers and such, and the insurance company paid every penny of our claim (minus deductible) without giving us a bunch of static about substantiating our loss. I hate having it take up space too, but sometimes it’s worth keeping the original box and etc. Sometimes you can even use it to ebay off an item at a slightly higher price once you upgrade out of it… that helped me sell a 3-year-old Mac for a pretty healthy percentage of retail!

    That said, I agree in principle with you (and others) that the storage locker math doesn’t work. In the long run you’re better off just re-buying everything new.

    My band rents a storage locker for practices. It lets us make a lot of noise without getting the police called, and we’re all adults with families so we don’t want to leave equipment around our houses. The same storage complex has 3 or 4 guys living in it full-time… they go to the gym down the road to wash up, apparently.

  21. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Mike — ACK!! Don’t keep those boxes!! Instead, keep an inventory of all your possessions in a secure online location. Keeping the cardboard boxes is a huge fire hazard and wastes incredible amounts of space. 20 seconds to record the serial numbers is a much better way to keep an inventory — you would have been out of luck with the insurance company if your home would have burned down.

  22. posted by Mike on

    Erin – No argument there, honestly. The whole robbery was a learning experience. I had no idea how much pushback we were going to get from the insurance company on proving what we had owned (I ended up arguing rather brusquely to them with much what you said — what if our home had burned down; would our claim then be denied? They said no, but we might have had to litigate to get paid the policy limits.) It turned out saving those boxes was a benefit. And before I give you the wrong impression… they all fit nicely in one garage cabinet. It wasn’t boxomania.

    Since the robbery, though, I’ve taken your approach by recording all the serials digitally and having a cloud backup. Only luck saved my time machine drive — they had rummaged around it and for whatever reason abandoned it instead of taking it. I hang onto the boxes now for the warranty duration and no further.

  23. posted by Lola on

    I think Scott is right on the money! He said:

    “I think a big culprit also is that even though new homes are much bigger on average than they used to be, they have LESS storage space than the smaller homes of years past. They increase the size of the homes, while decreasing amount of storage at the same time.

    My wife and I have been house-hunting recently, and it is downright offensive to me that these houses are seriously being considered places to live in, with almost no consideration for storage.

    So what happens? Almost every new neighborhood has all of their cars outside, because all the extra stuff is in their garage, and there are self-storage places popping up everywhere.”

    When we bought our house, we were young and easily dazzled by the vaulted ceilings and open floorplan. We didn’t realize how impractical it was to actually *live in* until we’d moved in: very little space for our books, only one room suitable for a tv, tiny, ill-conceived cabinetry in the kitchen and hall, etc. We never resorted to renting a storage unit, but it’s forced us to really be really brutal when shopping and donating items that have outlived their usefulness.

    We’re the only people on our block who park our cars in the garage. Everyone else has at least one car parked outside because their garages are packed to the brim with stuff.

  24. posted by Frank on

    For the art lovers out there, why cram beautiful artwork into a closet when you have the option to make sure that they are safe and not in danger of destruction.

  25. posted by Lady Day on

    I have a totally different problem. I lost my home in 2004, and was renting another home that the owner lost in 2008. I moved home then because my mom was on the verge of loosing her home, and I told her I would help her out awhile. My mom has been accumulating stuff for over 30 years and has no storage, so I moved my stuff into storage with a friend to cut costs. I don’t know how long I will be here, but the only thing I have is clothing and a computer. I sleep on a couch. All my furniture is in storage.

  26. posted by jane on

    Scott is right, homes are getting larger but not better. In the old days there would have been attics, pantries, linen closets, etc. But also people are ignoring the fact that they are filling their former storage with electronic devices, computer, tv, dvds. I have noticed that pack rat homes are usually without bookcases, china cabinets or hutches or even shelves or pictures on the wall. They don’t seem capable of arranging what they have. I think we should study housekeeping 101 and get a collective clue.

  27. posted by Angela on

    To the person whose adult daughter has left all her stuff there for 3 years, I would set a deadline for her to move everything out-say 3 months so she has time to go through everything. Or when does their lease renew? Give her till then so she can get a bigger place to store her stuff if she really wants it. If you have room and want to, you could offer to store a box of treasures in the attic.

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