Ask Unclutterer: Emptying a storage unit

Reader Allicia submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I recently moved to Minnesota from New Mexico. I didn’t have a job at first so I moved most (almost all) of my stuff into a storage unit. Now that I am settled, I have a plan to go to New Mexico to unload and organize my storage unit and get rid of stuff I no longer need, etc. I am sitting here in Minnesota and cannot fathom an idea of how to sort through the stuff packed away. I also wonder how to deal with family who will be helping me and may not want me to get rid of stuff. They have more attachment to things than I usually do. Can you help me devise a plan to attack my storage unit?

Storage units are great resources when you temporarily need a place to put your things for three to six months, like you needed to do with this move. Storage units, however, are not where things should go to live for years. When you abandon things in storage units you end up spending more money storing the items than you would selling everything and buying replacement items in the future. Additionally, the storage units are much more likely to be infested with bugs, rodents, mildew, mold and other possession-ruining things than they would be in your home.

It’s not exactly clear in your question if you plan to move your items to your new place in Minnesota or if you just want to organize the unit and leave your things in New Mexico. Whatever your current thoughts, I’m advocating that you completely get rid of the need for your storage unit. I think you’ll find that you don’t want or need the majority of the things you left in New Mexico when you headed to Minnesota.

Think of the first step of your storage unit clean out like a treasure hunt. Go through the unit on your own and find the irreplaceable things you truly value — photographs from your childhood, your favorite pieces of jewelry, and whatever else you would feel truly crushed about if they were destroyed by a fire. For most people, these items fit in one medium-size box.

Tape up the box and carry it with you on your flight or drive back to Minnesota.

For the next step of the process, have your family come in to help you sort through the remaining stuff. Before opening the storage unit door, let your family know that you plan to close the unit by the end of the day. This goal should be crystal clear in everyone’s mind, including yours.

Then, clearly mark four areas near the storage unit for your objects — trash/recycle (these are things everyone agrees are ready to be purged), sell (these are items you can post to Craigslist or take to a consignment shop), donate (these are things in good shape that a local charity could benefit from having), and family stash (these are items your family members will take with them at the end of the process).

The family stash pile is going to be the most controversial pile you create (or, rather, don’t create). What will likely happen is that someone in your family will say, “Oh, you can’t give that away!” about an object in your storage unit. In response to their declaration, you can respond, “I will gladly give it to you if you would like it.” If the person says she wants it, then it will go into the family stash pile for that person to take home. If the person says, “I don’t want it, but I think you should keep it,” the object will then go into the donate or sell pile. If someone doesn’t want an object enough to want to care for it themselves, they have no leverage to try to guilt you into keeping it.

Have a truck or trucks available at the end of your sorting process to immediately haul the four piles to their appropriate destinations. If you are selling objects on Craigslist, you will likely need to store these objects in someone’s garage for a few days so potential buyers can come by and view the items. Give yourself a strict deadline that any objects that haven’t sold by the day before you leave will be donated to charity.

With the money you get from selling items on Craigslist or through consignment, you can buy things (if you want) for your new place in Minnesota.

Finally, I strongly recommend thanking your helpers by providing them with drinks and snacks as they work and dinner when you are all finished. People tend to be more level-headed and easy going when they’re well fed and hydrated.

Thank you, Allicia, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope I was able to help you navigate this process, and congratulations on your move. Be sure to check out the comments for even more suggestions and different perspectives from our readers.

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26 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Emptying a storage unit”

  1. posted by Me on

    “I don’t want it, but I think you should keep it,” the object will then go into the donate or sell pile. If someone doesn’t want an object enough to want to care for it themselves, they have no leverage to try to guilt you into keeping it

  2. posted by Me on

    Ooops, meant to say I totally agree with that

  3. posted by Sandra J on

    I’ve rented a storage locker for six years now. It contains the things that I decided to keep after emptying the home my parents’ lived in for 40 yrs before they had to move into a nursing home. Complications delaying my emptying of the locker include: my mother’s dementia, my father’s hoarding, my husband’s chronic illness & death, being an only child with no family near by, living 400 miles (now 750 miles) away from where my parents lived and where the storage locker is located, and a flooded basement where I had planned to move the contents of the locker for triage. All to say life is never what you plan.
    The good side of this scenario is that I’ve had the time to distance myself emotionally from a lot of the things in that locker and it will be easy to triage what is truly special and worth keeping. Hopefully the move will happen this summer!

  4. posted by jbeany on

    I went with “If you are insisting I keep it, you are volunteering to store it for the rest of my life.”

  5. posted by Ann on

    I have had much experience with being guilted into keeping something by my mother, after my brother died. Now my mother has died and this weekend my husband and our friends are clearing out her apartment. I am going to use a storage unit because I am not ready to deal with the “keep, toss, give away” issues right now and the apartment is too expensive to NOT empty as fast as possible. I am hoping to only have it for two months, but who knows. I know I will be aggressive, but I have to be smart, because there is some value in her things, but I do not necessarily need or want them. Full sets of sterling silver with serving pieces (I have a set already – of my own choosing). So it will be an exercise. Next, the safe deposit box.

  6. posted by mike crosby on

    Darn good information Erin.

    Reading Sandra’s comment, if she calculated how much she actually has spent on storage, and the amount of time worrying about it, it would have been better for everything to go straightway to the garbage.

    My wife wanted me to get a storage unit one time and I said not on your life. It’s a waste of money for the most part. Instead of spending money storing something I may eventually use, and to this day, still would have not used it, I sold it and made a few thou.

    Your recommendations were clear. Deal with it and get on with life.

    I admit, there are times I throw things away, only to need it in the future. I’d rather have to go out and repurchase that item, then to have thousands of items clogging up my home that I might use in the future.

  7. posted by Amanda on

    My mother put stuff in a storage locker for one year after my Grandma died. When she first moved it from Texas to SC, she just couldn’t make any decisions about what to keep, so she kept it all.
    One year later I went there and helped her sort through it. Most of the large furniture went to a local thrift store. A small number of things we cleaned and she now happily displays them in her home.
    It would not have been MY way to pay for a year’s storage for thrift store specials, but when someone is grieving and unable to make decisions, it’s not a bad thing. With the caveat that you can’t put dealing with the stuff forever.

  8. posted by L. on

    @Ann: There are services that, for a fee, will sell your mother’s items of monetary but not sentimental value. For someone who is busy, it seems like a better solution than letting the items wallow in storage indefinitely. My condolences.

  9. posted by Zen friend on

    “Think of the first step as a treasure hunt.” What a great way to frame an otherwise daunting task!

  10. posted by Living the Balanced Life on

    My daughter moved from GA to TX when hubby went in Air Force. When marriage went bad she stored up all the stuff they had bought and moved in with someone. She eventually moved back to GA (just flew here) and continued to pay rent on her unit for more than 2 years. We wanted so badly for her to just leave it, but there was a box of baby mementos and a rocking chair that had been my grandmother’s in the unit as well. We eventually drove out there and got the rocking chair and one or two boxes. Very expensive situation!

  11. posted by richard on


    we recently emptied out my parents’s house after we moved my mom into a retirement community. First I spent the whole month arguing with extended family as to what they wanted and when they would come pick these items. NEVER AGAIN.

    We had an estate sale., then the following week, a guy who runs weekly auctions, came with a truck and took EVERYTHING that was left.

    That what I would do with this locker situation – go on your own and one friend maybe, and have an auctionneer pick up everything YOU do not need from the locker and sell it.And then mail you the check.

    If stuff’s been sitting in a locker for a while, then your family clearly didn`t need or want it – after all if they had had a use for those thing, wouldn’t they have requested them, when you originally had to put it all away and pay for its storage, back in the days.

    Don’t succumb to their guilt trip.


  12. posted by Another Deb on

    I once needed to rent a storage unit from a mid-summer move until a classroom (from a job I was waiting on) could be ready in August. The proprieter of the storage facility was drop-jawed amazed that I insisted I would only need the unit for a month. No one just stays a month, apparently…

    I ended up needing it for three days in the end.

    There are more self-storage units in this country that there are Starbucks.

    With stories such as the one just above from Living a Balanced Life about driving across the country to retrieve the baby mementos, maybe there should be some kind of service offered to people who need to divest it all but just fish out just a few things.

  13. posted by Mary on

    Great ideas!

    Something that I found very helpful, when going through my mother’s house after she passed away, was to take pictures of things that I wanted to remember, but just didn’t have room to keep. It’s wonderful to be able to look at those photos once in a while and I’m so glad that I did that. For those of you cleaning out a house of a deceased relative, it’s also nice to take photos of the inside of the house, before the purging starts, so that you can remember it the way it once was.

  14. posted by Heather on

    I happen to be watching auction hunters, a Spike TV show where the protagonists, so to speak, buy whole storage units full of stuff and then sell off the contents. Apparently, thousands of lockers are auctioned off in the US every day!!! It is absolutely fascinating.

  15. posted by gypsy packer on

    After a series of financial disasters, I ended up temporarily homeless and with a tax lien on me. I hauled my possessions off to a storage unit several states away, to save them from confiscation. and managed to return a full five years later. The good news is that my extensive music collection was saved. The cost of digital downloads still exceeded the rent I paid, and I do have a rental reference for my homeless period, should I ever need it. I do not, though, recommend storage for the kind of items we see on “Storage Wars”. Most of the items stored in any commercial locker could be replaced for a nominal price at any good flea market.

  16. posted by marjoryt on

    A local genealogist and historian recently died, and her children didn’t want any of her very extensive collection of local history. They donated it to the local library. This week the local historical society is having a fundraiser for scanners; their plan is to temporarily store the items until they can be scanned into a computer and posted on the internet.

    When I’ve helped friends and family clear out apartments and homes, I always suggest that for their family papers.

    And, if anyone finds a stash of sewing patterns, these are VERY collectable. Investigate or ask a low church about the local sewists.

  17. posted by Michelle Minch, Moving Mountains Design on

    I’m a recovering storage unit addict. Never again! I can’t believe I paid $200/month for several years to keep a bunch of stuff I wound up selling in a yard sale for much less than just the storage costs (not including what I paid for it originally).

    Now, as a professional home stager, I often council my clients to get rid of as much as they can either by selling, donating, giving away, recycling or throwing away. Really, the cost of storing items you don’t need or want enough to have in your house now is just wasted money. As you said, its probably cheaper not to store and just buy new when you need it in the future.

  18. posted by Debbie M on

    I love the idea of handing over anything that a family member wants to keep. In case you don’t, here’s another possible strategy. Put everything in a moving van and take care of it away from family members. You can still try to give things away, but you might be able to save some arguments by getting rid of stuff where they don’t have to see it happening.

  19. posted by Grammie Linda on

    @Erin, your advice is excellent–and very sensitive and appropriate to the situation. Simply throwing everything or hiding from everyone is not a solution. Offering to let them have things you don’t want is great.

    We live in an older house (1930) in Minneapolis. While these old houses don’t have as much storage as the newer ones, I think they have plenty for what we need. When we moved here in 1984 I declared that if we could not store everything we had too much stuff! Fortunately, I have been able to keep our storage to less that offered in the house–we have empty storage areas now that our children are settled. It is a relief not to have to constantly rearrange things to find more space, like we did in our previous (older) house.

  20. posted by Sandra J on

    @ Mike Crosby – As I noted in my comment, there were many traumatic upheavals going on in my life and the storage locker has been the least of my concerns. This was not about cost/benefit analysis but about trying to stay grounded in the face of a lot of loss. We all have our own journey, on our own schedule – try not to judge.

  21. posted by Julie on

    There are some good reasons for keeping a storage unit; and some not so good. I’ve had storage units three times in my life; and attended several auctions of others’ stuff.
    My reason for the last one was sound. We had moved from NC to VA in a hurry and had less space. By moving some of the non-essential stuff that we were tripping over to storage we had room to organize the house and make places to store what we wanted to keep; we actually ended up sorting through a lot of it right there at the storage unit and tossing, selling or donating 1/2 to 3/4 of it. And we were one of the exceptions; we had the unit for just 29 days! We moved stuff in with a first month FREE deal (pd $20 insurance fee) and canceled it the day before rent was due. (It would have cost $135 a month and neither of us had jobs yet, so that just wasn’t an option.)
    Another time I was planning a break-up and stored things that were ‘valuable’ to me and that belonged to my son who was in another state. IT TURNED OUT THAT MY MOVING OUT SO MUCH OF THE CLUTTER LOWERED THE STRESS LEVELS AT HOME & MADE THE BREAK-UP UNNECESSARY!!!!!!!!!! And the stuff that was stored; well some WAS personal stuff that I kept (a few boxes) and much of the rest I eventually sold & donated after another move.
    The first one was during a move to another state; the U-Haul had to be turned in, and we didn’t have a place yet! That one we kept until we had a place and slowly moved in what we needed/wanted. Eventually we stopped paying and let it become an SEP (Someone Else’s Problem.) I don’t even know or care what was left in there.
    I’m proud that those are my only times using a storage unit; my Father was not a good example there. He is a bona fide hoarder; the severity of the ones in the shows. Through the years he’s paid unknown amounts storing things that HE thought were just too good to throw out; many times other people’s things that were thrown out at the storage units!! Sometimes he had three or four units at once; and then got behind on payments and lost them all!!

  22. posted by Chaotic on

    I feel better for having read this – looks like I’m not the only normally rational person who has wasted money on unnecessary storage.

    In my case I rented storage and paid 3 months worth up front, expecting that would be all I would need. The storage was for items I had moved out of my small flat to make room for a friend’s daughter to house-sit for me while I took an extended overseas holiday. The storage unit was small and affordable (but not cheap) and was meant to be a short term measure. Some 5 years later, having by now spent thousands on this unit, it was only the four price increases in 6 months that finally got me moving. And in the end, apart from a couple of boxes of books, all of the stuff was either given to charity or thrown out. What a waste of money!

    What I should have done was dealt with the stuff immediately and culled. But it’s a case of “out of sight, out of mind.”

  23. posted by timgray on

    I agree with everyone here, Get rid of it all or as much as possible. I have never seen someone’s storage unit that had anything of value in it that was worth paying $100-$200 a month to store it over the course of several years. One relative had several computers in his storage, that were 100% worthless. Another had paid for storage for a “project” 1965 Mustang for so long that he could have bought a fully restored one for how much he paid in storage over the last 10 years.

    Unless I have a temporary reason to store everything in a unit for short term, it get’s sold or recycled/donated before it goes into a storage unit.

    And like others have said, if a relative says “you should keep that.” Then you hand it to them and say, “sure! at your house.”

  24. posted by Leslie on

    Sandra, sounds like you’ve been having a pretty tough time. I hope things are going better for you soon and you’re able to make that move this summer as planned.

    Good advice, Erin. I especially like the part about the family section – I have enough trouble letting go of things on my own without family guilt trips. I do think storage areas can certainly be useful as a temporary measure. My best friend had to get out of a bad living situation quickly and we moved all of her stuff into a storage unit for a couple months while she stayed in our spare room and looked for a new place. Then we helped her move it to her new house.

  25. posted by Jules on

    Another Deb, I totally know the look the manager must have given you. The only time I’ve ever needed a storage unit was when my husband and I faced a terrible timing dilema when we were buying our condo. We had to be out of our apartment one week before the (extended) closing date. We rented a unit, moved all of our stuff, stayed with friends and moved all of our stuff again all in one week.

    When we went to the manager after that week and told him we were finished with the unit, he was in disbelief. He said he hears that sort of thing all the time about only needing it for a month and then years later, the people are still using their unit.

  26. posted by Kay on

    Thank you all for posting. This is the inspiration I need to keep going. Our unit is now on its 17th year because my husband is emotionally attached to a pool table he restored with a (now deceased) friend. He filled the unit with other things, of course, but the linchpin is the pool table. When I calculate the numbers, I feel ill. For other readers, please hear me: if you have a large item, AVOID STORAGE AT ALL COSTS. Moving it requires $$$, men and a truck. Set-up requires $$$ and a permanent location. To just take a well-lit photo to help me market this table has required that I remove all the other items.

    Donation to a youth center, or a quick sale years ago when we last moved would have been infinitely better. I wish I had taken a strong stand against storage. It is not compassionate to enable this behavior, especially when your name is on the bank account from which the payments are drawn.

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