The ins-and-outs of using a self-storage unit

Using a storage unit to house clutter is not recommended because it is a waste of money and is only a way to delay making a decision about what to do with the stuff you no longer need. However, storage units can be a useful temporary storage solution when staging your house to sell it or moving for a few years overseas — especially when those units are well organized and you know exactly when you will cease using the unit.

If you fall into the category of someone who temporarily needs a storage unit, the following tips for choosing a storage facility and preparing your goods for storage may be helpful to you.

Create a complete inventory of everything you wish to place into storage. You should also take photographs and/or videos of the items. List the approximate current value of all items and you may also want to list the approximate replacement value (i.e. the cost of buying the item brand new).

Using your inventory as a guide, decide how much storage space you need. Many self-storage companies will provide a guideline of how much “stuff” fits into their storage units. If you are storing items such as wine, wood or leather furniture, artwork, musical instruments, paperwork or photographs you should choose climate-controlled storage.

Obtain insurance quotes. Some self-storage companies will provide insurance with the cost of rental but it may be expensive and not adequate for your needs. Your homeowners’ insurance policy may provide coverage at a better rate. Some insurance policies have specific minimum requirements for the storage facility security system. Some policies require that the owner or owner’s representative verify the contents on a regular basis. It is important to read the fine print of your insurance policy.

Examine the cost of storage and insurance. Decide if there are items that are not worth storing for the intended period of time. For example, when we moved to Britain we had the option of leaving items in storage in Canada for the three years that we are in England. Since our appliances were over 7 years old before our move, we opted to sell them rather than return to Canada and have 10-year-old appliances that may or may not work after being in storage. You should only store items that you will use in the future, and only if it’s less expensive to store them than to replace them.

You should visit two or three different facilities in order to find out which is the best for you. Look for customer reviews of each facility on various websites such as Yelp and the Better Business Bureau.

Additional points to take into consideration:


  • Is the price reasonable after any “move-in promotional discounts” have expired?
  • Are there any hidden add-on fees such as accessing the unit outside normal business hours, multiple daily visits, or move in/out charges?
  • What happens if you miss a payment?
  • What happens if you cause damage to your unit? (E.g. furniture scraping walls.)


  • How and when does the facility contact you if there is a problem with your storage unit?
  • How do they proceed if you are not available?
  • How and when can you contact the facility?
  • Is there communication to the site manager directly or are calls routed through a call centre?

Site visit

  • Is the unit clean and dry?
  • Are there water or mildew stains on the walls or floor?
  • Are there any “off” odours? Strong smells of bleach or vanilla may indicate the facility is trying to cover the odour of something else.
  • If you’re looking at climate-controlled storage, does each unit have its own climate monitor? Will the company allow you to view the data to see the fluctuations?
  • Is there any overhead ductwork or piping in the unit? Broken pipes could cause damage to your items. Ductwork allows pests (insects and rodents) to travel between units.
  • Is there a pest control system in place? Have there been any pest problems in the past? If so, what measures were taken?
  • Are there any items that are not permitted in storage? Most self-storage units have restrictions on tires, small engines (lawn mowers, motorcycles), firewood, propane tanks, medical or pharmaceutical supplies, perishable products (food, pet food), construction equipment, firearms, ammunition, hazardous household products (cleaners) and explosives.
  • Does the door to the unit close securely? Have someone (partner/ friend) shut you inside the unit. You should not see any light around the door or through the walls or ceiling.
  • Do customers supply their own locks? What type of locks are permitted/recommended?
  • Are there plenty of security cameras surveying the area? Are they live-monitored? Is the feed recorded?
  • Are there alarms on individual units to know the date/time a unit is accessed?
  • What type of background checks/training do the employees receive?
  • Have there been any burglaries at this facility? (You may wish to ask the local police for any incident reports regarding this facility.)
  • Are there hallway intercoms? Could you easily contact security personnel if you were in distress?
  • Is the lighting adequate (indoors and outdoors)? Are there any dark corners or hallways? If you might access your items at night, consider visiting the unit late in the evening (Don’t go alone!) to ensure you are comfortable with the level of security.

Preparing your stuff for storage

It’s a good idea to thoroughly clean your items before they go into storage. After cleaning, appliances should be rinsed with bleach to prevent mould and mildew growth. Drain and flush washing machines and dishwashers. Antifreeze may be required if they are in climate-controlled storage. Prop open appliance doors so air can circulate. A small container of baking soda or DampRid will help keep odours at a minimum.

Ideally, upholstered furniture and mattresses should be wrapped in plastic to keep them clean and pest-free during storage. If you’re moving items from a cold, damp environment to a warm environment, condensation may form. If possible, allow them to become acclimatized to the new environment before wrapping with plastic to avoid mould and mildew build-up.

Storing items on pallets is preferable. It allows for air circulation. Also, if there is ever a spill or minor flooding, your items will be protected.

So that you can easily find your items in storage, but potential thieves cannot, label the boxes with numbers instead of words. You can have a list of all the items in each box or using the inventory list of your items, write down in which box each item is stored. Keep your list in a safe place and leave a copy with a friend or family member, just in case. You can also keep an electronic version in Dropbox or iCloud.

Remember to pack heavy items, such as books, in smaller boxes so they are easy to carry. Lighter, bulky items such as pillows can be packed in smaller boxes. When stacking boxes, put the heavier ones on the bottom, lighter on the top. You may wish to label the boxes with words such as “HEAVY” and “FRAGILE”.

Consider wrapping pallets or individual boxes with stretch film. This will help keep things clean, dry and pest free, and it will let you know if anyone has disturbed the contents of your storage unit.

When filling your storage unit, think about how often you will access certain items. Arrange frequently accessed items near the front. Keep valuable items such as televisions, and other electronics towards the back. You never know who will be looking over your shoulder when you access your goods.

Ensure there is space to move around inside the unit. Consider creating an aisle down middle or a path around the outside. If you plan to stack boxes to the ceiling, ensure the aisle/path is wide enough to fit a ladder.

By keeping in mind these tips, you should have a successful self-storage experience.

Do you have any self-storage tips or tricks? Please share them with our readers in the comments.

7 Comments for “The ins-and-outs of using a self-storage unit”

  1. posted by Amanda on

    We were lucky enough to find a just-opened storage facility: not only was it spotless, we also got a discount on the rate (as one of the first movers-in). Plus we were able to measure about 10 different ‘identical’ units to find one that most efficiently fitted our stuff.

  2. posted by Barbara on

    I think that self-storage can be helpful. Homes USED to be built with lots of closets, linen cupboards, coat closets, and pantries, and often had spare guest room space, plus basement and attic spaces for storage. But, it seems that such features have gone away. But the need for such “missing” storage space, hasn’t. In our more “complicated” lives, we need more, just to function. Much more that, say, families in the 1950″s. So, for many people, the extra self-storage space ISN’T an unnecessary luxury – it is a necessity!

  3. posted by Barbara on

    I think that self-storage can be helpful. Homes USED to be built with lots of closets, linen cupboards, coat closets, and pantries, and often had spare guest room space, plus basement and attic spaces for storage, and sometimes garages, too But, it seems that such features have gone away. But the need for such “missing” storage space, hasn’t. In our more “complicated” lives, we need more, just to function. Much more than, say, families in the 1950″s. So, for many people, the extra self-storage space ISN’T an unnecessary luxury – it is a necessity!

  4. posted by Matt Gibson on

    Lots of good tips here, especially the one about leaving enough room for access—it’s amazing how often, no matter how well you plan, the thing you need turns out to be right at the back of the unit.

    I have two extra tips:

    1) Get as many quotes as you can when finding somewhere. In a competitive market, storage places often do price-matching. I got a unit within walking distance of my city centre home for the price of a unit on an industrial estate eight miles out of town, because the city centre place was keen for business, and undercut their normal price when they saw the other quote.

    2) When I filled the storage unit, I kept track of inventory and where things were by taking photos and putting them in Evernote. I filled up a box of stuff, took a photo of the contents, maybe added a little text for important things, took a photo of the outside of the box, with its label, and then took a photo of the box once it was in place in the storage unit. Now if I want to find something I can go back through my Evernote notes and literally see exactly what’s where in the storage unit before I go there.

    I agree that a full inventory is important. There are very few things more frustrating than trying to find something in a storage unit, *especially* if you don’t actually know for sure if it’s in there to find!

  5. posted by liz on

    Storage units are very useful when moving to a new city and you are in a temporary apartment. So, don’t forget about those storage pods which can be shipped to a new location.

    If you are going to access your unit a lot, consider getting some good shelving units to put boxes on as well as sore a good stepladder to be able to access the shelving in a safe manner.

    Consider using plastic boxes where you can use tape to seal the edges to make it water and insect proof.

    Put the location and entry information in your “emergency” book, so if something happens to you, there is someone who can get the items and properly dispose of them.

    Don’t put any financial papers in the storage units – you wouldn’t want your key information stolen.

    Finally, watch one or two episodes of that storage wars program as examples of how not to store things!

  6. posted by liz on

    sorry – typo in there – “STORE” a stepladder, otherwise you might be “sore” after moving boxes around!

  7. posted by ezStorage on

    Not only is self storage helpful during staging a home or moving, but can also help for students as well. Especially if you’re going to school out of state or traveling abroad for a semester and need a place to temporary store your belongings. One of our favorite tips is, if you decide to use self storage, pack all of your frequently used items last in a storage unit. That way when you need to grab these items, they will be located near the front of your storage unit for easy access instead of in the back which will require you to dig in and move items around.

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