Maybe you’re a student in college, you’re headed overseas indefinitely or you’re going through a divorce. If you have to store possessions temporarily, you might consider renting a self-storage unit.
In 2012, 9.6 percent (10.9 million) of all U.S. households rented a unit in one of the 48,500 self-storage facilities that are in the United States, according to Self Storage Association (SSA), which is the trade organization for the $24 billion industry.
Rental contracts for storage units are typically on a month-to-month basis, and prices depend on the location and the type of amenities that the facility provides. For example, we found that monthly prices range from $15 for the smallest drive-up storage unit in a small town to $805 for a controlled-climate indoor space in a major metropolitan area. (See “Moving Around.”)
After speaking with 17 crime experts, lawyers and self-storage officials, we believe that self-storage facilities typically are safe and secure no matter how much that you pay. That doesn’t mean that renting space in a self-storage facility is a foolproof transaction, however. You should know that nothing exists in the way of regulation that will help you if your possessions are damaged or stolen, and insurance providers vary greatly on the perils that they cover and the amount of reimbursement that they provide.
Meanwhile, experts say storage-related TV shows, such as “Storage Wars,” created the misconception that self-storage facilities profit from selling delinquent tenants’ possessions in auctions. Our experts tell us that that isn’t the case.
SAFE OR SORRY? Our sources tell us that most self-storage facilities do an adequate job of protecting your belongings from damage, such as fire, water and weather-related catastrophes. However, no regulations require the owners of self-storage facilities to do so, and all self-storage contracts typically prohibit facility owners from opening your unit. Consequently, it’s up to you to keep your unit free from bugs, mold and rodents and to secure (or, better yet, not store) flammable materials.
All of our sources tell us that self-storage burglaries are rare and less common than are burglaries of homes and vehicles. We found no data to dispute that, but we also found that the exact number of self-storage burglaries each year is impossible to quantify. Self-storage theft is underreported, and police departments differ in their methods for classifying these crimes, says Art Hushen, who is the president of National Institute of Crime Protection.
Most experts cite data from Self-Storage Almanac, which is a reference guide for the self-storage industry. Self-Storage Almanac reported that in a survey of self-storage facilities, 8.9 percent reported a burglary in 2012, which was up slightly from 2011 but down from 18.2 percent of facilities that reported a burglary in 2010. However, that data doesn’t reflect a true year-to-year measure of crime, admits Poppy Behrens, who is the publisher of Self-Storage Almanac, because a different number of storage facilities report their data to SSA each year. Behrens and crime experts whom we interviewed believe that the actual percentage of self-storage facilities that are robbed each year is lower than 8.9 percent.
Experts say most burglaries of self-storage facilities occur at poorly lit outdoor facilities that are located in high-crime areas, such as near abandoned lots, outlying industrial areas and rail yards. Those facilities typically were built before 1990, Behrens says. All of the experts whom we interviewed tell us that, since 1990, the majority of self-storage facilities have been built in urban areas and include security features, such as computerized gate access, perimeter fencing and video cameras.
If you’re looking to rent storage space, we recommend that you walk around a facility and make sure that these features exist. After that, you should ask the facility operator to demonstrate that the security features work. You also should check that fences are at least 6 feet high, have barbed wire around the top and aren’t located next to a building or tree that would provide easy access.