£1000 for a sealed box?
October 1, 2012 4:02 AM   Subscribe

So I've been watching a lot of buying/selling based reality TV lately and one thing has me curious: can people really make a living from buying abandoned storage units and selling on the contents? And how like the reality is the TV version?

I know there is a This American Life segment on buying storage units, but because reality TV shows are obviously manipulated I was wondering if there were any more accounts online.

Self-storage has only really got big in the UK in the past couple of years, so while it has been common here for people to go to local auctions to try and pick things up at a bargain price for years, the buying of auction units isn't or isn't yet a thing. There seems to be two or three shows of this type on cable, which has given me the impression that it's a relatively common thing in the US.

The shows give the impression that people actually do this for a living - they will turn up to an auction of abandoned units, are allowed to look into but not enter the units, and bid for the contents based on this. I've had a storage unit myself, and saw that some in the same building held what appeared to be shop inventory, but the contents of my unit were only really valuable to me unless someone had a lot of time or resources to spend in liquidating the contents. (From memory, the contract said they were authorised to 'destroy' the contents of a unit on which the rent went unpaid.) So I'm curious as to what makes someone think they can be a success in doing this - is it something people move into after dealing in antiques, is it a form of gambling, or are the people that do this mostly regular folk looking for a bargain?

I'm curious about how accurate the shows are - not just because of the usual manipulation involved in reality TV, but because, for example, in UK pawn shops people generally just sell or loan on jewellery and watches, whereas in Pawn Stars people seem to come in with all types of collectables and artifacts - the Cash Converters chain will buy camera equipment or TVs to sell on, but they would not buy, say, a first edition of Playboy or collectable toys. It may be a UK/US thing, or the shows could be completely made up, but the idea of people bidding large sums of money on something that isn;'t certain had me curious.
posted by mippy to Society & Culture (23 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know specific details, but I do know this. Anyone bidding large sums of money on something is either a fool or far more certain than they let on. Also, self storage has been a big thing in the US for a couple decades at least, so there has been lots of time for otherwise valuable things to be stored, forgotten and abandoned. There are certainly folks who make modest livings in antiques and this seems like a variation of the same, so I do believe a much more dull bland version of this is real out there in the wild.
posted by meinvt at 4:33 AM on October 1, 2012

I know a few people that do this on occasion. You get to see inside, so you're not bidding on a possibly empty unit. From what I understand, you're bidding on what you think you can get for the big stuff, and anything somewhat hidden or small objects can possibly make the jackpot moments.

But, the people that do this, in my experience, do it as a possibly money making hobby. You'd have to have some serious abilities to move used goods to make it a career.
posted by efalk at 4:36 AM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Buying storage units is only one source for stock for secondhand stores. "Storage Wars" shows interesting stuff found in storage units, but usually resellers get their stocks from storage units, estates, junk removal, and a ton of other sources.
posted by xingcat at 4:36 AM on October 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Can people really make a living from selling on abandoned storage?
Certainly if you are the owner of storage business - perhaps if you are a buyer of auctioned unit contents. Quoting from a recent Economist article:
Self-storage firms are also well-placed to deal with the problem other landlords dread: non-paying tenants. They have the upper hand because they have your stuff. If you don’t pay up, they will flog it. This last trend has even spawned a television show—Storage Wars—in which rent-dodgers’ possessions are sold, often for surprisingly high prices. The lessons of hoardonomics are clear: don’t store your stuff, sell it. Then invest in a storage business.
The storage business owners have a good deal: they serve the ever growing demand that people seem to have to find places to put their stuff. They use cheap real estate at the edge of town and they benefit from contracts that let them sell the property of non-rent payers - no need to run expensive eviction as with a resident or business. Anybody who buys the content of a non-payers unit will even do the work of cleaning it out ready to be re-rented. There is not much downside really.

Those who buy the contents of units live a more precarious life: they must bid against others for contents, buy sight (semi) unseen and spend time finding buyers for the goods. the best way of making money with such a business would probably be to negotiate an exclusive contract for all re-claimed units with a particular company - then operate at so as to get some economies of scale. I'm not sure this is happening however.
posted by rongorongo at 4:38 AM on October 1, 2012

It may only be viable as a living if you are also being paid to appear in a TV show while you are doing it.
posted by ceribus peribus at 4:39 AM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know someone who does this. They still primarily buy stuff at estate sales, flea markets, etc., but they developed a good eye for junk that's actually valuable and they have started to use that eye for storage auctions.

It's not a full time job but it does supplement their income every month.
posted by murfed13 at 4:47 AM on October 1, 2012

My mom recently attended one of these auctions out of curiosity. The guys there all knew each other well and said it was always the same small group of people who bid, but things have changed because of the reality shows. They're getting a lot more people coming which is driving prices of units up. What was once a sustainable source of income is possibly going to start dying because of the shows about it.
posted by DoubleLune at 4:49 AM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: DoubleLune - I've heard this said about eBay - that popularity made it harder work for sellers. I used to be able to buy second-hand things easily and sell them on for a significant profit, but even if I was organised enough to do that now, people have more of an idea that their junk is worth something.
posted by mippy at 4:51 AM on October 1, 2012

A footnote to the article I linked to above - this comment from the owner of a storage company. He points out that storage unit auctions represent less than 1% of his operations each year - he also describes them as loss making for his business and stressful for his employees. So the rosy picture painted in the original article - and by "Storage Wars" may not be universal.
posted by rongorongo at 4:57 AM on October 1, 2012

I know someone who did this but it seemed like a pretty marginal economy, in terms of his take and the kind of (small, well known to each other) group that was on that circuit. It was just one part of a hustle that involved tag sales and auctions (to look for other items of value) and the people involved still lived with parents, were on fixed incomes, supplementing other jobs, etc.
posted by availablelight at 5:13 AM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Related previous question.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 5:33 AM on October 1, 2012

Another wrinkle is the strategy described in this Reddit Q&A, which has unfortunately had the text of the original post deleted. The poster's strategy is to rent a small storage unit at a promotional rate and then fill it with bulky free things he gets on craigslist mixed with cheap things that are signifiers of value to auction hunters (e.g. a $5 locked safe bought at a garage sale, damaged antique furniture positioned strategically out of view behind something big and bulky, small storage lockers found on Freecycle, etc.). Then he stops paying the lease on the storage unit. The owner of the unit sends threatening letters for three months, then puts the unit up for auction. Crucially, if the unit sells for more than what the lessee owes in back rent, the storage center cuts him a check for the difference (they only have the right to seize the value of the debt owed to them). In the original discussion, the guy claimed to average a couple of hundred dollars in profit for every locker he rented, with occasional spikes north of $1000 when he found something really exciting-looking to stuff in the back of a storage locker.

So, maybe not a stable enough revenue stream to make this your full-time job, but certainly an effective way of gaming the legion of auction hunters who have shown up since the TV shows appeared.
posted by Mayor West at 5:42 AM on October 1, 2012 [16 favorites]

I have a family member who does this. It's a hobby, not his primary income - he's very handy and so frequently can fix broken appliances when he comes across them. He uses Ebay and Craigslist, and meticulously charts out things on a spreadsheet, and is happy so long as he is making a profit, even if it's as small as five dollars. If it were his primary income, the amount of time he spends doing it and the money he takes in would definitely not work out, but as a hobby that entertains him and gives him plenty of projects, it's not the worst thing in the world.
posted by PussKillian at 7:20 AM on October 1, 2012

I worked, ever so briefly, at a pawn shop, and the owners would routinely attend storage unit auctions and resell the contents in the shop, it was a large chunk of their income, but probably not enough to make a living on.

Most of the auctions were invite only, and the people invited were very much in the same sectors: pawn shops, used goods resale places and flea market proprietors.
posted by furnace.heart at 7:24 AM on October 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

You'll note that the players on Storage Wars, with the exception of Barry, all own second-hand stores. The storage locker auctions are just one avenue for them to acquire stock for their stores. In other words, they aren't hobbyists looking to make a few bucks by turning-over stuff on Craigslist.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:26 AM on October 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: He uses Ebay and Craigslist, and meticulously charts out things on a spreadsheet, and is happy so long as he is making a profit, even if it's as small as five dollars. If it were his primary income, the amount of time he spends doing it and the money he takes in would definitely not work out
See, we don't have Craigslist here - Gumtree is the nearest equivalent but people mainly use it for renting flats.

It's not something I'm remotely thinking of trying myself, but perhaps like couponing in the US ( over here: no coupon flyers as in the US, no double-coupon redemption in supermarkets, coupons limited to one item or one coupon per order) the infrastructure is there for someone to make a profit if they are willing to put in a decent amount of time?
posted by mippy at 7:53 AM on October 1, 2012

Chiming in to agree with Thorzdad...

The people I've know who go to these auctions fall into two categories:

Those who own secondhand stores/flea markets/thrift stores who can supplement their income with a few good "finds,"


Those who are in the junk business who are looking to get a locker of junk for <$50.
posted by kuanes at 8:30 AM on October 1, 2012

I know a couple of guys that do this as a hobby. I don't think they pay near that amount of money normally, maybe a couple of hundred dollars? They sell some in yard sales or eBay and a lot of it gets thrown away.
posted by tracer at 10:35 AM on October 1, 2012

we like storage wars, but it does seem mostly (if not completely) scripted and i think they're given an allowance to spend. having said that, people absolutely make money going to auctions and reselling what they buy. a family member owned a salvage yard and did some flea market stuff too. he went to auctions of all kinds and had barns filled with things to sell. he looked poor, but was probably one of the richer people i've met.
posted by nadawi at 10:49 AM on October 1, 2012

Re: Pawn Stars.

Well, first, the Wikipedia page says they've usually got about 12,000 items in the shop, of which about half are in pawn (can't be sold yet.) So really, the potential collectibles & rarities are only a small percent of the business they do.

I suspect the Pawn Stars guys' expertise in these sorts of items is a bit unusual, and kinda reading between the lines in some articles about the show, I also suspect the Harrisons and the producers decided to really emphasize this aspect of the business as part of the show. Just from meandering into various pawn shops over the years, I haven't really seen that level of knowledge or even interest in their merchandise besides making a profit.

It sounds like US pawn shops generally deal in a LOT more stuff than UK shops - guns are a very common item, other types of sporting equipment, musical instruments & accessories, any kind of home electronics including TV's & cameras, power tools. Coins & jewelry, too, of course.

I spent some time in the early 90's working retail in a musical instrument store that started a generation before as a pawn shop. The oldest son graduated from college, looked at what the pawn shop was getting a lot of & selling for good prices, and decided to create an offshoot store that dealt in new & used golf equipment. A few years later the younger son did the same with musical instruments, and eventually the pawn shop aspect of the business was dropped.
posted by soundguy99 at 4:44 PM on October 1, 2012

Response by poster: WEll, obviously we don't get guns here, but there are two types of 'pawn shops':

1) buy and loan places that mainly deal in jewellery, watches, or the kind of collectables that you would buy in a jewellers such as figurines.
2) second-hand stores which buy used goods to sell in store - these generally tend to be small electronics, guitars, stereo equipment, CDs and DVDs. They will also offer loan and check-cashing services.

My only real experience of the pawn industry in the UK was when I spent a day in a store for a report in a previous job, and that was the first type of store. The second is becoming more common - Cash Converters is the biggest chain but there are others too. I have never heard of anyone taking the kinds of collectables you see in Pawn Stars to a Cash Converters type store - they would never take anything like an engraved whale tooth or an old edition of Playboy, because the market wouldn't be there for them. It's not the first place you'd go if you were looking for that kind of stuff.
posted by mippy at 1:50 AM on October 2, 2012

I worked with a woman who was a paid extra on a storage auction show. So there's something to think about right off the bat. Those people standing in the background and maybe bidding are, at least sometimes, paid extras. Further, I'll share a conversation she had while on that set:

Her: Hi, are you an extra too?
Some dude: No I'm the jet ski guy.
H: Jet ski guy?
SD: Yeah. I was trying to sell my jet skis on Craigslist. This show called and wanted to "borrow" them for the day. They are just gonna stick them in a locker, film it, and give them back to me. For a hundred bucks.

Tl;dr: Everything is fake.
posted by stephennelson at 8:22 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

mippy - it's not that the engraved whale tooth goes into the pawn/second hand stores - it's everything else from the locker (clothes, small appliances, bikes, tools, board games etc) that goes into the store and then you find a buyer for the weird stuff.

so - yeah, the shows are fake by and large - but looking at it from the real world side - you'll have hobbyists and you'll have resellers (people who own stores or people who go to the flea markets every weekend to sell at a booth). the resellers are looking for stock for their shelves/booths, that's the main focus. they are also hoping there is some awesome, expensive, rare items that they can unload on ebay or a store that buys weird things. the shows focus on the weird stuff (because that's why we watch), but it's the rest of the stuff that generally makes the money.
posted by nadawi at 1:16 PM on October 2, 2012

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