As soon as he discovered the 200 unopened boxes of ab exerciser equipment, the candy vending machines and the stacks of brand new Harley Davidson belt buckles, Joey Chrisman knew he had gotten a killer deal on the storage unit he had just won at auction. But he had no idea the original tenant had already made a killing of his own.
“I found that out after I bought the unit,” Chrisman says, trying his luck again at another storage auction at the U-Stor on Greenway Road and 40th Street in Phoenix. “I went up to the front office to sign the papers and the manager said, ‘Oh, you bought the murderer’s locker!’ Turned out the guy who owned the unit killed his roommate, and put all this stuff in storage. I thought, ‘Great!’” Chrisman adds, recalling the episode of The Simpsons when Bart’s arch nemesis plots his murder from inside a unit at the Broken Dreams Storage Lockers (“The Most Depressing Place on Earth”). “So now I’m gonna have Sideshow Bob coming after me?’”
Despite the weird vibe of buying up the treasures left behind from a stranger’s own broken dreams — or in this case, a murderous rampage — Chrisman found himself hooked on storage auctions. “I paid $500 for the unit, but it turned out to be a gold mine,” says the twentysomething business graduate from Southern Illinois University, who now lives in Scottsdale. “I was able to sell those 200 ab exercisers for 20 bucks apiece on eBay” — a $
3,500 profit in itself. “And that was just one thing. There was a ton of other stuff.”
Since that big score a little over a year ago, Chrisman has been showing up at storage auctions all around town, which are plentiful: a look at the calendar of Arizona’s top storage auctioneer, Bill Cole, shows dozens taking place each week, with Cole and his partner Casey Jones sometimes officiating as many as 15 fast-paced auctions in a single day.
Most first-timers or novice auction hunters are drawn into the scene by the TV shows, hoping to nab a hidden treasure for a couple hundred bucks, says Bill Cole, a rapid-fire Arizona auctioneer, whose website (bccole.com) is a favorite resource among experienced buyers.
“It really started to pick up when the economy went bad,” says Cole, who’s been specializing in storage auctions for 21 years. “That, and the TV shows.”
Cole is referring, of course, to the current spate of reality shows like A&E’s Storage Wars and Spike TV’s Auction Hunters, both of which premiered in the winter of 2010 and have each gone on to become their respective network’s highest-rated series.
The opening narration of each episode of Storage Wars neatly describes how the real-life auctions work: “When storage units are abandoned, the treasures within are put up for auction.” More specifically, when a tenant falls behind on his/her rent for an extended period, the facility’s owner can double-padlock the unit and order the contents to be sold in bulk by an auctioneer, to pay the lien.
Understandably, the economic downturn has proved a boon to storage auctioneers, giving the reality shows their timely hook. Home foreclosures and downsizing forced many Americans to shuttle their belongings into storage, Cole says, and rising unemployment triggered more rent defaults. At the same time, long-term unemployment created a bigger buyer’s market of strapped folks looking for bargains they can turn around for cash on idle weekday mornings.
Alas, the gold rush may already be over. Curiously, as the recession has dragged on, the quality of the goods left in storage has declined.
“You got to figure, when people are desperate, they’re gonna try to retrieve whatever they put into storage that’s of some value and sell it before it’s too late,” says Corey, an 18-year veteran of storage auctions who prefers to give only his first name. “Don’t want to give away all my secrets,” says the sunglass-wearing retiree. “Usually by the time someone stops paying rent on a unit, they’ve already gone in and taken out whatever they think is worth money. So what you’re left with is junk.”
“That’s why you have to catch people in crisis moments,” adds young gun Chrisman, with a sly grin. “Like the roommate killer. He’s going to jail. He doesn’t have time to go into his unit and take out anything before it goes up for sale. That’s perfect for us!”
Storage Wars: Arizona
Up until last year, Dan Dotson was simply a hard-working, third-generation auctioneer who had the bright idea to promote his 38-year-old business in a series of YouTube videos.
Today, thanks to the good fortune of having his videos discovered by reality-TV king Thom Beers (Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers), Dotson and his wife, Laura, are, in Dotson’s own immodest estimation, “the most recognizable auctioneers on the planet.”
Dan and Laura Dotson are the featured auctioneers on the hit A&E series Storage Wars, a modern-day treasure hunt through the ruins of the 2010’s economy that has inspired a nationwide fascination with scouring the storage unit auctions. Photo by Ross Mason.
The gray-haired, stout-bellied Dan and his smokin’ hot wife Laura are the featured auctioneers on Beers’ hit A&E series Storage Wars, a modern-day treasure hunt through the ruins of the 2010’s economy that has inspired a nationwide fascination with scouring the local Uncle Bob’s whenever an “Auction Today!” sign props up along the roadside.
This month, in a March 4th auction to be held in Bullhead City, the Dotsons will launch their company’s expansion into Arizona, a major market that Dan Dotson says “we want.” With Storage Wars: Texas already in full swing and a Storage Wars: New York on tap for next season, could a Storage Wars: Arizona be far behind?
“We’re working on a spin-off show,” says Troy Beitl, an Apache Junction auctioneer who, together with Arizona auctioneer Rowlan Hill, has formed a partnership with Dotson’s Riverside, Calif.-based American Auctioneers. “But I can’t say anything more about it at the moment.”
Dotson says his and Laura’s appearances on Storage Wars have bolstered the public’s interest in a fairly routine legal remedy that was once carried out largely “in the dark.”
“A few years ago, we were selling a million dollars worth of units a year. Now we’re selling three million,” he says. “We’ve got a lot more customers, a lot more clients. And this show has brought a lot of new energy into the marketplace. People think about auctions a lot more now than they used to.”
Dotson admits the show, which can sometimes shoot auctions at several facilities over a few days to get four or five exciting door openings, can tend to make storage auctions look more thrilling than they really are. “The truth is, there’s a lot of crap out there in these units,” he says.
Nevertheless, Dotson has seen his share of spectacular finds behind the unassuming steel doors — and often when the cameras aren’t rolling.
“We sold five boxes at a storage sale, the customer paid 30 bucks apiece for them. The bottom box just said ‘memorabilia’ on the side. Well, it turned out to be a bunch of personal notes from Madonna. The seller had been Madonna’s personal helper from ’86 to ’93. That buyer was able to pay off his house, his car and got totally out of debt with that deal by selling it all for about $400,000.” According to USA Today, Madonna herself recently stepped in to stop the diary pages from being sold again on eBay.
“Another time a guy bought a unit for $100, he didn’t have the $40 cleaning deposit and ended up throwing some of the stuff he didn’t want in the facility’s trash can” — a no-no, by the way: unless they foot the cleaning deposit, buyers are expected to take both the good and the bad out of any unit they buy. “My wife caught him and told him he had to take it back. He pulls one bag out of the trash can and a $100 bill flies out. There ended up being $38,500 in cash in the bags he had just thrown away!”
With all the increased popularity the show has brought to storage auctions, however, there also comes a backlash. Old-time buyers complain that the auctions are now flooded with spectators and noisy kids who do nothing but obscure their viewing of the units, driving up the selling prices with uneducated bids.
“A couple of years ago, we used to have, on the average, 30 to 50 people at a really good auction,” says James Appleton, a 33-year-old former producer of television commercials who now runs the website for the Arizona Self Storage Association. “Now we average 150 to 200. What’s changed is, prior to the public becoming so fascinated with this, it used to be just a core of professional buyers — antique dealers, collectors, resellers — who would follow the auctions. Now a lot of those old dogs no longer attend the auctions because they say the prices have increased beyond their paying threshold. The prices have gone up because competition and demand have gone up. It’s frustrating to them because they had it nice when nobody knew about it.”
The economic downturn has proved a boon to storage auctioneers; home foreclosures and downsizing forced many Americans to shuttle their belongings into storage and rising unemployment triggered more rent defaults.
Dotson makes no apologies. “Every auctioneer and every self-storage place in the nation is making more money now, and you’d think they would come up and pat ol’ Dan and Laura on the back and say, ‘Thanks.’ But a lot of them don’t. They say, ‘We don’t like these new buyers.’ But you know what? At a lot of the old auctions, there used to be a lot of collusion between buyers to keep the prices low, and we really needed to bring new people in to break up those cliques.”
Few of the new buyers are making enough off the auctions to do it professionally — at least not yet. “It’s nothing to quit your day job over,” says Joey Chrisman, with a laugh. Adds the more experienced Corey: “You have to know where to sell the stuff. That’s a big part of this. If it’s good stuff, I keep it or sell it to someone who wants to buy it. Usually I break even on ten purchases, make money on two of ‘em. Basically, it’s a way to make a little extra money two or three mornings a week.”
Storing With Sharks
It’s auction time at the U-Stor on Greenway Road and 40th Street, and unit 2005 has gone up for sale for the eighth and final time.
“Eleven hundred, whose gonna give me 12?” Bill Cole barks out in rapid-fire auctioneer’s rhythm. “Fifteen, now 2,000, 2,100.”
It’s the first of three units being sold at this location today, and the final bid goes all the way up to $4,100. Many of the 75 or so people gathered by the unit appear shell-shocked by the high price — most are first-timers or novices drawn into the scene by the TV shows, hoping to nab a hidden treasure for a couple hundred bucks.
But the few experienced buyers in the crowd doing all the bidding know about unit 2005, and have been anxiously awaiting its sale.
“That one belonged to a big contractor, and I had it listed for sale on my website maybe six or seven times,” says Cole, whose website (bccole.com) is a favorite resource among experienced buyers. “But he always comes in at the last minute and pays. Today, he finally let it go.”
In fact, says Appleton, much of the auctioneer’s job is enforcing an inflexible deadline on rental debts that the storage unit managers would rather see the tenant pay.
“No one really wants to see people lose their belongings,” Appleton insists. “And every attempt is made to work with the tenant first. When all else fails, the storage auction is a legal remedy to take back the property, like an eviction. But there’s really no profit in it for the facilities.”
When a tenant falls behind on their rent for an extended period (legally only 30 days in Arizona, although most facilities will allow tenants up to three months to make good), the facility’s owner can double-padlock the unit and order the contents to be sold in bulk by an auctioneer. Photo by Ross Mason
So where does that $4,100 for unit 2005 go? First to cover the unpaid rent on the unit, and some to cover the auctioneer’s fee. What’s left over, however, goes back to the tenant — if he’s quick enough to claim it. If not, some of that money may actually go for our kids’ textbooks.
“In Arizona, if the unit is sold for more than the lien amount, the tenant has 90 days to claim the money,” says Troy Beitl. “If the money isn’t claimed by then, it goes into the state education fund.”
“This is the ultimate recycling,” says Dotson, adding his own positive spin. “If one family loses a 10-by-10 unit, most likely that’s going to help another family, who may be able to pay $25 for a ladder but can’t afford to buy a new one for $100. Or maybe can’t afford a new bed, but are happy to pick one up from a storage unit.”
“I think self-storage is a necessary stop-gap in people’s lives,” adds Appleton. “There are people who lose their jobs and then they lose their homes and have to store. Then, for whatever reason, they can no longer afford to store and it goes to auction. And that’s really unfortunate.
“But we also see people who’ve already gone through that process, gotten back on their feet and now have some cash to bring to auction. And they can buy somebody else’s stuff and start over,” he says.
“This isn’t retribution, and it isn’t a game. It’s more like a circle of life.”