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Space Stations

More and more Southlanders are using self-storage units in place of spare rooms to stash their extra belongings. But with the convenience come some risks.

October 18, 1998|CARON GOLDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Caron Golden is a San Diego freelance writer

When Theo Spratt decided to attend Cal State Fullerton as a working adult two years ago, his decision also meant downsizing from his house to an apartment.

Rather than get rid of furnishings and other belongings that didn't fit in the apartment, Spratt put his things in storage, first in a facility in Fullerton, then into two units at Madison Squares Self-Storage in Anaheim.

"I can keep my garage clean and park the car inside it. I can store my winter clothes in the summer and summer clothes in the winter," he said. "I also have a small maintenance company, City Best Maintenance, and I keep my equipment there."

Self-storage can be the ideal solution to slimming down an overstuffed home or temporarily storing belongings during a move or home renovation.

In fact, this relatively new industry has exploded in the last three decades in response to American mobility and the dwindling storage space in homes.

"People say, 'We have a lot of stuff'; 'Our new house is smaller than our old one;' 'The garage is overflowing'; 'We're moving'; 'We're remodeling.' You name it," said Peter Conti, an executive with the Mini Storage Messenger, a monthly industry publication.

Nationwide, there are more than 27,000 storage facilities consisting of almost 9 million individual units.

California leads the nation in the number of self-storage facilities, which range from small mom-and-pop companies to state-of-the-art corporate-run operations.

There are more than 1,000 storage facilities in Los Angeles alone, the most in any metropolitan area in the country.

Among them are businesses run by the top four industry leaders--Public Storage, Storage USA, U-Haul and Shurgard Storage Centers--as well as local companies such as E-Z Storage and Madison Squares Self-Storage.

On average, belongings stay in self-storage for nine months, Conti said. But regardless of the time, consumers need to be alert to the risks.

Largely unregulated, the self-storage industry takes little, if any, responsibility for customers' belongings. Theft can be a problem. So can fire and leaky roofs. Neighboring units can be home to illegal or dangerous materials.

"Anyone can rent a cheap space and then be free to roam the facility," said Mark Gleckman, owner of Security Management Services Inc. in Valencia.

"Cutting through locks and then changing them is simple and has been going on for years. For someone who wants to steal, that's an easy way. Also people can piggyback through the main gate and bypass having to enter an access code."

To improve security, many self-storage facilities feature 24-hour surveillance cameras. Others require personal identificaiton numbers for entry to deter unauthorized visitors. And some fingerprint customers before renting them units.

Still, smart consumers have to ask a lot of questions before choosing a facility to house their possessions, even if it's only for a few months.

Easy Access

Self-storage is a more accessible option for most consumers than the long-established warehouse-type storage offered by moving companies and others. In fact, the self-storage industry has dropped the term "mini-warehouse" because it doesn't really describe today's units.

Warehouse customers pack their belongings with the understanding that access is by appointment only, if at all. The storage company picks up and moves items to a warehouse, where they remain until movers are told where to deliver them.

Self-storage customers store and secure their belongings in individual units ranging in size from 4 feet square to 12 feet by 30 feet, large enough to hold the furniture and some cartons from a three-bedroom house or even to hold a car or boat. Access is a given; in some facilities it is allowed round the clock.

Monthly costs depend on the size of the unit and on features such as climate control, individual unit alarms and other security and competition.

In California and other Western states, the average monthly rent for a 5- by 10-foot unit is $41, according to a 1997 survey by MiniCo, a publishing company and insurance provider for the storage industry. For a 10-foot-square unit, the average cost rises to $65 a month.

But unlike warehouses, which assume some liability for stored goods, the risk with self-storage units lies with the customer.

Michael Kidd, Self Storage Assn. executive director, likens the relationship between the customer and the facility to that between a landlord and tenant. Tenants move their belongings into units and are responsible for "care, custody and control."

As long as a customer has paid up, the management of the facility cannot enter the unit, does not know what's been put inside and takes no responsibility for the safety of stored items.

The only assurance they have that customers are not storing anything illegal or dangerous is a clause in the rental contract that must be initialed and that lists prohibited items.

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