“Don’t forget to pay the lady!”
That line is uttered on every episode of the A&E TV show “Storage Wars” as the auctions for unpaid storage units conclude and the winners ante up for their as-yet-unknown treasures inside.
It’s also a phrase you will hear in metro Atlanta at the 300 or so storage unit auctions that take place each month, attracting about 50 regular bidders and a growing number of amateurs trying to strike it rich.
Experts say buyers are more likely to find dirty clothes, empty boxes and broken furniture than gold, valuable jewelry or a Harley Davidson, as happens on the show. While the show glorifies these strokes of luck by concentrating on units when an old painting or a unique piece of folk art is uncovered, auction attendees stress that they take it as a serious business, and with hard work they can make money at it.
Local bidders say once you get bitten by the bug, you keep coming back.
Fifty-year old Fran Kass of Cumming has been bidding for a little over two years as a part-time job. With patience and research, she has done well, but said it isn’t easy.
“You will be tired and dirty at the end of the day, and that’s a great day,” she said.
Kass says she studied the television shows and picked the brains of Atlanta’s experienced bidders to learn the business. Now she details her own exploits under the name LadyLocks58 on Facebook.
Though it is a business, there is a common and sometimes heart-breaking thread woven through it. There are people in trouble behind the storage units being auctioned.
“Somebody had a tough time in their life,” and fails to pay rent, said bidder Julie Rutherford of Alpharetta. “It could be medical problems, legal issues, or a death.”
Mark Shirey, the owner of the Quality Self Storage chain, said he tries to work with each customer who may have problems paying rent. He called selling their items a “last resort.”
“The last thing a storage site wants to do is auction off their goods,” Shirey said. “We always end up losing money.”
Even when bidders win, they take a risk. If they buy a unit, they may not get to keep all the contents.
“Anything that has a title in Georgia has to go through another process,” Shirey said. “Automobiles, motorcycles and guns have to be sold through the local Sheriff’s department or a licensed dealer.”
Shirey also asks auction winners to turn in any personal documents, family pictures or letters they find so he can return them to the former owner.
Anne Ballard, an executive with Universal Storage Group in Atlanta and a board member of the Georgia Self Storage Association, has seen Georgia law change to make the auctions more uniform with those in other states.
“Lien law very specific in Georgia,” says Ballard. “There is a process required to notify the customer that their unit is going to auction.”
Chris Rosa, a former Atlanta resident and graduate of Kennesaw State University, is the managing partner of Legacy Auction Services of Boca Raton, Fla. For many years, Legacy has conducted many of the big storage unit auctions in the Atlanta area, and Rosa said things have certainly changed.
“The climate has changed,” said Rosa. “We now get a lot of additional bidders at our auctions.”
One would think more bidders would be a good thing, but Rosa doesn’t agree.
“It’s a double-edged sword. The auctions take a lot longer, and it’s already a long day.”
Rutherford started her journey as a bidder when she found herself unemployed and fighting leukemia. Being a fan of the TV shows, she attended auctions as an observer. Then she took the plunge and bought in, taking four units in one day.
Now, Rutherford hits auctions within 50 miles of her home and resells the contents on Craigslist and Ebay. Others sell in second-hand shops and at swap meets.
Part of Rutherford’s strategy is trying to profile the former owner by what can be seen.
“I mainly go for high-end furnishings and always look for boxes in the back of the unit,” she said.
Two weeks ago, Rutherford was surprised when she bought a unit containing a rare military vest. She also profited well from an executive desk from another buy.
Kass once took a chance on a unit at a moving company auction. Figuring it was owned by an elderly person, she thought there might be an antique or two in the boxes. It turned out that some were filled with vintage china and crystal.
“You never know,” said Kass, smiling.
She also offers some tips for newbies to the Atlanta storage auction scene.
“Watch where other bidders are focusing their flashlights, and make sure you understand the whole auction and bidding process before you become an active bidder,” she said.
Kass says she likes to buy units that look like they were owned by men.
“The usually contain sporting goods and tools, and tools are some of my best selling” items.
“American’s lives are stored in these storage units all around the country,” says Ballard. “So come out, and don’t forget to pay the lady!”
Storage Auction Rules to Remember
Type “storage unit, auction, Atlanta” and you will get a number of websites that list where and when they take place.
If you are going to bid, bring cash, a padlock and your sense of humor.
Check times and dates before you head out to an auction.
Arrive before the start of the auction for the sign-in process.
Listen to the auctioneer for specific rules.
Cash is the only accepted method of payment, and you must have it on you, no running to an ATM.
Bidders are to remain outside the unit and cannot touch its contents at any time.
If you win a unit, you have up to 48 hours to clear out and clean the space.
Tips for Storage Unit Auctions from Fran Kass and Julie Rutherford
If you are new, observe what others do.
Set limits on what you will spend before the auction.
Bring a flashlight and gloves.
Dress according to the weather, and remember you will get dirty.
Carefully research the items you buy before you sell them.
Be respectful of other attendees.
If you have questions, don’t be afraid to ask the auctioneer.