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How Do I Choose a Storage Unit? [Ask Lifehacker]

How Do I Choose a Storage Unit? Dear Lifehacker,
I have entirely too much stuff. I downsized into a smaller home, and I don't want to throw out the things that won't fit, so I want to put them in storage, but I want to be able to get to them if I need them. How do I find a managed storage unit I can trust? What should I look out for before I sign a monthly contract?
Signed,
Stumped on Storage

Photo by Tim Patterson.

Dear Stumped,
Finding a trustworthy storage unit is kind of like finding a trustworthy landlord, except you only really get to deal with the storage company once or twice when you sign up and move in. After that, you hopefully won't talk to them at all. You pay your rent, visit your storage unit when you need to get something or put something in, and that's all there is to it. However, there are some warning signs you should keep an eye out for to make sure your relationship with your storage company is a good one.

Decide on the Type of Storage Unit You Need

Take a look at the things you plan to put into storage. You may already have an idea of the size of storage unit you want to rent, but keep in mind that you don't want to just rent a storage unit that will fit all of your items, you want a unit where you can fit yourself inside with a little room to work. If you ever want to be able to get your items out, you don't want to pack your storage space wall to wall, floor to ceiling. Many people get the smallest possible unit they can get in order to save money, and then wind up having to empty half of it to get to a box that's in the back. Don't be that guy, unless you know you'll never need anything you're putting inside.

Do you have anything that's temperature sensitive? You may need a climate-controlled unit that's indoors, as opposed to a generic garage-style unit that's outdoors. Are your items valuable? You'll likely want a unit that has good security and monitoring, and you'll definitely want insurance on your storage unit. Check and see if your renter's insurance or homeowner's insurance policy covers items in a storage unit. If it doesn't, see how much it would cost to add it, or consider buying insurance from the storage facility. If you're going with a major national or regional storage facility, they likely offer it to their customers for a nominal fee.

How Do I Choose a Storage Unit?

Do Your Homework

Since you said you wanted a managed storage unit, we're going to focus on how you can find storage buildings as opposed to at-home storage boxes sealed boxes that you can't access when you want to go get your Christmas lights. First, don't get stuck on the storage facility closest to your home. Here are some things to do before you even pick up the phone.

Photo by Stefan Andrej Shambora.

  • Don't get stuck on location. There's no faster way to find yourself storing your precious memories in a facility that sucks than to get stuck working with the one that just happens to be closest to you or cheapest in your community. Cast your net wide enough so you have a good handful of options that you can investigate. After all, wouldn't you rather drive or walk an extra 10 minutes to store your belongings in a nicer location? Plus, if you live in an urban or heavily populated suburban area, you can store great deals by storing a little farther from town.
  • Check the reviews. Look up the storage facility on Google Places and Yelp. You obviously want to take reviews with a grain of salt, but if they're all bad or there's a recurring theme, you may want to steer clear. The reviews can also give you some insight into what you may want to keep an eye out for if you go visit the storage facility.
  • Compare the gate and office hours. A number of storage units only post their gate hours, to make the location sound like it's open later than it really is. Remember there's a difference. The gate hours are usually the hours in which you can access your storage unit, but the office hours are almost always shorter. If you have a problem or need to speak to someone, you'll only be able to address your issues during office hours. Similarly, make sure the gate and access hours are convenient for you. If your storage unit closes at 5pm on Saturdays and Sundays, it's probably not very convenient, and there may be a reason why.

Go Visit and Ask Questions

Now that you know what you're looking for and you have a few options, it's time to go take a look at the storage locations you're considering. Once you walk through the door, don't be pressured to sign on the dotted line right away, even if the property management tries to tell you that units are limited. Most companies will let you at least hold a unit overnight so you can think it over. Make the most of you visit by looking around and asking questions instead.

  • Ask the property management if you can see the unit you would actually get. This, or at least a unit on the same floor or in the same area. Some storage facilities will show you a clean, 3rd floor unit but actually rent you a dirty, bug-infested basement one, so be assertive if you have to so you can see a unit representative of the one you'll actually sign for.
  • Ask if there are any rental specials or discounts available. Most storage companies will offer you the first month free or for $1, which makes the transition from an old storage unit to a new one really easy (especially if you've already paid for the last month in the old unit) or if you want to make moving into the new unit a little less painful on the wallet. If they don't offer a special, don't worry, the next one you visit probably will.
  • Find out what happens if you miss or are late on a payment. In many places, storage units aren't treated like apartments. On the first day of the month, your rent is automatically late. Grace periods vary by the company or even by the state, and in some cases even being a few days late with your payment means your unit's contents can be auctioned off to the highest bidder at a wholesale auction. The last storage unit I rented gave me that scare tactic, and reminded me that I should always be timely or else the unit would be scheduled for auction and I would incur daily late fees. Make sure you know what your storage unit's policy is before you're stuck trying to do a wire transfer or pay online because you left town without dropping off a check.

Once you've seen the unit you would actually get and you have a good understanding of what you'd be getting into, ask the property manager if you can put the unit on hold if you like what you see. They may or may not be able to, but don't fall for high-pressure tactics. Even if you can't hold the unit, get a business card so you get back in touch with the person you met.

How Do I Choose a Storage Unit?

Visit Multiple Locations Before Signing

Repeat this process with several storage units in different locations before you call anyone back and sign up for a specific storage unit. See if you can take the contracts home with you to review so you don't have to try and make sense of a legal document while standing in front of the property manager. After visiting multiple places, reviewing all of the documents, and taking the time to consider which storage space is most convenient for you and best for your belongings, then you can sign a contract—or better yet, a month-to-month agreement that lets you out at any time.

Like we mentioned earlier, with luck you won't need the same type of relationship with a storage unit as you have with a landlord, but you do want to stash your belongings in a place you can trust with people you know will be watching your property carefully to make sure it's not stolen or damaged. With a little homework and and time to investigate multiple options, you'll find an affordable space that works for you. Good luck!

Sincerely,
Lifehacker

PS - Do you have any additional tips or questions you would suggest Stumped on Storage ask when he's shopping around? Any storage unit horror stories you care to share? Let's hear them in the comments below.

Photo by Jarrod Lombardo.


You can reach Alan Henry, the author of this post, at alan@lifehacker.com, or better yet, follow him on Twitter or Google+.

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