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Buying and Selling Abandoned Storage Units as a Side Hustle

Buying and Selling Abandoned Storage Units

Buying and selling abandoned storage units as a way to make money is probably the most interesting side hustle I’ve ever done (and I’ve had a bunch of side hustles!).  For about a year, from 2010 – 2011, I bought several of these storage lockers at auction.  This post is all about my experience, and how you can give it a try if you’re interested.

Buying and Selling Abandoned Storage Units

You’ve probably heard of the reality TV show Storage Wars.  And if you’re honest, you’ve probably watched the reality TV show Storage Wars 🙂

The show is based on a group of people that buy abandoned storage units at auction, then sell the contents they find inside.  In the show, storage units always have some crazy, unique, valuable, or interesting item which is sold for a profit.

The business model is as simple as they come: buy low, sell high.  Pretty basic stuff.

Storage Wars Reality TV vs. Stone Cold Reality

Those of you that admit to having watched the show might expect to find something unusual and of value in every single storage unit.

<sarcasm> Shockingly, that’s not the case. </sarcasm>

In total, I bought just over a dozen or so units. Never once did I find an antique gun, some rare collection, fine artwork or valuable jewelry.  In one particular unit I thought I’d found some real sterling silverware – that gave me a momentary rush, and it would have been a nice score, but it ended up being a silver plated set, not the real stuff (still, I was able to sell the set on eBay for $100, plus shipping).

You know why you never find truly valuable items in abandoned storage lockers?  Because if the lockers had anything of major value in them, their previous owners would find a way to pay the storage bill and take their valuable stuff out.

Also, these lockers aren’t simply ‘abandoned’ – they belonged to people that were unable to pay their bills and as a result, they had their goods seized.  People with valuable assets typically don’t “abandon” those things.

What You Can Expect To Find In An Abandoned Storage Unit

The things that you end up finding in a typical storage locker probably won’t “wow” you.  Typically items are ‘abandoned’ because they doesn’t have much monetary value to being with. Many of the contents you find inside will most likely end up in a landfill, which shouldn’t come as a surprise since everything you own is garbage anyway.

In reality, what you find is someone’s life crammed into a few boxes, and it’s depressing as hell to go through all of the contents.

The Unexpected Dark Side Of Storage Auctions

You find a lot of old clothing and some worn out shoes.  Some linens.  Old pots and pans.  Tons of old papers (the amount of paper was always shocking to me) – things like bills, certificates, letters, phone books, notes, and junk mail.  I couldn’t believe the amount of junk mail that I pulled out of the units I got!

Under different circumstances I might have been judgmental of the people that had lost their possessions to a storage facility, but in reality I wasn’t very different from the people whose things I was sorting through and had no right to be judging anybody.

I was unemployed when I got into this side hustle.  This was during my dark year and I was looking for any way I could find to make a buck.  Times were tough (and getting worse) and I knew that I could very easily be the guy that would soon be out of money, time, and luck.

Emotionally Difficult

The more units I bought, the more I realized each box I opened up and went through was part of someone else’s story.  I couldn’t stop thinking to myself “this was someone’s life.”  It would break my heart to find posters and pictures that once hung on the bedroom wall of some little kid.

I’d think of my own kids’ bedrooms and what someone else might think if they were going through our things.

The last storage unit I bought had a marriage certificate and a wedding photo album it it.  That was it for me. I couldn’t handle it any more so I took the personal items back to the storage facility and asked them to return them to the owner.  The facility manager assured me the items would be returned.  I truly hope they were.

But I was done.  I just couldn’t do it.  Not only was it mentally and emotionally taxing on me, but the amount of physical effort that goes into this side hustle is more than you realize (isn’t that always the case!).

Not only do you spend huge chunks of your weekend driving all over town to attend auctions and bid on units, but the real work begins once you’ve finally outbid everyone else and win the auction (which always left me feeling queasy.  I’d wonder why everyone else stopped bidding and wonder if I’d just overbid?  Did the others see something I missed?  The mind games were endless in this business.

How it works

Whenever a person rents a storage unit, the contents inside become collateral for the facility that is renting you space.  When a renter becomes severely delinquent on their payments, the storage locker they’ve rented is seized by the storage facility owner.

A seized storage unit basically means that the storage facility denies you access to the facility and changes the lock on your storage unit.  The delinquent renter then has two choices:

  1. Pay their bill in full, or
  2. Have the contents of their storage unit sold to pay their bill

Most storage facilities host an auction every 1 to 3 months to recoup their losses from those renters that go with option number 2.  At these auctions, which are open to the general public, seized lockers are opened up one at a time and potential bidders can take a look at what’s inside (nobody can go into the locker, and you can’t touch anything).

Who Gets The Money Raised By The Auction?

First, the auctioneer gets paid for running the auction.  Payment to the auctioneer can be anything from a flat fee to a percentage of the amount a unit sells for.  The remaining proceeds of the auction are used to settle the renter’s debt. The remaining balance (if there is one) is given back to the original renter.

If the auction fails to generate enough money to cover the debt in full, both the facility owner, and the renter are out of luck.

At the end of each auction, the highest bidder is the new owner of everything inside the locker.  Most bidders are buying these lockers with the intent of selling the contents for a profit.  But before you can sell anything, there’s a lot of work to be done.

How to Make Money Buying and Selling Abandoned Storage Units

Clearing out a storage unit is pretty much like moving.  If you’ve ever moved from one home to another, then you can appreciate how hard this side hustle can be. You load boxes and furniture into a truck, drive it to the new destination (usually your own home), unload all of it, unpack it to find out what you’ve just bought, then sort everything into three piles:

  1. Keep
  2. Trash
  3. Unsure

You do this for every storage locker that you buy.  If you buy multiple units in a weekend, then congratulations – that’s the equivalent of moving multiple homes in a weekend.

The storage facility gives you 48-72 hours to get your newly purchased items out of the locker or else you forfeit the contents (and your money).

The keep pile

The stuff in your keep pile is to be sold.  You all know how to take pictures and list items on eBay and Craigslist. It’s time consuming.  You have to respond to questions and low ball offers, meet people to do transactions, or possibly pack and ship items off to your buyers.

Selling on eBay and Craigslist isn’t my idea of fun, but that’s the best way to quickly unload your new possessions.

The unsure pile

Items that you don’t know much about will go into this pile. After doing some research on these unsure items you’ll move contents to either the keep pile (where they’ll be sold) or to the trash pile.

The trash pile

Your trash piles gets very large, very fast.  That’s because most of the things you find in these storage units doesn’t have a lot of monetary value.  I ended up separating my junk pile into three more piles:

  1. Donate pile
  2. Scrap pile
  3. Trash pile

Items that had some value, but weren’t worth my time to try and sell made their way to the local thrift shop where I’d donate them.  Items in my trash pile that could be scrapped were taken to the salvage yard and sold for a few bucks.  Everything else went to the local landfill (which, by the way, cost me about $25 per load to drop off).

All of what I just said can be summed up very simply: buying and selling abandoned storage units takes a lot of time and there was very little financial return.

Want to Give It A Try?

If you’d like to try buying and selling abandoned storage units, here’s what you’ll need to know.

First, you need to find out where and when the auctions are held.  The best way to figure this out is to call a storage facility and ask them when their next auction is being held.  Some facilities post auction dates on their websites, so you can check there as well.  Most facilities also keep an email list, so you can ask to be notified of upcoming auctions via email if you’d like.  You can also do a search on Craigslist or your local classifieds sites for dates.

When you find an auction that you’d like to attend, be sure to show up a few minutes early. If you think you might bid, then you’ll need to register as a bidder.  Registering in no way obligates you to bid on any unit, it just gives you the right to do so. Usually before the auction starts some ‘ground rules’ are announced. Typical rules are “don’t go in the unit.” Or “don’t touch anything inside the unit” and most importantly “if you win, payment is due immediately.

So if you’re planning to bid, bring cash.  Credit card and check payments are generally NOT accepted by the auctioneer.

You’ll also need to bring a padlock, and probably a flashlight as well.  Units are dark and the flashlight can help you see what’s inside.  That’s kind of important if you’re trying to quickly estimate the value of the unit. The padlock is in case you win.  If you do, the locker is immediately yours.  Close the sliding door and lock it up till you’re ready to come back with your truck and trailer to unload it.

Make money buying & selling abandoned storage units

Don’t Get Caught Up In The Excitement

A couple of parting tips.  When you’re buying and selling abandoned storage unites it’s very easy to get caught up in the excitement of the auction and overbid.  To make sure you don’t do that, set a maximum amount you’re willing to spend. Do this BEFORE the bidding starts, and stick to your guns.   I was good at this and it’s why I never lost money on the units I bought.

Here’s a rule of thumb for evaluating the worth of a unit – assume “$10 bucks a box.”  Supposed you see 20 boxes but don’t know what’s inside. Assume each of the 20 boxes is worth $10 and feel safe assuming there is $200 of value in total.

I always tried to double my money.  So if I felt like a unit was worth $200, I’d only bid up to $100.  This strategy kept me from buying a lot of units, but I also never once lost money on a locker.

I don’t think I’ll ever get back into this side hustle because of the emotional baggage. If that doesn’t bother you then this can be an interesting way to make a few bucks on the side.

By Ty Roberts

Ty Roberts is the founder of Camp FIRE Finance, and a husband and father of four living in the Seattle area. He's a fan of the 4% rule, 80s movies and music, dad jokes and cast iron cooking.

53 replies on “Buying and Selling Abandoned Storage Units as a Side Hustle”

Honestly, I’ve never watched the show and this was all new to me. I had heard about people doing it, but didn’t know the ins-and-outs of it. It’s definitely intriguing. I love to flip craigslist or thrift store items, but this sounds like an entirely different ballgame. I would guess, for the amount off time and effort invested, the hourly rate of this side hustle could be pretty low sometimes, depending on your luck. I understand the emotional component as well and, like you, that would probably be enough for me to call it quits. Thanks for sharing your experience, Ty!

It’s basically flipping items on a large scale. I kept a spreadsheet that itemized each unit I bought, along w/ the money I made and you’re right, the hourly rate is bad – still better than blogging though 😉 And since I was unemployed at the time, I had nothing but time on my hands.

Heartbreaking to think of the kids posters and marriage certificate… but I DO love that show!! I haven’t watched in years but I was always mesmerized by what they would find and how much they would fight over the units. I suppose it is the natural voyeur in al of us. What kind of money did you make doing this?

As a dad, that was the worst! Seriously, it still bothers me to this day when I think about the boxes of kids toys and other children’s items I’d find. :*(

The cost of a locker swung wildly depending on the size, and contents you could see. The cheapest I bought was $40 and the most expensive was around $800, but some go for several thousand. I’d say the average cost of the units I bought was about $300. I also came pretty darn close to doubling my money on each unit I bought.

I’ve seen the show a couple of times, and like most reality TV, I assume much of it is staged. Definitely not a side hustle for me (too much time required), although it’s one of the most interesting I’ve heard of! You have explained the hustle so well in this post, it’ll be a great resource for anyone who’s considering getting into the storage game!

I have done this as a side hustle for 3 years, I have been slowing down and realizing that it’s more of a bad addiction, I have never found anything that has made me a nice pay day. It’s a terrible side hustle but a great hobby if you have extra money to waste. Good luck

I’ve had a fun time watching the show. Obviously, it’s TV so of course it’s not an accurate representation of what you can actually find in the units. I think it’s fun to flip trash finds and to sell on eBay even though it is time consuming. But I think all it would take is one box of deeply personal items for me to say no thanks to this as a side hustle.

Hey @disqus_KS8tja0YDr:disqus – it’s pretty obvious what lockers came from homes/families, and what lockers were from garages, or businesses. If for some reason I ever got back into this, I’d avoid anything that obviously belonged to a family and focus on the units that were full of tools, camping gear, sports equipment, etc. There would be less of an emotional ride with those lockers, but those are also the units that can go for the most money.

I’ve seen this show a few times and it always seems scripted, but the idea is intriguing. What are the average prices for the units? Did they increase as the show became more popular and did more people start showing up?
How often were you tempted to keep some of what you found instead of sell it?
The emotions would definitely be tough. Where I live now, if there’s a tattered couch on the sidewalk it’s probably waiting for bulk trash pickup. When I moved to Baltimore, though, piles of junk were quite common on the streets, and it took me a while to realize that they weren’t trash — they were people’s cherished possessions after they’d been evicted.

Hey @juliechoosebetterlife:disqus. The average price I paid was ~$300, but my range was $40 – $800. I saw some lockers go for several thousand though (If I remember correctly, $4k was the most I saw). I don’t think we kept a single thing – at the time I was unemployed and needed the cash too much 🙂

That Baltimore story is awful!

I binge-watch the show at times, but if I ever buy one, I only want one of those seeded units that show up on TV 🙂 give me the one with a Rolex collection, thx! Haha

I have watched the show and the part about going through others’ stuff kind of creeped me out. But I also see how emotional it could be too – you would need to totally think business. And that would be hard to do! (It’s that people pleasing thing Ty!! It gets us every time!) Great overview of something many of us have never tried! Love it and how honest you are too!

Same with me selling jewelry too! I used to hate watching people spend crazy amounts of money (and finance it!!)

Great guide for someone who is interested in this Ty! I watched the show a few times in the past. The drama in it between the bidding parties was often hilarious. My brother did this as a side hustle 15 or so years ago. He found some interesting things but no real treasures. Personally I don’t think I could stomach it emotionally either. Probably my most interesting (to me) side hustle was creating gift baskets for people. I enjoyed putting something unique together in hopes of pleasantly surprising the recipient.

Thanks @Amy @ Life Zemplified:disqus! The drama on the TV show was a bit over the top, but it’s actually the thing that’s most real about my experience. People like your brother that were doing this before the TV shows made it popular absolutely did NOT like us newbies coming around and driving up their prices.

The gift basket idea sounds cool! Do you still do it?

Crazy what greed can do.

No, not doing it now. This was in my late 20’s when I was a stay-at-home mom raising kids. It was fun then!

One thing I always wondered about the abandoned storage units was how much seasonal decoration that was in them? Some of the ones around here advertise that way – basically, we will be your attic and you can store your Christmas decorations here. So, how many Christmas trees were in the units you bought?

Hey @8020yourfinances:disqus – nearly every unit I bought had holiday decorations, including artificial Christmas trees, inflatable Halloween lawn decorations, Easter knickknacks, etc. What’s interesting is that *almost* every unit that had a Christmas tree, had multiple Christmas trees! crazy sauce!

Great post. I always wondered what it was really like. I think you should start a new reality show: Storage Unit Investigation – you could learn about the unit owner through their stuff and return any sentimental items to them for an emotional end to each episode. Turn the sad reality of storage units into something uplifting…maybe.

Wow – that’s a cool idea! It would take about 45 seconds of investiation to figure out exactly who the owner was. I like the way you think.

All I could ever come up with were ways to scam the system and make a fortune in the process! There’s definitely a way, but I didn’t have the guts to try it.

Yeah, when you mentioned that the profit goes back to the original unit renter, I thought of a few ways to scam the system as well. 🙂

Interesting! I never would have thought of the emotional aspect before, but that would be tough for me to handle as well. That kind of stuff – seeing what others had to abandon due to financial problems – motivates me big time to keep moving ahead with our financial goals.

I’ve definitely seen the show you’re talking about, but I honestly thought that it was just a gimmick for the show. I had no idea that these auctions actually happen, and that people could do that on their own. It does seem like it would be a good side hustle, and I have definitely been looking for something to make some extra money on the side. I’ll have to look into this a bit more closely to see how viable it would be for me. I’ll definitely keep in mind that not all units will have something super valuable in them, too.

i was on the other end of losing my storage units i had 3 which held all of my belongings and my kids my husband died then 7 yrs later i lost my house i put everything i owned probably over 100,000 $$ just in pictures and jewelery i had a two story home 3 bdrms 3 bath 2500 sq ft now 11 yrs later i cant even think of it without crying i wish the person that bought my storages would of returned my personal belongings pic,letters,even my husbands ashes were gone ill never get over it i begged the storage manager to take my money he told me i was 5 minutes late to pay it was sold online

I have suffered thru that show with friends of mine. It’s totally BS. I have done the same thing by going to auctions and buying tables of estate crap. I made money from surprising items I sold on Ebay. Like a receipt and owners manual for a shotgun bought in the 50’s. Another gold mine was children’s records that I had half of Japan in a bidding war over! I came across drive belts from some out of production aquarium air pump people went nuts for. The thing is take nothing for granted and research everything!

I actually had my unit auctioned off and was completely unaware unit I called to inquire why my rent amount was lower than usual. The auction took place on January 16, 2018. I understand that the successful bidder and now owns the contents but I am interested in my personal items as I stored business records, my college diplomas, family photos etc. I contacted the manager and she said she left a message for the person that won the auction. Is it worth it for me the hire a PI to find the bidder? How likely is it that the still have my personal belongings, which are of absolutely no value to them.

Hey Nik, first off – that’s awful! If the auction buyer that got your stuff does this a lot, unfortunately they probably have a system to rapidly sort through items. That would mean they’d quickly grab the items they want to keep and quickly discard the rest. I hope that’s not the case!

I think you’ll have more success retrieving your things if you just stay on top of the facility manager. You might even offer a small ‘finders fee’ (don’t leave money with the facility – offer to pay when you get the items back). I can’t imagine why the auction winner would want to keep personal items like paperwork and photos, but I can see why they’d feel uncomfortable at the thought of meeting you. I’d make it clear that you would just like your personal effects back and don’t want/need to interact with the auction winner.

One last idea is to keep an eye on Craigslist for items of yours that would be easy for you to search for. You might luck out and find the person that way.

Best of luck, Nik. I truly hope you get your personal items back.

Thank you so much for the response. Great advice. I actually did receive a call back from the property manager and he confirmed that he left a message with the buyer and agreed to follow up with me. I reiterated that I would pay a fee. He also said he would check with the property to see if maybe my personal items were left.

Thanks again!

Nik

Cool to hear of your experiences. I watched the show and me and my buddys were really interested in trying it out. That faded though. Crazy to hear all the bills photo albums etc you find. That stuff would mess me up as well.

On to the next side income!
Cheers

Wow! I had no idea that you could buy abandoned storage units at auctions. I think that would be a super amazing to see all the surprises you get. My friend is collector of many items, so I think he’d love to buy an old storage unit and sell the unwanted items. It sounds like it could make him a little extra money. I’ll totally share this article with him!

Here’s an idea. Buy a unit for less than 400 bucks, look through the stuff, find out who owns it, call the owner and ask if they want their stuff back for what you bought it for plus 100. They have to have cash and be willing to have you unload it somewhere within the next 48 hours. Easy profit! Im guessing these people would owe a thousand for the storage, so to buy back their stuff for half that might be appealing? Thoughts?

Pictures capture moments and memories that you may have a hard time recalling as you grow older. In any event if I was to fall on hard times and not be able to pay my storage bill and my precious photos were sold off to some one i know I would pay the buyer whatever it took to get them back! Buying and selling storage units alone may put some money in your pockets – true -but the real side hustle is the profit you can make off of the priceless items that cannot be replaced like your baby photos and videos of your babies first steps or their first words or first Christmas even —- I’m sure with in all of that stuff in the unit, there has to be an envelope with the owners name and address on it . All you would need to do then was google the contact info . And send the past owner an email with a couple pics you rounded up in the unit and tell them what you paid and if they wanted to recover any of their precious belongings they would need to pay them according to the way u made out after the transaction was complete, so if u paid $100 for the unit and you sold enough misc. items out of it to make $50 cash back , then I would tell them $50 for the priceless items and photos . So you will at least come out even. Who knows maybe there is a wedding dress worth $1000 in there —— I’d probably sell that right off — but no matter what I’d definately make something off of the priceless sentimental stuff ——because if It were me I don’t care what I’d have to pay to get back my precious photos and videos and stuff I would go get a loan if need be. People can make a lot of money on the things that they were gonna end up chunking in the trash pile. Only have to google for a few minutes and put in very little effort and get that contact info you need and get paid.

Hi. Nice article. Im curious about details regarding actions taken after a storage unit is bought. Lets say I win the auction and now have a storage unit full of stuff. Maybe I find a macbook and some disney toys and I want to keep them to sell. But maybe theres also some old mattresses or a giant old wardrobe in the unit that I personally dont fine any value in, because these items are large and heavy. What happens if I take the items I like (eg. the macbook and toys) and leave the items I dont want (like the old mattresses).

In short, my question is this: What happens if I leave the storage unit full of junk after I cherrypick the valuable items out of it? Im talking about walking away completely from the junk and not coming back for it. Is this legal? Can the storage company charge me for this? Will this hurt my reputation with the storage company?

Thanks for reading, I’m new to the idea of this hustle. If anybody knows the answer to this or has any opinion, I would greatly appreciate what you have to say. Thanks.

Hey Connor –

In my experience, most facilities give you 48 hours to have the unit cleared out and left in a “broom clean” condition (i.e. swept out). If you don’t get your stuff out, of if you choose to cherry pick a few items and leave the rest, then the facility can reclaim the locker and it would most likely be auctioned off again. You’d also most likely be banned from participating in future auctions held at that facility, or run by the auction house you dealt with.

Most storage facilities charge a clean out fee anywhere from $50 to $100. that is refunded after everything is cleaned out. If you choose to cherry pick you won’t get your cleanout fee back

In the TV show, A guy claims someone who bought stuff from a storage locker that had millions of dollars in cash. Could you legally keep the cash you found in an abandoned safe in the storage locker ?

You all should know that industry wide storage facilities have adopted a ” pay to vacate policy”. which means the tenant negotiates an amount (50% to 75% ) of what they owe . They are given access to there unit and they take what they can and sign off the rest to the storage facility. The storage facility then auction the scraps off to the public.

I like your idea of only spending half of what you think you will make. I feel like that would be a good way to make sure that you are not losing tons of money if you can’t end up selling it for much. I’ll have to make sure to do that if I decide to buy abandoned storage units.

I am building some storage units on some vacant land I own, because I think the real long term side hustle (investment) is OWNING the storage units NOT trying to buy abandon ones that are full of junk people shouldn’t pay to store anyway.

Hi there. I am getting ready to put a lot of my things that I am planning on selling in a storage unit, I would like to sell them all as a lot to someone. I don’t have the space at home to put them all in one spot nor do I want people coming over to my home. Do you have any idea besides Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace where I can list an ad to sell everything? I tried this once before and listed it on CL only to get people wanting to buy one of this or that. I want to sell it as a lot Only. l don’t have the time or energy to piece it out. Any suggestions?

Hi Marla, I wonder if you could contact a storage unit auction company (or even a general auction company) to see if they can sell your things. Or maybe put it online as a “mystery lot” for sale?

I’ve watched a few of those shows, and it sometimes seems as if the winning bidder gets into the unit they’ve won, takes the “good stuff” out and then leaves the remaining trash in the unit for the facility to throw away. Is that how it works? Or do you have to remove every last dirty sock and scrap of paper?

The emotional baggage part made me laugh. You were reading way too deep into these storage lockers. They’re random items you purchased in bulk to flip a profit. No different than buying the stuff at a thrift store with the intention of flipping. Sure, everything has a story but I’m not getting paid to feel sorry for people who couldn’t afford the payments. You get paid when you flip the stuff.

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