Stuff. How did you ever get so much of it, and why is it strewed through the place like leaves after a storm, making it difficult to get in the front door and move through the hallway? Okay, these are psychological issues best addressed while lying down in a darkened room, but there comes a point when matters go over the top:
A friend gets a job in Delaware that includes a furnished room, and asks to store his things with you.
Your collection of heavy objects -- books, say, or bowling balls -- becomes a threat to the tenant below.
You're taking a year off from the government grind to live in a Paris garret.
You've just relocated into the area and are shocked, shocked, at how little housing you can afford.
These are among the reasons for the hundreds of self-service storage complexes in the metro area. Together, they can stash away the gross national product of Canada, but that doesn't mean just any of them will do for your loot. How to distinguish a good complex from one that might not have the well-being of your possessions uppermost in mind? In the Yellow Pages, they all sound alike.
Cost is not the most decisive factor. A vice president of the largest company in the field, Public Storage Inc. (45 mini-warehouses in this area, 1,050 nationwide), believes a more important consideration is the same one that comes into play with any piece of real estate: location, location, location. People want something close at hand.
"People and their stuff is a strange kind of relationship," says Harvey Lenkin. "Most think it's going to be in storage a relatively short space of time, and that they're going to see it every day. What if I have to go get my winter coat? What if the television breaks down and I need my other one? It's the same drive for convenience that leads people to buy a box of cereal in the corner store when it's cheaper at the supermarket."
In a survey done by the Self Storage Association, 63 percent of the respondents said they lived within five miles of their facility. More than a third of them, meanwhile, complained that self-storage costs too much.
If the questionnaire only had been sent to the Washington area, the number of complaints might be even higher: Land is more expensive here than in many sections of the country where self-storage is big. So are labor costs. The result: Renting 50 square feet here will range between $50 and $75 a month, above the national average.
It might be logical to think that you'd find the cheaper places in less developed areas, but it doesn't always work out like that. A random survey of area complexes, for instance, revealed that the same size unit cost roughly the same in the District as out in Woodbridge. One reason is that there are few complexes in the truly inexpensive rural neighborhoods, because that five-minute market isn't there either.
Of course, even if the cost is the same between two locations, service and amenities can vary sharply. Using common sense here will help a lot. "If the place is unkempt with trash all over and the manager has a six-day growth of beard and he's standing there in his underwear, you might not want to rent a space from him," says Lenkin of Public Storage Inc.
Some other aspects of storage that bear thinking about:
Criminals are just waiting to get their hands on that lamp you inherited from Aunt Ruth, they're dying to read your college textbooks, and they're curious to see if they can fit into your clothes. That, at least, is the feeling you get from talking to the experts in this field.
"There's a high incidence of burglary with self-storages. You'd be surprised. They take what they can," asserts Joe Mininni, director of publishing for Mini-Storage Messenger magazine. This trade magazine specializes in such articles as "Couples in Storage: Do Management and Matrimony Go Hand-in-Hand?" and "Storage for the Stars: Mini-Storage Is a Necessary Niche in the Lives of Many Famous Celebrities."
"It's the nature of the beast," adds Mininni. "Rows and rows of garage-like units look attractive to a potential robber."
When the self-storage industry began in the Southwest 20 years ago, it was all mom-and-pop operations. The security lay in the fact that the proprietors lived on-site. There was a fence around the property and locks on each unit and that was about it.
As customers began to store more valuable material (electronic equipment, art), security became more of a selling point. The ads tell the story: "Electronic access protection" vies with "state-of-the-art security system" and "computerized security system."
These vague promises can only be checked out on the premises. Even then, you'd have to stage your own break-in to be quite sure. That's actually the game plan of the typical thief. "Renting a unit gets you inside," says Charles Laughlin of the Self Storage Association. "That's the most common way."
He adds that burglary "is a valid worry, but it's not something that happens very often." His rule: "If you have it in your home and it's attractive to burglars, I'm sure it would be attractive to them in a self-service storage facility, too."
Public Storage Inc.'s Lenkin offers two other helpful pointers: "Thefts from mini-storage units happen no more frequently than from the residential community surrounding the property, and probably less. And apparently most thefts that do occur are by someone trying to steal from an estranged relative, where they know what's inside."
High-tech devices may offer the promise of cutting down on thievery, but that doesn't make insurance irrelevant. "The mini-storage owner or operator is not in the business of insuring property. He wants to rent space," says Hardy Good, publisher of Mini-Storage Messenger.
Consequently, the general practice is for the operator to have tenants sign a disclaimer saying they will be responsible for the safety of their objects, down to providing the lock on the unit. Sometimes homeowner insurance policies will cover goods in self-storage. But even if not, Good argues, "If it's worth storing, it's worth insuring."
It should be pointed out that Good has a necessarily partisan view about this. Mini-Storage Messenger is published by MiniCo Inc., which also owns Mini-Storage Insurance Corp. They do a lot of insuring in the storage world -- a place where, Good says gloomily, "we have a lot of fires."
"Fire is a risk," he amends. "There is the potential of a fire. We have burglaries, we have Hurricane Hugo." If you're paying $100 a month to store material, he adds in a familiar insurance-salesman argument, what's a few dollars more for some peace of mind? Especially if the guy renting the unit next to yours is storing chemicals and they spontaneously combust?
Those who store items that are particularly susceptible to even minimal damage from fire or smoke, such as books or documents, might want to check into whether the complex uses dry sprinklers.
Meanwhile, as long as we're in a gloom-and-doom scenario, there are other things to worry about. Rodents. Insects. Climate control or lack thereof. (True climate control, which requires storing the material in a vault-like environment, is very expensive.)
Plus, there's always the fear that the entire storage complex will be sold or closed the next time you come to check out your things. Laughlin of the Self Storage Association provides some reassurance on this score. "Usually if there's a problem the bank takes over and continues operations. I've heard of foreclosures, but I've never heard of the people turning their backs and running away."
Luckily for those who have only a short-term need for storage -- the majority of the noncorporate customers -- fire, flood and pestilence probably won't have a chance to become a reality.
Those with too much stuff on a permanent basis, on the other hand, might want to think first about simply getting rid of some of it. A significant number of consumers apparently feel this way already: Only 15 percent of the respondents to the Self Storage Association survey said they perceived a need for off-premise storage.