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What to know about renting a storage unit

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Combining households, renovating your living room or turning that spare bedroom into an office often means clearing out your possessions. But not all home projects have to involve a Marie Kondo-style purge. What about items that are still a part of your life but that just need a temporary home? That’s where self-storage comes in.

You don’t have to look far to find a storage facility these days: In 2021, there were 50,523 in the United States, up from 44,149 in 2017, according to the 2022 Self-Storage Almanac, which tracks industry statistics. And self-storage is popular, with record occupancies of 94.5 percent last year.

“People turn to self-storage usually because of some sort of life transition, such as moving or downsizing. It’s not just that you have too much stuff,” says McKall Morris, spokesperson for Extra Space Storage, one of the largest self-storage companies, with more than 2,000 properties nationwide. “Our typical customer is new to self-storage, renting for two years or less — usually about three months — and storing personal belongings. We’re also seeing small businesses rent space for extra storage of inventory or equipment.”

If you find yourself in need of some extra elbow room, here’s what to consider when selecting a self-storage facility.

Interior vs. exterior storage. An interior unit is like a supersize walk-in closet. You’ll typically bring your items to a load-in area, transfer them to a dolly and move them to your unit. Many facilities have multiple stories, so you may need to take an elevator. Some locations are designed so you can drive up to your unit. Interior spaces are protected from the elements, but there can be drawbacks. “Self-storage facilities typically have nice wide hallways and large individual unit doors, but you still may have to squeeze through one or more standard-size doors to access the hallway to your unit,” says Mark Aselstine, who used several storage units for his former business, Uncorked Ventures in California.

An exterior unit is akin to a garage. You can drive up to the door and load items directly into your unit. “You’d think that getting a drive-up unit would be amazing,” Aselstine says. “While it is often more convenient and accessible for loading, I often found my unit blocked by trucks, and it seems like people are always milling outside exterior units.”

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Customer service. The store manager should be professional, knowledgeable and familiar with the property. If they can’t answer your questions, keep looking, Morris says. Take note that some independent facilities are not staffed. With these, you can rent a unit online or contact a call center and work with an agent to choose and lease space. There should be a property manager on-call in case an issue arises, but they don’t work on-site.

Size. Morris says the biggest mistakes renters make are either overestimating or underestimating the space they need, so they either pay too much or have to rent two units. “Know what you are going to store,” she says. “Create an informal list and take some pictures you can show to the facility manager.” Look online for size guides to get an idea of what a unit will hold. For example, a 10-by-10-foot unit can generally store the contents of two bedrooms or a full living room.

The unit itself. Although it may be tempting to rent a unit sight unseen, that’s a mistake, says real estate agent Ken Pozek, who rented space for a year while waiting for his house to be built in Orlando. Pozek advises his clients to do their research and tour the facility. “You need to see the exact unit you intend to rent: what it looks like, what it smells like, does it live up to your standards,” he says. Assuming there is more than one option in your area, it can also pay to compare prices.

Access. Assess your schedule to determine how often you will need to access the unit — and when. Is the facility open 24/7, or does it have limited hours? A place that is only open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. may not fit your schedule. For example, Aselstine chose a facility that was open 6 a.m. to midnight.

Climate control. Surprisingly, a number of self-storage properties do not have air conditioning or heating. If your location gets extremely hot, cold, humid or dry, you should consider upgrading to a climate-controlled facility. Clothing may weather temperature swings, but an antique table may not. By moderating temperature, climate control can keep your items from growing mold, rusting, freezing or disintegrating. Some self-storage brands also offer specialty climate-controlled options for art, electronics and wine.

Security. A facility should be equipped with 24-hour video surveillance, door alarms and keypad entry gates. Is there someone on-site most of the time, or is the facility unprotected? Look for ample lighting and perimeter fencing. High-tech locations may use an app for opening gates and doors. Also check the type of locks used on units. The best is a cylinder lock that is fully embedded in the door, so it can’t be cut.

Price. Self-storage pricing is location-specific and based on the number of available units, the size, whether it’s climate-controlled and whether it’s a drive-up facility. According to the Self-Storage Almanac, in 2021, a 10-by-10-foot unit without climate control rented for $111.67 per month on average; a unit with climate control was $146.72. With few exceptions, contracts are month to month. Although you may get an enticing introductory offer, brace yourself for a rate increase every few months. “It’s the most annoying thing ever,” Aselstine says. “After that great intro rate, they up the price, figuring it’s more work for you to move than to pay the increase.” Be sure to ask about the company’s rent-increase practices. To save a few bucks, switch to a smaller unit once you start moving out items.

Insurance. Although the contents of your unit may be covered by your homeowners policy, it’s a good idea to buy self-storage insurance. That way, if anything happens to your stuff — a fire or burglary, for example — you receive money to replace what’s damaged or lost. The easiest way to buy this insurance is to do so when you rent your unit, because self-storage companies usually sell it as an add-on to your lease. Pricing can be as little as $9 per month for $2,500 of coverage, says James Appleton of MiniCo Insurance Agency, one of the largest self-storage insurers. Because customer storage (sometimes called “tenant”) insurance is a temporary policy, anyone can buy it, regardless of credit score; there is usually no deductible; and losses aren’t reported to your regular insurance carrier, so you don’t incur a rate increase.

Restrictions. For the most part, self-storage companies prohibit food, perishable goods, nonworking vehicles and anything flammable or combustible, such as car batteries, propane tanks or gasoline. And, adds Morris: “You can’t store yourself. You can’t live in a unit or use it as a recreational facility.”

Denver-based writer Laura Daily specializes in consumer advocacy and travel strategies. Find her at dailywriter.net.

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