Renting a Dumping Ground Is Convenient but Costly

Exhibit A that Americans own way too much stuff: The U.S. self-storage industry rakes in more than $44 billion per year.

While some people rent storage units because they are moving to new homes that aren’t ready yet, need to get belongings out of the way during remodels, or must park their stuff while temporarily relocating, most pay for the extra space because they’ve accumulated more property than they can fit into their abodes. That’s despite our average home size ballooning from 983 square feet in 1950 to more than 2,000 today.

Many consumers stash their stuff because they feel it’s more convenient to relocate it than to sort through and unload it—but they pay a high cost for that. Our undercover shoppers collected prices from a sampling of self-storage companies located throughout the Puget sound area and found that on average even small units run about $95 per month ($1,140 per year). Have a lot to warehouse? For a 10-by-20-square-foot unit, the average price quoted to us was $285 per month ($3,420 per year).

Because storage-unit costs are so expensive, the math becomes irrational for many who rent them: After a short time, most will have paid more in rent and fees than their belongings are actually worth.

Our section Getting Rid of Your Unwanted Stuff shares decluttering strategies plus tips on how to unload—from reselling clothes to donating romance novels to shuttling an entire household’s worth of stuff via an estate sale. We also provide tips for hiring a professional organizer—a service our researchers found surprisingly helpful.

Still want storage? Here’s how to save money and avoid trouble:

Shop around.

Our researchers found big facility-to-facility cost differences for similarly sized spaces. For example, to rent a 10-by-20-foot unit for a year, we found prices ranging from $1,999 to $4,633.

The table below reports the monthly prices we found for two different-sized units, assuming we didn’t want to commit for more than a month, plus the total price for one year for each unit if we did agree to keep it for a year. For the month-to-month option, we also report any mandatory upfront fees (application or registration fee, price of required lock, etc.).

Ask for a discount. Then ask again.

Without even asking, our shoppers were sometimes offered half off the first month’s rent or the first month for $1. Ask about similar introductory deals. We found that some facilities became more forthcoming about discounts when our shoppers said they would call other facilities for price quotes.

Keep in mind that competition among storage facilities is fierce, and they highly value new customers. Because it’s a pain to shuttle stuff from place to place, storage companies know that once someone has rented a unit, they’re likely to keep it for months or years.

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Consider far-away locales.

You might find lower prices as you get farther out into the suburbs. If you don’t need to visit your storage unit often, consider grabbing those savings. Visiting your unit can then count as a nice daytrip!

Don’t assume chains offer the lowest prices.

We found no consistent price winners among the various self-storage chains. Also, we sometimes found substantial price differences from chain to chain, even among facilities owned by the same company.

Consider a long-term commitment.

Some storage spots offer lower rates if you commit to six months or a year, or prepay several months’ rent.

Consider floor level.

Ground-floor storage may be more convenient, but storage on higher floors sometimes costs less. So long as units on higher floors are elevator-accessible (and almost all are), the savings may justify the minor inconvenience.

Check whether it’s less expensive to rent two or more smaller units than one large one.

Availability drives pricing: If a certain type or size of unit is in short supply, the storage company will increase its price. We sometimes found that we’d save by renting two smaller units, compared to leasing one large one.

Climate-control costs.

Many facilities offer climate-controlled units, which makes them more comfortable to be in when you’re moving goods in and out. It also reduces risk of damage to your stuff, for instance, from mildew, from freezing if you will be storing liquids, or from heat damage to glues if you will be stashing antique furniture. But climate-controlled units typically cost 20 to 40 percent more.

Consider indoor vs. outdoor access.

At some facilities you have a choice between outdoor access (drive up and unload directly) or inside access (located on a hallway). Outdoor access is often more expensive.

Beware of extra fees.

Many facilities charge one-time fees for “administration,” “set up,” or “processing.” These junk fees are usually modest, but check anyway.

Check your insurance coverage.

If you have a homeowners or renters insurance policy that covers your personal property away from your house, you probably don’t need to buy extra coverage from the storage company; ask your insurer to make sure. If your stuff isn’t covered, you can buy insurance from the storage company. It’s usually an expensive add-on: At several facilities we checked, a modest $15,000 of coverage cost more than $25 extra per month.

Check hours of access.

If you’ll need odd-hours access, know that some spots aren’t open 24/7.

Consider other options.

We focused on self-storage facilities, but other options exist for parking your odds and ends. If you need to clear space for a remodel, you can rent a mobile storage container or pod for your driveway; they cost about half of what you’d pay at a self-storage facility. And if you want to hire someone to do all this schlepping and storing, many moving companies will oblige.