Schenectady County

Abandoned storage units can be full of surprises – or junk

Auctions are part of the self-storage business. Whenever people fall behind in their rents or abando

Tom Tama had bargains for sale.

A dozen black, swivel-model office chairs — with dark blue, brown, gray and lavender back pads — were stacked inside a wooden storage box at Liedkie Moving & Storage in Rotterdam. About 50 people were potential buyers.

“There are a lot of decent chairs,” said Tama, operations manager at Liedkie, as he prepared to auction the box. “Any interest in the office chairs? We’ll skip it if there’s no interest. Yes? No? Yes? No? No, no, no?”

“Let’s go,” said one of treasure seekers, expressing a universal apathy toward the furniture.

Auctions are part of the self-storage business. Whenever people fall behind in their rents or abandon their possessions, business managers are allowed to sell the contents and find new “tenants” for storage areas.

At Liedkie, Tama found more interest in a box that contained a sofa and a highly polished wooden table, among other items.

“Got $575 looking for six,” Tama said in a melodious, staccato voice. “Got $575 looking for six, don’t be shy, $575. It’s going to go, $575 looking for six, it’s going to go . . . $575, once, $575 twice. Stole! For $575.”

“It’s fun to see what you can get,” said Suzie Spooner, 18, of Scotia, who was in the group that considered 18 lots for sale at the Curry Road storage center. Spooner was looking for plastic storage boxes.

“There’s always stuff in them,” she said. “You never know what you’re going to get.”

A lot of the auction commotion is thanks to “Storage Wars,” a reality television series that began on A&E Network in 2010. In each show, professional buyers are on the make for storage units abandoned by their renters in California. Storage managers owed back rent place liens on possessions stored and put the small rooms up for auction. Buyers get only five minutes to evaluate the contents — just visual inspections from the front door — and some of the drama comes from decisions to pass or purchase.

The show’s popularity has led to two spin-off series — “Storage Wars: Texas” and “Storage Wars: New York.”

Tama said his company usually conducts two storage sales a year.

“It ranges,” he said of merchandise up for grabs. “It could literally be anything, household goods, office stuff, furniture, electronics. Normally, it’s household goods — couches, chairs, end tables, TVs. People store anything.”

At Liedkie, storage is rented for between $70 and $200 a month, depending on size. Families might be breaking up or moving to smaller homes, and need extra room to store large pieces. College kids who want to keep dorm or household furniture for future semesters will rent for summer months.

Legal requirements

Storage center owners must follow legal procedures before they hold auctions. When tenants fall behind in their rent — usually several months without payment — storage managers must notify customers they are behind in rent payments, describe property subject to a lien, provide details of a proposed sale and demand payment. Under New York lien law, they must also tell customers that if money is not received within 10 days of the notification, their possessions will be advertised for sale and sold.

Published legal notices and notices of scheduled auctions are also part of the process.

Richard Kennedy, who has owned Route 5S Self Storage in Rotterdam since 2003, said the auctions can be advantageous for both shopper and business owner. “I make a few bucks, and I get somebody else to clean out the junk,” he said. “That’s what I consider a victory.”

In past auctions, Kennedy has moved bird cages, fish tanks, rolled carpets, a motorized wheelchair. “Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose,” Kennedy said of auction participants. “But they get to spend the morning with me.”

One former tenant made a deal with Kennedy for money owed — Kennedy received a Go-Kart from the arrangement.

“He wasn’t a bad guy,” Kennedy said, showing off the cart on a recent rainy afternoon. “I always wanted to get one of these things.”

Kennedy also showed off a storage unit filled — packed, really — with household gear. A pine green sofa without cushions, a couple of coolers and some toys were visible — and it all might be for sale soon. People renting the room, he said, haven’t made payments in more than a year.

Jim Hart of Saratoga Springs was shopping for bargains at a recent storage unit auction in Glenville.

There was a crowd of about 25 people walking from row to row, waiting for doors to roll open and then peek inside. Hart was the only one who carried a flashlight, so he had an advantage if the rooms were full and dark.

“You buy the stuff and resell it,” Hart said, explaining the sales’ popularity . “I used to be able to do this to buy groceries, go on vacation. It’s pocket money, extra money.”

Suspicious TV auctions

Like other experienced storage shoppers, Hart is leery of the televised auctions. He believes some might be staged.

“Usually, they go after you if you’re a month or more behind in rent,” Hart said. “You’re going to let $20,000 worth of stuff go for $100? That’s nonsense. And they find all these boxes of gold coins, a $50,000 Gatling gun.”

Liedkie’s Tama also has doubts about the TV auctions. He drew a comparison to another popular reality show, the “Survivor” franchise on CBS, and believes things are not always as they seem.

“Do you really think they’re going to let somebody die out in the Amazon?” he asked, believing that medical help is always nearby in the exotic locations. “It’s non-reality reality.”

Some of the people who gather at storage auctions know each other — the same men and women show up all over the Capital Region. Hart said there is camaraderie, but he said people who bid against each other aren’t always friends.

Hart joshed with one man in Glenville. But he wasn’t crazy about the guy.

“There was one up near Lake George and I wanted this unit real bad. And he’s standing behind me, just bidding me up. When it was all over, I said, ‘Was there something in there you wanted?’ He said, ‘No, I just wanted to bid you up.’ ”

Hart attends between 20 and 50 storage auctions annually.

“I’m addicted,” he said. “Some people are addicted to garage sales or auctions. I’m addicted to these things.”

At the storage auction in Glenville, about 25 bidders considered the contents of six box-like rooms. An antique sled, toys, desks, tool boxes, a running treadmill, drum set and a couple of floor scrubbers were in the batches of abandoned merchandise.

Joe Mazzone Jr. conducted the brief auctions and all six rooms were sold in less than an hour. Spring can be a boom time for auctions and treasure hunters.

“The reason why you see more of them now is because the buyers feel they can do garage sales and stuff like that a little more,” said Mazzone, 63, who lives in Guilderland. “The weather’s better, it’s easier to move the stuff around. It’s a good time of the year for garage sales. They buy the stuff, and between Craigslist and garage sales, eBay, those are their avenues for getting rid of it.”

While “Storage Wars” has promoted the idea that anyone can get rich with a lucky strike, Mazzone said those are rare cases.

“Everybody thinks there’s going to be a score,” Mazzone said. “And on very rare occasions, there are some scores, but only rarely. Most people who put stuff in those units, they’re either breaking up a home or downsizing. Very rarely is it an estate.”

Getting hooked

Mazzone knows how people can become hooked on storage auctions — all it takes is one fantastic story. One of those stories took place in the Capital Region, about 20 years ago. Mazzone said a young woman was involved with an older man who put together extensive collections of eclectic items. The man became sick, his possessions went into a storage unit and the woman eventually stopped sending in rent checks. The filled room went to auction, and went for a high $5,000.

It turned out to be a smart investment.

“No exaggeration, the guy that got the unit and when it was all said and done, it was like $200,000 worth of stuff,” Mazzone said. “He had these mechanical banks and antique bottle collections and so on and so on. It’s like a needle in a haystack; this happened to be fluke.”

People who think they might like playing the home version of “Storage Wars” — watching the newspaper classified sections and finding when local auctions will be held — should know they might be bidding on somebody else’s junk.

“Go in there with a state of mind of moving it,” Mazzone said. “First view it, and see how much is salvageable and how much is junk. If you have a lot of moving work to do, you hope you have a place to store it. As far as tips on trying to find a score, it’s the eyes of the beholder.”

Walter Sass, 62, has been shopping at storage auctions for the past 20 years — before the gatherings became popular. “You’d go there and there would be two or three people,” Sass said.

At the Glenville sale, Sass spent $100 for a small room that contained a floor scrubber and floor polisher. He was hoping the charging unit for the scrubber was with the machinery. “It wasn’t there,” he said.

Neither machine was operational, and Sass wasn’t going to invest money for repairs. A pair of truck ramps — used by the one-time floor cleaner to move his equipment — were also part of the deal. Sass figured he could unload those for $20, and cut his loss to $80.

“The best I’ve found were some old ladies’ hats that brought me the most money,” said Sass, a retired truck driver who lives in Petersburgh, Rensselaer County. “They were like the Saratoga hats. I brought them up there and sold them, I got $7 apiece for them. There was like 40 hats, so I made my money back on the unit. And then some.”

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