Nov 04, 2011

TV Shows Draw More Hunters to Storage Unit Auctions

Auction hunters aren't allowed to enter this Uncle Bob’s Self Storage unit before bidding on it. They rely on their eyes and their instincts to guide them in their gambles. Photo by Ari Phillips.

By Ari Phillips
For Reporting Texas

AUSTIN — Like day laborers waiting for work, 30-odd people mill around outside Uncle Bob’s Self Storage early on a Tuesday morning. Waiting in blue jeans, ball caps and striped shirts, they aren’t hoping for a paycheck – they’re banking on a gamble.

Almost every month Bob’s, on U.S. Route 290 near Austin, is the first stop on a daylong storage unit auction circuit. Led by an auctioneer, hunters crisscross the metropolitan area trying to lay claim to an abandoned storage unit. As recently as two years ago, five people might show up at a morning’s kickoff like this one. Thanks to the popularity of A&E’s television show “Storage Wars,” attendance is up, and so are prices.

“Turnout is really increasing because of the show,” said auctioneer Allen Wares, owner of Ace Auction Co. in Austin, which sells more than 400 storage units a year. “Lower-priced units used to go for $25 to $50, now they’ve jumped to $100 to $200.

Wares said that “old-timers” were angry about the show’s popularity. “They are people who need merchandise for their businesses, usually a thrift store or a flea market booth,” he said of the regulars.

In Storage Wars auction hunters bid on abandoned storage units. The episodes revolve around the fortunes of five professional buyers who all rely on the contents of storage units for their resale businesses. The buyers briefly inspect storage units before engaging in a bidding war over what’s inside. Contents can include workout equipment, trash bags of clothing, bedrooms sets, tool collections, jewelry, kitchenware, various knickknacks or nearly anything else that can be packed away in a confined space and left behind.

Almost half this morning’s crowd appeared to be spectators along for the ride or working up to making a bid. Robert Cavanaugh, an auto parts specialist at Ace Discount Glass in Austin, has yet to win a unit in his several months on the scene. He said he considered these outings a hobby, one inspired by “Storage Wars.”

Andrea Lee, an unemployed Killeen resident, sells her purchases on eBay and Craigslist. She also got the idea from seeing Storage Wars. “It’s fun, I enjoy doing this. I’m not even going to look for work. I prefer doing this, and I make more money than at a regular job,” she said.

Storage Wars premiered on A&E Network in 2010 and went on to become the highest-rated show in the cable network’s history. The second season premiered this summer to 5.1 million viewers. “Storage Wars” is now filming a third season. A spinoff based in Texas, “Storage Wars: Dallas,” premiered in September. Other cable networks have caught on, with “Storage Hunters” on Tru TV and “Auction Hunters” on Spike.

Before the television shows, according to those in the business, the main inspiration for would-be auction hunters was Glendon Cameron. He started buying storage units in 2002 and worked his way up from garage sales, flea markets and storefronts to eventually running a 9,000-square-foot warehouse space. In 2009 he went from auction hunter to auction consultant by writing “Making Money A-Z with Self Storage Unit Auctions.” Cameron, based outside of Atlanta, now has three books, a coaching program, a 30-day boot camp and a YouTube channel with nearly 2,800 subscribers.

In a recent YouTube webisode, Cameron harangues buyers for taking Storage Wars too seriously. He’s seen too many novices drop large sums of cash on units just because they think “it’s got to be in there.” “It” being the hidden moneymaker, such as vintage ice skates or valuable Boy Scout badges, that often turns up on the TV show but is generally absent in real life.

“I am mad at you people who refuse to separate the reality from the fantasy,” says Cameron to his viewers.

That may not be easy to do, even here in Austin. The next auction on the day’s circuit was on the southern end of South Congress Avenue, and a TV news crew from Fox 29 in San Antonio was filming a feature on storage unit auctions.

Nefty Gonzalez, a photojournalist from FOX 29 in San Antonio, films Rory Vuckner, owner of two Dominoes Pizza franchises in Austin, as he rummages through a storage unit whose contents he bought for $350. Photo by Ari Phillips.

“We’re hoping for a bidding war,” said Ted Garcia, an anchor for FOX 29. “We want to film someone go through what they bought, hopefully in an overloaded unit.” Garcia was basically describing the plotline of a typical episode of “Storage Wars.”

Garcia got his story as the purchasers of two packed units agreed to go on camera as they rummaged through their units. Part of the fun of storage unit auctions is that bidders can’t go inside or touch anything before bidding. They gaze into the dark boxes of other peoples’ past, often with flashlights in hand.

The buyer of a unit must clean it out within 24 to 72 hours or face fines. “Once you win a unit, the work is just starting,” Wares said. “Then you’ve got to haul, sort and sell everything. A lot of newcomers aren’t prepared for this.”

Steve Linsday, an Austin resident, found mostly disappointment in his unit. A sturdy wooden box contains used kitchenware, a jewelry box containing plastic bracelets, and a dresser with dirty clothes. Then there was the book of blank checks.

“If someone wasn’t on the up-and-up, one could potentially do some damage,” Lindsay said.

“You find peoples’ Social Security cards, driver’s licenses, even wills,” said Rory Vuckner, a longtime storage unit hunter who owns two Austin-area Domino’s Pizza franchises. Vuckner bought a unit for $350. After assessing the value of a door, a leaf blower, some tools and a pair of speakers, he said he’ll just about make his money back.

“One person’s trash is another person’s treasure, goes the saying,” Lindsay said, “but sometimes one person’s trash is just another person’s trash.”