March 8, 2007
By SUZANNE GANNON
ON a recent Saturday afternoon Marcus and Imal Wagner stood in a U-Haul storage warehouse here, surrounded by their castoff possessions: a papier-mâché candy dish, LPs by Cream and the Ventures, a computer printer, a ceramic figurine of a gnome atop a turtle, bolts of taffeta from a long-abandoned pillow-making hobby, and stacks of 25-gallon tubs filled with old files and five years’ worth of paperwork.
Ms. Wagner, a 56-year-old book publicist, spotted a van tire wedged amid the jumble, an item that she seemed not to have noticed on previous visits, and gave her husband a knowing look. “I didn’t want to throw it away so I brought it here,” Mr. Wagner, 53, said, a little defensively.
The Wagners have been bringing their things to this storage warehouse rather than discarding them for two years. “It’s very much a part of our house, even though it’s not in the house,” Ms. Wagner said. “It’s like a hidden room.”
They are not the only ones taking this approach to clutter. According to Michael T. Scanlon Jr., president of the Self Storage Association, a trade group, 11 million American households currently rent storage space, an increase of 90 percent since 1995 — even as the size of new American houses has grown and the size of the American family has shrunk.
In the last two years, close to a million more households have joined the ranks of storage renters, and there is now more than two billion square feet of rental storage space in the United States, earning more than $22 billion in gross revenue in 2006.
Storage-space users have traditionally rented for short periods, Mr. Scanlon said, most commonly during life changes like divorce or relocation. But in recent years a new kind of renter has emerged, one who rents for longer periods, sometimes paying thousands of dollars a year, sometimes for units in faraway cities. These new renters seem compelled to keep trading up, from a cozy “personal closet,” say, to a garage-like room, and then to a second unit or even a third. They represent what Diane Piegza, a spokeswoman for Sovran Self Storage, which owns the Uncle Bob’s chain of storage facilities in 22 states, calls “a segment of the population that has truly embedded storage into its lifestyle.”
For many, the appeal of renting storage space is the way it seems to represent the pursuit of simplicity: by transferring excess stuff to a storage unit, people can free their basements, attics and living rooms from years’ worth of clutter, and create the impression of a pared-down life.
“Once you have a space outside of your home, everything inside becomes nice and organized,” said Jon Weisberg, 63, a communications consultant who lives in Salt Lake City and rents storage space to hold his collection of American folk art and antiquarian books. (Like many storage renters, Mr. Weisberg once kept his treasured belongings far outside his home; after he moved to Utah from Manhattan in 2000, it took him a year and a half to transfer everything from his storage space in New Rochelle, N.Y., to one in Salt Lake City.)
Oddly, though, it’s the opposite of neat-and-tidy that seems to be true for many storage-unit renters. With newly available space, they are able not only to avoid getting rid of things but to accumulate even more. Dee Dee Whipple, a homemaker in Northbrook, Ill., was tempted down this road when she rented two units last year while preparing to sell her house after a divorce. Her real estate agent suggested renting the units after taking one look at Ms. Whipple’s home — with its 400 dolls, 46 boxes of Christmas decorations and 6 artificial Christmas trees — and suggesting that prospective buyers might be “overwhelmed.”
One year and $3,000 later, Ms. Whipple, 59, said her units are “packed up to the ceiling” and the vacuum that resulted in her home — which she has yet to put on the market — has been filled with more purchases. She has rented a third unit.
Ms. Whipple is learning something the Wagners discovered: renting storage space can have a gateway effect, with one unit filling up and leading to the need for a second, and so on. They rented their first unit in 2005 and filled it within six months, then added a larger, 10-by-15-foot space just down the hall. They now pay $335 a month for the two, or roughly $4,000 a year, a figure that Ms. Wagner said took her by surprise when her husband recently checked the bills. She said she was seduced by the out-of-sight-out-of-mind aspect of renting storage space, and by the ease of adding a unit — “the more the merrier!” — acknowledging that she was hooked. But she now sees renting storage as “not really a wise decision — it’s probably wiser to eliminate things.”
Many professional organizers, in fact, advise their clients against renting storage space. “I think the easy access does enable them,” said Dana Korey, a professional organizer in Del Mar, Calif., who estimates that nearly half of her clients rent storage units. “We ask people: ‘Do you really need another aromatherapy candle? You could light 10 a night and still have enough for two years.’ ”
Dr. Gregg Jantz, a psychologist and author in Seattle who has treated patients with pathological hoarding issues, said that hoarders, as well as those with less severe cluttering or collecting tendencies, can lose the ability to appraise the worth of things, attaching sentimental value to nearly everything they own. Easy access to storage space, he said, makes the problem worse. “With the availability of storage units, there is the perception that A, I don’t have to throw everything away, and B, I’m supposed to save everything,” he said.
Peter Balis, 42, fell into a version of this syndrome in 2003 when he began what he calls a love-hate relationship with storage. At the time he lived in a loft in Chicago and owned a weekend house on Lake Michigan. When he sold the country place, Mr. Balis moved its contents, including a pair of bent plywood Eames chairs and an 11-foot carved totem his grandparents bought at a temple in India, into storage nearby. “If you’re predisposed to squirreling you have no reason not to put it there,” he said.
A move to Manhattan a few months later to take a job at John Wiley & Sons, a publishing company where he is now the director of online sales, only added to Mr. Balis’s space constraints, so he rented a 10-by-6-foot walk-in unit in Kingston, N.Y., for which he pays $97 a month, as well as a 5-by-5-foot closet at Manhattan Mini Storage, for which he pays $65. Mr. Balis said the Kingston unit contained a combination of items with real value (the chairs, the totem), delusional perceived value (camping equipment) and limited value (an “Eloise” poster he is saving for his niece).
“I’ve visited it only once in three years and it was a total disaster so I just shut the door,” he said. “It was so full I was terrified to go in.”
So why doesn’t he hold a tag sale and clear out the space? Some of the items were destined for a country house that Mr. Balis and an ex-boyfriend were hoping to buy but never did. Giving up the unit, he said, “would mean admitting defeat.”
“I guess I still hope that someday I will have a second home or a larger apartment where these things will get used,” Mr. Balis said. “I’ve put so much money into it at this point, I’ve got to use these things.”
Meanwhile, the storage industry, which has existed for only about 35 years, has found ways to make rented storage space harder to resist. Companies have introduced automatic billing and promotional schemes like U-Haul’s free first month with a truck rental.
And storage warehouses themselves, once little more than metal sheds along the highway that were vulnerable to theft, have become increasingly sophisticated.
“The first generation was garages in a row,” said Clem Teng, a spokesman for Public Storage of Glendale, Calif., which began 34 years ago with a single structure in a remote stretch of El Cajon, Calif. The company now operates more than 2,000 warehouses in 38 states, many of them with climate-controlled units and electronic key gates.
Beth Silver Pilchik jokes that the storage locker she and her husband rent at Manhattan Mini Storage has better security than their Upper East Side apartment. “Some people are astonished that I’m so proud of it,” said Ms. Silver Pilchik, 36, a marketing consultant who admits talking about her storage unit with friends at cocktail parties. “They think we’re funny that we’re spending money to store things.”
On a recent visit to the branch of Manhattan Mini Storage she uses (there are 17 in the borough), Ms. Silver Pilchik demonstrated her prowess at maneuvering the ladder on wheels that she must use to gain access to her possessions. In addition to stemware from her wedding four years ago, the 8-by-4-foot double-wide locker contains luggage, files and items belonging to her year-old son.
“I’m in a sentimental mode,” she said. “It’s about the first everything: his first shoes, his first pacifier.”
Her son’s arrival required that she convert the dining room of her apartment into a bedroom, so Ms. Silver Pilchik off-loaded an armoire and other furnishings to a larger unit at Broadway Self-Storage in Huntington Station, N.Y.; the unit is cater-corner to her parents’ space in the same facility. Together, the Manhattan and the Huntington Station units cost $325 a month, but Ms. Silver Pilchik considers it money well spent. “I don’t think we could live without it,” she said. “We don’t have to fight about things that have to be thrown out.”
While Ms. Silver Pilchik and her husband are of a similar mind when it comes to storage, some family members would prefer to see stored items not just out of the house but out of their loved ones’ lives for good. Ms. Whipple’s 36-year-old son, Clay, has made no secret of his feelings about his mother’s clutter. “My suggestion was, instead of paying money for the storage units, rent an industrial-size Dumpster, park it in the driveway for a couple of months,” and just dump all the stuff in it, Mr. Whipple said.
Such an outcome is unlikely, he knows. Now that his mother has discovered storage, he said, she will probably rent units for years, if not the rest of her life. (Ms. Whipple disagreed and said that once she sold her current home she would find “a new house with a place to put the stuff.”)
What will Mr. Whipple do if and when responsibility for the units and the items inside shifts to him? “I’m going to open them up and say to my sister, Dana, what do you want? Because the rest of it I will pay the storage facility to throw away,” he said.
The Wagners of Gaithersburg, who have two school-age sons, hope to avoid such a situation and plan to empty their two U-Haul storage units themselves when they move back to Iowa this summer. “There’s an end in sight,” Ms. Wagner said in a determined tone. “When we move we will not be using a storage unit.”
Unless, that is, there is not enough time to sort through all the stuff beforehand, she added. “It pains me to say it, but I would want another storage unit.”
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company