What the pros say

Storage unit auctions are great for people looking for furniture, according to Lance Fitzgerald, manager at AAA Storage Containers in Boulder.

Even if you don't buy a certain unit, you can talk to the buyer after the auction and often buy the items from them right there for a discounted price, because then they don't have to move and list them.

Beware that you have to pay a $25 deposit when you win a unit, though you get that money back after you clean it out. All of it. You can't just take the good stuff and leave the rest there. You have a week to clean it, says Van Vasquez, AAA's operations manager.

If I hadn't been so euphoric, I would have been a little creeped out by how perfectly everything fit me -- my body and my personality -- inside the storage unit that my father-in-law won on a whim for $20, during a recent storage unit auction in Boulder.

If "Bill and Ted's" were a historical chronicle, I'd believe that I traveled back in time and left myself a storage unit packed with incredible vintage clothes and home décor, and then stopped paying rent for it so it would go up for auction, and then left clues to lead my father-in-law there to reunite me with my stash. He would insist I take it because it was "so me" (read: he knew no consignment stores would touch it).

Either that, or there is one tiny, crazy, fashionable and forgetful (because why else would she have let this unit go up for auction?) old lady out there who I would like to meet because she's my soul mate. The mysterious face behind Boulder's very own "storage wars."

Like other parents with sad social lives, I've spent countless Friday nights watching "Storage Wars" marathons on A&E while fantasizing about playing this kind of lottery and making the million-dollar find.

Greg Stewart uses a flashlight to see the contents of a storage unit being auctioned off at AAA Storage Containers LLC in Boulder.
Greg Stewart uses a flashlight to see the contents of a storage unit being auctioned off at AAA Storage Containers LLC in Boulder. (Mark Leffingwell/Daily Camera)

The reality show follows professional buyers to repossessed storage units. The auctioneer opens the doors for a few minutes, and the buyers make bids on the units based only on what they can see and hope is buried deep inside. One buyer uncovered the world's most valuable comic book collection. Another found a coffin.

More times than not, what you see on TV is a lot of Hollywood and glamour -- and not exactly reality, says Lance Fitzgerald, manager at AAA Storage Containers in Boulder, which staged the recent auction.

After rent for a storage unit goes unpaid for several months, and after multiple attempts to contact the owners and settle the bill, the storage facility puts the unit up for public auction, starting at $5. Auctions take place every three to four months and span five to 15 different units. Sometimes, they attract as many as 50 bidders, both seasoned and newbies.

The interest has surged since "Storage Wars," says Fitzgerald.

"Do I think our auctions are like that? No. Is there a chance that you can find a hidden treasure? Absolutely. Can I tell you what's in it? Honestly, I don't know. We don't go through people's stuff," Fitzgerald says. "Are you going to find gold bars and a brand-new car? Probably not. But people like to come and hope for that stuff. That's the element of surprise."

At the recent auction, one unit went for more than $100, and another went for -$5 (AAA paid my father-in-law to empty the contents -- merely a bed frame and stack of mattresses).

Richard Schweger, of Longmont, has been storage-warring regularly for about six years and selling the contents privately for extra cash. He says he doesn't go to auctions as much as he used to because there are too many people.

The growing number of folks who attend storage-unit auctions has begun to scare off some longtime auction-goers.
The growing number of folks who attend storage-unit auctions has begun to scare off some longtime auction-goers. (Mark Leffingwell/Daily Camera)

"One hundred people and four units doesn't add up," he says.

Every once in awhile, Schweger says, he scores something valuable: jewelry, money, useful salvage. He says there are no quick tips and tricks on how to pick a valuable unit, because you also don't know what's below the surface; one buyer bought a unit for its giant box of DVDs, only to open them and discover every case was empty.

"You're basically buying what you can't see. They let you look in but not touch anything," he says.

Schweger says it's all about intuition and experience. And sometimes, he adds, "You pay a little tuition in the school of life."

Or, in my case, sometimes your father-in-law pays the tuition and you score an impractical yet exquisite ball gown and a stack of wild coats. Now if only I can find a place to store all my new finds. I wonder how much a storage unit goes for these days?