Up for Grabs

You can buy a life’s worth of possessions for pennies on the dollar. There are people who make a living doing just that.

Twelve bidders stand on the asphalt in the June sun, casually talking in groups of two and three as Steve Plummer, the manager of West Flamingo Storage, gets set to crank open the corrugated metal door to unit 27. “You might want to stand back,” Plummer says, “something might fall out.”

As the door opens, conversation stops. “Wow,” someone finally says. Someone else whistles, another person laughs. Everyone stares. In front of them stands a solid wall of stuff—boxes, clothes, furniture, something metal (auto parts?)—everything jammed together so tightly it fills the 10-by-10-foot opening completely. It’s impossible to see inside, so Plummer informs bidders that the unit goes back 20 feet. He adds it was originally rented when the facility first opened three years ago, and the tenant tried to keep up his rent but eventually fell behind and had nowhere to move his belongings.

Plummer confers with the auctioneer, Curt Hubbard, and agrees to give the winning bidder extra time to unload the unit, since the sheer mass appears to intimidate several bidders. “A lot of flexibility in this deal,” says Hubbard, “so don’t be afraid of the amount of merchandise. Of course, you’ve got to remember, they always put the good stuff in first, near the back wall.”

Nothing of obvious value is visible, and since auction rules prohibit anyone from passing the threshold of the unit until the auction is over, bidders are essentially gambling. Maybe there’s something valuable that could be re-sold at a profit, or maybe its all worthless junk. “All right, open me up at $200,” Hubbard calls. “We’re going to get there for sure anyway. Two hundred?”

Slowly, one bidder raises a single finger. “One hundred,” Hubbard says. “Now you’re going to make me work.” He dives into his auction patter with the energy of a carnival barker, “Who’ll give me $125?”

When the housing bubble burst in 2007 it created a surge in storage-unit auctions. At the time, Hubbard says he often found “a matching refrigerator, stove, dishwasher, microwave, all the same color—that’s the only thing in the unit. The guy took the stuff out of a foreclosed home, and put it into one of these ‘move in for a dollar’ situations, didn’t come up with another dollar, and now his stuff goes to sale.”

At the same time, he says, the stigma attached to buying things from a secondhand store went away. The stores had new customers to sell to, and the high rate of foreclosures meant they had a steady stream of people to buy from. Bad times meant it was a good time to be in the business of buying up the contents of unpaid storage units. Since then, as the economy declined, renters have become less willing to walk away from their possessions, Hubbard says, perhaps because a storage unit holds all they have left. There aren’t as many auctions going on. At the same time, more people are trying to make a buck by buying and re-selling storage units. “Right now,” says Hubbard, “because the number of units has gone down, and the cost of good merchandise has gone up, some dealers have gone out of business.”

Still, storage-unit auctions aren’t rare. Peruse the pages of the Nevada Legal News, or check online at storageauctions.tripod.com, and you’ll find dozens every week, more than a single buyer could possibly attend.

When renters fall behind and don’t want to walk away, the law is on their side. Before a storage facility owner can auction a unit, the state requires the owner of the storage unit to send two certified letters to the delinquent renter and advertise the sale for two weeks. The most money an owner can ever legally make from an auction is enough to break even, ensuring that there is no financial incentive to seize and sell private property. If a storage unit sells at auction for more than the back rent, the owner is required to give the extra money back to the tenant.

“Every facility I know is doing everything they can, especially in this economy, to get people to pay,” Hubbard says. “They’ll go out of their way beyond your belief. These are compassionate people, who face the renter on the other side of the desk, and don’t want to lose them.”

It’s common for owners to cut a deal with delinquent renters to avoid going to auction, he says. “They don’t want to go to sale. That’s the last thing they want to do. I’m the last resort. I’m supposed to be.”

Still, it happens. Times are hard. “Today, it’s totally different,” Hubbard says. “These are real people with real economic problems that are holding on by their fingertips to keep from losing their units.”

Which is why Hubbard, for one, makes an effort to return personal papers and photographs—things that have no value to a buyer but mean a lot to sellers—when possible. It’s not required by law, but it’s the right thing to do. At some facilities, the bidder sign-in sheet even serves as a contract to this effect, which potential buyers must agree to before they can bid. “But it’s always on a best-effort basis,” Hubbard says. “Some of these buyers represent large stores, some are from other parts of the country. They come to town with a 27-foot truck and they load it all in, and who knows where it all came from? But some of these buyers are very compassionate people, and they try. I’ve seen them go to extraordinary efforts to try to get someone’s stuff for them.”

Hubbard became an auctioneer 15 years ago because he wanted to do something with the vocal skills he’d honed doing voice-overs on radio and television. Watching him walk cheerfully through the hot sun for hours, sporting trimmed gray hair and a goatee, wire-rimmed glasses and a Hawaiian shirt, it’s obvious he still loves his job. His enthusiasm never wavers. Opening one unit to find a box of rocks, he launches into a positive spin. “But what kind of rocks are they? He must have been collecting them for a reason.” He sells that unit for $200.

He calls regular auctions on Saturdays at the Clark County Public Auction in North Las Vegas, which he finds faster and more exciting. But he also likes the slower pace of storage auctions, which he handles through his own company, Grand Ole Auction. “I’ve had the good fortune to love almost everything I’ve ever done. I’ve always been a performer, I’ve always been a salesman, and auctions take the two of them together.”

Even in a large group, with a lot of casual bidders and curiosity seekers, professional buyers are easy to spot. At a recent auction that drew 30 bidders, 11 brought flashlights, which they used to peer into dark units. Some of the pros had padlocks clipped to their belt, which they used to re-lock each unit they won.

Right now there are 50 to 60 professional storage-unit buyers in Las Vegas, Hubbard says. “And by God, if they don’t deserve respect for being out there in the 115-degree heat, nobody does. These are the hardest-working people I’ve ever seen.”

There’s quite a bit of gamesmanship among those professionals; a storage-unit auction is a bit like a poker game in that sizing up your competition is vital to coming out ahead. “All of them work to get an edge, based on their own understandings of what they perceive at the door,” Hubbard says. “Today, several of them were conferring about the gauge of the wire in a box they saw, and they appeared knowledgeable about it. ‘This is still used.’ … ‘Yeah, yeah, I understand that.’ Of course, a lot of that is one-upmanship, and some of them are trying to learn something about the knowledge of their opponents. This is not lightweight combat that goes on in those halls. Of course, occasionally, what you do is you spread out misinformation, and see if you’re trumped.”

And like poker, casual bidders often don’t recognize how complex the game is, or how much of it depends on your competition. That’s why Hubbard considers himself something of a referee. “One of the reasons it’s so important that my buyers understand the game is on the square,” he says, “is that sometimes they’re just going to get zonked. They’re going to go into a unit and the boxes are empty, or there’s trash in them, or it’s just junk. Because the renters knew there was time to get their stuff out, they went in and rifled it and took everything. Now, whenever a buyer who is inexperienced comes up against that situation, he tends to think the deck was stacked against him. But all my good buyers, all the professionals, those people know this is part of it.”

The pros come prepared, with trucks and enough help to unload units. Most importantly, they know how they are going to sell what they buy, and they don’t get in over their heads. Recently, at 365 Storage on Rancho Drive, buyers declined to bid even $25 on either of two fifth-wheel travel trailers, presumably because they didn’t have the equipment to haul them off–though an eBay search showed similar trailers recently sold for thousands of dollars.

Rosemarie Ricks, a veteran buyer of seven years, owns the Building 160 Supply Co. store in Pahrump. A description on the website Yelp says Ricks’ store is as a thrift shop “like none other. … A series of cobbled-together buildings and lean-tos filled with everything the proprietors could get their hands on … It’s impressive, to say the least.”

Behind Ricks’ quiet, polite, motherly demeanor is a shrewd business sensibility and a discerning eye for value. Before attending each auction, she or a member of her staff checks the legal notices to find the names of the unit’s previous renters. Then she does a little more digging to find out how likely the renter is to have squirreled away good stuff.

Ricks says she has recently seen a lot of units formerly owned by lawyers and title companies. Such auctions may sound promising, but many renters pay at the last minute so it’s not uncommon to show up only to find the sale canceled.

Six years ago, her research led her to a storage unit rented by a member of the Spilotro family. Ricks remembers that when the door rolled up, she couldn’t see inside because the view was blocked by stacks of beveled-glass doors. The doors alone were valuable. She bought the unit for $3,000 and wasn’t disappointed. “He must have had a crew dismantling the whole house,” Ricks says. “It was a big unit. Beautiful beveled-glass doors, gold towel holders, cement mixers. It had everything you would think of that a big luxury house would have.”

Ricks employs 10 people who collect items from the storage units during the week and sells those items at her store on weekends. She will buy anything she can resell at a profit, but especially likes high-end items. “A lot of times I’ll go for the beautiful stuff,” she says. “Heidi Fleiss is in Pahrump; she shops at my place and buys a lot of stuff.”

With the sour economy, Ricks has had more competition for storage units from buyers such as husband-and-wife team Dave and Elizabeth (they asked that their last name not be used). They focuse on buying smaller units that contain no more than they can load in their pickup and haul away themselves. That’s how they’ve made a living since Dave got laid off from his construction job in March 2008. They sell their finds on eBay, Craigslist, yard sales, swap meets—however they can. They’re getting by, Dave says, but it’s a hard way to make a living. “This is at least an 18-hour day, every day, for us.”

While it takes skill and work to be a consistently successful auction buyer, part of the allure is knowing that every once in a while someone hits the jackpot.

“I sold a unit at All Storage about a year and a half ago,” Hubbard says. “In the unit you saw a few scattered bags, a small mini-bike and you didn’t know what was there. A day later, the buyer comes into the office of the manager with a big smile on her face and says, ‘That’s it! We’re all moving back to Utah!’ There was a bag of money in there. A bag of money! And it was enough to take her out of the business, with a big smile.

“It’s a great treasure hunt,” he adds. “That’s what it’s all about. The people who participate with me are some of the greatest gamblers in Las Vegas.”

Back at West Flamingo Storage, Hubbard solicits the last bids on unit 27. “Final call,” he says, and a regulation two beats later, “Sold! For $200.”

As the group moves on, the new owner of unit 27 looks skeptically at his purchase. He might have just bought a treasure. He might have just wasted his money. Either way, he’s signed himself up for a lot of work over the next few days. Plummer rolls the door down and the buyer puts on his new lock, concluding the sale of someone’s life at 10 cents a cubic foot.