“You can’t take it with you.” — Proverb

Self StorageIn his Slate article entitled Self-Storage Nation, Tom Vanderbilt writes, “You can’t take it with you but you can certainly find a place to stash it away.” So what compels people to spend money on storing their idle belongings? I’ve done this only once in my lifetime… it was in between selling a house and buying another and I couldn’t quite get the escrow periods to coincide. For sixty days I lived in a B&B while my personal property crashed at the Public Storage facility.

I recently thought about this topic as I was poking around the blog of a new Queercents reader and noticed that she used to keep some of her belongings in storage.

When I inquired about why she spent money on storing her stuff, Erica replied with justification, “At the time, I had just quit my job and moved from Minneapolis back to my parents’ house in Detroit. The stay with the parents was supposed to be temporary and short-lived, and I was expecting to move again soon. My parents didn’t have room in their house for all my stuff. The storage space was the only ‘rent’ I was paying. If I had anywhere else to put it all, I wouldn’t have spent the money.”

All this got me thinking though about the self-storage topic and that’s how I stumbled upon the Slate article. I’m not the only one to have considered the topic. Check out these two NPR segments:

1. Storage Facility Bidders Betting on Hidden Gems by Gloria Hillard
2. Americans Keeping More Possessions ‘Off-Site’ by Chris Arnold

The Slate article delves into the philosophy behind how and why Americans are spending money this way. Vanderbilt writes, “One in 11 American households, according to a recent survey, owns self-storage space”an increase of some 75 percent from 1995. Most operators of self-storage facilities report 90 percent occupancy, with average stints among its renters of 15 months. Last year alone saw a 24 percent spike in the number of self-storage units on the market.”

“How did self storage, or ‘mini storage,’ as it’s sometimes called, become such an enormous enterprise? And what on earth are people keeping in there?”

“For a resolutely banal landscape feature, self storage is a surprisingly fertile cultural indicator. Self storage’s popularity clearly has something to do with American mobility: Many people use self storage during a move. The average American will change residences 11 times in his life.”

“Another obvious suspect, then, is American consumerism. No other country in the world spends as much on consumer goods. But as consumption has grown, so too has the average size of the American house. The National Association of Homebuilders reports that the average American house went from 1,660 square feet in 1973 to 2,400 square feet in 2004. So, let’s get this straight”houses got bigger, average family sizes got smaller, and yet we still need to tack on a billion-plus square feet to store our stuff?”

“Well, it’s not quite that simple. For one, those living in older houses, with their smaller closets and rooms, simply might not have room for today’s consumerist haul. Many homes built in the postwar years until today”particularly the bungalows and ranches so popular in the temperate states that have seen the most population growth”come without basements or attics.”

“It is thus no surprise that the three states that have the most self-storage space”Florida, Texas, and California”are in the Sun Belt. (The Northeast, by comparison, has less self storage per capita.) A third factor to consider is the disappearance of the American attic. While many of us have memories of rummaging through a grandparents’ hot, musty attic, filled with old hope chests and dress dummies, in the past few decades the attic has simply vanished.”

Okay, I can’t reprint the entire article, but it’s a fascinating read and also covers the history of the self-storage industry. Click on over to Slate to read the rest of it.

In the meantime, let’s get back to the money side of the story. Here are important questions to ask before you decide to spend money on storage (courtesy of VanLines.com). They write, “At the time when you are making a decision on whether to store or not to store your goods, think about the other options that may be available to you. Do you really need all the items you are planning to put in to storage? Can you get rid of any without any regrets? Remember if you are moving that everything you get rid of now is something you won’t have to move yourself or pay to have moved. On the other hand you may need it someday! Ask yourself some questions before deciding whether you want to store particular items or not.”

1. Do I need the item?
2. Will I ever use this item again?
3. When did I use it last?
4. Has it got sentimental value?
5. If any of the items need repair will you really have them repaired?
6. Clothing items — will you really ever wear it again?

They suggest, “You may decide after answering the questions above that you do not really need some of the items. The next big question is what to do with all this stuff. There are many options available to you. You could throw the stuff out, give it away to charity or have a garage sale.”

So think twice before spending money on self-storage and make sure that you have good reason to store your stuff. In my opinion, the only reasonable excuse for this expense is when you’re caught in between homes. But as always, I’m interested in hearing what you have to say.