Thrill of the chase motivates real-life ‘Storage’ hunters

They arrive at the end of each month, in ball caps and pickup trucks, hauling trailers and pocket flashlights.

They are men, mostly, of varying age, and even before the A Network reality series “Storage Wars” debuted in 2010, highlighting professional storage-unit prospectors, they’ve been showing up to local storage auctions, hoping for the best.

They are treasure hunters, so to speak. Many are in search of items they can turn around and sell for a profit — tools, antique furniture, substantial pieces that can draw high-dollar prices at flea markets or on eBay. But there’s also the thrill of the hunt; enchantment with the idea that, when those metal storage doors slide open, there’s no telling what might be inside.

“It’s like going fishing,” says Mike Gross of Lee’s Summit. “You never know what’s at the bottom of the water.”

Take, for instance, a recent afternoon inside the gated confines of the StorageMart on Frontage Road in Merriam. Gross and his wife, Elaine, are among the half dozen or so stationed in front of storage unit D-25, waiting for bidding to begin on the 10-by-10-foot space.

Though new to the storage-unit bidding game, Gross, a used-car dealer in the Kansas City area before retiring a year ago, is no stranger to auctions.

The practice of bidding away the contents of storage units has been around as long as units themselves. The story is usually the same. Someone rents one to temporarily hold some belongings. Time passes. They’re unable or unwilling to continue paying rent, and the storage company, wanting to put the unit back in play, sells its contents.

“It’s really a little bit of a tragedy every time we do it,” says StorageMart president Cris Burnam, whose Columbia-based company boasts 132 locations across North America. “It’s an unfortunate piece of the business that has to be done.”

Personal effects, however, must be returned to the front desk. Sometimes, it’s a passport, family photos or law degree.

The bidding itself is far from an exact science.

Given the rules preventing potential buyers from entering beforehand, a unit’s often buried contents can be a mystery at the time of the bidding. Even if there is a substantial piece visible — a refrigerator, say, or a washing machine — there’s no way to know if it works. Until they’ve taken possession of — and rummaged through — their new belongings, buyers might have little idea what, exactly, they purchased.

Unlike flea markets or estate auctions, storage-unit sellers rarely hawk individual items. Instead, potential buyers bid on the entire contents of a unit. Though they might be interested only in the power tools, for instance, they’re also getting the bags of old clothes, children’s books and board games that might also be stacked inside.

It all makes for highly varied — and very often underwhelming — results.

“I’ve never seen $13,000 behind a picture frame, like you see on TV,” says Kevin Boggs, a regional manager for StorageMart.

Jonathan Hockaday agrees. “I spent $800 for one and lost the whole $800,” the St. Joseph buyer says. “It looked good until you got in it. It was good for the dump.”

Buyers, however, sometimes discover valuable tools, antiques, automobile wheels. A couple of months back, John Bodnar of Holt, Mo., and his son purchased a unit that turned out to be packed with high-end military equipment, including the unit’s star piece, a brand new flak jacket. They were able to sell the goods on sites like eBay and Craigslist and, according to Bodnar, “probably made 10 times more than we paid for it.”

“For all these guys that do this, that’s the whole deal,” Gross says. “You like to make a little money on it, but the anticipation of it is what makes you tick every day.”

D-25’s door is raised, and auctioneer Shane Maxwell crows: “Lots of furniture. It’s packed all the way to the back.” He begins taking bids.

Inside, mattresses obscure much of the contents. A dresser, some bicycles, but no high-end goods immediately visible. Yet the unit


full, boosting the odds that something good is submerged in there.

Gross lobs an initial bid and stays in the hunt. And when no one chooses to match his $95 bid, he’s the new owner of 100-square-feet worth of what?

Truth be told, the unit doesn’t strike Gross as particularly promising, especially compared to a recent buy that had yielded some high-end beach furniture.

When he and his wife return the following day to examine their new merchandise, however, Gross still feels that familiar ping of anticipation. As he likes to say, “You never know.”

Out comes a couple of mattresses, an antique wooden hutch. Out comes a leather recliner and a bucket filled with soccer balls and a bag stuffed with clothes.

“Here’s $20 here,” Gross says, pulling a plastic fold-up table from the piles. “That’s a real good find I think this is going to be a good sewing machine.”

Uncovering a Kansas City Chiefs fleece pullover, he says, “That’s something I’ll keep and wear.”

What he doesn’t find, at least on this day, are any “super-finds.” No stashed-away bars of gold or antique jewelry.

Still, more than two-thirds, Gross estimates, can be sold at sales or flea markets or the Jackson County Auction in Lone Jack; the rest he’ll donate. All told, it might bring $400 or $500, counting the deductible receipts for the donated clothes and mattresses. Yes, there is all that lifting and gas burned in hauling the stuff.

Already, though, Gross is planning his next excursion later this month.

New units and new possibilities.

“One of these times,” he says before heading home in his van with its trailer, “we’ll find the gold.”