Storage unit auctions draw crowds, create stories
If you're a pack rat or might be moving soon, you may want to pay attention to this. Storage buildings and portable storage units are often necessary if you're in the middle of a move or have just run out of space. But what happens when customers stop paying their monthly bill? Scott Johnson is sawing the padlocks off four portable storage units lined up outside a warehouse in south Charlotte. Other people own what's inside. But they won't much longer. They're behind on their rent. That's why Johnson, an auctioneer, is here. He addresses the crowd. "If you get a whole unit you can put your own lock on it and come back and got it over the weekend. You've got until Sunday. You have to have the stuff out by Sunday. Is there any question when we get started? Any questions? If I see a gun I got to take it out. Don't see one don't tell us." Johnson's audience of about 20 potential bidders range in age from their 30s to their 70s. Most say they're here for the thrill of the hunt; to see how much they can buy for how little. "Alright y'all back up and give us some room," Johnson tells them. "Stay on that side of the table, except for the radio people." People move around and bend their necks to get a better look at what's inside. This unit looks pretty boring. It contains noting but typical household items and a few taped up boxes. Johnson starts the auction. "It says kitchen. Let's go. All in one box. How about 25? 20-15-10" The box is full of kitchen utensils. It ends up selling for $15. Another goes for $20. The buyer soon opens it to see what's inside. "Lots of cups and bowlsRice cooker. Nice dishes. Brand new dishes. We'll make money off it. Probably double." The items will end up being sold at flea markets and on Ebay or Craigslist. Some of the units are sold piece by piece. Johnson sells the others as whole units. And as the price passes $1,000, Johnson and his secretary wife encourage people to keep bidding. "I see a thousand just in the first 2 or 3 feet," Johnson says. "You got like a disco cabinet here, " his wife adds. Scott: "Y'all let 'em step up there and look." The unit sells for close to $1,200. An older man who identifies himself only as "Hugh" was the biggest spender of the day. He spent $1,867. The units belong to the company 1-800 Pack Rat. Manager Chad Robinson says sympathy he once had for his delinquent customers is long gone. "I have one particular customer, every auction I have, she's in it," he says. "She doesn't get sold because she always pays her bill. But her story is that she's lost her job, she's out of work, she's moving, she's sick, she's been in the hospital. She's been out of a job for the past two years, apparently, but every auction she manages to pay." Robinson says auctions rarely generate what he needs to break even. This one raised $4,000. Johnson is from Wake County. He travels all over the state selling other people's stuff. And he's got some great stories. Like the time a delinquent renter called a storage facility pretending to be him, saying he's just been in a car accident and the auction would have to be cancelled. That's pretty tame compared to the threats. " They're gonna kill me, if I sell their stuff," he says. "And I'm gonna get that auctioneer. I've had that 2 or 3 times. But they've never showed up. But I'm always lookin'." Johnson's best story is about a unit he once bought in Raleigh. He paid $250 for what turned out to be the belongings of an Ethiopian doctor. After some digging, Johnson says he found gold coins and historic African books. "And we found a letter in one of the boxes. And (it) said if he went back (to) Ethiopa he'd get his head cut off. And he hadn't been seen since. And so they haven't heard from him or nothing. So evidently he got his head cut off." Johnson says he sold the contents for about $20,000. That's very rare. But it's the kind of story that keeps people coming back.