Storage Units: An Unfortunate Trend

Self-storage facilities: they seem to be popping up in urban and suburban regions everywhere, appearing like weeds after the rain on low-value land on the outskirts of town.  They run specials like "first month's rent is only a dollar!", enticing new customers with the promise of a few extra square feet of off-site closet space.

The Rise of Self-Storage

I don't remember seeing self-storage places around town while I was growing up.  Has self-storage become a national trend, or is it just advertised more heavily nowadays?

I couldn't find the graph I really wanted to visualize the trend, so I did some creative Googling through a number of real estate trade journals and came up with this (original data):

Self-storage square-footage in the US approximately doubled from 1990 to 2000 and then again from 2000 to 2013, while the US population only increased 25% over the entire period.  The rise in self-storage is a very modern trend!

The United States population as of 2012 was around 314 million, while the total square footage of rentable self-storage space reached 2.3 billion.  This means that that there are around 7.3 square feet of self-storage in this country for every man, woman, and child—enough for everyone to comfortably stand inside at once!

According to the nonprofit Self Storage Association trade group, the growth in self-storage is an American-only trend: while the US has close to 50,000 self-storage facilities, the entirety of Europe (population 740 million, ~235% of the US) has only 1,600.  Germany, which has over a quarter the population of the US, got its first 10 self-storage facilities in 2002 and even now has only 100.

Self-Storage Uses

Self-storage is typically marketed for the temporary storage of belongings during a life transition such as a move, marriage, divorce, or death.  According to the Self Storage Association, however, most users plan on staying for extended periods of time:

The average customer ends up staying 12-18 months, and many stay for years.  If you have a bunch of junk sitting in storage in another state, it may just seem easier to keep paying the rental bill than to rent a truck and take care of it once and for all.

The Cost of Self-Storage

According to the nonprofit Self Storage Association trade group, the average 10'x10' non-climate-controlled self-storage unit rented for $115 per month in Q3 2013 (climate control would set you back an extra $30 per month).  At an average US household size of 2.64 people (2011) and an average per-person self-storage allotment of 7.3 feet, this means that the average US household is on the hook for around $22 per month ($265 per year) in self-storage fees.

On its own this doesn't sound terrible, until you take into account that one-tenth of households are responsible for all self-storage usage.  For these households, this brings the monthly bill to $220 per month ($2650 per year).

Did I mention that 47% of these renters have an annual household income of less than $50,000?

Self-Storage: Don't Do It

As I'll discuss in an upcoming article, the median square footage per household member of a new home has tripled from 1950 to the present.  And yet, many manage to fill this space with junk and insist on renting a little more.  A month or two of storage to tide you over can quickly become a multi-year investment on stuff that you obviously don't use.  What deck chairs, end tables, and dish sets could possibly be worth the $41 per square foot it costs to rent one of these units for three years?  Even your Beanie Babies and Pokemon cards are unlikely to appreciate at those rates.

The truth is, it would be nice to have a little less junk around the house.  But don't pay to store stuff you don't need: use it, sell it, or give it away!


The New York Times: The Self-Storage Self
Slate: Self-Storage Nation
AlterNet: America's New Love Affair With Self-Storage