Another Face of Housing Stress: Storage Auctions

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A New York Times story discusses a new manifestation of housing stress, namely, that people who have euphemistically had to downsize their housing are inceasingly unable to keep up with the storage charges and are having their possessions auctioned off.

It would be nice if we could all emulate Buddhists and take such reversals with enlightened equanimity. But even if the people who got themselves were reckless or foolish, rather than merely unlucky, the idea of losing one’s personal possessions on top of losing one’s house is sad.

But even more telling are some of the vignettes and factoids buried in the story:

As they lose their homes, people are turning to these humble cinderblock and sheet-metal boxes to store their stuff. But some people cannot keep up with their storage bills any better than they could handle their mortgage payments, and storage companies are auctioning off their property for a pittance…..

The auctioneer, Blair Auction & Appraisal, has been conducting sales at self-storage facilities in the Midwest for more than a decade. “If a site used to have 10 auctions, these days it has 15 or 20,” said Wayne Blair, the owner…..

Subprime mortgage loans had low “teaser” rates to lure borrowers. Many storage facilities offer the first month for free….

Bill Martin, a 50-year-old former manager in the technology industry, lost his house in the Southern California community of Lake Forest last August….

“Storage has my hopes in it,” said Mr. Martin, who sleeps on a foldout bed in his mother’s guest room. “I don’t tell anyone this, but at least once a week I go over and look at my couch, my refrigerator, my TV stand, my mattress and realize I did have a life, and maybe there’s a way to go back to it.”….

Fred Reger, an auctioneer in Washington and its suburbs, is seeing two trends, which he calls “matching luggage” and “residential units.”

The first means that he often sees a bunch of over-stuffed plastic bags when he opens a unit. “People used to put their belongings in boxes,” Mr. Reger said. “But Hefties are a lot cheaper. These people came in under stress, which explains why they defaulted a few months later.”

A “residential unit” is one where the renter tries to illegally live in the unit. “We used to see one or two residential units a month,” Mr. Reger said. “Now I’m seeing 6 or 8 or 10. At one facility in D.C. the other day, we had three residentials.”….

For [the auctions of] some units, $6 is too much. “A dollar bill, first dollar bill takes it,” Mr. Snyder implored in front of one unit. “Come on, this is everything they own!” To no avail.

This is the eternal mystery of self-storage. If the material was worth money, it was foolish to let it go to default. If it was not worth much, why spend at least $50 a month to store it?

We are far from being in a Depression and having people live in cars or Hoovervilles. But behind those storage auctions is a good deal of quiet desperation which will no doubt become more widespread as the housing downturn continues.

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