Some self-storage contracts spell out terms in plain language while others might leave you utterly confused. It’s smart to brush up on lease agreements before you sign on the dotted line.

“If a manager is doing his or her job, there shouldn’t be any surprises,” said Kelly Epps, property manager at Pioneer Stor & Lok in Columbus, GA, who said she sits down with customers to make sure they understand their lease agreements.

Still, it’s ultimately your responsibility to understand any paperwork you sign. Here’s a guide to what you should know about self-storage contracts and legalese. Every self-storage lease agreement is different, but many cover these four areas.

1. Payments

  • How much you owe for rent: The contract will outline the amount of your rent, your payment due date and the amount of your security deposit, Epps said.
  • What happens if you pay late or don’t pay: The contract should tell you when a payment is considered late and what the late fee is. Also, it’s important to understand what happens if you stop paying rent, said Ginny Sutton, executive director of the Texas Self Storage Association. “That should be clearly spelled out,” she said.
  • Other fees: Facilities also should list any other fees you will, or might, be charged. For example, the Pioneer Stor & Lok contract states that there’s a $25 lock-cut fee if the customer loses a key or the manager has to get into a unit to seize the belongings of a tenant who stopped paying rent. The facility also charges a $50 auction fee when it auctions off a tenant’s belongings to recover money owed, Epps said.

2. Use of Your Unit

  • What you can store: Self-storage units are meant for storing ordinary household belongings—things like furniture, books and dishes. Therefore, contracts typically list items you’re not allowed to store, such as garbage, toxic waste or flammable liquids. “Storing anything that could explode or otherwise cause damage to the property is strictly prohibited,” Sutton said. Also, most contracts limit the value of what you’re allowed to keep in the unit; the limit in the Texas Self Storage Association’s standard contract is $5,000.
  • Cleanliness: Most contracts will require you to keep the unit clean and in good condition. If you store a vehicle there, you might have to use a drip pan to keep oil and other fluids from staining the floor. And the contract usually outlines the condition you must leave the unit in when you move out. For example, the Pioneer Stor & Lok lease agreement requires customers to leave the unit empty and to sweep it out with a broom, Epps said.

3. Giving Notice

  • Change of address: A contract might specify that you need to notify the facility of a change of address or telephone number.
  • When you leave: A contract should cover the move-out process, including how much notice you must give the landlord, experts say.

4. What the Landlord Can Do

  • Entering your unit: A contract should specify situations when a landlord may enter your unit—for example, to make a repair, Sutton said.
  • Locking you out: The contract should tell you under what circumstances a landlord can lock you out of your unit, and how you can regain access, Sutton said.
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Self-Storage Contracts and Legalese

Here’s some legal jargon you might encounter in a self-storage contract and what the terms mean in plain language:

  • Lien on personal property: A lien means that if you don’t pay your bill, the facility owner can hold your stored property and eventually sell it, said Jeffrey Greenberger, an attorney who practices self-storage law in Cincinnati. Self-storage liens are governed by laws in almost every state.
  • Release of liability: Most contracts require you to agree that the landlord is not responsible if your belongings are damaged or if you are hurt at the facility. “Releases of liability apply to negligence—for example, if a mouse got into your unit and chewed up your couch or you slammed a door on your hand, but they don’t apply to intentional conduct—for example, if a facility manager threw your stuff out in the rain or punched you in the face”, Greenberger said.
  • Indemnification: This is one of the most misunderstood concepts in self-storage contracts, Greenberger said. It means that if the tenant does something that results in a claim against the facility, the tenant or their insurance company will defend the facility and pay any judgment against it. “Let’s say a plumber picks up some toilets from his unit, backs up his van, and hits and kills another tenant, Mrs. Smith. The Smith family probably will sue the plumber and the self-storage facility”, Greenberger said. Under indemnification, the plumber’s insurance company would settle both claims.
  • Breach: A breach is a violation of any terms of the contract. “A typical breach is failure to pay rent,” Kaslow said.
  • Exclusion of warranties: “In a general sense, it means look at your storage unit because what you see is what you get,” Kaslow said. By adding this clause, a facility owner says there’s no guarantee that the storage unit is fit for whatever purpose a customer might decide to use it. If someone wants to store leftover Girl Scout cookies, for example, he or she must look at the unit, ask questions and decide whether it’s a suitable space for that use. “If it gets to be 80 degrees in the unit, maybe it’s not a good place to store last year’s Thin Mints,” Greenberger said.