While self-storage is ideal for storing furniture, appliances and lawnmowers, what about sensitive information like tax records, bank statements, birth certificates and insurance policies? The answer depends on who’s answering the question.
Bob Copper, partner-in-charge at consulting firm Self Storage 101 in Birmingham, AL, recommends against it.
“Self-storage is not made for secure documents. What if the information gets stolen, burns in a fire or the unit floods? Or for some unforeseen reason, your stuff goes to auction and ends up in someone else’s hands?” Copper said.
“I’ve been in thousands of units and you see boxes marked ‘personal records,’ and it just seems silly to me,” he added. “I recommend never keeping personal tax records, medical records and related documents in a storage unit.”
Copper said that even the most secure storage facilities can’t prevent break-ins, natural disasters or loss of a unit to an unpaid bill. In these instances, your private information could be lost or compromised.
Consider Other Options
Nick Lough sees how self-storage initially could be viewed as an attractive and affordable alternative to storing sensitive information. He’s a marketing specialist for The Data Vault, an off-site records storage facility in Louisville, KY. While Data Vault deals primarily with businesses, it also has some individual clients.
Many self-storage facilities have some level of security—like full-time attendants, 24-hour surveillance cameras or locked gates—and they offer affordable rates. Also, for a small additional charge, some facilities offer climate-controlled units to keep documents safe from environmental risks like heat and humidity.
Some experts suggest storing documents in facilities designed for that purpose.
However, Lough contends that may not be enough. Fires, floods and other environmental hazards still can happen, but oftentimes climate-controlled facilities won’t be useful in those situations. Besides, he said, records-protection companies provide higher security with monitoring systems in place.
“We have a reinforced vault with all the bells and whistles,” he said. “It’s concrete and built like a bank vault. People come to us looking for things they can’t get from just a regular storage unit.”
Copper said records-protection companies offer beefed-up security systems.
“They actually take control and custody of your stuff, whereas self-storage owners have no control or custody,” he said. “They don’t know what you’re storing. It’s not their responsibility.”
Lough agreed, saying that self-storage renters don’t know what’s being stored in units adjoining theirs.
“Somebody in the unit next has oil and it seeps under the floor and gets into your stuff that’s sitting on the floor,” he said. “We’ve seen that. We’ve seen gasoline and all sorts of stuff come in, and you have cardboard boxes sitting on the floor and it seeps up through and ruins the files inside.”
There’s little legal recourse unless you approach the renter of the other unit and say, “You damaged my stuff,” according to Lough. But even then, he said, it’s uncertain whether you’d get any money to cover the damage.
One self-storage manager says a secure facility can house personal records.
However, some people maintain that self-storage is an easy, safe and affordable way to store personal documents, and it makes more sense than having critical papers sitting in your basement or closet.
“We have a lot of customers that stores those items,” said Chere Walsh, regional manager for The Lock Up Self Storage. “We have 24-hour security cameras. We have an electronically coded facility. We code every single person who comes in, so we know who’s here every minute of every day.”
Walsh recommends always storing sensitive documents in a climate-controlled facility to protect them from extreme temperatures and humidity. She also said you should use plastic bins, and should bring pallets or plastic shelving to elevate documents and keep them off the floor. Also, you should consider additional security in the unit like a safe.
“The only thing I would not put in a storage unit is your will,” Walsh said. “When someone comes to let the management know that the person renting the unit has passed away, they must automatically ‘overlock’ it. So if everything you want to happen is in that will—and it’s in that storage space—we can’t give it to anybody. There are legalities involved.”