Everyone loves a treasure hunt, and a storage auction is a modern-day equivalent of that age-old pursuit of buried fortunes. Vying for the contents of an abandoned storage unit is an exciting concept, but prospective buyers always should learn the right strategies long before they place their first bids.

Think you’re ready to dig in? Read these tips for achieving success at storage auctions.

Finding a Storage Auction

You can begin your quest by visiting SpareFoot’s Storage Auctions page, which has a searchable database of upcoming auctions around the country. Enter your ZIP code to get a list of nearby auctions, along with a selection of the closest consignment, antique and thrift stores where you can resell or assess any items you win.

Once you’ve chosen an auction, call the facility and ask about its rules and procedures, which can vary from location to location, said Christina Alvino, marketing manager at Guardian Storage Solutions, a self-storage operator with locations in Colorado and Pennsylvania. “Some might charge a fee to attend, others might not allow children,” she said. Learn the lay of the land before you arrive so you can eliminate guesswork.

Preparing to Bid

You wouldn’t set off on a quest for treasure without your trusty map, a compass and a shovel, so don’t make the mistake of showing up empty-handed to a storage auction. Richard Kruse, auctioneer and owner of Gryphon Auction Group in Toledo, OH, recommends bringing these essentials:

  • Flashlight. Some storage units lack inside lighting, so a flashlight can help you view the contents of the unit before you start bidding. The light also can come in handy if you win a unit and want to clear it out right away.
  • Lock. If you aren’t removing all your items from the unit immediately, you’ll need to supply your own lock to keep the contents secure.
  • Cash. “In most situations, a facility will not accept credit card payment,” Kruse said. Don’t take any chances—have plenty of cash in your pocket.

After you’ve packed your essentials, plan to arrive at the auction about an hour before the bidding is set to start. Attendees who take this step may be able to preview units to get a better idea of what’s inside, said Tim Luke, auctioneer, appraiser and expert for the syndicated newsmagazine “America Now.”

If you spot something that looks promising, Luke recommends having a smartphone or tablet on hand and visiting online auction sites to research the asking prices of those items. 

Bidding Like a Pro

You’ve got your smartphone in one hand, a flashlight in the other and your pocket is bulging with cash. Let the bidding begin! Not so fast. You’re still at risk for falling into the biggest trap for auction attendees—going overboard and bidding too high.

“The number one misconception is that every locker contains a wealth of wonderful treasures,” Luke said.

This belief could lead a bidder to spend $300 on a unit that’s worth just $75. Always be realistic about the fact that not every unit is housing precious heirlooms or rare works of art. “You need to expect that the stuff you are unable to see may really be worthless,” Kruse said.

Don’t forget to do some basic math. Even if you’re sure that the contents of a unit are worth about $300, you actually shouldn’t bid that much. Instead, be willing to pay about 20 to 50 cents on the dollar of the estimated value of the items, said Christopher Nelson, a longtime bidder at storage auctions. Keeping this ratio in mind will boost your chances turning a profit.

“Be careful not to get caught up in the emotion of the situation,” Nelson said.

Even the most cautious person can be thrown off by the competitive atmosphere of an auction. Luke recommends establishing a high bid and remaining firm about staying under it. Consider bringing along a levelheaded friend who can help you stick to your budget.

Winning the Unit

Congratulations! You’ve won and now all you have to do is pick out the most valuable items from the unit, sell them off and count your money. Well, not quite.

You’re actually responsible for completely clearing out your unit within a certain amount of time. Also, most facilities require a refundable cleaning deposit on top of the amount you bid. Be prepared to follow these instructions to the letter, or you could lose your deposit, be barred from the facility’s auctions and miss out on future treasure hunts.

Photo courtesy of ResaleRenegade.com