Self-Storage Security: How Do Customers Think About Theft Prevention?

by Matt Schexnayder

When a potential customer is evaluating their storage options, there are only a few factors that go into the decision-making process. Based on our conversations with potential customers, the most important factor outside of price and location is almost unanimously security. Depending on what they plan to store, paying a few extra dollars per month is worth the comfort of knowing their belongings are safe.

Part of the reason security is so important is that local news often reports on self-storage crime. In local newspapers, you’re more likely to hear about a break-in than a charity effort at a nearby storage facility. Just a couple of weeks ago, police in Madison County, Kentucky were investigating the theft of approximately $9,500 in antique goods from a storage facility in Richmond. Those operators who are web-savvy enough to use Google Alerts to monitor news items with terms like “self storage” and “storage units” have surely noticed the skew toward crime beats and arrest reports.

Self storage security has a place in national history. The 1,500-pound nitrate bomb that exploded in the basement of the World Trade Center in 1993 was actually assembled in a self-storage unit in New Jersey. Unbeknownst to the owner of that property, the facility was the chosen location for the staging of this terrible, tragic act. Two months prior to the bombing, the conspirators gathered the materials needed for the attack and constructed a weapon that would change the lives of thousands of people. Of course, this monumental crime is not generally what we think about when we’re discussing storage security. We’re talking about the most common crime committed against facilities and their customers: theft.

Most self-storage facilities have a level of security measures in place, but to attract the higher-end customer who plans on storing valuable goods, consider these five features: perimeter fence, access system, cameras, locks and alarms.

Starting from the outside, the first thing customers look for is a perimeter fence. Most facilities should have some sort of barrier around their property. If there is no fence and your facility has drive-up access units, customers with valuable items will move on to the next facility.

“It’s amazing how many storage facilities have units that could be broken into with pretty much no effort,” said Dustin Lloyd, a tenant at Pearl Self Storage in Portland, OR. “I guess some people store complete junk, but I’m storing things that are potentially worth stealing.”

A chain-link fence is the most common and insecure fence. These also allow outsiders to look straight into the facility and/or your unit. An upgrade to an iron rod fence or brick/concrete will help attract higher-end customers.

“Our facility has a 7 to 8-foot black iron fence with huge spikes on top,” Pond Springs Mini Storage Assistant Manager Lorraine Anderson said. “We aren’t too worried about people climbing over that.”

Access to the premises should be no easy task. Along with the fence, some sort of restricted-access system should be in place at your gates. Gate code and swipe card technology reassure customers that they would have a tough time getting into this facility if they were a thief. It helps to make it clear to potential customers that visitors won’t be admitted onto the property unless they are accompanied by a member or staff personnel.

Closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance cameras are the most effective way to monitor your entire property. They should have an eye on every hallway, unit, office and elevator (if applicable). In order to get the most out of cameras, be sure the whole facility, inside and out, is well-lit. Cameras and lighting are a great deterrent to trespassers, and together can help you identify suspects in the event of a break-in. Imagine the difference in attitude between a customer who had a unit broken into with no video evidence (frustration and perhaps suspicion) and a customer who knows you’re working with the police to find a suspect (relief and gratitude).

“We have 16 cameras on our property,” said Sharon Leonard, a manager Mopac Self-Storage in Austin. “Along with an on-site assistant manager who keeps watch of the facility at all times.”

Locks are another important factor. You have some control over this security element— as a self-storage operator, you can decide to sell disc locks over inferior padlocks in-store. You might also require tenants to use specific disc locks that work exclusively with your doors.

Anderson told us that her facility provides their customers with locks as part of the unit price, ensuring that all units are secured with at least a disc lock.

“Customers can bring their own, but we provide them with their own personal lock with one key,” Anderson said. “Once the unit is rented, we have no access into that particular space until the customer’s rental period is expired.”

The final element of a secure storage facility is the individual alarm system, which have – for some storage operators – caused more headaches than they prevent break-ins.

“No matter how many times you explain to a tenant how the alarm works, they will set it off,” wrote Joe Krezdorn of DAK Self Storage, on the Self Storage Talk forums.

When a break-in occurs, the alarm will sound, notifying facility personnel and potentially even the police, provided the alarm is hooked up to the local police station. While this process may not be fast enough to prevent an in-and-out break-in, it is certainly a deterrent to those hoping to pull off an egregious multiple unit theft, like the one that happened in Medford, OR a few months back.

That being said, self storage security can be a tough part of the sales conversation. there are two faux pas turns that the conversation on security can take. Firstly, make it clear that the security initiatives are not directed toward your customer.

“Another facility that I visited was very clear that there were to be no guests on the premises,” Lloyd said. “I know the manager was just letting me know what the policy was, but I felt a little bit accused.”

On the same token, don’t oversell security— you don’t want customers to think you’re in an area that’s constantly battling thieves. But do have the amenities in place that can reassure potential customers, and you will reap the long-term benefits. It’s not about selling these features because potential tenants notice them. Just have the amenities in place that can reassure consumers, and you will reap the benefits of higher-end tenants who have something “worth stealing” to store.