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‘What might be in there…’ Hope springs eternal at storage unit auctions

By Bob Buckel | Published Saturday, May 25, 2013

Threatening clouds hung low over the rows of metal buildings, each with its own padlocked roll-up door. The aisles between them were just wide enough for a pickup, or perhaps a rented moving truck.

This muggy morning, the only traffic was a couple of dozen people of all shapes, sizes and ages – from the mysterious-looking man with the gold chain to chain-smoking senior citizens in sweatpants, T-shirts and gimme hats. They traipsed from unit to unit as the locks were opened, the doors flung upward and the contents auctioned off.

All or none, sight unseen.

SELLING THE POSSIBILITIES - Auctioneer Judy Norred's personality is a factor as she extols the possibilities in a storage unit prior to auctioning off the contents. To see a video of what goes on at a storage unit auction, go to wcmess.com/auction. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

SELLING THE POSSIBILITIES – Auctioneer Judy Norred’s personality is a factor as she extols the possibilities in a storage unit prior to auctioning off the contents. To see a video of what goes on at a storage unit auction, go to wcmess.com/auction. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

“They’re not buying what they can see, they’re buying what they can’t see,” said auctioneer Judy Norred. “Not what’s in there, what might be in there.”

Welcome to the world of storage-unit auctions.

UNLOCKING THE MYSTERY - Greg Wood, who with his wife Marie owns Precious Space Storage in Rhome, unlocks a unit that is about to be auctioned off. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

UNLOCKING THE MYSTERY – Greg Wood, who with his wife Marie owns Precious Space Storage in Rhome, unlocks a unit that is about to be auctioned off. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

Norred, who with her husband Ron Taliaferro owns Hometown Auction Service just west of Runaway Bay, said she does only five or six storage-unit auctions a year.

“That’s not my bread and butter, but I enjoy doing them,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Thursday’s sale was at Precious Space Storage, just east of Rhome on Highway 114. Greg and Marie Wood, who own the 190 units, auctioned off the contents of 19 after the renters failed to keep up on payments.

Norred said the owner of the storage unit has to notify the renters by mail, then publish a notice in the newspaper for two weeks in advance of the auction. If they don’t pay up, their units go to the highest bidder.

Bidders can look into the unit once the door is opened, but they can’t put their hands or any other part of their body inside.

“They can’t open any boxes or move any furniture or anything else,” Norred said.

Taliaferro added, “So quite often it’s just a roll of the dice as to what you end up with.”

But there is a group of folks who are willing to roll those dice on a regular basis. Thursday’s auction was actually a pretty big one, drawing almost 30 bidders.

“We usually try to have at least six [units] to make it worth them coming out here,” Greg said.

Storage unit owners do not make a profit on the sales. By law, all they can do is recover the unpaid rent. If the auction brings in more than that, it goes into a trust fund held in the name of the last known renter – and often ends up on the State Comptroller’s “Unclaimed Property” list.

OUTSIDE LOOKING IN - Flashlights are allowed, but potential bidders can't enter or even reach into a storage unit prior to the start of bidding. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

OUTSIDE LOOKING IN – Flashlights are allowed, but potential bidders can’t enter or even reach into a storage unit prior to the start of bidding. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

AUCTION ACTION

Thursday’s auction started promptly at 10 a.m., and Norred moved it along at a brisk pace. The first unit, with a saddle, some mattresses, clothes and a rolltop desk, sold for $90 in less than a minute.

“I don’t know if it’s worth $90,” laughed Tony Johnson of Justin. “That saddle would look good on my donkey – we might throw it on the goat!”

He bought the second unit, too, for $25, in even less time.

“We’re just stockpiling,” he said after buying five units. “I’m close enough, I can go get more locks if I need to.”

The next unit was filled to the rim – “one to get excited about” said the auctioneer. It started at $50 and sold for $200.

That’s where the next one started. It had plastic storage boxes and some items on pallets, shrink-wrapped. A flat-screen TV was visible. It sold for $675 – what would turn out to be the most expensive unit of the day.

As fast as Norred finished auctioning a unit, Wood unlocked the next one. With rain threatening, no one was interested in hanging around.

A unit with a big TV, a hutch and some duffle bags sold for $40. One with several pieces of antique furniture brought $400.

Clothes, shoes, a small TV and a refrigerator started at $100 and brought $350. The comments from the crowd were usually more interesting than the contents of the units.

“There’s money! Money’s here!” yelled one woman as a man walked up, stifling a grin.

“I saw that piano in there,” said another man. “Heavy, heavy, heavy!”

Joe Marshall of Rhome said he and his wife look mostly for boxes.

“I did this for 15 years, then I moved up here and got out of it for about seven years,” he said. “We’re getting back into it.”

During the time he was active, Marshall said he found “everything from A to Z” in the units he bought.

“We’ve found drugs, jewelry, cars – I raised cows and did this for 15 years, and there was more money in this than in cows,” he laughed. “But it’s hard work. If a person doesn’t want to work at it, they should just forget it.”

Norred moved on to a unit that had enough shingles to roof a house.

“If your roof is leaking, this is the unit for you,” she said as she started the bidding at $50. It sold for $175.

The next few contained ceramic owls, scooters, a garden hose reel, bicycles, another piano and a kids’ plastic basketball goal. Units went from $40 to $300. Almost all had TVs, mattresses and clothes – some stuffed into trashbags or laundry baskets, some neatly hung from the rafters.

The last unit was packed full. Four television sets were visible, along with a mini-fridge, chairs, a snare drum, a ladder and other bagged and boxed items.

It sold for $375, and the auction was over. Buyers have a few days to remove the stuff and turn the unit back over to Greg and Marie so they can rent it, they hope, to someone who will pay.

A NEW CAREER

Auctioneer Judy Norred taught school most of her working life in Fort Worth, Azle and Paradise. She quit after Ron had a series of heart attacks, and they started the family auction business in 2010 so they could work together. They moved into their current facility, an old marina just east of Lake Bridgeport, about a year ago.

“She learned the auction profession in 10 days,” Ron said with discernible pride in his voice. “It was kind of like a boot camp.”

But even though they came to the business later in life, both of them brought valuable experience to it.

“Ron is pretty much the coin guy,” Judy said. “He’s coins, guns, ammunition, history stuff, knives, cars – those are all his areas of expertise.”

Judy’s expertise is antiques, art, books and collectibles. She’s been to appraisal schools on a variety of items, and she has been around antiques her whole life.

“I sold sporting goods for 37 years. She came from a family of auctioneers,” Ron said. “Her uncle was a livestock auctioneer, so she was around that. And she has a famous cousin who was an auctioneer – Cookie Lockhart, the first lady auctioneer to be licensed.”

She does the auctions and Ron passes out numbers and registers the bidders. They have others to do the heavy lifting.

So how’s business?

“In the auction business, it’s either feast or famine,” Judy said. “We’re starting to get covered up, but we’ve had a real long famine.”

STORAGE STORIES

So what are the most interesting items these two veterans have ever found in a storage auction?

“Diamond rings…” Ron began.

“We found a bank bag full of Morgan silver dollars,” Judy interrupted.

“Which I nearly threw in the trash,” Ron admitted.

“No, which you did throw in the trash!” Judy countered. “And we were loading the trash to take to the dump, and I picked up this money bag and it was real heavy and I thought, ‘What?’ and I opened it up and it was full of Morgan silver dollars. I said ‘Why did you throw that away?’ and he said, ‘Nobody ever puts money in a bank bag!'”

The bag had about 200 silver dollars, worth $25 to $30 each.

They’ve also found old World War II swords and souvenirs from soldiers who were in Korea and other wars.

“It’s a broad range of what you might find in there,” Ron said. “It’s kind of rare to find a very expensive item like they show on [the television show] ‘Storage Wars’.”

“I like finding historical items,” Judy said. “I like to find great-great-grandma’s diary and stuff. That, to me, is interesting.”

She always asks buyers to return any personal items they find in a unit – driver’s licenses, Social Security cards, marriage licenses, birth certificates, death certificates. They try to return those to the owners.

“We have found wedding pictures, photo albums of a couple that were married 50, 60 years,” Ron said.

“We even found the deed to a piece of property that the family had been missing,” Judy noted. “They couldn’t find the deed. The family didn’t even know that this man and wife had this storage unit. They were killed in a car wreck. So we were able to get all their personal items back to them. That was pretty neat.”

It’s impossible not to speculate on what led a unit to be abandoned. The most common causes are death and divorce, although especially in the last few years, sometimes people just lose their jobs and can’t make the payment.

Judy has learned a few things about what to look for in a unit.

“I look for a well-packed unit,” she said. “Something with lots of stuff, that looks like an entire household. We look for tools, of course, and for quality furniture.

“If everything’s just thrown in there and there’s a bunch of clothes just scattered around and everything’s in trashbags, I’m probably not going to bid on it,” she said. “But if everything’s in totes and packed and put in there nice and neat, or if there’s furniture and a variety of items, then I’ll usually bid on them.”

The renter can come in, pay the back rent and take their property out of the auction right up to the moment bidding starts, Norred said. But once she begins the auction, the owner is not allowed to bid on his or her own unit.

And everything is going to sell – no minimums, no reserves.

“You’re going to find one of those big heavy TVs in every unit,” she laughs. “And you’re always going to find mattresses. It’s interesting.”

Not long ago Ron found a high school annual. It had the person’s name in it, so he went to the white pages and found the guy.

“I called him and sure enough, it was his,” he said. “So I mailed it to him. He was tickled to death. It had all the kids’ signatures in the back.”

“We find a lot of cool stuff,” Judy said. But with a sigh, she added, almost under her breath, “and a lot of junk.”

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