Victoria Times Colonist

Treasure or trash heap?
Off-site lockers hold the unused possessions that once gathered dust in basements or attics

The image of Grandma's attic crammed with forgotten family treasures is so archetypal it has shown up in countless movies.

In the days when streets were lined with big, old Victorian mansions, there may well have been roomy attics in which to store things.

Later on, those items no longer needed are piled in boxes in basements -baby equipment lay waiting for the next baby; worn but still useable household items lay waiting for someone in the family to buy a beachside cottage.

Items with little practical use but great sentimental value also find their way into attics, basements and garages of older homes because most people find it difficult to part with items collected over a lifetime.

In the past, homes were big enough to handle all these accumulated items, but several factors are changing this.

Rising real estate prices have led to smaller homes and even smaller condos.

Multi-car families need all the garage space they've got to store vehicles.

Many young homeowners are turning unfinished basements into rental suites as a way of generating additional income to help with the mortgage.

Not only does that reduce storage for the homeowner, but frequently the rental unit has inadequate storage, as well.

Few modern homes have attics where stuff can be stored.

And yet most of us keep shopping for more and more possessions.

That's why we've seen such a rise in recent years in off-site storage facilities.

Many people are using these self-storage lockers to keep items that they are not ready to get rid of. But experts at decluttering say most people are just fooling themselves.

"People sometimes put things in storage because they just don't want to deal with it," says Barbara McDonell, a professional organizer who is the owner of Clutter Queen. "Years later, the clients hire me to help them simplify their lives and that includes going through the contents of a storage locker. When they go through the stuff they almost always say: "Oh my God, I didn't know this was here."

She had one client who had three storage lockers.

From what she has seen, there is usually nothing of great value -normally forgotten LP collections, mouldy books, lots of National Geographic magazines and furniture that is no longer useful.

She recommends three places old items should go -to the garbage, to a recycling facility or up for sale. In her experience, many items that now gather dust were expensive once -but technology and changing tastes have made the items no longer desirable.

She says one should keep items with good memories -but just pick the top three. Offer the other items to friends or family and get rid of them if no one wants them.

But not everybody can let go so easily, and that has helped fuel an industry that has shown strong growth in the last decade.

In the last 10 years, Target's Storage has grownthere are now two locations with more than 1,100 units between them.

Their lockers come in 44 different sizes, their smallest is (in metres) 1.21 long by 1.52 wide by 1.21 tall and their largest 3.05 by 4.27 by 2.44. Monthly rent ranges from $50 to $200.

"The most common reasons people give us for renting a unit are that they need more room or that they will be out of the country for a period of time," says Jose Rodriguez, manager of both Target locations.

"Some are long term, with some clients renting from us for [more than] 10 years."

While most people retrieve their possessions after a few months, some have created a new sub-culture of treasure seekers.

A popular U.S. television program shows the items of value some speculative seekers have uncovered from storage auctions. This has attracted interest here in Canada. But the Hollywood ending eludes most scavengers.

Rodriguez is aware of the show but has never seen anything worth salvaging.

"Some people will remove everything of value and leave junk behind. Then they default on their rent," he says. "The company is left with the cost of having to dispose of the contents."

Under our laws, auctions may be held after the renter of an unit defaults on rent for more than 60 days.

Prospective bidders are shown the locker, the contents easily viewed through the wire cage. They cannot open the locker to examine the contents.

The company usually picks one day to hold multiple auctions. The auction is open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The winning bidder is notified by phone and has 24 hours to remove the contents. Bids can range from $5 to $250.

"It's like buying a lottery ticket," says Rodriguez.

"But in the three years I have worked here, I haven't heard of anybody finding anything worthwhile."

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