If you've ever watched popular shows like "American Pickers" on The History Channel or "Storage Wars" on A&E, you might wonder how men like Mike Wolfe, Frank Fritz and Dave Hester are able to make a living by turning other people's trash into their treasure. It's not as simple or as glamorous as it looks on TV, but the average person can learn how to implement these stars' skill sets to earn his or her own profits from treasure hunting. (For more on auctions in general, read How To Master Online Auctions For Fast Cash.)
TUTORIAL: Budgeting Basics
Background: Storage Auctions
In exchange for a monthly fee, self-storage operations allow people to store their stuff in a padlocked unit in a secure facility. If these renters don't pay the monthly fees on their storage units, the storage company has the right to auction off the contents of the storage unit to recoup the money it is owed.
How do you find out about these auctions? Plenty of information is available for free online. Don't think that you need to pay a service to find auctions for you. Check storage facility websites, auctioneer websites and auction aggregator sites. You can also call storage facilities directly.
Storage auctions, and perhaps garage sales, are probably the best ways for the average person to get started in the treasure-hunting business. Complete strangers allow American Pickers' Wolfe and Fritz into their homes to hunt for valuable antiques, but these men have the credibility of an established business and a well-known TV show to open doors for them. Of course, there's nothing to stop you from hunting for treasure in your own home, but don't sell your husband's 1938 "Action Comics No. 1" behind his back! (If you are interested in scoring deals, not just at the storage facility, check out A Map To The Year's Best Shopping Deals.)
What to Look for at Auctions
Since you're not allowed to scope out storage units ahead of time, and you can only peek in on the day of the auction, how do you identify a unit worth bidding on? There's really no foolproof method, but here are some clues to look for.
Professional Moving Boxes
Professional moving boxes cost money, and so does hiring movers. If the unit contains these types of boxes, the contents may be valuable.
Furniture Wrapped in Plastic.
Professionally wrapped furniture is another sign of value. It indicates that the storage unit renter had enough money to hire professionals and/or has stuff that's valuable enough to be worth storing properly.
If everything in the unit appears to be covered in an undisturbed layer of dust, the unit's entire original contents may be intact and it may be more likely to contain valuable items. If some areas are dusty and other areas are disturbed, the renter may have removed the more valuable items.
If the boxes and items you can see look clean and well cared for, it doesn't necessarily mean that the locker contains anything of value. However, it does mean that whatever you find is likely to be in good condition.
Overall Quality of Visible Items
Not all items will be packed in boxes. What can you guess about the hidden and boxed items based on the items that are visible and unboxed? Try to determine what type of person owned the unit and what types of things they might have owned. If you see one antique, there may be others. If you see lots of dated, low-end appliances, the unit might be full of junk.
In some parts of the country, climate-controlled units will be a better bet for finding high-worth items. Old comic books that have been stored outdoors in the heat and humidity may be in poor condition and therefore less valuable, for example.
Have a Plan for Your Loot
If you win an auction, you need a plan to get the most money from your items. How and where should you sell everything? How do you know what's worthless, what's valuable and how much to charge?
Visit Experienced Appraisers
The stars of both "American Pickers" and "Storage Wars" have relationships with numerous appraisers, and when they don't have an existing relationship, they know how to find the right people. They also get their stuff valued by people who specialize in specific items.
Don't Throw Anything out Before You Research It
Things that appear to be worthless junk are sometimes worth thousands, and that's why it's so important to do research and get appraisals. The more experienced you get, the fewer trips you'll have to make to an appraiser, but there will be a steep learning curve at the beginning.
Know Where to Sell to Get Top Dollar
There is no one venue that is the best for selling all merchandise. eBay might be the most cost-effective way to sell less valuable items, but more valuable items could fetch a better price through an auction house. For items that are large and bulky and not cost effective to ship, selling on consignment might be your best option. Don't sell your items in locations where people expect to get bargains, like garage sales and Craigslist, if you want to get the most money.
Don't Overlook Miscellaneous Costs
It costs money to drive to the auction, to rent a truck to haul your winnings away and to hire labor to help you move and sort your stuff. When you sell, there are fees to the auction houses, consignment stores and websites that help you sell your stuff. The whole process also costs you lots of time.
The Bottom Line
With more than 50,000 self-storage facilities in the United States and more than 3,000 in Canada, there are plenty of opportunities to win storage auctions and make money from the contents. Not everyone will be good at turning a profit from picking and auction hunting, but the barriers to entry are low enough that anyone can try it. If you succeed, it's a great way to make some extra money or become your own boss. (If you are interested in starting your own small business, see Start Your Own Small Business.)