Storage Bores

Where’s the glamour in digging through an abandoned storage unit in hopes of finding treasure? On TV, of course.

Auctioneer Jerry Mahaffey presides over a storage auction in Orlando.

Photo By Norma Lopez Molina

The problem with reality TV is that it isn’t all that realistic. When the camera and lights go on, reality ceases to exist.  That is, unless the show is set in New Jersey, then what you see is all too real.

A&E’s hit show Storage Wars makes storage auctions seem like fast-paced entertainment, with cut-throat bidders hoping they’ll find long-forgotten treasures in each abandoned unit they buy. Meanwhile, back on Earth, actual storage auctions are about as entertaining as spending a stinking hot afternoon in an un-air-conditioned self-storage shed crammed with the detritus of some poor sap’s life.

That’s what Robert Hampton is doing as he sifts through a small storage unit in east Orlando filled with piles of towels, boxes of VHS tapes and a wardrobe crammed with hair-care products. Hampton paid $1,800 cash for the privilege to touch what he could only look at from outside the unit’s garage door before the auction. Bidders get five minutes to look into a unit as they try to determine if it contains anything of value. A shed packed with boxes is juicy red meat to storage auction bidders, which is why this unit brought top dollar.

Cut to commercial. That’s what would happen on TV right now as Hampton opens a box like a little boy on Christmas morning, leading you to think he’s going to find something worth a lot of money. But in real life, delinquent renters usually get the good stuff out of their units before they’re auctioned off, leaving the scraps to people like Hampton, who coincidentally got into storage auctions just as the Los Angeles-based TV show debuted two years ago. He’ll spend the next few weeks trying to sell some of the contents to flea markets, pawn shops, consignment stores, and anyone willing to shell out the cash for someone else’s trash.
That’s the reality of storage auctions. Making money off of them takes time, a lot of hustle and street smarts, because an item is worth only what someone else will pay for it. Hampton and other storage-auction bidders won’t get rich in this line of work. No one arrives at an auction in a luxury vehicle, as some of the principal characters do on Storage Wars.

But Hollywood manufactures reality, which is why a slew of newbies, as new bidders are called, have begun showing up at local auctions. That influx has driven up bidding prices, which lowers profit potential. This has not gone unnoticed by veterans of the storage-auction business. They hate newbies, but they despise Storage Wars, telling every new bidder who will listen that the show glamorizes an unlucrative business.  

The scare tactics haven’t worked. “A lot of the regulars are out now, and the new people are in,” says auctioneer Jerry Mahaffey. “The regulars aren’t really comfortable with the new people. You know, they’re territorial.”

In other words, they don’t want some newbie outbidding them for a storage shed that could turn out to be a gold mine. Mahaffey has seen a bidder strike it rich, finding more than $300,000 in gold and diamonds in a unit in Miami.

That’s why we watch Storage Wars, hoping to see the show’s stars hit the jackpot. Two weeks after he cleared out the unit he paid $1,800 for, Hampton still didn’t know if he would make a profit on the contents. If he were on TV, he would have known his return on investment before the show ended.

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