Self Storage Cool Facts: History, Cost and More

Self storage is a popular service that’s mostly associated with moving, but it’s become increasingly popular in other instances of life, including home remodeling, forming a multi-generational household or simply keeping seasonal items away from home to maintain a tidy living space throughout the year. Plus, “Storage Wars” and “Auction Hunters” deserve a place in the history of self storage as the shows that made it cool.

While the concept of self storage may sound dry and lackluster, there are some surprising facts that might be interesting to know. Here’s a short rundown of the coolest things about self storage:

1. Self Storage Has a Long History

In the U.S., the first self storage business is associated with brothers Martin and John Bekins, who launched the idea in the 1850s. Outside of our current understanding of self storage, this type of concept actually goes way back and outside of the United States. In fact, the story of self storage can be traced all the way back to antiquity.

Ancient Times

To take a leaf out of the “Golden Girls” Sophia Petrillo’s book, we could say: Picture it – ancient China, about 6,000 years ago. With rocks and other goodies piling up inside the home, something had to be done. It’s hard to think that clutter and home organization were part of the day-to-day grind back in antiquity, but it’s something as old as time, apparently. To bring an end to the clutter, people thought about putting some of their household items in clay pots and placing them in storage pits underground. Guards were placed outside for security – the oldest surveillance system in place.

The Western World

Next, the story of self storage takes us across continents and seas to the British empire in the 19th century. As merchants traveled frequently and kept accumulating valuables, they needed a place to keep them during their voyages. They turned to banks to keep them safe, but as they also ran out of space, warehouses housed these goods. Think of them as the Victorian self storage facilities.

The historical building of the Bank of England, London, UK. Established in 1694,
The historical building of the Bank of England, London, UK. Established in 1694.

American Beginnings of Self Storage

Still in the 19th century, but switching continents, self storage comes into its own in America. In the late 1800s, it was the Bekins Van and Storage Co. – a moving and storage company owned by the Bekins brothers, Martin and John – that kickstarted self storage here. They acted as a moving and storage company.

The business expanded when Bekins Van and Storage Co. moved to LA in 1895 to support cross-country moving. Next, the business grew even more with the addition of Bekins Warehouse that later covered southern California too. Storage for movers and for local businesses was also part of their services.

While Berkins paved the way for moving companies and self storage, the latter flourished decades later. However, in the 1920s, when owning a car was becoming more commonplace, people needed a place to keep their vehicle. Trachte Building Systems, one of today’s main builders of self storage facilities, started their business in 1928, offering portable storage units for vehicles.

Self Storage Takes Off in the 1960s

Self storage as we know it today came into being in the late 50s or the early 1960s. With the expansion of the highway system in the 1950s, people started moving more, which, in turn, created the need for self storage. There is some debate as to where exactly in the U.S. self storage started. Its modern beginnings are sometimes attributed to Russ Williams and Bob Munn, who started the A1 U-Store-It U=-Lock-It U-Carry-the-Key business in Odessa, Texas. This business was initially targeted at oil companies so that they could keep their supplies, but residential use soon followed. Most homes in Texas do not have basements, often used for storage, which helped to support the expansion of the service.

A few years later, Public Storage and Shurgard National Centers opened up in 1972, with mom and pop businesses following suit in the coming years. Between 1970 and 2008, disposable income went up and the cost of commodities went down, storage facilities experienced a boom as they helped to house items that just couldn’t fit into many American homes. An interesting phenomenon occurred though at the end of 1980s – the commercial real estate crash brought the country into a recession at the beginning of the 1990s. As people downsized, self storage became even more popular and many self storage units ended up being occupied as a result. The rest is history.

2. Self Storage by the Numbers

There is much you can say about the self storage industry’s evolution. Here are some of the most interesting facts about it by statistics alone:

Self Storage Development

Self storage has grown gradually since the 60s, but the last decade or so has known historic growth. Nowadays, the self storage industry is booming. About 350M square feet of self storage space was delivered in the last decade, with 46M square feet of self storage added to the national pipeline in 2021 alone. That’s pretty impressive, right? There’s more. The self storage space delivered in 2021 is large enough to cover Central Park or Grand Central Terminal. Construction in 2021 makes up 3% of the total inventory. Additionally, 2021 deliveries increased by 3% compared to 2020, showing the industry’s resilience in the face of economic adversity. Even throughout the pandemic, self storage continued to grow both on the construction and the price evolution fronts.

As for 2022, over 50M square feet of self storage space is expected to be added to the total inventory. Nowadays, the industry encompasses over 1.6B square feet of self storage space. Locally, self storage inventory is distributed unevenly across the country. On the one hand, the Dallas metro area currently boasts the largest self storage inventory, with about 72M square feet of self storage space. On the other hand, the Reno metro area claims the most square footage of self self storage per capita (16 sq. ft./person), more than double the national benchmark of 7 square feet of self storage space per person.

self storage facility with indoor and outdoor units
Self storage facility with indoor and outdoor units

Cost of Self Storage

A 10’x10’ standard non-climate-controlled unit rents for $126/month, registering a 2.3% decrease as compared to the previous year. Price growth has stagnated for the first time this year, as the industry felt the ripples of inflation. However, rates differ based on location, with some cities charging more than others for the service. Renting a self storage unit in San Rafael, California ($301/month) costs Americans the most, followed by Santa Barbara, California ($286/month), Honolulu, Hawaii ($277/month) and San Francisco, California ($271/month).

Take a look at how self storage rates fare in other cities:

Who Uses Self Storage and why

Self storage is a useful service that people turn to in various life circumstances, whether it’s moving, downsizing, starting a business, doing a home improvement project or simply to keep an organized home. As it turns out, one in three Americans uses self storage for one reason or another. However, only 1 in 2 renters turns to the service, with 12% of them saying they plan to use the service in the future, based on the results of a recent self storage survey.

Reasons for Renting Self Storage

For Americans, in general, moving – for reasons other than downsizing – is the most quoted reason for turning to self storage, followed by not having enough space at home and downsizing. Changes in household size, storing for business purposes and home renovation are also cited as instances when self storage is used.

couple unloading moving boxes
Couple unloading moving boxes.

Self Storage use by Generation

Gen Xers are the most likely age group to rent self storage, with 54% of them putting their belongings in a storage unit. As for other age groups, 40% of millennials and 25% of Gen Zers also turn to the service. Slightly more women (48%) than men (45%) turn to the service to help them with their various storage needs.

Most Stored Items

Furniture is the number one item kept in storage, with clothing, home appliances and equipment following behind. Home appliances are also popular items to keep in storage but to a lesser extent.

Most Popular Self Storage Unit Sizes

As for unit sizes, the 10’x10’ unit is the most rented size, followed by the 5’x10’.  The 5’x5’ and 10’x15’ are equally used and the least popular unit size is the 10’x30’. Most people rent a self storage unit for over a year, followed by those who turn to short-term self storage (2-6 months).

3. Most Interesting Storage Finds

You might ask yourself: How could people make a “storage find” unless they’re featured on an episode of “Storage Wars”? The answer is simple. It’s by participating in a storage auction. When storage renters fail to pay their bills, the facility auctions off the contents of their unit. Here are some of the most interesting self storage finds:

  • An eBay user was lucky enough to find vintage Burton snowboards in a storage unit he bought at an auction. The two items brought him over $30K.
  • Sometimes, self storage users simply abandon their units. One abandoned unit housed a collection of over 40K pieces of memorabilia containing publicity photos, Disney film cells, Tim Burton art and more that was worth over $1 million.
  • Bigger valuable items such as rare or famous cars also find their way into storage. Such is the story of James Bond’s Lotus Esprit featured in the “Spy Who Loved Me”. A couple from NY turned out to be the new owners of the car, after paying $100 for the storage unit that housed the car. After being restored, Elon Musk bought the car for $1M.
  • Interesting storage finds something are not only valuable ones, but can sometimes be unsettling. So is the case with an electric chair found in an Oz Moving & Storage facility. Finders reported it to be an execution device. Whether it was used for its intended purpose or it acted as a theater or movie prop, it’s hard to say.

4. Famous People Using Self Storage

It’s hard to imagine celebrities living just like the rest of us, but as it turns out, in some respects, they do. A lot of them rent self storage just like the rest of us. Whether it’s to store costumes and props or they’ve also run out of space in their homes and need extra room to keep their belongings. Here are some famous people using self storage and the items they kept in their units:

Paris Hilton is one the celebrities that came into the limelight for renting a self storage. That’s because her 6,000-square-foot storage unit was auctioned off back in 2005. It was a live event showing the new owner going through the contents of the unit. Personal diaries, photographs, computers, clothing and furniture were the main finds. They brought the new owner an impressive $10M.

Did you know Nicholas Cage was into comic books? That particular piece of information surfaced when his Action Comics #1 edition was stolen from him. But where is the connection to self storage? Years later, the ill-fated comic book resurfaced when a storage unit was up for auction. Fortunately, Nicholas Cage got back his comic book after all. He originally paid around $150K for it, and it’s now estimated to be worth over $2 million.

Pop art comics style excited girl reading comic book or adventure graphic
Pop art comics style with excited girl reading comic book

It seems every star has their own story, including when it comes to self storage. Ringo Star kept some interesting items in his unit – neither of them were stolen or auctioned off by the facility as was the case with other celebrities. Instead, it was Ringo Star himself who did the auctioning. He had over 800 items for sale, with a guitar that once belonged to John Lennon – valued at $800K+. He also auctioned off his Ludwig Oyster Black Pearl drum kit, which he used in concert between 1963 and 1964.

5. Self storage in famous movies and TV shows

As self storage became a mainstream service, its use started being reflected in movies and TV shows. Here are some notable mentions:

Sheldon Cooper’s beloved quirkiness has led him to do all sorts of unusual things, but turning to storage makes him “one of us,” but with a twist. In season 9, episode 19 – “The Solder Excursion Diversion,” we find out that Sheldon has a secret storage unit. How is that revealed? He takes Amy Farrah Fowler, his girlfriend, over there. He’s renting a storage unit in Pasadena, California, where books, old electronics, clothes and more are stored. They’re basically things he no longer uses but has a hard time letting go of. The unit is fittingly called “The Fortress of Shame” because he is aware he shouldn’t be keeping all this stuff, but can’t help himself.

Self storage is also featured on “How I Met Your Mother” – a TV show featuring the life story of six friends as they settle down, with Ted Mosby, the main character, telling his story to his children. In season eight, in “Farhampton” – the first episode – Barney stored all of Robin’s possessions – his love interest – in a storage unit. This is revealed later, after their breakup, as Robin argues with Barney about how he handled her possessions. He claims to have thrown them away, which is revealed not to be true. This creates a tender moment when it turns out that he rented a self storage unit for the sole purpose of keeping Robin’s possessions.

Staying in the realm of light-hearted productions, “Larry Crowne” features Tom Hanks flirting with self storage in this romantic comedy. The movie tells the story of a man, played by Hanks, who loses his job and looks for a new beginning as a teacher. Julia Roberts, who plays his love interest, takes him to her storage unit so that he can find some swanky clothing. The movie shows them getting to a Los Angeles storage unit on a scooter.

Self storage might not have a reputation as a glamorous service, but its evolution suggests that it comes to the aid of people in various moments of necessity. As a recession-proof industry, self storage continues to be relevant today, and it continues to retain its spot in American society, whether it’s serving regular citizens, celebrities or it’s reclaiming its spot in pop culture.

Now that you know more about self storage, what facts surprised you the most? Let us know in the comments section below.

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