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Storage auction shows ruining it for the rest of us

The popularity of shows like
The popularity of shows likeGetty Images file

Think you can be the next Storage Warrior? You aren’t alone.

Attendance at auctions of items in storage units whose owners have failed to pay their bills has soared thanks to the popularity of “Storage Wars,” “Auction Hunters” and shows like them, as have prices for the goods inside, which tracks the industry, reports that one of its clients has seen units that once fetched $75 to $125 command prices of as much as $500. The size of some crowds at sales has quintupled.  

Not everyone associated with storage auctions is happy with how popular the auctions have become.

“The buyers that used to be the regulars … are long gone because they will not pay the prices that these new crop of buyers are willing to do,” said Colorado auctioneer Rich Schur,  adding that the values attributed to items discovered on TV shows are “highly optimistic.”’

Take the stash of newspapers announcing Elvis Presley’s death found by Dave Hester on “Storage Wars,” which the show said were valued at $90,000.  Newspapers from the 20th century are generally not valuable because hundreds of thousands of copies of them are sold at a time, which means they are not scarce.Big stories, such as the death of the “King of Rock 'n’ Roll” were printed in millions of papers.The Elvis papers are still for sale and are occasionally given away as promotional items by Storage, a site co-founded by Dan and Laura Dotson, the auctioneers featured on “Storage Wars.”

“Sometimes the guys evaluate their stuff by perceived value, or future value depending on the length of time it takes to sell it or them,” said Dan Dotson in an email.  “Dave sells those Elvis papers every day on eBay for $15 each; it may take him several lifetimes to get his 90K, but eventually the value will be recognized.”

Most stuff found in storage units is mundane household goods — furniture, kitchenware and clothes — that varies greatly in quality. Few people store their most prized possessions in a storage locker, and those that do probably have the sense to remove them before they become delinquent in their rent for the unit. Skilled buyers, nonetheless, can make a few bucks off many sales by unloading the contents at swap meets or through online sources such as craigslist, provided they can buy them at the right price.

Sometimes buyers are stuck holding items until the right buyer emerges.Indeed, the third-generation auctioneer, added in an interview that if someone told him that they quit their jobs and decided to become a storage buyer full-time without previous experience, he would advise them to try and get their old job back.

“I don’t want people to think that it’s easy because it’s not,” he said.

Many buyers, such as Allen Haff of “Storage Hunters," wind up having to store their storage treasures in warehouses, the cost of which eats into profits.The shows also make it appear that experts will be willing to appraise their items for free, when often they demand a fee to render their opinion. 

“The first season I took a pay cut to do the show,” he said, adding that he is doing better although he said that he is dependent on buying storage lockers to earn a living.  “The editors make our jobs look a lot easier than it is.”

Of course, some people make big scores. Last year, someone found real pirate’s gold at one of the auctions conducted by American Auctioneers, the auction company run by the Dotsons. The trove was valued at $500,000, well above the $1,000 the buyer spent on the unit. A trove of items owned by Madonna was found at another American Auctioneers sale.

The crowds may start to pick up again.  A spokeswoman for A&E, which broadcasts “Storage Wars” and its sister show “Storage Wars Texas,” told NBC News that  “We are always exploring  (creating new shows in ) other cities but have nothing to report now."

Jonathan Berr is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @jdberr.