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My Trip to a Storage Wars Auction

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Last year, my wife went on a brief military deployment for a few weeks. During that time, I caught a almost the entire first season of Storage Wars... it was that addictive. I loved how the characters played off each other and how they always seemed to make money on something I've never heard of before. Finally, there's the mystery of finding the buried treasure.

When my wife got back, I introduced her to the show and she got as hooked as I did. If you've watched the show, you are singing, "Money owns this town... Money owns this town", right?

While watching an episode recently, we decided to do a little background into the show. If these people are making this kind of money, perhaps we should get involved. It's worth a look. As luck would have it, the company that does the Storage Wars auction, American Auctioneers, has a few auctions most weeks in my area of Northern California. It was practically begging us to take a couple of hours and check it out. Yesterday, my wife and I did exactly that.

I knew that the characters from the show wouldn't likely be there. They have only come to Northern California a couple of times. That's just as well. If this had any potential of making us money, we didn't need any television cameras around. We certainly didn't want Dave Hester to show up. (For those who don't watch the show, he just loves to bid up units to drive out competition.)

The Storage Wars auction was in Redwood City, CA. We got there and my first impression was, "This is a clearly a blue collar business." You didn't see anyone clean-shaven in nice shoes or clothes. It was closer to Larry the Cable Guy. I was also surprised at how few people were there for the auction. I counted about a dozen bidders (some people by themselves, others in obvious pairs).

Before you can bid on any lockers, there's a few housekeeping items I should mention. You also sign an agreement to give back any personal belongings such as photos, birth certificates, and legal documents. If items are potentially pending litigation (perhaps they are subject of a divorce settlement), you agree to sell back stuff at a maximum of twice the price. The auction people send a video guy to all the units to tape the contents before you get to see it. You also have 24 hours to clear out the locker or you forfeit a $40 deposit and lose access to the stuff. They admitted that they are flexible with that 24 hours. I presume all this stuff is typical and not specific to American Auctioneers.

There were 3 storage units to be sold that day, two 10x10 units and a 4x4 unit. We started off with the first 10x10 unit. There wasn't much that looked like it had the Wow Factor (the saying from Darrell Sheets on the show). There were quite a few items that had some value. There was an entertainment center that looked promising. Also there was a small pull-cart for golf clubs... not to be confused with a golf cart that you drive. Since I don't know what to call it, I can't find one to give you an example, but I estimate it would be worth around $30-50. It ended up going for only $125. I am pretty sure that the winner got a good deal, but with my wife being 9 months pregnant we weren't prepared to do any lifting or physical work.

The second 10x10 unit had two items of note. One was an Atari 2600 box... with presumably the system inside (you never know). The other item was a brand-new looking chrome piece of machinery. I thought it was a professional power-washer. Someone else mentioned that it was a generator. We could make out the name Toro. Everything was amazingly organized in plastic storage boxes stacked to the ceiling along the perimeters. My wife noticed some baby products (diapers) and wrapping paper. (Yes, my wife gets excited about wrapping paper, which we pick up extremely cheap after the holidays.) I estimated that the locker would go for at least $700 with the machinery being worth a good $300-400, maybe more depending on what it was. Alas, we couldn't bid on this either. Once again there was too much work to be do with a baby that could come at any moment. We watched someone walk away with a bargain at $475.

At this point we were getting excited by the prospects of bidding on storage lockers at auction. There was one locker left, the 4x4 unit. The unit was mostly empty. There was one box that looked like it was held together more by packing tape than cardboard. There were three new-looking stuffed animals on top. The auctioneer tried to get $50, then $40, then $30. He got all the way to $1 and there was a pause. A couple of people raised hands for $1 and I went in $2. Someone did 3 and I did 4. There was a 5 and 6 and I went 7. Someone went 8. I went $9... thinking that at this point I just want the novelty of see what was in the box... and $3 a piece for the new stuffed animals wasn't that bad. Someone else went $10, I backed off, and it sold.

As we were leaving the auction, my wife turned to me and said, "What are your plans for 1 o'clock?" There was another auction about 15 miles away...

At the next auction, there were four units available. Two of them were 10x10 units. One had crap that went really cheaply... the other went for $525 due to a racecar sandbox and some other items that looked of good quality. There was a 4x4 unit with a Crate and Barrel box that had "Dishes" written on it in marker. There didn't appear to be anything else of value in the unit. We decided it would be worth $20, but not much more, since we don't need dishes and reselling them can be a pain. The unit went for $35.

The last unit was the one my wife regrets. There appeared to be bunk beds taken apart and a foosball table. My wife decided it was worth about $60 and set here limit there. After some bidding by her, it went to someone else for $70. You can look at it as only being another $10, but who knows how high it could have gone before the other person stopped? Also, foosball tables can be damaged fairly easily and if it's not in great condition it's not going to play right. Looking at the bottom of the foosball table, didn't give me a warm, fuzzy feeling.

Various other Thoughts and Observations

One thing I noticed, and the auctioneers admitted, is that the units in Northern California don't sell for as much as they do on television. Everyone agreed that it's because there's no Dave Hester and others bidding everything up. We had thought that we'd need to bring thousands if we were looking to bid seriously. There were some very good lockers going for around $500.

I have suspected that the television show plants rare items in the lockers, so that they can do the segment where they go to a collector of Mayan masks and assess the value of the rare find. Since it seems to happen multiple times in every show, it just seems beyond coincidence. This trip didn't help me determine whether my suspicions were true or not (and I knew that going in). On the flip side, the show could edit out the boring lockers that have everyday pots, pans, and lamps in them. I think the show has even acknowledged that this is done. A side effect is that the viewer is getting a skewed version of the truth... almost like seeing the highlights of a sports player without any of the mistakes.

If you are going to do this, bring a good flashlight. We had a small LED flashlight while other people had this Streamlight Waypoint Spotlight. I think their $50 light was probably a lot better than our $5 one.

Finally, the auctions are quick... they finished within 1/2 hour. Some people mentioned "going back to work." Perhaps this is a new way of utilizing a lunch break?

One thing I am fairly sure of... I don't think this was my last storage auction.

Posted on September 18, 2012.

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12 Responses to “My Trip to a Storage Wars Auction”

  1. Money Beagle says:

    YEP! I love that show. I DVR it and watch it when I have a few minutes here and there. I was watching one last night where they were driving to a place where there were 18 units for auction, so I believe this goes along with the ‘edit out’ all the boring ones idea.

    I’ve always seen a lot of people other than those on Storage Wars. I wonder if they are true bidders or just looking to snag a spot on TV when they know that Dave and the rest will be there.

    I think Jarrod and Brandi have done well enough from the looks of things, as I think it’s clear that between seasons, Brandi got some, um, work done.

  2. Andy Hough says:

    They definitely edit out the boring units. They had a special where they stated that they were many more auctions that they don’t show then what is on the show.

    I’ve gone to a couple of auctions, but never bought anything. The professional unit buyers told me there were a lot fewer people going to the auctions before the storage unit shows came out.

  3. MJS says:

    I think there are reality show rules on faking and editing. I know with Pawn Stars for example, nothing is faked, but they edit thousands of hours of boring stuff to get the interesting stuff for show. I am sure it is similar.

    I have watched a different version of storage wars. I think it is a competing show. It always seems like really sketchy people bidding to sell junk that they find. I can’t imagine getting lucky with rare artwork or memorabilia or something, but you’ve sparked curiosity.maybe I’ll check out one in Newton.

  4. On the other side, I wonder if storage operators would put together a “fake” unit with a few promising-looking empty boxes. It could be a good way to turn some old/unusual packaging into cash!

  5. William @ Drop Dead Money says:

    Fascinating! Never heard of the show or the auctions. Thanks for sharing – we’ll be sure to check it out!

  6. I’m sure they edit out the boring stuff. Watching someone make a $10 profit on a locker full of gently used clothing would make for pretty boring TV.

    I’d expect most abandoned storage lockers to be full of junk. In theory, it should be a slightly lower quality of goods than you would see in a random unabandoned locker.

    • Lazy Man says:

      I’m pretty sure they edit out the boring stuff. Then again here’s the confusing thing… they show is filmed from one set of storage lockers on the same day. So they are in Van Nuys, CA for an episode. If they were splicing together different days you could expect a highlight show. When the stars of the show only buy one locker that day (you can see them load their trucks) and they it just happens that 3 of the 4 win lockers and a couple of them find a Mayan mask… how much editing can be done?

      The other thing that seems off is that I saw the special that Mr. Hough mentioned. In it, they did the math of the ratio of how much return each star got for their dollar spent. If they are editing out the misses, it’s a misrepresentation of the business potential. Not that the show needs to be about business potential, but it should be more forthcoming with the fact that it is a highlight reel more than an accurate depiction. The show seems more set up like a baseball game itself and not SportsCenter to the viewer.

  7. MJS says:

    Playing devil’s advocate, what if they just don’t show an entire day due to boringness, etc. I am sure they have whole days of uselessness. Therefore, you are seeing just the good days even if a good day is just one locker with one cool thing.

    • Lazy Man says:

      It’s quite possible they don’t show entire days. They are only something like 12 episodes a season.

      However, the good days seem to consist of only the star betting. Maybe of the other 35-50 people at the auction will bid once in every four episodes or so. It’s always a surprise. Given the need to have “good days” consist of three of the four each buying one locker with at least 2 of them having one cool thing that needs appraising… and a situation where a bunch of other people shut their trap, I find the odds of it not being staged to some extent very low.

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