14 Apr

Renting an external storage unit is one of the supreme no-no’s for the downsizer. It is meant to be an interim solution in times of transition, not a permanent landing spot for the long-since forgotten. In its extreme version, it has provided the fodder for guilty pleasure television viewing (“Storage Wars,” “Auction Hunter,” “Storage Hunters,” “Auction Kings.”) 

But the attraction of an out-of-sight, out-of-mind convenience for all those potentially useful objects is understandable. 

In 2021, more than 10% of American households (about 13.5 million) rented an external self-storage unit to the tune of almost $40 billion a year and almost 2 million square feet in rentable space. The average time these units are rented is 14 months, with half renting for more than a year, and about 4% for over ten years. (from sparefoot.com, 1/27/2021) 

I confess I am one of the latter. 

In an earlier blog (Upsizing, One Move at a Time), I alluded to my lifelong external storage habits. First, there was the room my father rented for me in a neighbor’s house when my parents moved back to their native England during my final year of college. That wasn’t my fault, was it? They left for me. Next was space (for free) at our old landlord’s trucking company. Totally understandable. I was young and peripatetic, with no family home to count on. I was forced to find a new home for my archives when I left a teaching job in my mid-twenties to travel around the world. Who can resist the call of adventure? 

That next storage home, a small private company, provided 20 years of an inexpensive hideaway. I dutifully paid the monthly bill (around $10 a month) until the company went out of business. Those 20 years when I was establishing my career and life were no time to sort through my history, was it? For the next few years after collecting my stuff, I was able to accommodate the unopened boxes and trunks (2) out of sight in my third floor study, eventually dividing it between an attic and a basement when my husband and I bought a house together. Ah, to have space. 

But when, after my parents passed away, my sister and I had the brilliant idea that we would set up a vacation house with all my parent’s possessions, we shipped what we didn’t sell or give away back to the USA, setting it up in two UHaul units not far from my house. It seemed like such a good solution for honoring all those family memories and my mum’s artistic legacy, but the plan never came to pass. My sister bought her own vacation home in England, and I bought a furnished condo in Maine. We were able to use the furniture in our primary residence and take a number of artworks up to Maine, leaving me with just one money-sucking unit! Glory be! (And don’t ask me how much we spent shipping items across the Atlantic! What were we thinking?!) 

Over time, I visited the storage unit regularly, opening and decanting mystery boxes of bubble-wrapped china, books, clothes, and assorted other treasures. Eventually, I sold most of the clothes and brought home a lot of the china and books, giving away what we didn’t need or want. But there were all those huge paintings—the loving handwork of my talented mother. Even our large basement couldn’t accommodate them. Not with all our other junk! Further, the storage unit became a useful repository for other things we didn’t want to look at or deal with. 

In this past year, as I have described, I found homes for a few of the emotion-laden items---my sister’s sewing machine, my dad’s typewrite, my mother’s silkscreen equipment, leaving mostly the art work. Finally, a couple of months ago, our first floor no longer used for our work or rented out, I arranged for all those paintings to be delivered to our home. But I still have the storage unit, now almost empty except for a handful of smaller works of art I want to keep for the future, a few boxes related to my husband’s work, an empty hanging wardrobe, and a lot of old bubble wrap. It’s hard to let the unit go. Not only is it a kind of security blanket (just in case), but Its emptiness now stands as proof of how far I’ve come. I try not to think of all the trips we could have taken with the money I spent on it over the years. 

As a flagrant mis-user of storage units, I may not be the most believable source of advice, but allow me to offer a few observations based on my experience (and my now cleaner conscience since I have cleared out most of the contents of my unit.)

If you’ve had a storage unit for a long while, don’t beat yourself up. It’s water under the proverbial bridge. It needn’t be your first downsizing task, just don’t neglect it. 

  • During your slow downsizing, pay regular visits to your unit to accomplish doable tasks. Obviously, the closer your unit is to your home, the less time you need to justify spending at it on any given occasion. Even a half hour can pay dividends.
  • Arm yourself with a light source (if lighting is poor), a dust mask, a pair of good scissors, a Sharpie, a notebook, a camera (your phone is fine), a large trash bag, and a couple of tubs or containers for transfer.
  • Start by taking inventory. If boxes aren’t labeled, you may need to rectify this problem by opening them up.
  • Avoid stacking boxes. You want everything as accessible as can be. Shelving is helpful, if you have it, but don’t buy it specially.
  • Don’t lift things you can’t lift comfortably. If you can’t take anyone with you to help, decant some of the contents of a box before trying to move it.
  • As you review contents, ask yourself the usual questions—Will I use this? Do I love it? Does it have meaning to me? Will anyone else want it? Chances are you don’t need it, but “”useful” items should be brought home and put to the test.
  • For items you think a friend or family member might want, ask them right away. It’s not up to you to hang onto them for an undetermined amount of time on your dime. Do not promise to ship large items. It’s not worth it.
  • Never leave without taking something with you. Take donations directly to the local thrift store, or arrange for pick-up in the near future. Anything requested by others should be disposed of accordingly. At home, Immediately put away anything deemed useful or loved. No room? Get rid of something else.
  • Remove empty boxes and trash as you go along.
  • Before leaving, decide what your next task will be in the unit, as this will motivate you to go again.
  • Chip away. And think how you will use that money you will eventually save.
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