I was so proud of myself over a year ago when I finally cleared out the storage unit I’d had for over 20 years. I’d been working at it bit by bit over a lomg period of time, finding homes for the items, many of them from my family. I’d moved my mother’s large paintings to the first floor after we no longer had a tenant, and I was able to sell or donate a number of these.
But during this past move, without a long-term destination and with shorter-term residencies in furnished places, we acquired not one, but three storage units to serve our needs. The only other alternative would have meant getting rid of everything—all our life mementos, our treasured artwork, what remained of our book collection, and our practical possessions. As it was, we parted with most of our furniture. As I shared in a previous post, we still had too much stuff, even after downsizing, but getting by with no storage was not an option.
If you don’t plan on acquiring or maintaining external storage units, we congratulate you. Read no further unless you want to gloat!
Our rationale for three units was quite simple: the larger unit holds items we don’t need to access in the short-term and was filled by our movers. The smaller unit we designated for our nearer-term needs—winter clothes, practical items that our furnished places didn’t provide, our project supplies (art, photography, etc.), office supplies, towels and sheets. Unfortunately, these units were not near our intended living space, and the smaller short-term unit filled quickly. In desparation, we acquired a third unit near to where we planned to live. Consequently, we’ve had an opportunity to consider how to use external storage spaces optimally, based both on our mistakes and what we did well. And we did make plenty of mistakes in retrospect.
Choosing a Facility and a Unit.
Research. Driving around, there doesn’t appear to be any shortage of storage facilities, but they aren’t all equal. These are your possessions. Do your research to find a good home for them. Check the reviews.
In particular, consider the following issues:
Climate control. For anything other than very short-term needs or for items designed to withstand the elements, choose only indoor, climate-controlled spaces. One of our spaces is drive-up accessible, but after a big summer rainstorm, we noticed that everything seemed damp, and that despite the storage company’s best efforts (we actually saw them spray one day), there were some undesirable critters in the space. The unit isn’t that much cheaper than our other larger, climate-controlled spaces although it is more convenient. We plan to change facilities in the next couple of months.
Accessibility. If you intend to move things back and forth from storage, how close is the unit to your home? Once there, how easy is it to get access to your unit? What are the hours of the storage facility? Are there trolleys to help you move your things from your car? Is there a large elevator if you aren’t on the main floor? If there are stairs, can you manage these? For our short-term unit, we chose one that required an elevator but did not have steps. The longer-term one has a set of steps, but we don’t expect to be moving things from it ourselves. (Those units with steps are cheaper.) The walk to each is long, but the facility provides trolleys.
Security. How is security handled beyond a lock on your unit? If the units are inside a building, do you need a special card to enter? Are there security cameras? Do you feel safe there if you are on your own? We felt that both storage facilities fared well on security.
Timing. If your need for storage will come in the late spring or summer, plan ahead, as this is when demand is highest. We found that units that did not have stairs were in the most demand.
Size of unit. Ideally, you want a unit that is big enough but not too big so that you aren’t paying for space you don’t need. Packed well, even a small space can hold a lot, but you may not be able to to get to what you need. Consider how you plan to use your storage. Would we have saved money with one large unit where all the things we didn’t need in the short-term were at the back, and those we needed access to were closer to the front? Perhaps not, as we wanted a unit without steps for our short-term accessibility. Most facilities offer a range of sizes although not all will be available at any given time.
Preparing Items for Your Unit
Sorting. Because of our complicated move plans, our first decisions concerned which items we didn’t need for two or three years, which ones we would want in the near term, and which ones we needed immediately. Where we could, to avoid confusion, we moved items to a designated space in our house, e.g., books for the near-term went on these assigned shelves.
Containers. Some advance planning is helpful in deciding what items you will pack together and what types and sizes of the containers are most appropriate. Types of containers include cardboard boxes, tubs with lids, milk crates, softsided bags and cases. Books are heavy and should go in smaller boxes that can be lifted by someone other than a weight-lifting champion. Tubs and suitcases are probably best for clothes. For our immediate and short-term needs (not handled by movers), we often opted for quite small tubs and boxes (shoe box size or slightly larger) where we could easily find small items and store the containers compactly, filling available spaces. My own preference is for containers that can be closed. But open-topped containers, like milk crates, which are stackable, can be useful for non-breakable household items that ae easily identifiable.
Packing for storage. We packed up our long-term items first to get them out of the way. How carefully you wrap things will depend on how far you will be traveling, who is handling your move, and how you hope to access your items. We used a combination of plain paper and bubble-wrap for delicate items, with special care taken for those items handled by the movers. John and I had different packing styles. I tend to pack a container fully so things won't shift, but John likes to leave more space so he can find items more easily.
Labeling and Inventorying. When you are packing for a move, the most important label is what room it is designated for. When packing for storage, more precise labeling is necessary. Where it mattered, we opted for a general label with a number, e.g. Kitchenware #4 and then made a more detailed list of the contents that we store on our computer. For boxes with books, where we probably didn’t need access to a specific book, we provided a general label of the kinds of books in the box, e.g., art books. I regret that my labeling got sloppy near the end, and that has made from some unnecessary ferreting around looking for things.
Packing Your Unit
Shelving. For our longer-term unit, we allowed the movers to stack boxes floor to ceiling. The next time we will see any of these items is when we make a permanent move. However, for our shorter-term units, we opted for shelving so that we had easier access to our boxes and tubs. We already had several four- shelf resin shelving units that we used in our basement. These are lightweight, can be taken apart for moving, and are easy to keep clean.
Order. Here I share our biggest mistake (after inadequately labeling things). Consider what and when you will likely need easy access to. It should be obvious that items you need more immediately or frequently should go near the front or at least be reasonably visible. If you can, create a floor plan ahead of time. We used more of a puzzle approach—which boxes/tubs would fit where—and that has contributed to some frustrating visits to our unit as well as wasted time.
Spacing. If accessibility is your goal, allow adequate space between shelving, stacked boxes/tubs and other items. Because our short-term units are too small for our needs, we are constantly moving items around to gain access to what we want. Here you will need to weigh efficient use of space versus convenience. I wish we’d opted more for convenience, even at a slightly higher cost.
Final Thoughts on Storage
Visiting our storage spaces regularly, I do ask myself, why did we save this item or that item? For example, we had a number of items we had bought bulk at Costco in the previous year, including boxes of tissues, toilet paper and paper towels, sponges. Did we really need to take these? Couldn’t we have given these away and started fresh? Likewise, with hangers. I had a collection of nice padded hangers, but hangers are an awkward shape and aren’t easy to pack efficiently. Also, they aren’t that expensive to replace. In our attempt not to be wasteful, we weren’t always practical. Our choices may end up costing us more than the items themselves are worth. Had we been moving directly to a new home, these decisions wouldn’t seem so bad.
Ultimately, your goal as a downsizer should be to eliminate the need for external storage. But if you do need it for the short-run, especially if you are in transition as we are, make the wisest choices you can about where, what, and how. We did the best we could, given time constraints.