The self-storage craze

By Tom de Castella & Kate Dailey
BBC News Magazine

Man and woman with box

People are leaving their possessions in self-storage warehouses for longer than ever. But why are people paying to store stuff they rarely use?

It's a monument to our acquisitive society - the brightly lit shed on the edge of town offering "storage solutions".

Society has always had its hoarders. But in the 21st Century people are farming out their junk to the growing number of self-storage facilities.

It begins as a temporary solution. You load up the car with the retired pushchair, an African sculpture you never found room for, old letters, bin bags full of clothes, Betamax tapes and your cherished back issues of National Geographic.

Shortly afterwards you're at one or other of the huge hangars offering space for your beloved objects.

With summer the busiest time of year to move, many will have recently contemplated a similar scenario.

The mania for storage centres began in the US in the 1960s and the country now has over 50,000 such facilities. They arrived in London in the 1990s but didn't take off across the UK until 2000. Britain has 800 major self-storage units, the same as the rest of Europe put together.

It's the ideal stopgap while you get organised and there are knockdown three-month offers to entice you.

But out of sight is out of mind. Recent statistics show that people are leaving their junk in storage units for longer and longer.

Data from the UK Self Storage Association suggests that the average length of stay has risen from 22 weeks in 2007 to 38 weeks in 2010.

And newspapers have found horror stories where people have forked out thousands of pounds to keep their possessions in storage for years on end, despite never visiting the warehouse to take them out.

The consumer society means many people are gradually running out of space, says Cory Cooke, a professional organiser based in London.

"More and more stuff comes in and it's not going out. I want to say it's a throwout society, but it's not the case because people are keeping their things around."

The increasing proportion of business users during the recession is one reason average storage time has increased, says Rodney Walker, chief executive of the SSA. Business users stay for 56 weeks and private individuals stay for 27 weeks on average.

But even before the recession, private users were staying longer, mainly because of cramped modern housing. "More people are living alone in smaller homes without garages or attics," he says.

And then there's the vogue for minimalisation. With clean lines and empty interiors the order of the day, all this "junk" has to be put out of sight, even at a cost.

TV property presenter Sarah Beeny is not a fan. People often sign up believing it's just a short-term fix, she says. "The problem is that on a weekly basis it doesn't seem like much money. But you end up staying longer - out of sight, out of mind."

It's a worry for society. People are using valuable land in prime areas of overcrowded cities like New York and London to build these warehouses, spending money on renting the units and in the process accumulating more and more stuff.

Often people are just looking for a good home for something, she says. "I had 20 plastic chairs for children's picnics. I felt like I couldn't throw them away so have had them sitting around. Finally somewhere wants them and I'm delighted they're going to a good home."

Such a mentality explains the success of the website Freecycle, a community of users who give away the objects they no longer need to other people who do need them.

In a survey of UK households by Access Self Storage, 90% of respondents reported an inability to part with treasured possessions. It may be the accumulated memories that schoolbooks, birthday cards, photographs, old books or clothes hold for us.

But this is only part of the story, says Brian Knutson, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford University. The "endowment effect" is just as important.

This is the economic theory in which - by the mere fact of owning something we endow a possession with more value than its market price.

It might explain why people spend a huge sum putting an old sofa in storage for a year rather than using that money to buy a new one.

Image caption,
Clutter: Is a self-storage unit the answer?

"Almost everyone wants more for something once they own it, than they will pay to get it," says Knutson.

Oliver James, psychologist and author of Affluenza, says that the self-storage phenomenon can be explained by consumerism's effect on how we view ourselves.

Our identity has increasingly become associated with products, he argues, and not just the mortgage and the car, but smaller items. "We've confused who we are with what we have," he says.

It explains why we're so reluctant to throw things away. "We feel it might come in handy one day. It feels like it's a little part of yourself even though it's just tat. You wouldn't want to throw yourself away would you?"

Or perhaps it's not that complex. When it comes to a closet full of clutter, "people don't want to make the decisions," so put it off for another day, says Cooke.

"It's taxing, and a lot of people find it easier to box it up and deal with it later."