They’re not just relegated to steamy jungles in the far-flung corners of the world. Urban treasure hunters gather in locales across Bowling Green, hoping to discover forgotten riches - the occasions are storage unit auctions.
Instead of treasure hunters of old being guided by parchment maps with X’s drawn on them, today’s treasure hunters use classified ads.
But you never know what you’ll get.
“If there’s a bag of dead dogs, they get that. If they find a bag of diamonds, they get that. Whatever is in there, they get,” said John Logan, owner of A-B-C Mini-Self Storage.
When a unit tenant stops paying rent at one of the more than 40 local storage unit facilities, the unit goes up for auction.
Bidding on a unit is a gamble, and whether a buyer wins big or goes bust is one part luck, one part experience and one part knowledge.
“I got a Rolex out of one,” said Danny Chapman at an auction Thursday morning at Louisville Road Mini Storage. “I was so happy until I found out it was fake. I saw Rolex and was thinking, ah, a couple grand. More like a couple dollars on the street.”
Typically, a legal advertisement runs in the local newspaper about an auction. A certified letter is also sent to the tenant, letting him or her know that if the rent isn’t paid, the contents of the unit will be sold.
If the tenant doesn’t pay, the facility owner will open up the units on the day of the auction. Bidders cluster around the door, but aren’t allowed to go in because of liability issues. They look around and try to predict how much all the stuff is worth. Sometimes it’s as easy as guessing the value of some furniture. Other times they must guess whether a wall of taped-shut boxes is holding valuable antiques or insect-infested clothes.
Then the bidding starts.
Chapman has been bidding on storage units since he lived with his daughter in Las Vegas in 1994. Now living in Bowling Green, Chapman said this is a great hobby.
“There’s nothing better to do on a Thursday morning,” he said.
Other people treat it as a profession. They travel from auction to auction, sometimes from state to state, bidding on units and selling the contents to thrift stores or on the Internet.
“It’s actually a lot of fun. You don’t know what’s in there, like a Cracker Jack box,” Chapman said. “If we don’t get anything today, my money’s in my pocket and I’m a happy camper.”
Thursday morning, Louisville Road Mini Storage owner Roy Tallent lifted open the first door, and Chapman and his fellow bidders eyed the contents. A couple of boxes lined the walls and a watercolor painting sat near the front. But everyone seemed most interested in an off-white refrigerator in the back.
The bidding started low - $25, then $30, $35, $40.
After a few more volleys, Chapman won the unit for $65.
“I just hope the refrigerator works,” he said.
Chapman shut the door and locked up his new unit. He had 24 hours to clear out his new possessions. Winning bidders typically get everything in the storage unit, be it diamonds or, uh, dead dogs. Most places don’t offer a trash service, so everything has to be hauled away.
The number of units for Thursday’s auction equaled the number of participants - four. Originally, 13 units were to be auctioned Thursday, but after Tallent advertised the auction, most of the people paid their rent. That happens often, he said, and the number of people and units at an auction generally fluctuate.
“One auction we had about 45 buyers, another auction we had about 60 buyers,” said Grant Lewis, owner of Three Springs Storage.
Lewis said his business opened about three years ago, and it has held only two auctions.
“Because we’re a new facility and not fully occupied, we have a little bit of a luxury to wait unit we get a certain amount of units to attract a bigger crowd,” he said. “But we’re losing that luxury now because we’re filling up pretty good, so we won’t be able to wait as long.”
Logan said he’ll have an auction every three or four months. What bidders such as Chapman pay for the units, however, is rarely, if ever, enough to cover what the previous renter owes on the unit.
“Usually, I probably make about 20 percent of what’s owed on it,” Logan said.
Logan said he could take whatever is in the units and sell it piece by piece and make more money, but the time required to do that isn’t worth the effort.
As Tallent opened up the second door Thursday, a photograph of two girls stared from the unit.
“One bad thing is you find kids’ pictures,” Chapman said. “I’ve had birth certificates, I’ve had all kinds of stuff like that. You try to give that stuff back, but half the time you never find the people.”
Storage unit auctions have become so popular there are whole websites dedicated to the subject. And no one is immune - ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s storage unit is set to go up for sale Saturday if he doesn’t cough up more than a year’s worth of rent. Included among Blagojevich’s belongings is a life-size statue of the former governor’s hero and hair inspiration - Elvis Presley.