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(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Auctioneer J.R. Jackson of Storage Auctions takes bids on one of six storage units cracked open during a recent auction at A-1 Pioneer Storage in North Salt Lake on July 2. The belongings of someone who has defaulted on their storage units could contain valuable items or things bound for the dump as people are only allowed to peek in and take a gamble on the value of what they can see.
At these Utah auctions, dreams are in storage
Sold! » Reality TV shows and tough times generate interest in auctions for abandoned units.
First Published Jul 16 2011 07:02 pm • Last Updated Sep 12 2011 02:45 am

Utahns are catching storage unit auction fever.

And for many, the ailment’s origin can be traced to two reality TV shows, A&E’s "Storage Wars" and Spike TV’s "Auction Hunters."

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The shows follow the exploits of modern-day treasure hunters who are cashing in by bidding on and buying abandoned storage units in hopes of finding forgotten gold. The phenomenon has proved so popular that attendance at storage unit auctions in Utah is up several-fold since the shows first aired, as hopeful bidders dream of duplicating the success they’ve seen on television.

"Just a few years ago you might have had a dozen or so people show up to bid. At times they would be grabbing units for $25, maybe $50," said J.R. Jackson, a veteran Utah auctioneer. "Now, it isn’t unusual to see crowds of 200, sometimes 300 people, and the bids are a lot higher."

Standing in front of a crowd of several dozen bidders at A-1 Pioneer Moving and Storage in Salt Lake City two weeks ago, Jackson stepped aside for a few minutes as an A-1 employee used a hammer to open the first of six containers that were to be auctioned that day.

He gave the potential buyers five to 10 minutes to glance inside. There was no touching the items, and no looking inside individual boxes. "Are you ready?"Jackson finally asked, and the bidding began. "I’ve got $50 here. Now $75, now $100. Now I’ve got $150. How about $200?"

The container of 18 cardboard boxes full of books and old vinyl-record albums sold for $260. The second container, a more-promising looking unit with several fishing poles up front, was purchased by Kameron Rollins of Provo for $370.

"I’m pretty sure the fishing poles are antiques," said Rollins, explaining that he has been attending storage unit auctions for the past four years, well before the TV-sparked craze began. "And there looks to be some pretty nice furniture here. I think I’ll make some money on this one."

In all, the six storage containers sold for $2,380.

Allen Haff and Ton Jones, who star in "Auction Hunters," understand the lure and thrill of uncovering valuable merchandise in abandoned units. Their show, now in its second season, says up front that it highlights some of their biggest discoveries.

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Yet when they talk about the behind-the-scenes aspects of their business, it isn’t the valuables they discovered or the unexpected treasures they found wrapped in newspaper and tucked away in some dusty corner that top the list. Instead, they talk about the years of hard work they put in learning their craft.

"Both of us went for years getting our butts kicked while we learned the business," Haff said. "And now we are very good at what we do. You could dump us in the middle of Salt Lake City (at a storage unit auction) and we’d do just fine."

Still, it is a tough business, colleague Jones said.

About 80 percent of the units they buy are "just OK," with the remainder generating most of their profits. "What a lot of the new people who get into this business don’t realize is that it is easy to go broke" if they’re not paying the correct amount for the units they buy, he said.

And behind the glamour and glitz on the TV screen, Jones said, there is a lot of "low end" work involved — yard sales, swap meets and online marketing that has to be arranged. "The key to this business is moving product."

Although Jones concedes shows such as theirs have made the industry more competitive by bringing attention to the scene, he also attributes increased interest to the tough economic times that have led many to seek their fortunes in the business, even as others leave their goods behind in abandoned units.

Haff said, though, that it isn’t the new bidders who concern them.

The people they fret about showing up are antique dealers and those who handle estate sales. Such bidders know better than many how to properly put a value on the merchandise found inside abandoned storage rooms, Haff said. "Those are the guys who scare me."

Utahn Drew Wendt, who said he has been bidding on abandoned units for decades, agreed that it is a tough way to make a living.

"You’ve got to go in there and pull everything out and separate what you want and don’t want," he said. "Then you have to haul what you don’t want off to the dump and figure out what the stuff that’s left is worth. Then you have to sell it, so most of the time you’re working some pretty long hours for not a lot of money."

Wendt, though, said he seen people walk away with a storage room full of merchandise for $30 that turns out to be worth $6,000.

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