How Downsizing and Decluttering Are Fueling the Self-Storage Boom

A nation that buys together stores together: The self-storage industry has experienced remarkable growth over the past couple of years. . (Photo: Mike Mozart/flickr)

As my colleague Lloyd Alter has pointed out, getting rid of stuff can be hard during an “era of minimalism and mobility.” We can downsize, de-clutter, edit and un-hoard until a satisfactory level of homey minimalism is achieved. We can KonMari until the cows come home. But at the end of the day, our jettisoned possessions — many of which we aren’t fully ready to part ways with — need to go somewhere.

In an ideal world, castoffs are hauled off to a secondhand store or charity shop where someone who truly wants or needs an antiquated but still functional kitchen appliance or an objet d’art of questionable taste promptly swoops them up. Our rejects are re-homed and reused — and the cycle continues.

Even better, superfluous furniture and bric-a-brac with no place left to go is handed down to friends and loved ones with the hopes that these things will “stay in the family.” But as Lloyd points out, this is easier said than done as potential recipients increasingly don’t want or simply don’t have room for them. Whereas my parents furnished a vacation home with possessions passed down to them, the situation would be much different if I were to be bequeathed with two moving vans filled with heirlooms. I live in a two-bedroom apartment in New York City and am at max capacity (and not an entirely huge fan of antique oak and chinoiserie).

Our newfound willingness to purge unwanted possessions from our homes has certainly benefitted one industry: self-storage.

Storage unit padlocked door
So much for crawlspace and basements: As real estate developers embrace self-storage, stuff-burdened consumers clamor for storage space that's affordable and close to home. (Photo: KOMUNews/flickr)

A multibillion dollar industry

As we continue to shed — but in many cases, not completely get rid of — stuff, the businesses of self-storage is going gangbusters. As reported by Bloomberg, there are an estimated 54,000 self-storage facilities spread across the United States, which, not too surprisingly, is home to 90 percent of the global self-storage industry. In 2016, this once super-niche industry generated nearly $33 billion in revenue –—that’s nearly three times Hollywood’s box office gross that year.

A recent look at the self-storage boom published in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review notes that the total square footage of rentable self-storage space in the U.S. in 2014 (a year or two ahead of the boom) could cover Pittsburgh more than one and a half times at a whopping 2.63 billion square feet. That same year, American developers invested $590 million in building new self-storage facilities. By August 2017, that number topped $2.2 billion.

“The demand has continued to grow. There's so many factors coming together that have contributed to this boom,” Steve Mitnick, the owner of a Pittsburgh-area chain of self-storage facilities, tells the Tribune-Review. “From a developer's perspective, it's also become a more ‘sexy' industry.”

Yes, nothing says sexy quite like a couple hundred corrugated metal cubes stuffed with dead grandmother knickknacks.

While Mitnick credits a confident economy for the self-storage industry's exponential growth, Bloomberg points out that this trend has been building for decades. Over the past 50 years, Americans have simply become more likely to acquire new stuff with expenditures on durable goods increasing nearly 20-fold between June 1967 and June 2017. And as baby boomers start to downsize, all of these items accumulated over the years risk becoming orphaned. So, in many cases, they go into storage.

“The [self-storage] industry also thrives on disruption, serving as a temporary resting place for the stuff of the dead, the recently divorced, the downsizers and the dislocated,” writes Bloomberg.

stuff ready for storage
Many Americans are downsizing and embracing a more minimalist lifestyle. But more often than not, accumulated possessions just get moved around and don't truly disappear. (Photo: Beatrice Murch/flickr)

Meanwhile across the pond ...

The self-storage situation in the United Kingdom pales in comparison to the decidedly more attached-to-stuff U.S. But self-storage has become markedly more lucrative to British developers. The number of renters in urban centers like London is rapidly climbing while the number of potential homeowners — defeated by astronomical home prices — continues to plummet.

According to a 2017 study, almost half of British pensioners are actively entertaining the idea of downsizing to a smaller, more manageable home. As this stuff-shedding segment of the population continues to age, the demand for self-storage units will only grow. Per Bloomberg, British real estate investors view this trend as a “Brexit-proof and recession-proof opportunity.”

The U.K. is home to 47 percent of European self-storage facilities, yet Bloomberg notes that the rest of Europe will likely catch up as “urbanization, smaller living spaces and rising property prices force homeowners to seek places to store their property.” Interestingly, teeny-tiny and tourist-overrun Iceland, which has the one of Europe’s highest urbanization rates, comes in third behind the U.K. and the Netherlands in per capita self-storage space.

A slowdown ahead?

While many industry insiders believe self-storage will continue on an upward trend, real estate research firm Green Street Advisors thinks the industry is poised for a slowdown in the near future. The reason?

According to Green Street, once-popular goods that tend to take up space are shrinking or disappearing altogether. Take photo albums, for example, a treasured but also space-hogging staple in many a self-storage unit now becoming obsolete as photo storage goes digital. Other items, consumer electronics in particular, that were once normally relegated to self-storage have also become so dainty in size that finding a place for them at home (or in the garage) is no longer as big of an issue.

What’s more, a growing number of consumers are opting, begrudgingly or not, to spend their money on services — health care, for example — instead of stuff.

For many space-strapped homeowners, particularly those in possession of family heirlooms that simply can't be offloaded at the local Goodwill, the options are limited. The best advice is this: The next time you buy something of significance, don't just consider its price, its durability or how it will look in your front room. Also consider if it's worth a couple hundred bucks per month that you, or your loved ones, will have to pay to store it.