You Can’t Store That!

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Preventing the Storage of Prohibited Items

Throughout the years, self-storage tenants have stored—or attempted to store—just about anything you can imagine. From illegal to illogical, self-storage managers have uncovered countless items that could have potentially caused damage to the facility or harm to its tenants and staff.

In some cases, tenants’ stored goods have resulted in costly remediation and negative publicity. For example, M. Anne Ballard, president of training, marketing, and developmental services for Atlanta, Ga.-based Universal Storage Group, recalls two smelly situations that required expensive clean-up efforts: the first was a tenant who stored dozens of live tropical fish within a unit; the other was a tenant who filled a 10-by-20 non-climate-controlled unit with Vidalia onions during a hot and humid Georgian summer. Ballard, who adds that the tenants renting these units had gone delinquent, says it took $10,000 to rid the one unit of its rotten onion stench.  

Unfortunately, instances like these continue to occur—even when signage listing prohibited items is prominently posted around the facility and the facility’s expectations are clearly outlined within the rental agreements and other move-in documents. For this reason, it’s the responsibility of each self-storage manager to take a more active and inquisitive role at the facility he/she manages.

Preventative Measures
Since self-storage managers cannot approve every single item that a tenant stores, some storage businesses utilize methods to screen tenants and obtain personal information to identify them should an issue arise. For starters, the facility’s managed by Universal Management Group (USG) purchase web cameras to take photographs of each new tenant. The photos are stored within their tenant file in SiteLink. This serves two purposes: The photos enable managers to comfirm the people on site are renters and they can be given to authorities if an incidence occurs.

To discourage crooks from becoming tenants, USG also scans their driver’s licenses, photo ID, or passport. Tenants who cannot produce or do not have any of those items are fingerprinted with inkless fingerprint kits.

USG obtains as much information as possible to err on the side of caution. The sites they manage collect Social Security numbers and require military personnel to complete an addendum. Additional information, such as VIN no. and registration, is collected if the tenant will be storing a vehicle.

These measures, along with prominently mounted cameras throughout the property, are usually enough to deter criminals from setting up shop at your site. However, Ballard suggests the managers be leery of nervous people who ask a lot of questions about the facility’s security features.

Moreover, whatever “screening” measures you decide to take, be consistent. “Have standards and apply them to every tenant,” says Ballard. 

Signs And Checklists
In addition to cameras and access systems that can deter crime, managers should ensure that signage listing the prohibited items is clearly displayed throughout the office and posted outside of the facility. Some properties affix metal signs noting banned substances on the entry gate as well. 

Many self-storage facilities also include lists of prohibited items in their rental paperwork and on their websites. Managers are advised to review these lists with new tenant and point out the reasons why these items are too dangerous to store, such as their potential to cause fires, create pollution, or attract pests. It may also be beneficial to seek legal counsel to draft additional documents that hold tenants responsible for any clean-up costs and/or pest control services required from their negligence if your facility is having recurring issues with the storage of prohibited goods.

Furthermore, managers should consider periodically sending reminders via email or postal mail to tenants. For instance, it would be appropriate to send a letter or email before Independence Day stating that tenants are not allowed to store fireworks or explosives in their units. Likewise, a notice reminding tenants that propane tanks and gasoline cannot be stored would be wise at the end of summer when they are more inclined to store their barbeque grills and/or lawnmowers.

Another inexpensive yet effective way to keep tenants from storing prohibited items is to encourage each tenant to report any suspicious activity they notice on site. A comment/complaint box can be placed in the office area to allow tenants to anonymously report what they see, or your facility could establish a “tip line” if your telephone system has multiple voicemail boxes available. Some self-storage facilities also open their site to local police departments for K-9 training programs. Whichever method you choose to use, be sure to inform tenants about them and post signage with details about how to report suspicious/illegal activities. When potential tenants know that there are “neighborhood watch” programs in place, they may be more inclined to store somewhere else.

Check The List!
When completing the rental agreements and move-in paperwork, managers should present tenants with a list of the facility’s prohibited items. It’s in your best interest to thoroughly review the items with the tenants and get them to sign the sheet. While you should retain a signed copy for their files, it’s helpful also to provide them with a list that they can keep for their own records.
Obviously, there are countless items that could be included on a list of prohibited goods. While your facility may wish to include others, here are some of the most dangerous combustible, flammable, hazardous, or toxic materials that are not to be stored:

  • Gasoline
  • Compressed gas
  • Propane tanks
  • Kerosene
  • Lamp and motor oil
  • Acid
  • Grease
  • Corrosives
  • Fertilizers
  • Paints
  • Paint thinner
  • Solvents
  • Cleaners
  • Chemicals
  • Narcotics/illegal drugs
  • Hazardous, toxic, or biological waste
  • Asbestos or products containing asbestos
  • Fireworks or explosives

Other items that are illegal to store include equipment to locate underground water, radioactive equipment or anything that contains radioactive materials, counterfeit goods, and stolen properties. The storage of perishable foods and animal products, as well as any live or dead animals, plants, or humans, is also prohibited.  

Ask Questions
Certainly, asking the right questions enables you to assess and meet your prospective customers’ needs, but some of the questions you ask can also help you measure their merit. “Ask them what they are storing,” stresses Ballard.

While they may not answer truthfully, especially if they plan to store illegal goods or use the unit for illegal activity, you may be able to catch them in a lie. One manager, who works for Carol Mixon-Krendl, president and owner of Tucson, Ariz.-based SkilCheck Services, Inc., did just that. According to Mixon-Krendl, the well-dressed tenant seemed to be a clean-cut fellow, raising no alarms until the facility manager saw him unloading large barrels from a van. When she asked him what the barrels contained, his reply of “soap” just didn’t sit right. She decided to contact Mixon-Krendl, who suggested she call the police. The cops discovered that the barrels actually held meth chemicals. Luckily, the officers hauled away the chemicals and the facility did not have to pay any of the steep fees associated with cleaning up meth labs.

Of course, self-storage managers can always ask follow-up questions to vague answers in order to get to the bottom of what the tenants will actually be storing. Some appropriate follow-up questions include: What kind, or how much? Managers can also inquire about whether there is a business purpose for storing the items. This last question can be particularly helpful if tenants plan to store large quantities of an odd item. For instance, Ballard mentions an abandoned unit in Georgia that was packed with old tires and car batteries. The facility had to foot the removal and disposal bill to empty the unit on behalf of the underhanded renter, who was most likely a mechanic at a local garage storing them at the property to avoid paying the fees associated with proper disposal of the items. To prevent this from happening, some self-storage facilities now limit the number of tires a tenant can store to four.

Charlie Fritts, CPM, principal owner and COO of Storage Investment Management, Inc. (SIMI), knows the value of asking additional questions about stored goods as well. He recalls a time when the owner of an out-of-business bar became a tenant. “We thought he’d be storing bar furniture,” he says. When the unit went to auction, they found out the tenant had stored numerous cases of alcohol. “We couldn’t sell it at auction,” says Fritts.

Fritts also mentions a unit up for auction that was filled with approximately 200 cases of cigarettes without tax stamps. Similar to the cases of alcohol, the cigarettes could not be sold unless the self-storage facility would pay the state tax for selling the items. To avoid taxation issues, Fritts says the cartons were used as fuel for a bonfire.

What’s more, Fritts warns self-storage managers to be wary of tenants who plan to store large amounts of guns, firearms, weapons, or ammunition. “Be concerned about what’s left behind,” says Fritts. “We are not licensed to sell these at auction.”

Unfortunately, in these sorts of situations, when the stored goods cannot be auctioned off, self-storage facilities are unable to satisfy the liens. Thus, they must deal with the hassle of getting rid of the items while recovering little or none of the past-due rent.

On another note, while not illegal to store, self-storage managers should require any professional who plans to store confidential medical records, financial records, or other documents/files containing personally identifiable information to sign forms with details about who the facility must contact to reclaim abandoned files if necessary. 

Walk The Property
Although asking tenants what they plan to store is the first step in your quest for content clarification, your probing shouldn’t stop there. Fritts, Ballard, and Mixon-Krendl all agree that self-storage managers should be out on the property during move-ins to get a glimpse of the goods. 

“Be diligent,” says Mixon-Krendl. “It sounds snoopy, but it’s the smart thing to do.”

She and Ballard suggest taking beverages, such as cold bottles of water, to tenants as they move their items into their units. “Hand out water bottles during move-ins to see what they are storing,” Mixon-Krendl says. “It really comes down to getting out and being present.”

Fritts adds that walking the property or passing by on the golf cart while a tenant is moving into a unit provides managers with another opportunity to ask questions about what’s being stored and provide storage solutions. “Add value,” says Fritts. “Managers can make suggestions for how to better store things.”

For instance, if you notice a tenant moving a pantry, cupboard, refrigerator, or deep freezer, it’s in your best interest to advise him/her not to store food items within the unit. Obviously, common sense should tell tenants not to store perishable items, but even non-perishable foods (excluding canned goods) could pose a problem. Universal Storage Group’s “Helpful Hints For Storage Customers”, an e-brochure distributed to its tenants, states: “To prevent bug infestation and rodents, no food or food items should be stored. (If absolutely necessary, food staples should be sealed in plastic zip locks within another plastic bag.)”

Moreover, Fritts suggests that managers tell tenants defrost their refrigerators and deep freezers prior to storage to prevent melting ice from damaging other items stored within the unit. As Fritts knows all too well, deep freezers can present additional issues. In fact, one unit at SIMI’s Planet Storage facility near Boston, Mass., became a crime scene in 2004, when a dying woman confessed that a storage unit she had been renting contained a deep freezer with the dismembered body of her former husband, whom she had killed in 1990.

Managers should also take the time to remind tenants that combustible, corrosive, and flammable items are not permitted to be stored at the self-storage facility if you see them moving lawnmowers, grills, kerosene heaters, gas cans, oxygen tanks, or similar items into their units. Tenants may not have considered the potential risks of storing those items or simply may have forgotten to remove an item’s unsafe component. Remember: Sometimes all it takes to avoid a dangerous situation, such as a propane tank exploding in the triple-digit heat of summer, is a friendly reminder.  

Last but not least, when walking the facility, Mixon-Krendl advises managers to be aware of tenants who quickly pull down their door curtains as you approach their unit or anyone who exhibits suspicious behaviors.       

Use Your Senses
Oftentimes, managers who trust their gut end up grateful for doing so. It’s entirely appropriate to follow up on a hunch. As a matter of fact, Ballard encourages managers to use their “Spidey senses”. In other words, your instincts and senses can provide clues that something is amiss. 

A perfect time to look for anything out of the ordinary is during your daily lock checks. Besides a missing lock or an open shackle, Mixon-Krendl recommends that managers keep an eye out for electrical cords coming out of closed units and hallway outlets being utilized by tenants. These could be signs that tenants are living in their units; they may have a space heater or refrigerator plugged in. “Don’t let little things go,” she warns, adding that turning off the facility’s breaker at night can keep tenants from stealing electricity.

Reviewing the facility’s camera footage and access logs are two other great ways to identify patterns or abnormal activity. Plenty of illegal activities, such as prostitution, drug dealing, and counterfeiting operations, have been detected by going through access logs and camera footage.

Sometimes you can even follow your nose to uncover prohibited items. Anything that is strong enough to be noticed from outside the unit is probably a problem. Moreover, many items have distinct smells that are easily identifiable. For instance, Mixon-Krendl recalls a storage unit that was being used as a drying room for marijuana. And its pungent odor was the cause of several complaints. Mixon-Krendl utilized a wireless security scope camera sold by Chateau Products to verify the unit’s contents. “I told the manager to do a rate increase,” she says, noting that drastic rate increases are typically more effective than costly evictions. “When you keep the rates high, you have better tenants.”

Keeping with the senses, one of Fritts’ managers identified what could have been a cat-astrophe when he heard loud growling coming from a unit. Instead of opening the unit, he immediately called animal control. To their surprise, the unit was housing a tiger. The tenant had rented the unit to accommodate the animal during his hospital stay.

Go The Distance
Although this article only mentions a handful of the countless stories about the peculiar—and oftentimes prohibited—items tenants store, it is clear that managers must be both inquisitive and diligent during the move-in process to thwart potential danger.

Furthermore, as Fritts advises, don’t rent to someone just to fill the space. “Our managers have the autonomy to not rent to shady people,” he says. “Then, call the competition to let them know.”

Erica Shatzer is the editor of Mini-Storage Messenger, Self-Storage Now!, and Self-Storage Canada.

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