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By Kimberly Nelson
February 2017

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Utah) – America is stuffed with stuff. Over the last few decades rentable storage space in the United States has grown to a whopping 2.5 billion square feet. That’s 7.3 Square feet for every man, woman and child in the nation.

“It makes more money than Hollywood and it kind of flies underneath the radar,” said James Overturf Chief Marketing Officer & Executive VP of Extra Space Storage.

Extra Space Storage is one of the largest self-storage companies in the U.S. with 1,400 properties across the country and more than a million customers. “It’s difficult to say who or average customer is because it truly is we’ve got customers that range from ages 18 to over 90, incomes of zero to millions of dollars a year,” said Overturf.

One thing they do have in common – they need space for their stuff. “People want to retain their things and the reason they want to retain the items that they store in storage is they’re usually going through a life transition of some sort,” said Overturf. “There may be a birth of a baby, a new job in a new city, construction at their homes and so people want to retain their things to get to that next stage in life.”

“We joke it’s my hoarder paradise,” said storage unit renter who goes by the name of CJ. “I have a small apartment and so this is my staging area. So the idea is that I have a clean apartment and I put all my extra stuff here; my camping gear, it has my summer clothes, I keep my winter clothes and my bike. So the idea is I’ll go through it, throw it away and move on.”

But CJ admits, even if he moves into a larger home he may never really throw any of it away. “Is it excessive? Yeah, that’s why we joke that it’s a hoarders paradise. Like why do I have stuff if I’m not using it every day? I’m working on it I guess.”

It’s the reality of many of Brock Richardson’s customers. Richardson has been the manager of Canyon Rim Storage since 1991. “My brother was in real estate and kind of looked into it and thought it would be a good idea,” said Richardson. “Has it been?” “It’s been a pretty good idea,” answered Richardson.

According to the Self Storage Association, the industry generated more than $27 billion in 2014 alone making it the fastest growing segment of commercial real estate over the last 40 years.

Richardson’s business model hasn’t changed much in the last couple of decades. The only advertisement you’ll see for Canyon Rim Storage is in the phone book and yet business is better than ever. Out of 300 storage units, “I have only one unit open,” said Richardson.

More Americans are renting storage units than ever before. In fact, 9.5% of all American households currently rent one. And while most think they’ll only need storage for a few months, many stay for a lot longer. Richardson said, “The very first guy I rented to in ’98 said he’d be here for three months and he’s still here.”

The same is true just down the street at Extra Space Storage. “Most customers think they’re only going to need storage for an average of three months, but it kind of gains momentum and they end up staying for much longer than they think,” said Overturf.

The storage unit business was designed to fill a need during life transitions, like divorce, death, downsizing and displacement. But that doesn’t explain why some people rent storage unit for years on end.

Dr. Frank Page, Adjunct Assistant Professor with University of Utah’s Department of Sociology said, “We have a capitalist, consumer society. We’re inundated with advertising all day long and the advertisements say you need this, without this you’re inadequate with this; you’ll be more and you’ll be better. We buy these things and we become attached to them.”

Americans are motivated by the desire to have prestige and status, says Page. Owning stuff gives people a sense of security, which explains why in good times and in bad people rent storage units so they can hold on to their stuff. “In a way they’re a privilege of the rich, but they represent desperation on those people who are downwardly mobile,” said Dr. Page.

According to Page the proliferation of storage units can be seen an indicator of the well being of our society. “Our society behooves us to keep consuming. It says who you are is what you can consume and display, yet we don’t have the money and we have this period of downward mobility which has left a lot of people with this decision of what to do.”

Keeping up with everyone else while growing out of homes, garages and basements. Others downsizing and desperately trying to hold on to their identity, in both cases they’re renting spaces to store their stuff.

“Isn’t that what it’s all about, consumerism, is just buying, buying, buying?” asked CJ. “Is that American? I don’t know.”

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