Storing up trouble
May 24, 2011 | By:
The older you get, the more stuff you own. But beware self-storage, says Sheila Prophet. The fees can be shocking

However much space you think you need, you'll probably need more.

After my first foray into a self-storage facility, I can confirm they are indeed creepy and unnerving places, with a mystery hidden down every blank corridor and behind every anonymous door. And yes, before you ask, it seems they have been used in the past to store drugs, explosives and even dead bodies, though in my case it was just the sitting room furniture while my flat was being decorated.

For some strange Americans, storage units are even a magnet for illicit liaisons, according to the Tales from the Trenches section of the riveting website SelfStorageTalk, though I can’t say I found it remotely sexy. What I did find was that putting your stuff in storage is anything but simple, and is fraught with financial pitfalls for the unwary newcomer.

Look at the websites of the top storage companies and you will see a bewildering array of special offers, discounts and price guarantees. But nowhere will you see a straightforward price.

I rang the nearest facility for a quote and was told the smallest room, with their special first month’s discount, would be £10 a week, which seemed reasonable.

That was my first mistake. One of the first rules of storage, according to the excellent blog Storage.co.uk, is that you will always need more space than you think. This was confirmed when I looked at the space and realised that, even piled up to the ceiling, my junk could not be squeezed in. So I switched to the next size up, and suddenly the cost, even with the ‘discount’, more than doubled to £92.50 for the minimum period of a  month, payable in advance.

And that was only the start.  There was a previously undisclosed security deposit of £46.25, plus insurance of £22. Then another catch: I had to buy my own padlock for £10.83. I also needed some boxes for storage and was recommended to choose the box for a one-bedroom flat, at a cost of £30. This turned out to be an enormous box containing enough boxes to swallow up the contents of Downton Abbey. From going in blithely expecting a bill of around £50, I came out having shelled out £197.

There were two more stings to come after I retrieved my goods and chattels. Though I believed I had signed on just for one month, I found there was a seven-day notice period, and as the discount was no longer in place, this extra week now cost over £40 – roughly the same amount as the refundable security deposit.

After tapping away at his keyboard for several minutes, the receptionist told me they owed me exactly £1.90, which would be returned to me within 14 days. It was 19 days later when it turned up, along with another £208 they had “mistakenly” whipped out of my account to cover the following month’s storage. I admit this was my own fault: if I had trawled through the small print I would have spotted the seven-day notice period. In fact I was lucky, as some of the companies insist on 14 days’ notice.

All this lack of clarity over costs, however, is familiar to Paul Barber of Storage.co.uk, which included an Award for Pricing Transparency in its Awards for Excellence in the storage industry, launched this year.

“The transparency award was given to firms that put prices on their websites and offered simplicity and clarity,” he says. “I agree that the issue of prices, with all the extras involved, can be very confusing. This is a new industry in this country and it has made mistakes, but companies are very keen to listen to customers telling them how to do it better.

“For instance, many are now offering smaller units, as well as innovations such as cafés within facilities, and mobile storage units which come to customers’ doors and save them having to hire a van and load and unload their stuff twice.”

Paul believes that as they respond to customers’ feedback, companies will make storage simpler and more transparent. But he says: “In the meantime, the only solution is to ring round, or use our website to get quotes from four local companies, and find out exactly what you will be paying before you start.”

Paul’s tips for the best deal

Be flexible about location, as rents are often cheaper in more remote areas.

Don’t be seduced by short-term special offers, because you will inevitably end up using storage for longer than you planned.

Cut your packaging costs by picking up cartons from supermarkets (though weak ones may end up doing more harm than good).

Establish the extra costs involved: security deposit, insurance, notice period, and whether you have to buy or hire a padlock.

Anything that reduces floor space will reduce rental costs, so stack boxes (carefully) in piles and store smaller objects inside larger ones.

Unit sizes

Storage units are generally measured in square feet, with the smallest being 25. To help visualise this, 100 sq ft (10 ft by 10 ft) is the size of an average parking space, and 10 ft is a bit less than the average headless man and women lying head to toe!