What Happens When You Don’t Pay for Your Storage Unit

Krista Diamond | Jun 27, 2016 @ 10:00 AM

Let’s travel down the road of worst-case scenarios for a moment. You’ve rented a storage unit, filled it with stuff—some of it valuable, some of it not so much—and after months of being a responsible tenant, you’ve started to slip. Maybe you missed those payments because of some major life event like the loss of a job or the end of a marriage. Maybe you went in on that storage unit with someone who couldn’t pay their share. Maybe you just forgot. So what’s going to happen? Can you just keep your stuff in the storage unit for free for the rest of your life? Is your 1998 collection of Beanie Babies going to end up on Storage Wars? While the answer to both is almost definitely no, here’s what you can expect:

Your Storage Unit Will Go Into Default

If you hate the phrase “hindsight is 20/20,” you might want to skip this part. The truth is that most of what happens when you don’t pay for your storage unit is stated clearly in that lease you signed. When you agreed to the terms in that document, you were made aware of the point of default on your storage unit. To put it simply, this is the maximum amount of days that you can go without paying rent before things start to get real. It’s usually about 30 days. Once you’re in default, you’ll be locked out of the property and out of your unit. Facility managers typically cut the lock on your unit and replace it with a special red lock. They’ll occasionally also post a letter on the door cautioning you against trying to enter the unit, which you should absolutely take seriously no matter how much you want to get in there and grab your favorite Christmas sweater.

The Facility Will Try Very Hard to Contact You

The most important thing that you need to know about this entire process is this: The storage facility does not want to auction off your stuff. Storage auctions are not profitable. In fact, they cost the facility a lot in wasted time that could be better spent maintaining the property and serving tenants. In addition to this, lien laws, which vary from state-to-state, are taken very seriously, meaning that if a facility manager doesn’t perfectly follow the storage auction rules, he or she can end up in small claims court or worse. You might think you’re stressed about missing payments on your storage unit, but trust us, the facility’s staff is feeling it too.

When your storage facility contacts you to let you know that you’re in default, they’re not just doing it because they’re legally required to. They’re doing it because they want to work with you to avoid auctioning off your storage unit. The facility will try to contact you at least once via mail, e-mail or phone. Some state’s lien laws specify that they have to contact you by mail, so if you’ve moved recently and the facility doesn’t have your new address, you might not get their letter. The facility will do everything they can to get ahold of you, but if your contact information isn’t up to date, you could miss out on this important communication.

There Will Be Time in Between Default and Auction

There’s a set period of time in between going into default and going off to auction. It’s usually between 30-90 days, but check your state’s lien laws for an accurate number. If you live in an area where storage units are scarce and in high demand, don’t expect your storage facility to wait much longer than that. After all, the property is a business, and it’s in the best interest of the facility manager to get your stuff out of there so that the unit can be rented to someone who will pay for it. This period of time in between default and auction is crucial. As much as those threatening letters might scare you, it’s important not to let them scare you so much that you don’t respond. Communicate. Explain yourself. Yes, you’re dealing with a business, but you’re also dealing with other human beings. It’s not uncommon for a storage facility manager to strike a deal with a tenant in your situation. Alternatives to auction might include setting up a payment plan, paying discounted rent or paying what you can now and agreeing to pay the rest later. It’s very likely that as part of the deal, you’ll be asked to move your belongings out immediately, so be prepared for that.

The Last Resort

So it’s happened. You storage unit is definitely going up for auction. Before the day of the auction, the facility is required to publicize when and where this is taking place. You will also get a certified letter notifying you of this. In the state of Texas, storage facilities must publish a notice of this in a newspaper or other publication for two consecutive weeks. This is standard practice in many other states as well. Even if you live in some remote part of Montana that doesn’t have a newspaper, the facility will find a way to publicize that auction, even if it means painting the town with flyers.

Since you’re not exactly welcome on the property, don’t attempt to attend your own storage auction and don’t pull any double-agent spy moves and send someone else on your behalf either. Some facilities will agree to pass along your contact information to the buyer of the storage unit that way you can potentially get back personal items like photos, tax documents and anything else that would otherwise end up in the trash. Remember that the storage facility is only trying to recoup the amount that you owe them, so if your storage unit sells for more than what you owe, you’re entitled to the remainder. For example, in Nevada you have one year to claim those funds before they’re turned turned over to the state.

Going Forward

If your storage unit didn’t fetch a high enough price to pay off your debt and you’re unable to pay that amount, your credit is going to take a hit. Unfortunately, this will affect you the next time you rent an apartment, buy a home, sign up for auto insurance and potentially the next time you try to rent a storage unit (yep, some of them run credit checks). You won’t necessarily be denied for these things, but you will be expected to pay higher rates or pay a deposit up front.

The loss of your personal possessions and the embarrassment of knowing that they’ve been auctioned off might feel like the end of the world, but things will get better. Going into default on a storage unit is more common than you think, and we promise that the staff of the facility won’t spend the rest of their lives resenting you. They’ve got bigger things to deal with in the long run, and they’re probably more sympathetic to your situation than you realize. Take the opportunity to learn from your mistakes and the next time you rent a storage unit (or apply for an apartment, lease a car or make any large purchase), be sure to read the lease, double-check the fine print, ask questions and most importantly, communicate.