'Storage Wars' increases popularity of auctions

Sep 5 2011 - 8:47am

The recent popularity of a handful of reality TV shows revolving around storage-unit auctions has changed what once was a hobby for a few into a moneymaking prospect for many.

One of the most popular of these shows is "Storage Wars" on A&E. And while such television shows may have upped the ante at auctions, people who have attended them for years are fans.

At 9:30 sharp on a recent weekend morning, Brian Fuhs, site manager of 16th Avenue Mini-Storage in Lewiston, and Xandra Belletto, assistant site manager, set the stage for auctioning off the contents of six storage units.

"Welcome to 'Storage Wars Two, Lewiston edition.' I just want to start by saying we get no pleasure from doing this," Fuhs told the group of about 20 in attendance.

People in default were given until the start of the auction to pay what they owed on the storage rentals and keep their belongings. At the beginning of the process, 10 units were in arrears. By the time a legal notice was published in the paper, two had paid. And by auction time, only six remained.

Fuhs said the day's auction would be done differently than in the past. Prior auctions at 16th Avenue Mini-Storage were by sealed bid, but this one would be open bidding, as is seen on the TV reality shows. Since July 1, an auctioneer license is no longer required in Idaho.

He relayed the rules of the auction to the group: no touching or going into units, and toes cannot cross the threshold. And, Fuhs added, "We do ask that you please return personal items with no value to you and we will try to return them to the owners."

The show "Storage Wars" has its regular cast of characters -- auction hunters Dave Hester, the owner of a consignment and auction store; Darrell Sheets, the one looking for items of value; Barry Weiss, the collector; and Jarrod Schulz and Brandi Passante, owners of a thrift store. The show, currently in its second season, follows these and other characters to storage-unit auctions, primarily in Southern California.

Like the television show, Lewiston-Clarkston Valley storage-unit auctions have regular participants -- Kem and Cathy Warnock, Jim and Linda McConnell, and Ron McCann, all of Lewiston. For them this is a hobby that began long before the shows.

"A friend got me into this 20 years ago. Once you do it, you get hooked," said Kem Warnock.

The Warnocks' daughter and son-in-law help them empty the units and sort through the items. "We give a lot of it away, put some in yard sales and keep some," Cathy Warnock said, adding "the personal stuff we try to return."

Kem Warnock said he watches "Storage Wars" and has seen a few episodes of the other storage auction shows on TV.

"Just after the shows got popular, there was huge expansion at auctions," he said. "It was big at first, people thinking they were gonna get rich." He and Cathy noted one auction they went to had at least 200 people in attendance.

At this auction, none of the bidders yelled out "yuuup," at the auctioneer's prompt, as Hester of "Storage Wars" does. Instead, the crowd took Fuhs' opening bid and called out their own bids -- one out-doing the last by at least $1 and sometimes by as much as $50.

Conversations between those in the crowd weren't so different from what can be heard on the TV shows. They talked about items they saw in the units, how much the items might be worth or how many trips to the dump it would take to clean the unit out. They discussed the contents piece by piece, sometimes making jokes about items they saw, such as empty Mike's Hard Lemonade bottles.

As Fuhs prepared to close the bids on one unit another bid rang out from the crowd. "Just like 'Storage Wars,' you always wait 'til the last minute," said McCann, who ended up with the unit, showing the strategy can work.

Jim and Linda McConnell had fun bidding on the units, going back and forth with the Warnocks in $1 increments. Not wanting to give up, Jim jokingly asked Linda, "How much cash do you have on you?"

At the end of the auction, Fuhs and Belletto agreed they liked the open bidding better. They also agreed it was more fun, and the crowd seemed to have enjoyed it more, too.

Each unit brought more money than is typical, Fuhs said, because with closed bidding you don't have a chance to raise your bid once it's given. Either way, the storage-unit business didn't make back all the lost revenue. Some units can be as much as $648 in arrears by auction day. The lowest winning bid on this day was $65 and the biggest seller went for $500.

Days after the auction, Kem Warnock said they did all right, getting mostly household items from the units he purchased, "nothing real valuable but I'll get my money back and maybe a little profit."

He added he rarely finds the kind of stuff you see on the shows.

Belletto said one of the units sold contained some valuable jewelry, so this auction did have a little "wow factor," as Sheets from "Storage Wars" would say.

In the end, Kem and Cathy Warnock were able to leave the auction with the contents of three units, McCann left with one unit and the McConnells left empty handed.

"I haven't got any (units) since the shows started," Jim McConnell said.

(c)2011 the Lewiston Tribune (Lewiston, Idaho)

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