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  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Lisa Olson of Milford, look over items Friday, February 17, 2012, she and her father, Ed Holt won in a recent storage auction. The two are planning to open "Back For More" in Milford, where they will sell storage acquisition. She does the photography end of the business for listing the items on eBay, Craigslist and Amazon.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Ed Holt and his daughter, Lisa Olson of Milford, look over 16mm movie trailers Friday, February 17, 2012, they won in a recent storage auction. The two are planning to open "Back For More" in Milford, where they will sell storage unit acquisition.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Ed Holt and his daughter, Lisa Olson of Milford, show a large movie banner Friday, February 17, 2012, they won in a recent storage auction. The two are planning to open "Back For More" in Milford, where they will re-sell storage acquisitions.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Ed Holt of Milford, shows an home-made bell Friday, February 17, 2012, he won in a recent storage auction.
Monday, March 5, 2012

Local storage auctions offer bidders the thrill of the treasure hunt

Ed Holt is making reality TV his reality.

Last summer, motivated by the popular A&E show “Storage Wars,” Holt, of Milford, along with his daughter Lisa Olson, embarked on their first storage unit auction.

“It’s the hunt,” Holt said. “There’s a lot of intrigue there.”

Now, about six months later, Holt is coming out of retirement to build a new business selling his auction winnings called Back For More, which will open at 212A South St. in Milford this month.

“It’s fun for us,” Holt said of the auctions. “It’s more of a hobby than anything else, but it’s turning into a nice income.”

The show that sparked Holt’s business plan has generated millions of new fans of the storage auction lifestyle, in which hordes of professional and amateur bidders gather at storage facilities around the country to compete for shed-sized rental lockers left unpaid by owners.

Once a storage facility claims ownership of a foreclosed unit, it puts the unit’s contents up for public auction. The catch is attendees only get a quick glance inside the unit before it’s put up for bid. The potential financial reward, or loss, is a crap shoot based on estimating what’s inside.

“We bought a $10 unit that has turned into $6,000,” Holt said. “There were things that you wouldn’t think were valuable, old VHS tapes. There were 3,000.”

On the flip side, there’s plenty of room to lose, too.

“It was quite a learning curve in the beginning,” Holt said. “You have to be able to look at what you see right up front, make a calculated guess as to what it’s worth, and you shouldn’t bid more than what you see. If you’re right, you at least get your money back.”

Nationwide, storage auctions have served as money-makers for years, including at local places such as Extra Space Storage in Nashua and Milford Mini Storage. Recently, under the lights of reality TV though, the business is becoming a fad.

“It’s always a gamble,” said Kevin Lacasse, of Gilford, after attending Milford Mini Storage’s auction in January. “It’s just a thrill of the kill. You can score a real good unit, make a pile of money and double, triple, or quadruple your money – but you can also lose everything.”

Trash picking and treasure hunting

The majority of the crowd at a recent auction at Milford Mini Storage seemed used to the storage auction trade. Many acted as if they were old friends, and at times, like old enemies.

“There’s a crowd up here that does it right now, so once you get to know all the faces, you know who you’re bidding against,” Holt said. “What starts happening is if you beat a guy at one auction, they’re out to get you at the next auction.”

Some bidders come armed with flashlights to look deep into darkened lockers. Others bring U-Hauls to tow things away in case they win.

Once the Milford auction started, bidders dressed in camouflage parkas or leather jackets lined up to file past the 10-by-15-foot units up for sale. Most got a short, visual sweep before putting hundreds of dollars down on things of questionable value.

“You’re always looking for the elusive pot of gold that’s never there,” Bob Phelps, of Concord, explained. “Bear the 80/10/10 rule. 80 percent of it’s junk, 10 percent of it might have value, and 10 percent of it might have value to the right person.”

Some say they attend the auctions simply as antique collectors. Some make online income by re-selling prizes on eBay and Craigslist, while others turn the bidding habit into an independent business.

Paul Maglio, president of Storage Auction Solutions and the Milford auctioneer that day, kept the crowd shuffling through so no bidder could stop longer than 10 seconds to look inside a unit.

Before he started firing off his auction chant – “Five and a quarter now, five and a half and go? You in or out? Is that a yes? Fair warning-SOLD!” – bidders stopped to tap him on the shoulder and to whisper their bid intentions up front.

“This isn’t for the faint of heart,” Maglio explained, detailing the process.

Depending on lien laws, Maglio said storage facilities wait a number of months before claiming an unpaid unit. Sometimes renters who can’t make payments turn their property over to the facility on their own, Maglio said.

“(Storage facilities) go to the wall to try to get people to pay,” Maglio said. “They rent space and they can’t do anything with the space if nobody’s paying for it. My job is to sell the units, have a commercially reasonable sale. The facility can only keep what is owed in the expenses.”

The people who bid have arguably the largest task in the process.

“First you’ve got to win the bid then you’ve got to mobilize labor to clean the unit out and bring it back to your shop and process it,” David Champion, of Swanzey, explained, while attending the Milford storage auction. “It’s time consuming. There’s labor involved. There’s more money involved than just the purchase of the unit. … You’re looking at another $200-400 in labor and fuel expenses depending on where the location is.”

Generally units must be cleaned out within 24 hours of winning, Holt said. Some are stuffed to the brim with furniture. Others are packed floor-to-ceiling with bags, bins and boxes. Some contain couches or pianos. Everything needs to be emptied out, documented and hauled away.

“You usually have to put a deposit on the unit that’s refundable so that it’s cleaned out within 24 hours,” Holt said. “The other option you have is to rent the unit for an extra month, which adds on to the cost of the unit. … You can lose money real quick if you’re not careful.”

Regulars admit it’s not all treasure all the time.

“We’ve had plenty of bad lockers,” Lacasse said. “I’ve spent $800-900 and not collected $200. That probably happens 30 percent of that time.”

It’s not always fun to dig through the life that somebody else left behind, either.

“When you’re opening up a unit it’s also a little sad because you find somebody’s whole life sitting in a unit,” Lacasse said. “There’s nothing worse than finding somebody’s baby pictures and photo albums of first birthdays and things like that. It’s a sad thing.”

There’s also the trash that comes along with the treasure, sometimes years-worth, taking days to sort out.

“We’re not the bottom feeders,” Lacasse said. “If it’s not quality stuff we get rid of it. … What they don’t show you on TV is the amount of trash you have.”

But once you do strike gold or silver, it’s hard not to get hooked on the process.

“We’ve found paper towels folded up with jewelry in it,” Champion said. “We sell used furniture, but then the treasures that come with it are the bonuses. Cash, gold and silver. That’s the treasure.”

Changing how the game is played

With reality TV attracting more bidders to storage auctions, not everybody is happy to share their stake in the treasure.

“It’s definitely hurt this business,” Lacasse said of the increasing number of auction newbies. “Years ago, you could go to any storage facility having an auction and you could buy lockers for $50. Now you’re paying $500, $600, $700 for the same locker because everyone thinks they’re going to go in and make a pile of money and someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, or what they’re looking for, they’re going to lose money.”

The newcomers don’t always feel welcome, either.

Alex Hinckley, 18, of Nashua, said he attended storage auctions in New Hampshire and Massachusetts with his three friends while they were home for winter break, and felt the heat of the hunt every place they went.

“People, straight to our faces, will say nasty things to us,” Hinckley said. “They think we’re here as a joke.”

He said some actions spoke louder than words.

“We just want to get the feeling of winning one and not knowing what’s in there,” Hinckley said. “We bid $100, then the next person bid $2,500 after we did. The next time we went to bid the opening bidder said, ‘I’m bidding $125 to eliminate some of the competition.’ ”

But Hinckley said the real life experience, even if cutthroat, has only enhanced his appreciation for the show.

“It’s always on at school,” Hinckley said. “Everyone’s always making money.”

And for Holt, the show has opened his family to an unforeseen business opportunity.

“I think you’re seeing a lot of new people jumping in” on storage auctions, Holt said. “I like to see it. It doesn’t really hurt us. … I think anybody can do it but they should be aware that it’s a lot more work than even what I thought.”

Maryalice Gill can be reached at 594-6490 or Follow Gill on Twitter (@Telegraph_MAG).