Storage-unit auctions not so ‘strange’ anymore

Strange Auction Services gets its name from its owner, but the company's moniker could just as easily describe some of the unusual sales conducted by the 2-year-old Indianapolis-based business.

“I get that a lot,” said Jason Strange, 35, who founded the business in mid-2008. “I’ve explained [the origin of the company's name] I don’t know how many times.”

Strange conducts auctions across the state mostly for storage facilities and moving companies burdened by unclaimed clutter left behind by customers who either cannot be located or cannot pay mounting storage fees.

Amid the mess, bidders just might stumble upon hidden treasure. The art of the scavenger hunt is getting noticed thanks to cable television shows such as Spike TV’s “Auction Hunters” and “Storage Wars,” which premieres Wednesday on A&E.

A promo for “Storage Wars” boasts that auction pros scouring repossessed storage units have found everything from coffins to the world's most valuable comic book collection, paying as little as $10 for items valued in the millions.

So far, the auctions Strange conducts haven’t produced booty quite that lucrative. But they have unearthed the shell of a 1965 Corvette, Harley-Davidson motorcycles and a China collection, for instance.

An early Christmas present could be awaiting someone at two of Strange’s upcoming auctions, which will be among his largest.

On Dec. 4 he’ll auction off the contents of delinquent storage units for Guardian Relocation on South Franklin Road on Indianapolis’ far-east side. On Dec. 7, he’ll sell off 50 movable storage units for the local franchise of All My Sons Moving and Storage on North Shadeland Avenue.

For Chris Lambert, owner of the local All My Sons outlet, the Dec. 7 auction will be his second this year. His first, in May, was also conducted by Strange.

“We try to do them as little as possible,” Lambert said. “We’re not in the business of selling people’s stuff.”

Yet, economic hardships are causing one in five of his customers to leave their contents behind, he said, which is contributing to the rise in the number of auctions and in their popularity.

Some of his customers likely have been evicted from their homes and don’t have the money to recover the contents of the storage units. Other times, family members of a deceased relative simply forget about the items.

“Storage in general has really taken a hit,” Lambert said. “[People say,] ‘I can hardly pay my bills’—that’s what we’re running into a lot.”

Strange’s ability to run a smooth auction, coupled with a computer system that tracks real-time financial information from an auction, drew Lambert to hire him again.

An Indianapolis native, Strange was introduced to auctions as a youngster while accompanying his stepfather, a used car dealer, to auto auctions. At 21, and looking to pursue a music career as a drummer, he and a guitar-player friend moved to Florida.

While playing bars and nightclubs 200 nights a year, Strange began to devote his spare time to buying and reselling items he had purchased from storage facilities. Then, he reasoned, why not just get an auctioneer’s license?

Strange returned to Indiana to enroll in a two-week course at Reppert Auction School in Auburn. Meeting his girlfriend, Wendy Miller, at the school convinced him to stay in Indiana. Her father operates Curran Miller Auction/Realty Inc. in Evansville.

Distributing fliers and word-of-mouth marketing helped Strange grow his company, though he said he would welcome more business.

His auctions can attract anywhere from 10 to 100 people who might pay between $5 and $5,000 for the entire contents of a storage unit. An average price paid for what’s inside typically ranges from $300 to $500.

He said he's prohibited by federal law from disclosing commission rates to the public.

“If everyone knows what each other charges, they’ll start cutting each other’s throats,” he said.

Typical auctions draw several used-furniture dealers, auction houses buying to stock inventory, and people trying to make a buck reselling items on eBay or Craig’s List, Strange said.

Storage and moving companies must wait at least 90 days after receiving the last payment from a customer before they can start the process of selling the contents of a unit to satisfy the debt. A notice by certified mail to the debtor and a legal notice published in a newspaper must follow.

Storage unit companies can't profit from the sales. Any money they receive above what the renter owes is returned to the renter. Typically, however, auction bids don't cover all the debt.
Auctions usually start at 10 a.m. and can be held on weekdays or weekends, depending on the amount of competing sales.

The protocol is pretty straightforward: The owner of the storage facility cuts the unit’s lock, lifts the door and the bidding commences. Because the contents belong to the tenant until they are sold, bidders and auctioneers are forbidden from entering the unit to rummage through the clutter. Interest depends on what can be seen from the door.

Strange does have one rule for buyers, though.

“If you find personal pictures,” he said, “I tell them to leave them there.”

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