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Abandoned storage units an interesting gamble
MARYSVILLE Its a daily combination of luck, pluck and muck, but for salvage artists like Wes Ferguson, somebodys elses junk is a living.
Ferguson is a Tacoma man who was in town with a group of regulars bidding on the contents of abandoned storage units. About 30 people were touring the Clock Tower Storage center on State Avenue earlier this month, following in the footsteps of salvage auctioneer Hubert Tillmon.
Tillmon handles auctioneering services for several chains of storage businesses. When people default on their units, the owners need to reclaim the spaces and dispose of the contents. Tillmon makes a living getting a crowd to gather round and bid on the contents of the abandoned units. Once they buy the lot, the new owners have 24 hours to clean out and get out.
First the lock is drilled and the door is opened. Prospective bidders may examine the contents from the outside, but may not enter or touch the contents. For a shallow unit like one of the interior units that are about eight feet wide by four feet deep, a buyer can usually see most of the larger items, but for an outside unit thats 10 feet wide by 20 feet deep a buyer can be getting more than he bargained for.
Sometimes its a score, sometimes its crap, Ferguson explained.
Never one to put a gloss on the situation, Ferguson was one of about 30 hopefuls who followed Tillmon around the Marysville business. This afternoon he was auctioning off five units whose owners had stopped paying on them. By and large a storage company must wait at least two and a half months before evicting the owners.
After the lock was drilled on a small unit about eight-feet square Tillmon lets the buyers file past as they crane their heads to see inside. There is a public address system, mixing board and speakers, some musical gear and various other stuff.
With a rapid-fire patter Tillmon tries to fire up the crowd, starting bidding at two bills $200, and then working his way up. He gets a 10 percent commission and the storage facility applies the rest toward the delinquent rent. Ferguson wins the first bid, paying $300 for the lot.
As the crowd moves on, the regulars are armed for bear; they have new padlocks with keys hanging from their belts and industrial-sized flashlights. The next unit has a TV and a scrap of paper; someone pays $1 for it but will likely have to pay to dispose of the set. An outside unit has a bed set deep in the back and a washer-dryer combo in front. In between are boxes of various sizes, a couch and a bicycle. It goes for three bills, and Tillmon is off to the next unit. It has only one item, but its a nice suede couch set, standing on its end. It goes for another $300.
A shallow interior unit doesnt promise much and it is sold for $10, and someone disparages the take by calling it garbage.
That is not garbage, that is merchandise, Tillmon shouted with a grin on his face.
Mostly athletic gear, the buyer quickly gets a five-spot for a couple of dumbbells as she and her husband transfer the contents to a U-Haul truck nearby.
Tillmon said he has seen some people do very well, but they are usually regulars who dispose of the stuff online or through businesses. One unit was purchased for $3,700 and yielded $45,000 worth of gear. One unit had a 1986 Porsche inside; it sold for $8,400 and probably had a street value of $12,000 to $15,000.
One buyer who just wanted to be called Robert said he makes his living this way, selling the contents on Ebay or with free advertisements on Craigslist. His favorite thing to find is cash, and he said he has found sums in five figures hidden away in units.
Its a crap shoot, it really is, Robert said. Youre on a first-name basis with the dump.
As he loaded a small outboard motor into the back of his pickup truck, Ferguson said the biggest score he hit was a 10 by 20 that had eight pallets full of brand new stereo gear. At the end of the day he had a bunch of new vinyl windows, the P.A. system and a couple of musical instruments. A vintage yellow Guild guitar will need work, but should more than make up for his trouble.
The owners of the storage centers dont make money off of the auctions, and are really just trying to get their space back on the rental market, according to Pat Reilly, president of Clock Tower Storage, which has facilities in Kent and Seattle. While the law says owners must wait more than two months, Reilly said his company will work with renters who are late with their payments.
We go the extra mile, Reilly said. Nobody wants your eighth-grade yearbooks.
He said the state of Washington is dominated by smaller mom-and-pop firms who would rather have a customer get their stuff. Clock Tower is pretty lax about jumping on delinquencies and its pretty rare they have to auction off the contents of delinquent units.
People sometimes just decide they dont want the stuff and they just leave it, Reilly said.
The auction business got quite a scare locally 12 years ago when the buyer of a Federal Way unit found the corpse of a woman in a barrel when rooting through the loot. A man was later convicted of killing his ex-wife and storing her body in the unit. When his next wife stopped paying the rent, the contents were put up for sale. Thats an extra example of what one can get when buying the abandoned stuff.
If youre interested in taking a crap shoot or just buying a bunch of crap, Tillmons schedule is posted on his website: www.tillmonauctionsvc.webpage66.com, and his phone number is 360-349-5219 or 360-456-2664.