At Storage Unit Auction List we are very lucky to have a loyal fan base of subscribers who are independent business owners and entrepreneurs with great stories to share and who have tons of information on the auction and resale business. Recently, I got the chance to interview one such subscriber, Bill Ott of Distressed Restorations in Elicott City, Maryland. We are thankful anytime one of our subscribers so willingly allows us to pick their brains for insight into the auction world and for tips on making it in the business!
How Long Have You Been in the Auction and Resale Business?
I have been in the business full time for a year and a half. I bought my first locker in July of last year. Before I started buying units, I spent four to five months attending auctions to see how they worked, who went on a regular basis, what they looked for (before buying), and what to pay attention to before I decided to start buying. At first, I took no money because I didn’t want the moment to get to me and to make a stupid decision. I paid attention to what everybody else was doing, what they were paying, what signs to look for inside a unit to see if it had been tampered with or if a unit had been thrown together. I got a lot of valuable information by keeping my mouth shut.
How Many Auctions Do Your Regularly Attend?
My schedule is pretty free and clear. There are quite a few facilities in a 15 mile radius to me. I would say 100 to 150 different facilities. There are a few that aren’t the greatest, and a few that are better than others. On average, I attend 10 to 15 a week, depending on the day. There are a lot of facilities that will do caravans. There could be a day when I hit 5 or 6 facilities, and there may be a week where there is only 1 here or there.
Can you give us some auction insights or bidding tactics that you use?
Basically, the crux of my business started out with furniture. I was looking for furniture that I could purchase cheap and upcycle and refurnish. I found out quickly that people liked to buy small things that they could put in their hands and walk away with, and this supplements the main business. Now, I can’t say that there is one specific thing that I’m looking for. I know (now) about what types of different things have profit to them. I wasn’t really paying attention to that before. I just saw the two dressers in the unit that were pressed wood and not very valuable and I overlooked the box that said China or Collectibles. I found out rather quickly on my first unit not to dismiss things because they don’t look great.
The first unit I bought was considered a trashy unit by the people at the auction that had been regulars and that I trusted. It wound up going super cheap and I didn’t expect to make anything on it, but thought I could spare the $40. It was mostly garbage bags, but there were a few nice pairs of Air Jordans that I made my money back on. I wound up donating lots of clothes, and now I’m kicking myself in the butt! I wound up finding people within my network that I could sell to. I now know a women who sells vintage clothing and I could have sold my stuff to her and made more money! I don’t really throw anything away unless it is trash. There is somebody out there that will buy anything. You just have to find that person.
Do you keep anything you win in auction?
For a long time I collected memorabilia, and Beanie Babies and I still have way too much of it! For the longest time I was paying for a storage unit for all this stuff and I wasn’t looking at any of it. I owned it, but I didn’t see it or do anything with it and it didn’t affect my life. I wasn’t going to pay to store this stuff and not do anything with it. I started to sell it. I decided that the only thing I wanted to collect was dead presidents. If it is something that I can use to better my business to make more money, I consider keeping it, aside from that I don’t keep anything else.
You can find a lot of nice stuff. I’ve seen people store some massively high dollar items and I’ve seen people pay to store trash. I know if I started keeping things, I would start keeping more and more of what I purchase. While (attending auctions) is fun to do, it is with the intent to make money. So keeping that in mind, if I’ve paid for a unit, and I’ve gotten $500 worth of value, I’m selling that stuff. I’m not going to hold on to it. It would be different if I was buying to get collectibles cheaply.
Have you found anything strange, kooky, or wierd in units you’ve purchased?
I have purchased units where people have stored dry food and had boxes and boxes of cereal, pancake mix, and canned goods. And to look at the labels, they are old and faded and the boxes have been chewed in to. I don’t know a facility out there that doesn’t have a rodent issue. I spent how much money on somebody’s pantry?
I have seen a locker, I didn’t purchase it, but it was full of garbage bags, and I hung around to talk to the guy that did buy it, and it was all leaves. Somebody had just filled up a unit full of garbage bags full of leaves. One unit I purchased had four garbage bags full of empty cigarette packs.
One of the first auctions I went to, somebody had gone to a unit, and they were doing demolition to their house, and all the scraps of that they put in a storage unit. It was a unit they could get into for a dollar for the first month, so they paid, loaded it up, and walked away from it. It was cheaper for them to do that then to take it to the dump and dispose of it.
There is all kinds of strange stuff out there. I found out quickly, as I’m opening boxes, I just don’t go shoving my hands in. You did through stuff gingerly.
Anything like cloth, furniture, clothing, or pillows, a rodent can nest into. If you’re not in a climate controlled unit they will nest and they will burrow into stuff. I’ve shaken dead mice out of things and animal droppings. All that stuff can get you extremely sick and grosses you out!
Sometimes you just have to sit stuff aside and let it air out and dig through it with a stick.
What Was Your best find or the most money you’ve made?
The easiest unit I had took next to no work. The auctioneer threw up the doors and we found a single wheelchair and a six foot round chair on casters and it had six humongous throw pillows on it. You could just hear everybody’s heart sinking. I saw the wheel chair and I thought, “I can sell that!” The auctioneer asked for a starting bid of $10 and I gave that and at the end of the auction, I started loading up, and somebody came through and offered $125 for it. So I moved it from one spot to another and somebody else took it away and I made my money back right then and there with really no effort. That’s not the unit I’ve made the most on, but it’s the most profit I made for the amount of energy I put into it.
My favorite unit was a 10×15 that wound up having cash and gift cards and I made my money back on those and then made another $900 off of the contents of the unit. There were Macy’s, Nordstrom, Lord and Taylor’s gift cards. The cash was just lying around, here, there and everywhere. The person that owned the unit had taken all the cards from their wedding and thrown into a box and didn’t bother to go through any of it.
I learned awhile ago that with greeting cards you have to pull everything out of the envelope and shake them out. It is amazing to see that these people hadn’t taken any of the gift cards out of the wedding cards that they had gotten. One of them had a check that had been dated 9 years earlier. They had a good bit of money that they had just shoved in a box, put in a storage unit, and forgotten about. I dig through units looking for this stuff. I now dig through everything. I don’t underestimate anybody. People put the goofiest stuff in storage.
What is your strategy for selling? Do you sell specific items specific ways?
I do, it depends on what the item is and how much cash flow I need to get at a certain time. I’m still building a network of people that sell certain items. I do have a booth at an antique mall. It is in the center of a historic district going through a revitalization and that brings traffic in.
Depending on the item and the market I’m going after I sell on Amazon, Ebay. I sell a ton of DVD’s. I started with my own collection. At a booth at an antique mall, nobody is going in to look for DVDs, so those I sell on Ebay. I’ve wound up finding people on Craigslist selling DVDS. I pay four cents for recent, popular movies, and turn around and sell them on Ebay for 12 or 13 times that. Then again, I have to pay to sell on Ebay.
I put furniture on Craigslist or display in my booth. Smaller stuff I’ll display in booth, glassware, decorative plates, household goods, because I’m already paying for the booth and it doesn’t cost me extra to put it there, then if it doesn’t sell after a few weeks I put it on Ebay.
I put books on Amazon or Alibris.com. My inventory is sitting there and I don’t have to manage it, I pack it off and ship it and collect a little bit of money. I will sell just about anything.
Alibris is a filtering website. You list through there and it will bring it up on Amazon, Bonanza, Ebay, and quite a few other places. It spiders out to other websites that people look at to purchase from.
I wound up dealing with quite a few people that are associated with Storage Wars, and found a few different places to move stuff.
How do you maintain a successful business and what tips do you have for other auction hunters?
Don’t get caught up in the excitement of an auction and don’t spend your money just to spend it. I tell bidders all the time, I’m going home with all my money in my pocket, that’s not a bad day. I’d rather go home with my money than spend it and not be able to break even, and go through the work of cleaning the unit and trashing everything. I’m not into making trash runs for storage facilities, but I’ve been to auctions where units haven’t sold and I’ve been friendly with the management and they offer to pay me to clean out a unit for them.
Pay attention to what everybody else is doing and find out who the regulars are. I’ve seen people get into bidding wars and spend way to much just to say they got it. I don’t care if you get a unit out from under me. I decide I’m going to spend X amount on a unit. I don’t go above that because then there isn’t profit. If you’re going to spend more than me, go ahead. You didn’t do anything bad to me by going higher. I’m just not going to spend more, because I want to make a profit.
I’ve heard people say that, “They’re here to make money and not friends,” but you don’t want to upset people that you bid against. You want to be friendly and cordial. Once you start to get known by people, and they bid on a unit where they know you’re interested, they won’t bid you up and make you spend more.
We’re all cordial and we work together, because honestly, I may buy a unit where I want one item, and there are tons of other items, and I have another guy at the auction who will offer to pay me for the other items. Then I’ve made money off of it and I don’t have to unload a unit. I have to leave something for them to make money off of as well. If I go in with an attitude, nobody is going to want to talk with me and people will bid me up just because. And if I wind up having a bunch of extra stuff, people won’t want to buy from me. You wind up cutting your own throat by having a negative attitude.
You want to make sure you’re friends with everybody, you need to make sure that the management staff and the employees know that you’re serious and you’re there to buy stuff and you’re not going to leave a unit full of trash take just the good stuff, that you’re ethical and not trying to do anything underhanded.
I’ve gotten lots of information by showing up early and talking to the manager and finding out if the unit has been up before, the size, how long the unit was rented. It’s not going to do them any harm to tell you, but if you go in and you aren’t friendly and don’t talk and are arrogant, they aren’t going to let you know anything.
It is advantageous to become friendly with the staff at the facilities you go to. In the rules, they say you have 24 hours to empty a unit. But, if it’s Friday, they may say you have until Monday, or if it’s bad weather they’ll let you have a few extra days. The rules are there, but that doesn’t mean that’s always what is going to happen. If you’re real friendly with them, you can ask for an extra few days and unless it’s their last empty unit and they need to rent it, they will usually work with you to give you a few extra days to clean it up and empty it. Especially if you buy multiple units. Especially if they have units that just won’t sell. They don’t want to have to clean out a unit that won’t sell. If they know you, they may ask you to empty out a unit and they pay you to do this, and then you get all the contents inside the unit for free.
A perfect example: I know a guy who went to an auction and wound up being paid to take a holders unit. There were over 5,000 comic books in the unit! He got paid to empty the unit out and that is all profit for him. If he hadn’t been friendly with the management staff, he wouldn’t have gotten that phone call.
You want to have them for your number in case something comes up. You want to make positive contacts everywhere. The last I heard, he is still going through and putting all those comics in plastic sleeves and getting them appraised. You figure, 5,000 comics, most from the 50s, 60s, 70s, so even if he gets a $1 a piece, that is $5,000 profit and he got paid to take them!
If I can increase my odds of money just by being nice, then I will.
You don’t want to open a business and then alienate people. Be fair, and don’t try to get anything over on anybody. There are lots of people who go to auctions who you can develop relationships with.
For example, the woman who sells vintage clothing. I can offer to sell her the clothing I buy. I may not make anything off of it, or get what I would normally ask, but if I can break even, it’s a win for both of us, and if she comes across stuff, I’ll get a phone call. I know I’m not going to make off of her what she is making off of somebody else, but that’s OK because I don’t have to deal with it anymore. She does this, I don’t. Then I don’t have to think about where to peddle the clothing, and I’m not have to spend a ton of gas and time and I’m still making a profit and allowing her to make money.
We all help each other out. If somebody else knows someone who is looking for a piece I have, they will give them my number and we all work together to help each other out because you can’t do it totally by yourself.
You mentioned some interaction with some of the Storage Wars crew. Can you tell us more about that?
I am more involved with Dan and Laura Dotson. I have dealt with Troy Howerton (The Redneck Picker) as well, who is part of a side project that Dan and Laura have. So I’ve gotten a lot of information from the various people who have been in the business. They all got their start the same way, by paying attention to what they’re doing. They are regular people just like everybody else, just with a camera in their face.
I’m a fan of the show, and my first question (when I started) was, “Is this really what it’s like or just how television has made it out?” For the most part the show is pretty accurate, the only thing you have to remember is that they may have taped a hundred auctions to find two where there is worthwhile stuff coming out of the unit. Every unit doesn’t have gold in it.
Honestly, those shows are how I found out about auctions and got into it. I thought it looked fun and cool. It is like Christmas everyday. There is a rush off of it. But I think a lot of people don’t bother to realize, that just because you see two units with a fortune doesn’t mean that every unit you buy will be the greatest thing ever.
I’ve seen people spend money on junk units and then they don’t come around again. While the shows are entertaining and for the most part, the auction format is accurate, there are a few differences. You can’t break away from the auction and dig through your unit. That doesn’t happen. It’s not your unit until your money goes across the counter. Buying a unit is easy, anybody with cash can buy a unit that is profitable, but if you don’t have somebody to sell it to, then it doesn’t matter.
I agree, I always wonder what those guys base their appraisals on…
It is totally about relationships. You have to know who will pay for what, and what something is actually worth.
In addition to storage units, I buy on Craigslist and flea markets. If something is appraised at X amount, I don’t care what they say, the market value is whatever somebody is willing to pay you for it. If 15 people are all offering you$250, and the appraiser says it is worth $1,000, the current market value is $250. You have to decide if you want to make the $250 now, or hang on to it and try to make more, and consider how much it costs to store, etc. if you’re selling to a reseller, they have to be able to make profit too.
Tell us about your business!
My business is Distressed Restorations. Mostly, a big part of what we do is upcycle furniture, we repurpose, we make shabby chic furniture, we make what once was, into something unique and new. We also do custom work, so if somebody has furniture that they think is hideous or they just want a change, we’ll do that. I have just about everything you can think of at my booth at the antique mall.
For more information on Distressed Restorations you can visit the Facebook page here.
How has Storage Unit Auction List helped your business?
Honestly it has made it a lot easier to find auctions. I deal with several different auction list sites, some are pay and some aren’t, and out of all of them that I’ve dealt with, Storage Unit Auction List is great because I can get text message alerts. I get reminders of where auctions are, as opposed to just getting an email once a week, which is nice, but if I don’t have that email printed out with me, I don’t have to wind up creating appointments for each auction. The text alerts are nice.
Wheelchairs: http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]
Beanie Babies: http://www.flickr.com/photos/joeltelling
Gift Cards: http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/
Comic Books: http://www.flickr.com/photos/popculturegeek
Dan and Laura: http.www.aetv.com
Additional Photos courstesy of Bill Ott