Are you unfamiliar with the term ‘self storage’? Learn more about what self storage is and find out how the storage rental process works. 


Let’s say you’re setting off on the trip of a lifetime: One year of working remotely and traveling around the world. Where will you put all your furniture and belongings while you’re gone? You could always sublet your apartment in the interim, but maybe your landlord or lease agreement doesn’t allow for that. Are there other options? 

how does self storage work

Self-storage is an ideal solution for many individuals who find themselves in situations like the above. Maybe you’ve recently experienced a major life change and need to temporarily move back in with your parents. Or, perhaps you just live in a particularly small apartment with roommates and have limited storage options to work with. Or perhaps you are a local business owner who is looking for more inventory space. Whatever the case, learning how self-storage works can be helpful when considering all your options. 

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll talk through the ins and outs of self-storage, plus everything you need to know to get started. 

What is Self-Storage?

Self-storage is exactly what it sounds like: Easily accessible storage space that you can manage all on your own. Once people decide they need extra storage, they can rent a storage unit at a local facility near their house or apartment. These companies provide customers with a variety of storage spaces in the form of storage units or storage lockers.

Most storage units are leased on a month-to-month basis. To get started, you’ll need a form of ID and a lock to gain access to your unit. Some storage facilities, like Life Storage, offer online rental options. You can sign your contract online and access a storage unit without needing to see anyone. (We’ll discuss more about the steps you need to take to rent a storage unit below.)

What are the advantages of self-storage?

Self-storage units are incredibly popular for a reason. Some of their advantages and benefits include:  

  • Flexible rental agreements
  • Inexpensive prices 
  • Various size options to meet your specific storage needs
  • Convenient locations near your home
  • Safe, secure, and reliable facilities

How to Rent a Storage Unit

If you’ve never rented a storage unit before, you may not know what to expect. Before getting started on your self-storage journey, read through the following steps that explain how self-storage works.

1. Choose a Storage Facility

First, you’ll need to research self-storage facilities near you. Think about where you’d like your unit to be located for optimal convenience. Will you need to access it frequently from your apartment? Or does it make more sense to rent one in your hometown or in the city or small town that your family currently lives in? Your specific needs and reason for renting a storage unit will help determine the answers to these questions. 

Once you’ve narrowed down a few storage companies in your area, it’s a good idea to do a little more research. Most storage units work the same way. You sign a contract and then rent a storage space for a specified amount of time. However, each storage facility has different standards. For instance, some companies might have more security measures in place, while others may only have one or two storage unit sizes to choose from.

Learn about some essential security features that a storage facility should have in place. Ask yourself if the items you are storing are sensitive to temperature changes, if so consider renting a climate-controlled unit. There are also some storage facilities that offer 24 hour unit access and flexible drive-up storage options which can make loading and unloading your storage unit much easier and convenient! Think about all of your options when renting self storage and stick with the features that suit your needs.

how does self-storage work: choosing a facility

Related: The Benefits of Climate-Controlled Storage: Do You Really Need It?

2. Determine What Size Unit You Need

The biggest mistake customers make is choosing the wrong size storage unit. If you rent a storage unit that is too large, you’ll of course be wasting money. On the other hand, you’ll create more work for yourself if you select a space that is too small. Read through our article How to Pick the Best Storage Unit Size for Your Needs for more in-depth information on storage unit sizes, options, and amenities.

Life Storage facilities offer the following sizes:

You can also visit our storage space space size estimator to help you pick the right sized storage unit for your needs.

3. Choose Whether You’ll Rent Online or In Person

Did you know: You can easily reserve a personal self-storage unit online! What’s even better: If you rent online, you’ll save yourself time. However, if this is your first time renting, you might want to see the storage unit in person. Call ahead or check the company’s website to see what policies they have in place.

How to Rent a Storage Unit Online

At Life Storage, our online rental process is seamless and convenient. However, only certain spaces are available for instant access. Head to our online database and search for a designated Rent Now space. You’ll need some basic information on hand, like an ID and access to any applicable insurance policy.

Things to know about online renting: 

  • You can complete a rental even if the storage facility is closed. This feature is helpful when you are ready to rent in the middle of the night or on the weekend.
  • Once you’ve completed the necessary steps online, your storage unit will be ready and waiting for you. However, your rental starts the day you sign your agreement. You should plan to sign the contract no more than a day or two before you’re ready to move in, so you don’t pay for time you don’t need.

Related: Small Business Inventory Management Tools and Tips

How to Rent a Storage Unit in Person

If you’re unable to complete a rental agreement online or just want to see the facility before committing, you can always opt to rent in person instead. One thing to note: Some companies offer walk-in leasing, while others require you to make an appointment. Not every storage facility will have an available leasing agent on hand. When in doubt, call ahead.

Things to know about renting in person

  • If you want to rent a storage unit ahead of time to ensure the spot is guaranteed, you can reserve the space online. However, you’ll need to come into the Life Storage location to complete your rental agreement in person.
  • If you have trouble navigating the facility itself, a storage manager can help you locate your unit during your first visit.

What do you need to rent a storage unit? 

Whether you decide to rent your self-storage space online or in person, it’s important to know what documents you need to have on hand. This can include: 

  • A valid form of identification
  • An address and phone number to keep on file
  • A rental insurance policy that meets your facility’s requirements

4. Complete Your Storage Unit Rental Agreement

The rental agreement is at the heart of how self storage works. Rental agreements will include the specific terms of your lease that you’ll need to abide by. This agreement will also set the tone for what’s expected of you, so make sure you review all the terms before you sign. Depending on the circumstances, you’ll either sign this agreement in person or online.

We technically can’t give you any legal advice regarding lease terms. However, a storage manager can help explain them to you. If you have specific questions about your lease or how self-storage generally works, we recommend you seek legal counsel.

What’s in a storage unit rental agreement?

Storage unit lease agreements may vary slightly depending on a number of factors. But in general, your contract should include the following:

Pro Tip: You’ll need renter’s insurance to secure a storage unit

Most storage facilities will also require some form of renters’ insurance. This requirement is in place to protect both the tenant and the landlord. At Life Storage, property tenant insurance is provided by a third party. This requirement can sometimes be waived  if you have homeowners or renters insurance that would cover your belongings in a storage unit.

Related: Storage Unit FAQs – Renting a Storage Unit

5. Make an Initial Payment

Once you sign the lease, you’ll be responsible for paying your first month of rent. Future monthly payments can be made online. Some companies also offer in-person or auto payments.

Make sure you are diligent with monthly payments to prevent late fees from building up. If you are late on payment for a few months, your storage unit could be repossessed. 

6. Access Your Unit and Move In

Access to your unit will depend on whether you rent online or in person. Regardless of your preferred method, a storage manager should guide you to your unit and make sure you have an appropriate lock in place.

How do I know if I need climate-controlled storage?

Renting a Unit at Life Storage

If you used Life Storage’s online rental system, here’s what you can expect: 

  • You’ll be provided with a personalized key code to access the facility.
  • Once you’re on-site, we’ll send you a digital map to help you find your storage unit. Also, watch for signage on the property, including maps and building numbers.
  • The storage unit will be closed with a plastic seal. Break the seal and gain access to the unit.
  • Online rentals include a secure lock, which will be placed inside. If you have a different lock you want to use, you can return the provided lock for a full refund after you move in.

Learn How Self-Storage Works

Congratulations, you’ve just rented your first self-storage unit! Now all that’s left to do is move in and start reaping all of the benefits of a personal storage unit. Some advice: Be sure to take your time when you move in— you’ll thank yourself later. If you’re not sure where to start, check out this guide for organizing your storage unit.

This guide covered the basics of how self-storage works. Have more questions for a storage manager or think we missed something? Check out our frequently asked questions guide to see if we answered your query. You can also learn how to make the most of your rental by reading these storage unit tips for new renters.

Update: This post was originally published on May 19th, 2020, by Lauren Thomann and was revised again on May 16th, 2023, with further information from Emily Malkowski. 

About the Authors

Emily Malkowski

Emily Malkowski is a writer and SEO strategist with over 5 years experience, in Buffalo, New York. Having graduated from University at Buffalo with a Bachelor's degree in Communications, her work has appeared in outlets like The American Prospect, Roadtrippers Magazine, Step Out Buffalo, and more.

Lauren Thomann

Lauren Thomann has written about self storage and moving since 2015, making her our storage expert. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in English and Linguistics and has published over 150 articles on moving, storage, and home organization. She is also a contributing writer at and Martha Stewart.

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