Storage insights: What people store, and why

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Americans have a lot of stuff. The Self Storage Association reports there are currently over 2 billion square feet of storage space in the United States. “It is physically possible,” the SSA claims, “that every American could stand – all at the same time – under the total canopy of self storage roofing.”

What are Americans storing?

“The Self Storage Self,” a 2009 New York Times Magazine article, noted that furniture was the most commonly stored item in the U.S. “Some seven million American households,” author Jon Mooallem wrote, “now have at least one piece of furniture in their storage units.”

Why? Furniture is readily attainable – national furniture sales are expected to hit $96 billion in 2016 – yet deeply personal. Ray Allegrezza of CasualLiving.com cites a 2013 Franklin Furniture Institute study when he writes, “Furniture is an emotional purchase for many consumers because it facilitates ‘sharing and a sense of togetherness among friends and family in the home.’”

Appliances, electronics, books and documents are also popular self storage candidates. There is intuitive reason in these findings – these items tell our story. They have personal resonance.

“We feel it might come in handy one day,” said author and psychologist Oliver James in an interview with BBC News Magazine. Self storage, it should be noted, is also growing at an exponential rate in England. “It feels like a little part of yourself, even though it’s just a tat. You wouldn’t want to throw away part of yourself, would you?”

More Americans, more mobility: a recipe for self storage

This phenomenon, believe it or not, befuddles the number-crunchers. The Economist notes that experts are “baffled” by Americans’ desire to hold onto “free disposal” items. Free disposal items are defined as “stuff that cannot be consumed and never rots or rusts: plastic toys, metal garden furniture, porcelain knick-knacks.” Mobility may be part of the explanation – according to data culled by the U.S. Census Bureau, 12 percent of Americans moved between 2011 and 2012.

While that is the lowest percentage since data collection began in 1947, there are over 170 million more Americans now than there were 67 years ago. Just think: over 20 percent of the U.S. population, or roughly 28 million Americans, moved between 1947 and 1948. The 12 percent that moved in 2011-12 represents over 36 million Americans.

Thirty-one percent of self storage renters hold onto their storage unit for six months or less, according to the SSA, which implies people on the move. Active military members make up six percent of self storage renters. A whopping 68 percent of people who rent self storage live in a single family household – even with attics and basements, they need the storage space.

“Americans are attached to their belongings, according to a 2009 study of storage by Carnegie Mellon University, Harvard University and the University of Virginia,” The Washington Post reported in a Bloomberg Markets story this past August. “’We do not know if people store their lava lamps because parting with them is such sweet sorrow,’ the researchers wrote in an article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. ‘But we do know that they store them because they like them and that they like them because they’re theirs.’”

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Guidelines for self storage

Not everything can go into storage. As obvious as it (hopefully) seems, people – or any living thing – are not allowed to live in a storage unit. Other items that must find alternative storage accommodations include flammables (think gasoline, kerosene, cooking fuel and propane), caustic chemicals and materials, firearms, fireworks, fertilizers and anything that can explode, immolate or endanger the health and safety of renters and their property.

A storage renter can’t run a business out of a storage unit or, for that matter, store large amounts of money. Perishable food in a storage unit, even with a freezer or refrigerator – because those items cannot be plugged in, either. Uncle Bob’s has an amusing slide show that outlines what cannot be stored, but the consequences are real: violation of a rental contract can result in eviction.

Holding onto a memory

Self storage has legitimate applications for business owners and can, in fact, save these individuals quite a bit of money in storage costs. For most, however, self storage is much more personal. Self storage allows renters to hold onto their personal history while managing the clutter in their living spaces.

“Nostalgia helps us deal with transitions,” Dr. Erica Hepper of the University of Surrey in England told The New York Times. “(When) young adults are just moving away from home and or starting their first jobs, (they) fall back on memories of family Christmases, pets and friends in school.”

“Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function,” added Dr. Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University. “It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives.”

Good reasons, it would seem, to hold onto things.

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About the Author

Ben Kirst

Hey, everyone -- I'm a guest blogger here at the Life Storage blog, which, based on my lifelong battle against clutter, messes and household chaos of all kinds, makes this a bit of a dream come true. Best birthday ever? I got a Dyson.

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