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Picking the bones



Shortly before 10 a.m. Jan. 13, SUVs and pickups line up at Personal Mini Storage on East Semoran Boulevard in Apopka. Fifteen people are drawn by the smell of bargains.

Wielding flashlights and padlocks, they gather to bid on the mysterious contents of storage units. The owners hadn't paid rent in too long, and now their personal treasures will become somebody else's property, to be resold — prospective buyers hope — for a profit.

As employees crank open the metal door on unit 408, the mostly male crowd rushes and shoves forward to peer into the dark, concrete-floored cubicle. "Whoa!" comes a general cry of excitement for boxes, bedding, a TV and tools. Bidding starts at $100, and somebody's lifetime accumulation quickly sells for $225.

Next comes unit 731 — empty. "One hundred dollars," someone yells sarcastically.

Several more units turn up empty, or with a scattering of valueless debris. The crowd grows impatient. "Just what the shit is going on here?" one demands.

At last, unit 1212-C yields some meager items: a pressure washer, a battered boat and a chain-saw case. A thin, grizzled man in a black leather jacket picks it up for $65. He bought unit 1203 too, paying just $10 for a couple of suitcases and a pile of old clothes.

He wouldn't give his name. Other bidders call him Gene. He's a junk dealer, looking for stuff to recycle.

"Beats working for somebody else. Other than that, you know, it's gambling," he says.

He doesn't want to give his name because he doesn't want people to know he seeks profit from others' poverty. "It's a little bit sleazy," Gene says.

Most of the bidders know one another from many previous auctions, calling out first names and yelling crude jokes. Newcomers are regarded with suspicion. The veterans are skittish about being identified; some would only give their first names, and there's no way to know if they were telling the truth.

Why the reticence? Some don't want a horde of newcomers flooding their moderately lucrative business. But in general, they say it's because they feel a touch of remorse at picking the bones of the recession's casualties — not enough to stop doing it, but enough to seek anonymity while they're at it.

Buyers and storage-facility owners alike agree that increasing numbers of storage-unit auctions are an aftershock of the recession. People who may have lost their houses to foreclosure, or who move to smaller places, pack what they can in a self-storage locker for maybe $100 per month, and then can't pay that either; so they face eviction in miniature, losing what they'd saved for want of a few hundred dollars.

The contents of 28 units are advertised for sale on Jan. 13, but only half that many are opened. It's likely the owners of the rest paid their back rent at the last minute. Maybe five of the opened units generate brief interest, drawing $100 or $150 bids for a chance to take home some taped-up boxes or plastic storage tubs. Buyers are told they have 48 hours to clear out what they'd bought, but are asked to leave "personal" items — things of no monetary value that might have sentimental or informational value, like private papers — in case the storage company manages to contact the previous owners.

An hour later, 15 people convene at a Personal Mini Storage location just two miles away on Piedmont Wekiwa Road. More than half of the crowd from the first sale are here. Cries of triumph greet the opening of unit 216, which exposes appliances, tools and a big cement mixer. The lot goes for $325. At unit 257, a hoard of appliances and furniture starts at $200. A guitar amplifier and some classic golf clubs drive the bidding up to $600, as a 20-something man called Nathan — no last name given — whips out his smart phone and does a quick Internet search. He mutters afterward that the amp alone would bring $1,000.

That was the biggest payout of the day, though two big units crammed with furniture, lots of boxes and hints of expensive electronics brought $450 and $525.

Nathan says competition has gotten stiffer in the last year, with people bidding more for smaller caches. "Stuff that was going for a couple hundred bucks a year ago is going for $1,000 now." Also, some storage facilities will let delinquent renters take back their most valuable stuff for paying a percentage of their bill, he says.

Some sales advertised online draw huge, riotous crowds, Nathan adds. "Week or so ago, there was probably over 100 people at one of these things." But first-time buyers usually only last a couple of months, once they understand the hassle of trying to store and resell their finds themselves, he says.

Nathan has been hitting storage unit auctions off and on for a couple of years, and eked out a living at it while he was briefly out of work — spending his unemployment check on bids was an investment, not an extravagance, he says.

While the rewards have been adequate, just peering into other people's lives has been interesting. Nathan's hit-and-miss purchases have netted drug paraphernalia mixed with jail paperwork, rat-infested food and sex toys; really, anything people would otherwise secrete in the back of their closets.

"Guns, porn, you name it."

The Florida Self Storage Facility Act says that if a tenant's monthly rent is more than five days late, the facility owners can put a new lock on a storage unit.

They have to send out an itemized bill warning that the property may be lost, and post an announcement at the facility itself. If nothing happens in a couple of weeks, they can begin advertising the contents for sale. That announcement — which can include any number of sales at the same time — must run in local newspapers for at least two consecutive weeks. At any point in this process, the tenant can pay off the back rent and "reasonable" late fees. If they don't, it's considered abandoned property, and the sale is on.

Should the auction bring in more than the amount owed on a unit, the law says, the profit must be held for the tenant for two years. But it's rare that an auction price even comes close to covering the rental debt, according to Jose and Carmen Garcia, managers of Private Storage on South Orange Blossom Trail in Orlando.

Nine units were scheduled for auction there Jan. 11, but it was called off because all but one tenant paid up before the sale date. When renters find themselves unable to pay, they often just disregard the bills, until the letter arrives warning of impending auction. Then, about nine out of 10 people come up with back rent plus the $50 late charge.

"A lot of people ignore it, because they don't have the money. They think they'll solve the problem by ignoring it," Carmen Garcia says. "But then they'll come in."

The people behind on their rent are usually in lots of other financial trouble, people who have already lost houses or are "downhousing," moving in with relatives and storing bulky stuff, Jose Garcia says.

They'll rent a storage unit, figuring they can afford at least that — or will be able to by the time rent's due. "But a lot of times, they just don't have the money, and they just lose it," Carmen Garcia says.

Storage facility owners can start proceedings after 30 days, but it usually takes two or three months to actually sell an abandoned unit's contents. If there are not enough units one month to justify an auction, it'll be postponed until more tenants fall behind. Auctions at Private Storage have been canceled twice since October.

As she speaks, Garcia looks through a handful of mail that includes what was probably the payment for the last unit scheduled for auction, and a wad of certified letters, returned undelivered, which had been sent to the current batch of overdue renters.

Paul Marada waits outside the Neighbors Moving & Storage warehouse on Presidents Drive on a cold, rainy Saturday morning, waiting to bid on the contents of seven units. But the office stays locked; the sale is canceled, ostensibly because of bad weather. Before heading home, Marada talks a little about why he'd come.

"I don't want to put it as taking advantage of other people's difficulties, but frankly that's what it is," he says.

Many regulars at storage unit auctions don't want to talk about it because they don't want more bidders to show up at the next one, he says. But there ought to be enough auctions to go around; given the continuing economic struggle, Marada says, he expects more rent defaults. "I think it's going to be going on for the next few years like this."

Marada says he normally erects metal buildings, but that business has slowed like most others. One recent job site overlooked a storage unit auction, and that got him interested. "It's exciting, because you never know what you're going to get," Marada says.

For about the last month, using a few thousand in spare cash and some research time on the Internet, he's been hitting storage unit auctions. Drawn by a rumor of iPods, Marada brought $1,000 to Saturday's non-event. It's not a hobby for someone down to their last few bucks, needing a guaranteed return — especially if they "get the buying disease," hoping for a windfall even as longtime buyers deliberately run up the bidding to drive off newcomers.

"I saw one lady bid up to $375 on a toolbox," Marada says. "It was empty."

He got an easy lesson on getting carried away: He paid $600 for his first unit, which included a TV but also lots of clothes. It's taken him until now to break even on it, plus he's had the hassle of storing the loot on his patio, in a trailer or another storage unit, and then reselling it himself at flea markets or on eBay.

Then in early January came "my first win," Marada says: a 30-foot-by-30-foot unit packed with flat-screen TVs and loads of new merchandise from QVC and Target.

As he was inspecting his haul, the former owner walked up and began cajoling him to give some of it back, telling of tax troubles and hinting at (nonexistent) legal consequences. Marada says he empathized with the man, but couldn't feel too bad about benefiting from his rental default when he'd obviously lavished cash on filling the unit in the first place.

"Maybe he had the buying disease," Marada says.

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