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Life Lessons from A&E’s Storage Wars

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Self StorageA few years ago, I attended a local storage facility auction like the kind you see on A&E’s Storage Wars. It wasn’t nearly as interesting and the lockers didn’t go for thousands of dollars, like they often do on the show. It’s also not California here and the lockers were enormous, like some of the ones on the show.

When those lockers open, the characters on the show clamor to get a look inside and see what opportunities might be hiding within. To me, I see a lot of sadness. Those are lockers that belonged to people who could no longer afford to rent them. They fell behind on payments, couldn’t catch up, and now their things are being auctioned off. I don’t feel bad for the owners and I don’t see the bidders as vultures, I just feel kind of sad for the whole process. Sometimes that’s how life is.

So today, after casually watching a few of those episodes over the years, I thought I’d pull a few life lessons I’ve learned from watching the show.

Don’t Let Looks Deceive You

When a locker opens up, everyone tries to get a peek inside to look for signs that the locker may be valuable. The pros point out little details here and there that, based on their years of experience, gives them an edge in guessing right more often than they guess wrong. Something that looks one way to a novice looks completely different to a seasoned veteran. Being able to tell the difference can put big dollars in your pocket. This is a good lesson to learn and one that has been handed down for ages… never judge a book by its cover!

Not Everyone Competes on a Level Playing Field

I love a good cognitive bias and there isn’t one that gets crushed in early childhood like the just-world hypothesis. The just-world hypothesis is a cognitive bias in which you believe that everyone will get their just due, where morally noble actions will result in positive results and evil actions will result in punishment. It’s a fancy term for karma, which we all logically know not to exist.

How does this translate into the world of Storage Wars? It, like life, is not a level playing field. On the surface, it’s obvious because some people have deeper pockets than you. Some have greater knowledge about the value of items. Some have a better system in place to sell those items and extract the most value out of the items in a locker. What you’re willing and able to pay won’t be the same as someone with a stack of Benjamins and a consignment store to sell those items in. What looks like junk to you is a potential fixer upper that can be sold for great profits.

Money Is Made When You Buy

Whether it’s a locker full of stuff or a stock on the New York Stock Exchange, the money is made when you buy the asset and not when you sell it. Some form of that statement exists in any business and that’s because it’s completely true. Your cost basis in any investment will determine how much you make because that has the biggest impact on your profits. It’s a little silly when you think about it because it seems like something Yogi Berra would say … like “You can observe a lot by watching.”

The lesson this is trying to teach is that everyone thinks you make money when you sell something but it’s a mistake. You collect money when you sell something but how much you make depends on your cost basis. Choose your acquisitions carefully and you can maximize your profits. Don’t get greedy and twist yourself into accepting a less than stellar deal just to get one. You see this happen frequently on Storage Wars and the ones who last are the ones who don’t do it again.

Life is Cutthroat and Lonely

Watch enough episodes and you’ll see people battling for lockers they don’t even want, jacking up the price with bids so the other guy has to take a smaller profit or, in unlucky cases, a loss on a locker. Unless someone is on your team, they’re out to get you because every dollar you make is a dollar they don’t get to make.

The show also highlights the importance of an affable personality. You can go in there with the tough guy attitude or you can play it cool and nice, hoping people don’t fight you out of spite. It’s a lesson in social dynamics and the importance of relationships in any business. It doesn’t take long for Dave Hester’s “yeaaaaap” call to get on anyone’s nerves. That said, if you can afford to fight because you have the muscle, it’s certainly one way to do it.

It’s Still A Business

In the earlier episodes, you saw Jarrod Schulz and Brandi Passante just starting to get into the business with just a few years of experience and a need to stock their store. You also saw Dave Hester, a seasoned veteran with 15 employees and a massive operation behind it. The reality is that the majority of people buying storage auction lockers, in many popular areas, are businesses. This is their profession.

I watched a recent episode in which Brandi paid nearly $7000 for three ATVs. Unless you know how much an ATV is worth (and I didn’t) and know of a way to sell them quickly, it’s difficult to gamble $7000 on three ATVs that may or may not operate. She lucked out, each required just a new battery, and were valued at nearly twice her investment.

Life is Usually Boring, Unless You Rig It

I always thought that Storage Wars filmed a ton of auctions and just showed you the interesting ones. But Dave Hester, who was recently kicked off the show, claims it’s rigged with A&E allegedly planting valuable items to make it more interesting. The real lesson in all of this is that life is mostly boring (at least to other people watching on TV) and you sometimes you need to add some embellishment. 🙂

I haven’t watched many of the newer episodes but they’re a slightly more entertaining version of Pawn Stars.

(Photo: michaelgoodin)

{ 13 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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13 Responses to “Life Lessons from A&E’s Storage Wars”

  1. I always figured it was rigged somehow. It seemed interesting but I don’t live in a high net worth area so most of the stuff in storage here is likely junk or emotionally attached items people couldn’t throw away.

  2. Tim says:

    Excellent observations! Thanks!! It is a real treat to have shows like these available to us. I need all the help I can get when it comes to overspending, etc. Just knowing the real world value of things is so helpful. It is especially interesting to notice that more often than not, people ove-restimate the value of what they own or are trying to sell. I know that sometimes its a bargaining tactic, but sometimes they are just clueless about the true value of the item.

  3. I definitely agree with all of your observations. The last one is hilarious though. I wondered if it was rigged.

  4. Misi says:

    Wow Jim!! Brilliant observations!!

  5. Beej says:

    A reality-show producer on On the Media (NPR) said last week that all ‘reality shows’ are rigged, and in fact largely fictional. He made the same point Jim Wang did: that otherwise they’d be too boring for TV. As for the storage-locker show, I’ve never seen it, but have a thought about the whole phenomenon of off-site spaces for hoarding stuff we don’t have room for on our premises, stuff we never use. It’s one thing if you’re a business or between homes or something, but if you’re just someone who’s acquired too many things over the years to fit comfortably in your life, you might consider giving them to charity, saving your $$ and canceling your locker. What a load off! I think of George Carlin’s routine on “stuff”: how hard it is to part with it, how much it means to us–yet how inconsequential it all is, when you come right down to it.

  6. TheDoctor says:

    As Steven Wright said “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?”

    In storage lockers of course!

  7. admiral58 says:

    Good Article. They take risk to get a greater reward, but they do have some sort of experience. Get your skills early on in life, so you can do the things you want.

  8. jsbrendog says:

    I have always said all of these shows are most likely rigged. Maybe I’m a cynic or maybe clairvoyant, hell maybe both. Either way it is good to finally hear the truth.

  9. Shirley says:

    A friend’s dad recently bought the contents of two mid-sized storage lockers. After having his boys haul everything to his home and spending two weekends overseeing a yard sale, he came close to breaking even. The boys took what was left to the Salvation Army and all involved said it wasn’t something they wanted to do again. 🙂

  10. MrCoffeeCup says:

    Rigged or not rigged, the lesson for anyone who wants to try this must have a good plan and understand the risks of losing money.
    1. Why do I want to do this?
    2. What will I do with the items purchased?
    3. Will the internet selling sites(Ebay or whatever give me the right vehicle to sell?)
    4. Do I want to become a Retailer/Store Front owner?
    5. Have I considered the Time and effort(labor) required to buy then sell? ie. spend $100..wait three months to return $120.00 minimum in cash flow with a $20.00 profit?. This is not a lucrative proposition.
    6. Have I learned the skills to barter goods, for services and vice versa.
    7. Do I truly believe that I may find very expensive treasure in a locker? Less than 1% of the time do people come across gold, diamonds and wonderful art work to provide super earnings. Are you ready to take that kind of risk?
    8. Are you a collector of fine artifacts, jewelry, furniture, clothing, rare antiques? Why hunt in lockers when most of this is found in “Estate Sales” and “Government Auctions”?
    9. All of the participants in Storage Wars started out a long time ago and worked themselves up to their current levels. Mr. Hester is a pro now but paid dearly in cash, time effort, investment, over many years to be the obnoxious bidder while holding all the best cards in his hand. He should write a book on how to: “Storage War Tactics” to strike it really rich.
    10. This lifestyle can become your new work if you can’t find a job. Create your own opportunities…..but with very high risk!!!
    Can you lose the cash and still feel comfortable????? Are you will to spend 55 hours per week or more to make it profitable
    Good luck on being a junk merchant/used stuff store.
    Dennis In Orlando

  11. Julie says:

    I do love Storage Wars but can’t see myself in that line of business as I hate routing through other people’s junk… I even hate going through mine and I am big on de-cluttering!

  12. ace carolla says:


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