- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 7, 2008

Andy Gjurasin has spent a few days a month the last 10 years sorting through the miscellany of other people’s lives, looking for the interesting and the valuable and getting rid of the rest.

And when you ask him what was the biggest surprise he ever got from buying contents of storage lockers belonging to people who didn’t pay their rent, he doesn’t hesitate.

“Oh, that’s easy,” said Mr. Gjurasin. “A dead guy.”

Mr. Gjurasin is one of a growing number of people who try to make extra cash by bidding for the contents of unpaid storage units. Some make a living at it, traveling far and wide to attend quickie auctions, claim their prizes, and move on. For those like Mr. Gjurasin, it’s an interesting - and sometimes lucrative - hobby.

“To me, doing these auctions is better than going to the racetrack. You have about the same chance of hitting it big,” the longtime electrician said.

The process isn’t complicated: Bidders show up a few minutes before the auction, usually responding to legal notices in newspapers or on auction Web sites. After registering to bid, they get a sparsely detailed description of what’s inside.

Auctioneer Robert Tuttle, of Ottawa Lake, Ohio, conducted a recent series of auctions for U-Haul Self Storage. Most lasted just a few minutes.

During an auction, Mr. Tuttle marches to the delinquent storage unit with a manager and bidders in tow. The lock is removed, the door opened, and bidders get a minute or so to peer inside from the doorway before Mr. Tuttle begins his time-honored spiel.

“Who’ll start us out? Will you give me five?” he asks as his eyes quickly dart across a small group of practiced poker faces, no one wanting to give away what they saw or what they’ll pay. Quickly, someone breaks the ice with a bid, others counter, and back and forth it goes until nobody will bid higher.

“You never know what you’re going to get or how much it’ll go for,” said Marolyn Robertson, a former health care worker, who travels across Indiana and to Michigan and Ohio for auctions.

Clothing seems to be the most plentiful and least desirable thing to win at auction. Still, even with several boxes of clothes, she takes time to inspect each garment to make certain nothing was missed.

“I found a $50 bill in one box last week. And I’ve found diamond rings and jewelry stuffed in boxes of clothes, too, so it always pays to look,” she said.

Sometimes the delinquent owner of the storage unit’s contents will show up to bid or plead with the winner for a chance to recover prized possessions. Regular bidders all have heart-wrenching stories of people asking for things back, offering money, or begging for mercy.

“Last week, I got a unit full of toys. Brand-new stuff, still in the plastic wrappers,” Ms. Robertson said. “It was somebody’s Christmas, and they locked everything up and then couldn’t pay the bill.”

Delinquency is “always an issue” for self-storage operators, said Michael J. Scanlon Jr., president and CEO of the Self-Storage Association, an Alexandria trade group for storage facility owners and franchisees.

“Virtually every self-storage facility has had to have an auction at one time or another. What we find when we open up many of these units, the contents really don’t have much value for the people in the outside world,” Mr. Scanlon said. “It’s mostly things that have a personal, emotional value to the person that’s storing them.”

Which brings us back to Mr. Gjurasin’s “dead guy.”

He had won an auction about a year ago in North Toledo, Ohio. After taking the contents home, he found an expensive-looking box among them. “I opened the box up and it was one of those velvet-covered things that you think that a ring or something’s in,” Mr. Gjurasin recalled.

“It was real heavy, and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I hit the mother lode.’ I opened it up and there was a picture of a man inside, an older guy with a beard. I picked the thing up and I went to open it up and it hit me, and I went, ‘Oh, no,”’ Mr. Gjurasin said.

He had no idea whose remains he had in his possession, but he held onto them anyway. A month later, he got a call from the storage facility.

“They called me up and said, ‘Hey, the guy called and asked if he could have his dad back.’ Those are the heartbreakers of this thing, too, when you have people like that,” Mr. Gjurasin said.

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