We Did the Math: Here’s When You Should Get a Storage Unit

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Americans love stuff. We store it in our homes, garages, basements—and when that’s all filled, we pile it in to storage spaces across the country. But sometimes when space is hot commodity, all that stuff creates a huge problem and the idea of renting additional storage space can seem like a good answer.

If you’re toying with the idea of storage space, you’re not alone: In a 2017 study, the non-profit Self Storage Association found that approximately 12.2 million American rented a unit within the last five years and at least 5 million more would rent one in 2018. But for those who have never rented a unit before, the idea of paying monthly to store items you’re not using every day can often seem like a frivolous expense. However, paying the storage fee can make financial sense in many situations. Let’s break down a couple of scenarios:

Let’s say you and your significant other have moved in together. You have a couch you adore from your old place, but it doesn’t quite fit in your new living room. Is it a smart choice to pay for a storage space and keep it until you want it, or should you just rip the Band-Aid and sell it? Well, if the couch is from IKEA or another easily replaceable brand, it’s easy to find out if it’s worth storing: Just compare the price of what will go in the storage unit plus how much it will cost to get everything there to the total cost of the storage unit for the time you’re planning on using it. If the storage unit ends up costing more to rent than the worth of the items inside of it, it makes more sense to sell your stuff and buy new pieces when you end up needing them. This is a good rule of thumb for replaceable things in the unit, like seasonal decorations, run-of-the-mill furniture, and kitchen supplies.

Yes, get a storage unit: Items in storage + moving costs > (Monthly cost of storage unit x 12 x how many years you’re planning to have it) + (yearly fees x how many years you’re planning to have it) + (any additional fees)

No, save your money: Items in storage + moving costs < (Monthly cost of storage unit x 12 x how many years you’re planning to have it) + (yearly fees x how many years you’re planning to have it) + (any additional fees)

However, it might make sense to rent a unit for these replaceable things in one place, but not another. For example, in areas with a lower cost of living, such as Atlanta, you can rent a 5-foot-by-3.5-foot locker for as low as $29/month at Life Storage. In the Bay Area, though, you’re looking at an average of $100/month for a small self-storage unit at Public Storage. But there are other costs to factor in, like truck rental for moving in/moving out/etc., the cost of boxes, tape, padding, and other packing materials, plus the cost for transportation or gas to and from the storage facility. It’s also common for self-storage facilities to run specials such as 50 percent off the first month or throw in your first month free.

Here’s an easy example on how to calculate if it’s worth it: For example, if you have $1,200 worth of your belongings in storage and it’ll cost you $200 to move everything in and out, the total value of what would be inside the unit comes to $1400. And if the unit costs $55 a month and there’s a $25 admin fee per year (a $685 yearly cost), it only makes sense to rent the unit out for two years ($1370 total for 24 months)—otherwise you’re breaking even or even wasting money on things that can be easily replaced. So if you’re not planning to use that couch for five years, you should definitely save your energy and just list it on Facebook Marketplace.

But here’s a harder question: There’s the mid-century coffee table made of gorgeous walnut that your grandmother gave you when she downsized, but it doesn’t complement your current decor. You definitely can’t sell it and there are no family members (or friends with basements) who can take it off your hands—you might not want to shell out money each month just to store the piece, but can you really put a price on a family heirloom? Well the “to store or not to store?” question has an easy answer: Renting a storage space is usually way less expensive than upgrading to a larger apartment. According to SpareFoot—an online resource for finding, comparing, and reserving storage space—the average price per square foot of storage space in New York was $1.58 a month. Renting a residential unit in the city, however, costs a whopping $4.98 per square foot. So though you’ll be forking over money each month for family history’s sake, you can at least rest easy knowing a storage unit saves money compared to renting a bigger apartment nearby.

Either way, if you do decide to rent a storage space, take flattering photos of each piece before you pack things away. Write down the dimensions and store them in a file with the photos. Many times your renter’s or homeowner’s insurance policy will cover items in storage (and sometimes proof of insurance is required for you to lease a storage space), but it’s necessary to have documentation of the items. Or you may even decide to sell that couch after a few months and you’ll need the details for prospective buyers when you list it; you don’t want to have to drive 30 minutes to the storage space to take photos just to discover that it’s at the back of the unit wrapped in paper and plastic.