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Some of the crowd will follow O’Brien for the entire day, attending all four scheduled auctions.
The California Self Storage Facility Act—the lien law of California—lays out the exact rules that need to be followed. According to the Self Storage Association in 2009, there were about 50,000 self-storage facilities in the US with about 2.22 billion square feet of rentable space. Tenants have the right to pay their bill up to one minute before the auction starts to save their possessions from being sold. Auctioneer Forrest O’Brien (center) arrived at PayLess Self Storage in a black leather Harley Davidson jacket, black Ray Ban Sunglasses and a dark brown cowboy hat with toothpicks stuck in the brim. With all the pay-ups complete, Butler tells O’Brien there are seven units that need to be auctioned off. The crowd follows Butler a few feet across the main driveway of the facility and into a narrow walkway.
When someone wins a unit in a storage auction, they are buying the whole lot, but not everything in that unit automatically becomes the property of the buyer. The storage facility must “hold that stuff for a window of time, whatever the California law says,” O’Brien says, referring to customers’ personal effects.
The first unit up for auction is full of furniture: plaid couches, black patio chairs, mattresses and delicate wooden bookcases. Before the auction began, every bidder had signed in at the front the office, putting down a $50 security deposit, which would be returned to them if they did not buy a unit by the close of bidding. The recent popularity of these shows has caused crowds at storage auctions across California to swell. Buying storage units in the hopes of finding treasure has also become a popular side business for many in this tough economic climate, O’Brien says.
Galloway, a storage auction regular, leans over, large yellow flashlight in hand, to get a better look at the boxes that litter the floor of the unit. Galloway ended up buying unit six—not nearly as popular or promising-looking as unit one—for $65. A small dark green suitcase, covered in dust and marked “Bibles,” is tucked into the front corner of the container.
With the auction over, everyone slowly makes their way back to the front office to pay their bills or pick up their security deposit.
Lepez, who purchased unit one, walks directly to his container, throws up the door and starts clearing out the space.
First, Lepez removes the large furniture pieces from the unit and leans it against the outside wall. Over the years, O’Brien and Butler have seen some crazy things when that storage locker door is thrown up: coffins, marijuana growing equipment, people’s ashes, an old ticker tape machine—that’s one of O’Brien’s favorites. But both O’Brien and Butler are cautious about people who come to storage auctions expecting to strike it rich.
About UsRichmond Confidential is an online news service produced by the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley for, and about, the people of Richmond, California.


Then, a man in a black leather jacket, dark-brown cowboy hat and boots strolls out of glass double doors at the back of the office building that sits at the front of PayLess Self Storage in Richmond. He has a contract with PayLess to run the company’s auction every second Friday of the month at 10 a.m.
At PayLess, the owner of the unit is usually first notified when they fall 14 days past due on their rent. PayLess, a privately owned company, is one of the largest storage facilities in the Bay Area. The facility usually auctions off between 10 and 15 units each month, but February 11’s auction was a smaller crop. O’Brien can’t begin until he gets the final unit count of how many units are to be auctioned off that day from Butler.
O’Brien’s tan leather wallet sticks out of his back pocket, attached to his crisp dark jeans with a gold chain.
Only about three feet across, the walkway is lined on either side with what look like small garage doors. Any type of vehicle—motorcycle, car, boat, boat trailer, jet ski or ATV—with a State of California control or VIN number on it cannot be sold at auction until the facility has checked the vehicle to make sure it isn’t stolen. Personal documents or information— military IDs, drivers’ licenses, birth certificates, death certificates, social security cards—are of no value to the new buyer and could be used for illegal activities like identity fraud.
Wearing a hooded maroon windbreaker and carrying a small three-legged folding chair, Lepez is ready for anything the auction might bring, including bad weather or long waits. For anyone who does purchase a storage container, the deposit is returned once their unit is completely empty and clean. Before the shows started, average attendance at auctions was between 12 and 15 people, says O’Brien. Braedon Galloway, an Oakland resident, purchases unit five, then negotiates the crowd parked in front of unit six. Galloway is over six feet tall with a long dark blond ponytail hidden under his backwards bright orange hat. Galloway and his business partner opened Flavor Brigade, an Italian water ice shop in Oakland, a little over a year ago. Boxes of records were stacked up against the back wall, and after buying the unit, Galloway flipped through them, calling out what he finds. The furniture—too big to fit in Lepez’s white pick-up truck—is collected by his friends, who arrive a few minutes later in a separate pick-up.
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O’Brien was supposed to call three other auctions that day, one in each of Oakland, Castro Valley and Fremont. When people are overdue on their storage rent, the contents of their lockers can be auctioned off. His handlebar mustache is neatly groomed and his long hair just barely peeks out from beneath his hat.


Once the storage facility staff has verified ownership of a vehicle, they can auction it off at a later time. Most people come prepared with flashlights, large and small, to help them see into the dimly lit lockers. He raises his hand slightly, signaling he wants to bid on the unit, whose price has already soared up to $575. At the end of the auction, Lepez will take his ticket to the front office to pay for his container.
And it does happen occasionally that somebody will get one that is very financially rewarding.
Nothing is screaming out to him as a valuable find, so he walks out into the hall, pulls down the large metal door and secures it with a padlock. Counting out the correct amount, he hands the wad of bills to one of the workers sitting behind the desk.
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When an owner is 63 days overdue on their rent the unit can then be put up for auction; after that point, it is up to the facility to decide how long they want to wait before selling the unit.
The giant facility is comprised of three separate buildings and is a little bigger in size than Oakland’s Oracle Arena. Everyone is allowed to take a long look at the contents of the unit, but there are strict rules for how to behave at an auction.
Lepez sells everything he finds at the Monte Rio Flea Market or donates it to the homeless. Some people frequent these auctions in order to fill their thrift stores with goods, but most come to hunt for treasure. We need you, the users of this site, to talk with us, make suggestions, point us in the direction of the truth, help us report stories of value. They are hoping to find that one priceless heirloom that will bring them a windfall of cash. His eyes are covered by black Ray-Ban sunglasses, kept in place by a black nylon cord circling the back of his neck. Comment on our stories, correct us when we make a mistake, help us understand the community you live in. A tan leather wallet sticks out of his back pocket; attached to his crisp dark jeans with a gold chain.




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