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KAI RYSSDAL: New homes sales were down again last month. To the lowest level in 16 years. That's a pity for the economy's sake, but also because when you move you wind up getting rid of all the old stuff stuck in closets and attics and garages. And if we're not moving, we're probably not shedding all that excess. There are about 2 billion square-feet of self-storage space for rent in this country. Almost 7 square-feet of storage outside the home for every man, woman and child, and demand is rising. Andrew Phelps decided to revisit his.
ANDREW PHELPS: When my dad passed away a few years ago, my mom decided to sell the house I grew up in. Suddenly there was all this stuff to deal with. I just could not bring myself to sort through it all. So we put it in storage. Forty bucks a month for a 5-by-5 cube. I promised myself I'd be back in a few months.
SOUND OF PADLOCK BEING TURNED: 13, Turn it twice, 27, 12 . . . Oh, it works. Oh my God, that is a lot of crap.
Well, it took more than three years, and I finally decided to tackle it.
PHELPS: Star Wars figures. Little umbrella thingies that go in cocktails. And more trophies and old baseballs and yearbooks. Oh my God, my Nintendo 64!
I wound up throwing away, like, 98 percent of this stuff. I don't know why I kept it in the first place.
STEVE NORTHAM: I try to tell people that kind of stuff. You know what you're gonna do, you're gonna be writing checks on this stuff.
Steve Northam is manager here at A-1 Self Storage in Oceanside, Calif. He says most customers are just like me.
NORTHAM: You're gonna say I'm gonna be in there for six months or something like that and I'm going to see you five years later and you're still handing me money. And you've paid more than three times what that stuff's worth and, in some cases, four or five times.
Americans have stuff, and they can't seem to part with it. The national Self Storage Association says it's a $220 billion industry -- the fastest growing sector of commercial real estate. It provides business to a slew of mom-and-pop outfits that make up more than 90 percent of the industry.
Northam says his newest customers are service members facing deployment. Marines make up as much as 25 percent of his business. That's up from 10 percent before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
NORTHAM: They come into the barracks and they put a pallet on the ground and you stack your stuff on there and they wrap it up and then they take it down to a warehouse. You don't have your lock on the door. You don't have 24-hour video surveillance, which we have.
Or air conditioning or elevators or the other extras that make self-storage so appealing. Northam says occupancy has always been above 90 percent in the 15 years he's worked here. That's because self-storage is big business no matter what the economy looks like.
Dave Ratliff is a district manager for the Caster Companies, which operates A-1 Self Storage in 38 locations across California.
Dave Ratliff: A big part of our business in some places recently has been people that are storing temporarily while they stage their home to buy, while they're between houses because they've just moved up. Now we're kind of getting the other side of that where maybe they're staging their stuff while they move down! Or while they move out.
Ratliff says the industry's next target: aging baby boomers. The kids are gone, the parents are dying, and it's time to buy a smaller home. That means more crap to put in storage.
Ratliff: We don't like the word crap. It's all fabulous stuff! Fabulous stuff.
In San Diego, I'm Andrew Phelps for Marketplace.
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