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Spring: a time to clean out – or store away?

Self-storage units, once short-term and basic, are increasingly sophisticated and permanent.

April is the cruelest month a poet once wrote. He may have been spring-cleaning.

Today, many Americans are surrounded by clutter, wondering what to do with the skis, sweaters, and snow tires. If their attics, basements, and garages are already bulging with stuff, a self-storage unit starts to look like a brilliant idea.

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In fact, April marks the start of the peak season for the storage industry. "Most people move when weather is nicer, kids get out of school, and homes finish being built," says James Overturf, a spokesman at Extra Space Storage Inc., in Salt Lake City. As a result, storage units are needed to stash furniture until the new house is ready.

But people have plenty of other reasons for storing goods. Sometimes, those reasons are more personal or emotional than logical, notes Deirdra Zolinsky, vice president of operations at Access Self Storage, with 18 locations in New York and New Jersey. "We may be hanging onto stuff our parents owned.... I have two rooms myself [for that purpose]," she says.

The stuff Americans store can also be categorized under "I might need it someday," says Peter Walsh, author of "It's All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life With Less Stuff." This group includes clothes we hope to fit into again someday, odd-size pieces of wood we may need, and "the fondue pot for all those wonderful parties we never actually throw," he chides.

In the past 30 years, the square footage of new American homes has increased by nearly 40 percent while the average family size has shrunk by 8 percent, according to the US Census. Yet storage is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the real estate industry. "What the heck is in those storage units that line every highway in this country?" Mr. Walsh wonders.

Whatever Americans are storing, they're doing it for longer periods. In the early days of the 35-year-old industry, storage was mostly short term and related to moving, says Tim Deitz of the Self Storage Association, the industry's trade group in Washington, D.C. The first self-storage facilities opened in Texas in the mid-1960s, soon spread to the West Coast, and then throughout the United States and Canada. Before people had this option, warehouses were used to store household Items, but access to stored goods was not as easy as with today's units.

In 10 years, the $22.6 billion industry has become more sophisticated. More customers are turning to storage units for more permanent and commercial uses. "It used to be more about lifestyle changes – moving to a new job, divorcing, moving in together, someone dying, heirlooms, but now storage is being used more for day-to-day reasons, for quality of life," says Mr. Deitz. "There's more permanent demand – we're turning our basements into home theaters, our garages into family rooms."

"People are using the space as part of their apartments," notes Lenny Lazzarino, vice president of sales at Manhattan Mini Storage. "Especially if your unit is close by, you can get out your golf clubs and tennis rackets. It's a way to organize our lives."

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Laura Vanderkam just signed a contract for a 6-by-10-foot room for about $130 a month in a Queens, N.Y., facility. She credits storage with lowering marital tension in her Manhattan apartment.

"Storage provides a third option between keep and get rid of stuff, as we are fitting a new baby into a one-bedroom apartment," she says. "My husband hasn't been fly-fishing in 10 years. Rather than insist he get rid of the gear, I can now suggest it go into storage. If he ever wants to go, we'll just stop by the storage place on the way to the river."

Likewise, Ms. Vanderkam is keeping her books, like the works of Aristotle. "I don't like throwing or giving away books. Storage means we don't need to fight about our stuff."

The Self Storage Association counts 51,000 facilities across the United States today, up from 26,000 10 years ago. The largest storage operator in the nation is Public Storage Inc., of Glendale, Calif., with more than 2,000 locations. Extra Space is No. 2, with 640 locations. Mr. Overturf notes that Extra Space now has 300,000 tenants whose average rent is about $110 to $130 a month.

"People move [stuff] into our units saying they'll stay for three to six months but end up staying longer. We have a few customers who've been with us for more than 30 years," he says. "But the median time for people who move in and vacate is six to eight months. The average stay, taking into account the long-termers, ends up being 14 to 15 months."

While the industry's growth has slowed in cities, Overturf says, "the growth now is outside larger markets, places with lots of land like Kansas, Montana, and South Dakota, where storage is used for recreational equipment like camping gear.

One problem the industry faces is that the term "storage" conjures up pictures of ugly orange garage-setups that people don't want in their neighborhood. "We're getting zoned out of some communities like counties of Los Angeles. There's a negative connotation," says Overturf

To fight back, the industry is building facilities that fit in architecturally with the community, and adding amenities like air conditioning.

"They're changing from orange-door, single-story, plain-Jane, razor-wire, chain-link garages in industrial parts of town to buildings that without signage would never give away that they are storage facilities that sit on Main Street," says Ariel L. Valli, president of Valli Architectural Group in Aliso Viejo, Calif, which designs and develops self-storage facilities.

Adds Clemente Teng, investor relations manager at Public Storage: "A lot of facilities are 15 to 20 years old, so we're tearing down older units and building newer, taller, more esthetically pleasing to the community, climate-controlled facilities where storage units already existed."