Know risks when you put stuff in self-storage

The Baltimore Sun

Before Stacey Lancaster left last month for Ramstein Air Base in Germany to complete his training in the U.S. Navy's officer commissioning program, the 29-year-old Glen Burnie resident decided to stow all his worldly belongings in self-storage for safekeeping.

Or so he thought.

On Aug. 11, when he returned to the states, Lancaster discovered that the storage unit that he had "packed to the gills" with more than $8,000 worth of belongings had been overrun with rodents.

The filthy little critters had pooped all over his couch, loveseat, queen-size mattress set, desk and linens, Lancaster said. In some spots, there were clumps of poo. In others, he found urine stains.

"It was disgusting," Lancaster said. "I don't want to sleep on this stuff. I don't want my family sitting on this stuff. I'm worried about disease. I'm very upset about the whole situation."

I hate to be the one to add to his distress, but in this particular situation, Lancaster is S.O.L. -- scat out of luck.

Nearly 1 in 10 households in this country rents storage space to keep their belongings safe. But many consumers might be surprised to hear that the facility's owner in almost all cases is not liable for almost anything that could happen to your property while it is stored there.

Just take a look at some of the language in the contract that Lancaster signed (but didn't read) with ezStorage before leaving his stuff in a unit at the company's Glen Burnie facility June 12:

"OCCUPANT'S USE OF THE UNIT AND FACILITY SHALL BE COMPLETELY AND ONLY AT OCCUPANT'S SOLE RISK."

In fine print, it adds, "Occupant acknowledges that Owner does not furnish any security for the Unit, or make any claims or representations concerning the security of the facility or the unit."

If that isn't enough: "Owner shall not be responsible for the theft or mysterious disappearance of Occupant's property or for damage thereto caused by fire, water, freezing, heat, extreme changes in temperature, humidity, dampness, leakage, rodents, insects, lightning, windstorm, hail, snow, flood, explosion, riot or civil disturbance, collapse of buildings, actions of other occupants, loss or failure of electricity, by any cause whatsoever, or the active or passive acts or omissions of Owner or its agents, except for willful injury or willful violation of law."

Such language is fairly typical of most self-storage contracts, said Timothy J. Dietz, vice president of communications and government relations for the Self Storage Association, an Alexandria, Va.-based trade group.

"We advise tenants of self-storage to read those lease agreements very carefully," Dietz said. "They're written in such a way to protect owners and operators. The owners of these facilities cannot examine everything that is stored. They're not watchdogs. They don't even know what is being stored. Think of it as renting an apartment. Tenants have the same rights to privacy when they rent space from self-storage."

Unless you purchase extra insurance, which is often offered by the facility's owner, you have very little protection against damage to your belongings. Many homeowner's and renter's insurance plans will not cover your stored belongings, either, according to Carolyn Gorman, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute.

Even though many self-storage facilities are surrounded by gates and sometimes barbed wire, guarded by security cameras and supervised by a manager or groundskeeper, don't mistake it for the same type of security you might find renting a safe-deposit box.

The manager or groundskeeper is not there to guard your stuff. The security camera might catch a thief in progress, but it will not replace your goods. You are the only one liable for your property.

"Owners do have a duty of care, but the duty of care is very low," said Maryland Assistant Attorney General Rebecca Bowman. "They're providing you a space in which to put your stuff. But above and beyond that, that's it. You have to put a lock on it. But if somebody breaks the lock and gets in, that's on you."

"The language in that contract should make you pause and reconsider what you put in storage," Bowman said. "Maybe you shouldn't put precious heirlooms in there, irreplaceable stuff or anything very valuable. People don't realize it, but all the risk is really on you."

With that said, Lancaster's hopes of getting ezStorage Corp., based in Columbia, to replace $2,800 worth of damaged goods were shot.

ezStorage executives had already rejected that idea when Lancaster first brought his problem to their attention. The company did offer to have his furniture cleaned and move him into another unit, Lancaster said.

"He's claiming rodents destroyed his furniture," said Ray Blake, a senior vice president of ezStorage who disputes the amount of damage to Lancaster's furniture. "It's not damaged. I could probably count the number of pellets that I saw total."

Even so, regardless of whether there was damage or not, Blake pointed out that "[Lancaster] has a rental agreement. It holds us harmless from any damage to a person's goods. ... [But] We were willing to help him."

Lancaster said he took them up on their offer to move to another unit. When he went to inspect the new unit, however, he found a dead mouse inside. Blake said that unit was "swept out" after the mouse was discovered.

Lancaster also maintains that cleaning the furniture is out of the question. He said he contacted two different cleaning companies.

"They told me there was no guarantee that the cleaning would get out urine, germs or disease," Lancaster said. "They said I should replace all of it."

With both sides unwilling to budge, Lancaster has two options. He can file a complaint with the attorney general's office, which will offer mediation. Or, he can take his gripe to court.

Despite the seemingly ironclad nature of the self-storage contract, that does not necessarily preclude Lancaster from suing.

"Some of those provisions may not be enforceable," Bowman said. "If a facility in that position can waive all liability in every circumstance, everyone would draft up contracts like that. You can take your chances in court and let a judge decide."

Lancaster is undecided what to do next. He is, however, sure about two things he'll be doing in the future.

"It never even crossed my mind to ask about rodents or cleanliness," Lancaster said. "Next time, I'll ask more questions and I'll read the contract."

Reach Consuming Interests by e-mail at consuminginterests@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6151. Find an archive of Consuming Interest columns at baltimoresun.com/consuming.

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