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In storage condos, a place for gear, play

Michael Hunt in his storage unit at GarageTown USA in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, which he has turned into a place where he plays games with his children, works, and shelters his vehicles. Michael Hunt in his storage unit at GarageTown USA in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, which he has turned into a place where he plays games with his children, works, and shelters his vehicles. (KIRK MASTIN/THE NEW YORK TIMES)
Email|Print| Text size + By Kristina Shevory
New York Times News Service / February 3, 2008

Michael Hunt was tired of keeping his fishing boat and Mercedes convertible under tarps next to his house in Post Falls, Idaho. His prized recreational vehicle was slowly falling apart after spending a few winters outside. With no room left in his garage, he wasn't sure what to do.

Instead of selling his house, moving to a warmer state, or getting rid of his toys, he bought a storage condominium a few miles away in Coeur d'Alene, where he could keep everything under one roof. Then he bought another one for his home office and business files. Three years and $119,000 later, his storage units have become a second home, a place where he plays games with his children, works, and shelters his vehicles.

"I have fun when I'm here and so do my kids," Hunt said of his makeshift getaway. "Our house is a toy box, and this is much quieter."

People like Hunt, with more toys than space, are spending tens of thousands of dollars to keep their weekend wheels and gear in high style. In response, a growing number of self-storage units are ditching the bright lights, long hallways, and sterile atmosphere to become destinations unto themselves.

Some, like the units Hunt owns at GarageTown USA in Coeur d'Alene, are bought and sold like homes and come with cable television, high-speed Internet, individual thermostats, and even clubhouses.

"Everybody has stuff," Carri Berglund, GarageTown USA's national sales and marketing director, said as she was showing off the units in Coeur d'Alene, one of the company's 19 sites. "This is what you don't want in your house."

These large storage areas, which top out at 2,000 square feet, hold not only sports cars and skiing equipment, but also pool tables and personal gyms, or as in Hunt's case, a batting cage.

From the outside, the Idaho garages look like industrial warehouses with metal siding, roofs and roll-up doors. Step inside, and the units can resemble an art gallery or rec room. They have become places where people want to linger for a televised football game or a poker game in the clubhouse or just hang out with other condo owners.

At the clubhouse in Coeur d'Alene, a leather sofa and chairs sit near a kitchen with granite countertops. In September, Berglund brought in caterers and turned one unit into a buffet line, another into a wine-tasting area, and served dessert in another. Over 250 people came to the event, which ran until midnight. Some members have held summer barbecues.

Every state in the country has self-storage units, but most of those are rentals. Those storage units sold as condos are typically found only in spots with second homes, resorts or heavy winters where people have a lot of winter gear.

Some, like Airport Garages in Steamboat Springs, Colo., sell units at small airports where second-home owners can store their planes, cars, RVs, and winter gear. In Ohio, Storage Condominiums designs its garages for out-of-towners who want to keep their boats and RVs around nearby Lake Erie. Premier Storage Condominiums in Yuma, Ariz., caters to RV owners who want to keep their rigs in Arizona for winter travel and offers 60-foot wide driveways, dump stations and extra long spaces.

With more storage options to choose from - there is now enough space to cover Manhattan three times, according to the Self Storage Association in Alexandria, Va. - rental companies are also adding amenities to stand out.

At Hollywood Storage Center, a rental facility in Newbury Park, Calif., there are movie posters on the walls, wine-tasting rooms, a kitchen, and even a post office. For Christmas, there were free photos with Santa Claus with cocoa and chocolate chip cookies.

"We've done all kinds of wild things here. It generates more traffic for us and that means more storage units that we'll be able to rent," said Jay Sundher, who owns the 300,000-square-foot facility. "All these things get people in a good mood, and it becomes a place where they want to hang out with their friends."

At the condo garages, spaces, which generally cost from $68,000 to $200,000, can range from simple metal shells with concrete floors to spacious units with epoxy floors and built-in mezzanines. GarageTown's units in Coeur d'Alene cost about $57,000 to $85,950.

"This can be a cheaper alternative than building on your own property," said Chris Sonne, a managing director at Cushman Wakefield in Irvine, Calif., who tracks the self-storage market.

For many owners, the garages are a bargain. Some have downsized and no longer have a basement or garage big enough to store all their gear. Others live in subdivisions that do not allow them to build sheds or shops.

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