Real-life storage wars

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Inside an auction like few others, this is a real risk.  Some might say it's a gamble.

Every day across the Carolinas, crowds of people are bidding on rooms full of items without even knowing what they'll get for their money.

They're hoping to find a treasure.  They're bidding on abandoned storage units.

Butch Evans has been in the auction business 20 years and he'll tell you  the crowds are bigger than they've been in a long while.

"It is gambling.  A lot of people like the excitement and the possibility of winning and finding a surprise," Evans said.

The doors to the storage unit open and bidders can only pass by in a single line looking at what can be seen from the door.   They can't go inside and can't touch anything.  Then the bidding starts and the winner doesn't know what he or she is getting until it's bought and paid for.

Most sell what they find inside on eBay or in thrift stores and at flea markets.  Some do get lucky.  While WBTV crews visited one auction a man bid $425 for a unit and found two motors inside worth $1,000 each.

However, more people wind up leaving feeling unlucky, than lucky.

"I've probably bid on 40 units over three years and maybe five have had something good inside.  I've never found any guns or bags or coins or big boxes of jewelry," said one bidder.

There are laws which determine how long a unit can sit, unpaid for.  Storage companies do try to work with those who rent the space.  However, it's a business and has to make money so the units can't sit empty for too long.

Constance Jones lost her job.  We met her at one auction where her unit was the one on the blocks.  She came to beg the new owners of her things to let her get her birth certificate and high school diploma out of the pile.

"I'm grateful I'll get the things that mean a lot to me," Jones said.

"It's getting harder," said one regular bidder.  "People bid blindly because they think everything is paved with gold," he added.

We learned it isn't.  However, for the lucky few willing to gamble, taking a risk can pay off.

To experience the sights and sounds of a storage auction, watch the video at the top of this page.

You can also get advice from auctioneer Butch Evans about what convinces expert buyers to bid when they see the door to a storage unit open.

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