We own more "stuff" than ever and, with the approach of Christmas, can expect to be cramming even more into our overfilled homes by new year. Little wonder, then, that it is hard to drive for five minutes through the suburbs of London without passing an ugly corrugated metal shed offering storage space — shrines to our love of hoarding and great business for Britain's 400 storage firms.
© Les Wilson
As well as people who simply own too much stuff, self-storage units have proved a godsend to people wanting to declutter before selling their home, and those who plan to rent before buying another property.
Then there are landlords who don't want their most treasured possessions being used by tenants; people taking time out to work overseas and those who have downsized their property but not their possessions.
However, storage is not cheap and recently got 20 per cent more expensive: self-storage companies have had to charge VAT on their prices since October 1. There are other hazards too. Customers complain of hefty obligatory insurance fees added to their rental payments and cheap "starter" offers that can suddenly rocket. There have even been complaints about security, with thefts reported from some sites.
What you should consider
Chose your company carefully and consider alternative ways to store your property. Get competitive quotes, not just one from the nearest unit to you, and make sure the quotes are inclusive of everything.
Insurance is a requirement of renting self-storage space in the UK. Firms will insist you take their insurance, or ask for proof of your own cover — which they may not accept. Some companies may even demand you purchase their padlocks to lock your unit.
Now VAT is imposed on the "self-storage" part of the industry, it might be cheaper to use a traditional moving company. They have large container warehouses and, because they store items professionally, claim to use more than 90 per cent of the space compared with about 60-70 per cent by the amateur stacking that takes place in self-storage boxes.
Access to your goods in traditional movers' depots might be more difficult, however. Most demand a fee to gain access, plus 24 hours' notice, but for many people that will be adequate. These firms will often pick up and pack your belongings.
Mark Prout, managing director of removals firm Aussie Man & Van — which charges £18 for 250 cubic feet of storage space a week, says: "There is this foolish notion that self-storage is cheap but it isn't. Some self-storage providers have been ripping people off for years. People underestimate how much they need and the advertised prices are usually for a space no bigger than the size of a phonebox."
However, one of the biggest self-storage firms, Big Yellow, insists customers get what they pay for. Operations director Adrian Lee, says: "Location is a big part of the price, and self-storage offers instant access. The industry is driven by introductory prices but we are very clear and upfront about ours. It shouldn't be a surprise if rates go up after that period. We get feedback from all of our customers and an 80 per cent approval rating for value for money. "Obviously if you don't want access it's cheaper in deep storage."
Storage companies: put to the test
We sought estimates from several storage providers. Our test case involved a potential customer wanting to empty a room measuring 15ft by 15ft, containing a large sofa, two armchairs, a chest of drawers, a small desk and eight medium-size boxes of books and other items in Belsize Park. The storage was requested for up to four weeks.
Location: Staples Corner
Suggested: upending the sofa to fit the items in a 40sq ft container but said we could move into a smaller container if this turned out to be too big.
Rate: £19.34 a week for 40sq ft, including a special offer of 50 per cent discount for the first four weeks (thereafter £38.70 a week).
Insurance starts at £2.50 a week extra for a minimum replacement value of £2,000.
Size of suggested container: 35sq ft, via its online form.
Rate: with VAT, £70 for the first four weeks, then £78 a week.
Size of container suggested: 35sq ft.
Rate: £29.08 a week.
Aussie Man & Van
Size of container suggested: 8ft high by 5ft by 7ft. Approx 250 cubic feet This is traditional storage, with access at 24 hours' notice for a fee.
Rate: £15, plus VAT, so £18 a week. If you need access before the storage period ends, this is charged at £45, plus VAT, per container.
Storemates.co.uk is an alternative self-storage service where users pay to dump their belongings in local people's spare lofts, garages etc. The site charges renters a fee equal to the first two weeks of rent, but you will only pay the price quoted by the individuals. The owner of a "large, well-insulated loft space" in Kilburn, for example, is offering it for £15 a week. The site has contracts to download for both parties but you might want to ask for references and look into insurance, too.
But do you really need all this stuff?
Before signing up for storage, do some quick maths. Say you're spending £120 a month to stack up an old Magimix, a pile of books, and a sofabed in a self-storage unit. You might think you're keeping it there for just six months, but be realistic — it'll likely stretch to at least two years. That's £2,800 you'll spend. You could buy a new Magimix, a Kindle and very nice new sofabed for that.
Don't be emotional about storage. If you need a nudge, money can be an incentive. Sell your goods on eBay (wait for free listing days to make the best return), advertise them locally, or offer them to friends and colleagues on Facebook and Twitter.
If you are feeling kind, give unwanted items to a charity who will often collect for free. Some boroughs run furniture re-use projects, too. In Barnet, for example, a project collects good-quality furniture and crockery, gives the unemployed work in restoring them, and then sells them on at affordable prices.
Restore Community Projects collect furniture and appliances from homes in Barnet, Brent, Camden, Enfield, Hackney, Haringey, Islington, Redbridge, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest for the homeless or those in social need.
What to ask storage firms
* Are there any extra costs, such as insurance, VAT, credit-card fees etc, and can you provide your own padlock or must you buy one of theirs?
* Can you use your own insurance?
* What's the size of the container and its average contents?
* Does the monthly rate cover an "introductory period" or is it fixed?
* Are there restrictions on what type of thing you can store?
* With traditional storage how much notice is required before you can visit or leave the unit?