Self-storage has evolved over the last 40-plus years. In bygone days, developers had a relatively easy time locating a site and building what was essentially rows of garage-type units. Today, it takes tenacity, capital, and sometimes sheer will to convince municipalities of the worth of a new facility in their area. What has become known as a Class A storage facility is now the norm. Over the past few years, new developers, typically with the assistance of institutional capital, have developed self-storage facilities that more closely resemble high-end retail than the metal garages of old.
Developing a Class-A facility is a complex process that takes a long-term commitment and a complete knowledge of the demographics, says M. Anne Ballard, president of marketing, training, and developmental services for Universal Storage Group in Atlanta, Ga., “Developers must have a complete knowledge of the market, the growth to population, household incomes, and all of the other numbers that tell us if a facility will work,” she says.
Ballard adds that the question is not how to develop a Class-A facility, but how to develop a successful Class-A facility.
Defining Class A Facility
To get an idea of how to develop a Class A facility, it’s worth looking back on the evolution of self-storage:
1-story metal garage type buildings. The property usually has an office with an on-site manager and sometimes the manager lives in an owner provided apartment. If the manager is married, sometimes one spouse would be in the role of manager while the other provides maintenance.
These facilities were designed a lot like Generation I, only with the addition of security measures such as perimeter fencing and access gates.
As storage evolved, so did the public’s interest in keeping their goods climate controlled. These facilities were typically still 1-2 stories, with the addition of a mixture of outside storage and inside climate-controlled units.
All the storage is typically indoor with state-of-the-art security and many facilities are multi-story. Gone are manager residences, as some facilities are so high-tech they can operate without a manager on site.
Many define Generation V, or what is being termed now as Class-A facilities, based on the age of the property and the amenities it offers. “A Class-A facility is really the most modern, newest, and has the most amenities of industry standards,” says P.J. Richards, director of learning and project management for Metro Storage LLC in Lake Forest Fla. “We always look for a combination of those things when looking at Class-A.”
Considering Class-A storage typically runs an average $90-plus per square foot to develop (depending on many factors, including location), Tarik Williams, vice president of TLW Construction Inc. defines Class-A as, “Institutional grade that will garner respect from all for financing.”
However, experts agree that Class-A facilities don’t all look alike and may be defined as a combination of all previous generations. “It very well could be a drive-up; it may be in a demographic that supports that,” says Williams, “as long as it has a professional office, is clean and attractive, supports traffic counts, and could draw institutional financing.”
Ballard agrees. “It really depends on the market,” she says. “Single-level drive-up could be a Class-A facility; it just depends on what the numbers are in an area to make the facility work.”
Brian Hoel, president of BraineTrust Storage, says the most important thing to develop a Class-A facility is knowing that market, as well as knowing what the demographics of the area expect in a self-storage experience. “When we talk about it, we think technology and simple features that are easy to use for our customers,” he says. “Today it’s more consumer focused.”
Starting With The Basic for a Class A Storage Facility
“Developing a Class-A facility starts with an owner who wants to put in the one-time effort and expense to create a great project,” says Charles Plunkett, CEO and partner at Capco General Contracting in San Antonio, Texas.
Hoel believes the process begins with finding the property. “If the dirt is affordable, or the building is prime for conversion, it’s a gut reaction for me,” he says. “I get excited. I have my feasibility study complete, and if everything checks out, we move forward.”
In addition to the feasibility study, Ballard says a complete proforma should be completed that shows every expense, right down the $500 it will take to open the checking account. “Don’t leave anything out,” she adds. “The most common mistake I see in these is finding the budget is only about 75 percent complete.”
The next step is assembling your team. “The best projects identify the team up front,” says Plunkett. “You should always have a good design team, people with vision to expand the owner’s concept.”
If you are a new developer, Roc Hughes, vice president of business development for BETCO Inc. in Statesville, N.C., says it is typically beneficial to hire a design team that includes the architect, civil engineers, general contractors, and financial experts with storage industry experience. “Especially if you’re developing boat/RV storage, these experts can guide you through fire codes, ADA requirements, building codes, driveway and parking requirements,” he says. “Ask as many questions of people in the industry as you have. We don’t want to see you fail; we want to see you succeed.”
Navigating Municipalities, Design, And Build
Bruce Jordan, president of Jordan Architects in San Clemente, Calif., says once the owner and design team have investigated the county or municipality requirements, which is typically a huge hurdle for most, the next thing the design team should be doing is determining the site’s topography and visibility. “Can it visible from the freeway?” asks Jordon. “We want to design it to maximize advertising. Also, if there are slopes, we want to see if we can maximize driveways to eliminate elevators.”
The placement of the office is very important as well. “Your office needs to be right up front,” says Jordan. “And there shouldn’t be any barrier to see in, like mirrored glass. Customers like to see in when they drive up; it makes them feel more comfortable.”
As pointed out above, the storage itself may be contained in a completely closed multilevel space, could include a mix of indoor and drive-up, or may even be only drive-up, depending on the area. Plunkett says they always try to introduce the latest and new building materials, as well as eye-catching features. “We’ve been introducing new building materials such as faux wood and metal panels, as well as using some standard ones,” he says. “Some of our most interesting projects also have three dominate colors rather than two.”
Class-A facilities may also include mixed-use retail and/or other amenities such as office space connected to units.
A Class-A project should always include state-of-the-art technology that focuses on ease of use and high-end security. Most importantly, its focus should make people think “easy.”
Ballard says, “We have the three easies: easy to access, easy to use, and easy to stay.
Class A Storage Facility for Boats And RVs
Boat and RV storage has also evolved through the years, from gravel lots to fully enclosed spaces. Matt Maurer, business development manager with BETCO Inc., says Class-A RV and boat storage is typically enclosed with commercial roll-up doors and on-site amenities such as electric wired units, ice, gasoline, propane, dump bays, and washing stations. “They also have state-of-the-art security,” Maurer adds.
According to Hughes, there are approximately 10,000 boat and RV storage facilities nationwide, with only 3,000 of them being “stand-alone Class-A facilities.” With the prevalence of homeowners associations (HOAs) not allowing boats and RVs in residential areas, as well as the growth of RV and boat sales during the pandemic, more facilities are needed, especially in areas within up to 50 miles of recreational lakes and parks.
“People are storing items that could be worth up to $1 million, and they don’t want to store them outside or in an unsecure facility,” says Hughes. “It’s a very underserved area of storage, and there really isn’t a lot of competition—no matter where you decide to build. I believe it’s the wave of the future for storage development.”
Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell is a freelance journalist based in the Ozark Mountains. She is a regular contributor to MiniCo’s publications. Her business articles have also appeared in Entrepreneur, Aol.com, MSN.com, and The Kansas City Star