PORT RICHEY — Leo Grace spent hours at last week's storage unit auctions with a pocketful of cash, watching the newcomers gamble on the abandoned units. He left without making a single bid.
For nine years he's bought storage units filled with other people's relinquished goods, turning the finds into money on eBay or the flea market. Every so often he finds a collectible worth taking to an auction house.
But Grace and other veterans of the trade say they're getting crowded by the greenhorns entering the business, introduced to the world of storage unit auctions by reality TV shows like A&E's Storage Wars and Spike TV's Auction Hunters. Grace says the newbies are driving up prices and making his business less profitable.
"The stupid shows have ruined it," said Grace, 55, of Port Richey. "We were like a secret society, and there were never that many people out there before."
The reality shows follow modern-day treasure hunters who buy abandoned storage units in the hopes of finding forgotten treasures.
The units go up for auction after the original owner stops paying the rent and has been unreachable for at least 90 days. Before bidding, potential buyers have a few minutes to look through the open door of the unit. They can't go inside or touch anything, though.
The proceeds from the auction pay the back rent on the unit and the auctioneer's fees. If there's any money left beyond that, it goes to the person who originally rented the unit (or to the state, if that person can't be found).
Grace was working as a mail carrier about a decade ago when he wanted to do something new. A friend told him about people making a living on storage unit auctions.
He walked away from the post office job and bought his first unit near MacDill Air Force Base for $15. He and his brother-in-law spent 30 days driving back and forth to Tampa, sorting through endless piles of boxes to empty out the unit.
Still, he was hooked. It was a fun way to make a living, he said.
"It's also about how fast you can get rid of the stuff," he said. "Selling it can take forever, and well, you want to make the money you just spent back as fast as possible. That's the only way to see a profit."
Grace quickly realized bad days existed, too. One of his biggest losses: Spending $400 on a unit filled with only VHS tapes and junk. He learned patience is part of the game.
Since the shows started, more recreational buyers have come out to play and Grace has had to get a part-time job at a staffing agency to make ends meet. He said auctions that used to draw 10 to 20 people now have three times that many potential bidders. And when bids start, he said, prices are driven up immediately, even if the unit doesn't look terribly interesting.
Plus it seems more renters are raiding their storage units for valuables to sell before abandoning the units to auction, Grace said. What's left for the bidders is sometimes worthless clutter.
Aaron Smith, a storage auction novice, had his eye on a unit at last week's auction at The Storage Center in Port Richey.
"All right, folks, we are starting this one at $100," auctioneer Tammie Lockwood told the crowd of about 60. "We have $125, anyone for $150?"
Smith stepped aside, discussed with his buddies and jumped in with $400.
He wanted this unit. He spotted gun cases, a big baking mixer, a tool box in the back and the sandblast cabinet — all things he said he could easily sell and double his money.
Finally, after a bit of a bidding battle, Smith shouted "$550."
"Sold," Lockwood said.
After going through his new inventory, Smith found the gun cases were empty and the mixer was broken. But he remained hopeful after finding a lot of tools and a handheld GPS he said he could easily sell for $100. (He and his buddies split the cost of the unit.)
"I am definitely going to get my money back," said Smith, 35, who lives in west Pasco.
Grace said he didn't find any of the units at last week's auctions worth more than a couple hundred dollars.
"Most people don't know what to look for," he said. "They get laid off, get into this and lose all their savings because they have no idea what they are doing."
Donna Keeton, 52, property manager of Bayonet Self Storage in Hudson, said she's glad the TV shows have made the auctions more public.
"Even though I hate to get rid of people's stuff, we can't have units abandoned and unpaid for, and sometimes having more people come out means more money and we get to pay the unit off," Keeton said.
Barry and Terry Seligman, two brothers who own an air conditioning business in Clearwater, started going to auctions about two years ago. After a few months they stopped bidding on units because they weren't making a profit. But the shows have brought them back.
They do it mostly for fun, but they are also on the lookout for stuff they can sell at their consignment shop in Kenneth City or at their stands in the flea market.
"You have to have a way to move the stuff, and a place where you can sell the stuff," said Barry Seligman, 50. "If you don't have the connections to do that, then you become a hoarder. And Hoarders ... that's a different show."
Jacqueline Baylon can be reached at email@example.com or at (727) 860-6247.