Storage Locker Auctions 'Like Going to Vegas'

At a storage facility in California's Bay Area, a crowd of onlookers peers into lockers -- all eager to get a glimpse at someone else's stuff inside.

Jammed with unmarked boxes, tools, clothes and furniture, the storage unit -- home to the accumulated objects of life -- is about to be auctioned off.

Storage is a big business, but a little known sideline is the monthly auctions of units where owners have failed to pay the rent. In the recession, defaults on storage units are up in the range of 5 to 10 percent.

Ted Shurtleff, regional manager of the Storage Master chain, said the reasons people stop paying are as varied as the things they're storing.

"Some disappear off the face of the Earth. Some go to jail. Some, the economy gets them, they lose their job. Pick a reason."

To clear out the defaulters, and their stuff, storage companies have turned to auctions, drawing a pool of bidders, many of whom come looking for a chance to profit from someone else's loss.

Michael Gottlieb is one of the growing numbers who have made a hobby out of buying defaulted storage lockers. Forced to bid blindly, he often acquires units with nothing more than family photos and discarded childhood toys.

"Some of it's crazy. Some of it's like a soap opera in a box," said Gottlieb. "So many people have so many different kinds of problems. I've had people come up to me and say, 'My mother's ashes are in there, can I get them back?'"

When the auctioneer opens the locker's steel door, it becomes a window into the secret lives of strangers. What's inside?

"Photographs, sexual objects. A lot of that ... You know, whips, chains, electrical things, things people want to hide away," Gottlieb said. "One box was some gentleman's, used to come into the city, and he would become a woman. And then he would go about his business, making his money, and then he would go back and change again. And it was like his little dressing room."

For the bidders, storage locker auctions are a chance to find hidden treasures among the trash; something akin to a search for a Picasso at a yard sale.

However, at most auctions, regulation forbids bidders from inspecting the items in the unit beforehand, making their purchase a gamble.

"It's like going to Vegas," said auctioneer John Cardoza, who has occasionally seen fortunes unearthed in the rubble.

"One unit had comic books in it. Behind the comic books were some baseball cards. And behind that was some Charles Schultz artwork. So that went for $9,100 and I believe the insurance broker appraised it at a million and a half," Cardoza told ABC News.

Bidding Wars Ensue Over Junk-Filled Units

More common are junk-filled units, where the buyer may spend more taking the junk to the dump than what he makes selling anything of value.

Sometimes the contents are less random. One locker here holds the remains of a local surf and skateboard store that went bankrupt.

At the facility, small dramas play out between eager bidders. At the auction of the unit containing skateboard store remains, one of the bidders for the surf gear was the very man who lost the business.

And at another auction, Amy Puckett, a young mother, came to bid on her ex-husband's storage unit, hoping to recover mementos, like her daughter's baby blankets. But Puckett had to bid for her family's belongings against a stranger looking for a profit.

"I don't even know what he wanted in there. What was in there? A desk, maybe, that he wanted? I don't know." she said. "... Back off bud. I obviously want this."

Puckett won, paying $140 plus tax and $100 deposit on the locker.

But among the curious and the amateurs are a handful of seasoned professionals who know what to look for and how to make money.

"A couple of dump loads and maybe I'll make a million dollars," one veteran storage bidder told ABC News.

Still, the profitable auctions are few and far between. In California, storage companies generate hardly any money from auctions. They often receive less than the delinquent rent and are required to give anything more than that amount to the county.

The bidders do stand to make some money. But the thrill of finding a profitable unit is often dampened by a sense of digging through strangers' lives.

"The first one I did, I didn't know what I was doing," said Chuck Jansen. "...The first one I bought, the first thing I came across was toys, and pictures of kids. And it's really crummy."

But in the business of storing the contents of a life, it all goes to the highest bidder, only to be cleared out and replaced by a new set of someone's stuff.