Kelvin Sierra took only a second to glance into the 5-by-10-foot storage unit, as other bidders squeezed behind him, some with heavy flashlights to light up the dark corners.
The auctioneer, Tammie Lockwood, positioned herself at one edge of the opening and blared over a bullhorn for everyone to keep moving. No stopping, no touching. Look and walk.
About 50 people showed up for the monthly auctions of delinquent storage units at Self Storage Centers of America on Causeway Boulevard just west of U.S. 301. Three units were up for auction because tenants were way behind on their payments, but only two were bid on because the owner of the third showed up to pay the back rent moments before the auction began.
Sierra is a seasoned storage auction bidder; he knows what to look for and what to ignore. Bidding on the last unit started at a couple of hundred bucks and increased in $25 increments at to the gentle urging of Lockwood, the auctioneer with Storage Protection Auction Services.
"If you want to be a buyer," she prodded, "you've got to be a bidder."
Sierra laughed at that one. He gave hints to waging a successful storage unit war.
"Well-packed personal stuff," he said. That means whatever is worthy of being put into storage is probably worth something.
"Anything collectible or any military stuff," he said.
He was hooked long before the television show "Storage Wars" caught on. "That show ruined it for us," he said. Used to be only a small group of bidders would show up for the auctions – now there are 45 or 50, sometimes more.
Sierra moved away from the opening at Unit A3155, thinking about how much he would be willing to spend.
"If you watch the show," Lockwood said over the bullhorn, "then you know there always is something good inside." The seasoned bidders chuckled. The newcomers nodded in agreement.
"Sometimes, to win," she said, "you have to bid without looking."
Sheila Burnett, general manager of the 686-unit Self Storage Center, said auctions are held once a month. Usually between five and seven units are on the clearing out list.
To be able to legally sell off someone else's property, the storage unit business has plenty of hoops to jump through.
First, a notice is sent to the past-due tenant. Then a notice to cut the lock is sent; then a pre-lien notice that says there's going to be an auction and their stuff is going on the block.
Then, a certified lien notice is sent, she said, with the date and time of the auction.
On the 30th day of delinquency, and if the storage company hasn't heard back from the tenant, the lock is cut. Tenants have until the moment the bidding begins to pay their bill, she said, and on Tuesday, one came across with the cash, leaving only a pair of delinquent units available for auction.
"Sometimes people come in and pay us off and then we are left with none to auction," she said. "But, more than likely, they don't respond."
How often do bidders find the treasure?
"To be honest," Burnett said, "they don't tell us."
The bidding on Unit A3155 escalated at $300, reaching $400 in a second or two. It was down to two bidders, including Sierra, who works in the nutrition department at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital and once paid a couple hundred dollars for a unit that contained $4,000 in gold coins.
"Four-hundred-and-fifty once," Lockwood said, "$450 twice … Sold for $450." She pointed at Sierra.
Was it worth the investment?
Oh, yes, Sierra said later, as he began to scratch the surface of what was inside.
He pointed to the very back, just barely visible from the door. It was something he spotted in the second he was given to look inside. A box with Wilson sports equipment. From somewhere, he pulled out a barely used FIFA soccer ball.
"That right there's worth $40," he said. He spotted a Yamaha keyboard on top, something that few people caught. He pulled it out and found a price tag on the side: $344.99.
There was a full leather couch and boxes upon boxes he could not reach. He pulled out a Serato Scratch Live record set used by DJs. "These are worth $200 each," he said, "and there are two in here." It also got him thinking that somewhere in there may be a full DJ turntable panel, worth hundreds of dollars if not more.
In a backpack, he found personal information, including checkbooks, credit card receipts and bills. "All of this, I will shred and burn," he said. "I'm an honest guy."
In all, it was a good day for Sierra, who has 48 hours to clear out the unit. He said he will bring it to his own storage unit and sell it piece by piece on Craigslist.
"This is a gamble," he said. "And sometimes, it pays off."