When A McMansion Isn't Large Enough

With Americans living in ever larger homes, the growth of the self storage industry demonstrates the irony of an American solution to an American problem -- overabundance.

 Sriram KhéAn episode of the television sitcom, Yes, Dear, deals in a new way with a joke that has been told many times over-the husband and wife differing on what stuff should be thrown out of the house. The husband, Greg, agrees to get rid of his stuff but then takes them all to a self-storage place that he rents, and then converts that self-storage unit into his private den. He then finds out that the adjacent storage units are also being used as dens by other guys whose wives think that they have gotten rid of the junk. (Yes, summer is a great time to catch up on such reruns!)

Many a true word spoken in jest. The episode neatly captures the growing practice of renting storage spaces because of a lack of space in the regular dwellings. The episode also reveals the irony, which is what I want to discuss here: Greg's family lives in a reasonably large home-he is an executive in the movie industry-with a pool house too. Despite the spaciousness of their home, the couple do not have place for the stuff that Greg likes, which is why he rents the storage facility. So, what is the irony? Well, storage facilities have increased dramatically at the same time that the average new home size has increased.

The chart below shows that the size of the median new home in 2005 is significantly larger than one in 1970-it has almost doubled!

Chart 1
(data from NAHB. Housing Facts, Figures and Trends - May 2007

At the same time, these homes have larger garage spaces too: in 1970, less than forty percent of the new homes had a garage that could accommodate two or more cars. Thirty-five years later, 84 percent of the new homes had garages that were big enough to park two or more cars. Of course, as many of us have observed, but for which data don't exist, most homeowners seem to fill their garages with refrigerators, freezers, bicycles, treadmills, etc., and then park their cars on the driveways or by the curb. When things have to be put away, households find that they have more stuff for which they need additional space, which is where the self-storage business comes in.

Self-storage is truly an American solution to an American problem. What do I mean here? Well, a few weeks after I came to this country for graduate studies, it was nearing Thanksgiving and the television ad for Alka-Seltzer that I watched then is what I refer to as American solutions to American problems. In this ad, the audio commentary and the pictures presented all the wonderful foods that the viewer would end up eating at Thanksgiving, which then resulted in stomach aches and heartburn. And, presto, Alka-Seltzer to the rescue! My reflexive thought was simple: if the problems came from overeating, then why not simply advise the viewer to eat less? Of course, as I have come to realize, to consume less is not American. (Yes, I, too, am an American!) Instead, the American way is to consume more, and then when problems develop savvy entrepreneurs provide solutions to facilitate further consumption.

Storage facilities are the Alka-Seltzers addressing the over-consumption that households like Greg's indulge in. Thus, even as new home size has increased, the storage industry has seen an even faster growth as can be noted in the following chart from the Self Storage Association.

Cumulative Primary Self Storage Facilities by Year
Before 1985 through 2006*
Chart 2

From this chart, which is about the number of storage facilities, we might speculate that there was a corresponding growth in the storage space also. However, it appears that the growth in storage space was even more rapid: the Association notes in the industry fact sheet that "it took the self storage industry more than 25 years to build its first billion square feet of space; it added the second billion square feet in just 8 years (1998-2005)." All right, more space for the Gregs!

I do wonder how long such consumption can go on. Can I dream that the problems in the housing market will somehow trigger an overall reduction in the size of new homes? However, will a decrease in home size then contribute to further growth in the self-storage industry? Tough questions, indeed. But then, if I do get depressed thinking about these issues, there is always another American solution: Prozac!

Sriram Khé is an Associate Professor of Geography at Western Oregon University. Prior to this, he taught at California State University-Bakersfield, and was an Associate Planner with the Kern Council of Governments.




George Carlin has been doing a routine for years about houses being a place for "our stuff"(he employs a more colorful phrase than stuff). He then goes on to say when we run out room for our "stuff" we rent a place to put our "stuff."

There are two sad realities. The first is that many low-income people need to rent storage facilities because they live in places so small they cannot store family heirlooms and items of a personal and enotional nature. Should they miss a single monthly payment, then their items are auctioned off to folks who trade in such items. Porfessional scavengers.

The other reality is that these self storage facilities are about as architecturally significant as the nearest McDonalds--if not worse. Yet commumnity after community permits them and when these facilities age, it is not pretty.

I appreciate the good humor with which the article is written, but self storage facilities are more than just places for wealthy Mcmansionites to store their extra sports car or their golf clubs. For some they are a necessity and to communities they are an eyesore. If your econonomic development strategy is based on the atraction of such facilities--it's time to change direction--NOW! Pass the prozac. There are solutions with coop facilities and shared basement storage. Planners can be helpful in jumpstarting such efforts.

Chuck D'Aprix [Charles D'Aprix]
Economic Development Visions
The Downtown Entrepreneurship Project

self storage from the inside

I manage a busy Southern California self storage facility. I have been a manager for nine years and have seen more than my share of storage customers who were poor, and rich and in-between. I have seen the waste of self storage and it is mostly the poor who cause it. We say that it's the old couches and ping-pong tables that hold up the walls of our place. It is the keeping of junk that supports us.

I can't tell you how many times I have seen poor people ringing their hands because they can't pay their bill, while saying "It's all I have. It's all I am". If you look in their unit, you will see old couches, old clothes, broken bicycles, old microwaves, the contents of the junk drawer, mismatched chairs, broken bureaus and coffee tables. The family heirlooms tend to be broken furniture. Almost none of what you will see is of any benefit to the person who stores it. They just can't make themselves throw it away. The key point is made when they say, "It's all I am". Many, if not most, poor people have low self esteem. Possessing anything, gold or trash, gives them greater self esteem. Since they apparently have no sense of self-worth, they try to make up for it by hanging on to part of Aunt Mable's old dish set.

Scores of times, I have counseled customers to throw away their junk and lighten their load in life. Almost never do they heed my advice. They will tell me that they understand it's junk, but they've just got to hang on to it. It's like watching people hang on to a sinking ship while a safe beach is within swimming distance. I will tell them they are going down with the ship and they just need to let go and swim away to safety. Unfortunately, they usually insist on hanging on to the ship because, "it's the ship". It makes no sense.

I resent talk from people outside the business who think we pray on the poor and live for selling their stuff. We actively pursue businesses (140 of my 850 customers), real estate and moving companies for people going from one house to another, contractors for people who need temporary space to clear houses during remodeling, and people wealthy enough to afford holiday storage. Sending anybody through the auction process takes valuable time away from pursuing customers who benefit by our presence, and from keeping our facilities clean and attractive. By the way, in California it takes a minimum of 65 days to process a lien sale on a storage unit. That means a tenant would be behind by three months payments, not one. This law, which gives greater protection to tenants than in almost any other state, was written by Don Temple, a leader in the creation of the self-storage industry. And when we do sell a unit, we are lucky if we recover ten cents on the dollar for what is owed.

While I agree that most self storage facilities are architecturally insignificant, I would argue that the majority of all light industrial buildings being built in this country for any purpose have all the significance of a paper bag. They are not a reflection of the industry as much as they are a reflection of the planners and design criteria of the communities they are built in. If they age badly, that would again be a reflection of the community they are in. If nobody cares enough to require fresh paint and landscaping, if nobody bothers to make the owner maintain the property to community standards, then yes, they will be a blight just as would any other type of business.

I need to point out that many storage facilities, particularly those in the built environment, are reused buildings that were constructed for other purposes. Many multi-story structures with attractive facades and other interesting features have been gutted, stripped clean, then rebuilt using modern codes and materials to make interesting and attractive self storage facilities.

It is well known by planners and city managers who care, that self storage facilities produce very little sales tax and not nearly as much property tax as homes do. Unlike industrial uses that also produce very little tax revenue, they produce little employment as most facilities run with as few as two or three people. With most self storage facilities running with 80 to 90 per cent occupancy, however, nobody can argue that there is no need for them. It is simply a fact that most people will use self storage in their lifetime for lack of other available space to put their stuff. You will need self storage some time, whether for a few weeks while you move between apartments, or for six months while your house is being remodeled, a year while you live with family and go back to school, or for seven years to hold medical or legal files as required by law. The best plan is not to demonize any industry, but to understand their place, make the right amount of room for them in the right place and with the right amenities. Self storage is one tool of many that are necessary for a balanced community.



Too Much Stuff

This phenomena highlights our declining values and the offensive practice of Americans' trying to satisfy their social needs with more "stuff."
And what do people DO in their McMansions? Play pretend king and queen? Entertain lavishly? Host hunting parties? House visiting royalty? Play "mine's bigger" with their friends and co-workers?
It wouldn't be so bad if these grotesque houses were interesting architecture, but most just underline the owners' total lack of the understanding of basic architectural principals. And even scarier: where did these "architects" go to school? Maybe they all live in spiffy Eichlers and laugh all the way to the bank.

rob bregoff

McMansions and self-storage

I am both a city planner and a self-storage operator. The sad truth is, most self storage facilities in urban areas are eyesores and add nothing to the architectural design of a city. However, as in the adaptive reuse of existing buildings, especially old warehouses, they add a much-needed service to the community. And before anyone cares to argue about self-storage being a necessity, the fact is facilites hover around 90-95 percent occupancy most of the time, and more are being built or converted. A niche is being filled. This article is about rampant consumerism, not self-storage.

As for new sites, the McDonald's analogy is a good one. Cities must take on the self-storage industry in the design review process. The impact of the immense scale of these facilites (50,000 to 100,000 square feet or more)on the community warrants such a design review. Multi-story facilites are preferred for a smaller footprint. Since most facilities' revenue far exceeds that of multi-family structures on a per square-foot basis, with very little overhead, it is not unreasonable nor does it inflict a hardship to hold them to a higher design standard than the average industrial building.

Also, it is a minimum of 90 days before items can be auctioned. Storage operators rent space. If space is not being paid for, then it must be vacated to make way for a paying customer. Contracts are explained and signed, phone calls made to tenants and alternates, as well as letters sent to all, both in regular mail and certified. In all, over 20 attempts to contact the tenant are made before an auction. All personal effects such as photos and personal papers are held an additional 90 days before disposal and can be obtained by the customer without charge.

Dani Wray

Here we go again

Another example of baseless moralizing by self-appointed (or should I say, “anointed?”) scolds. We have been told what to drive, and then that we shouldn’t drive at all. Now, we are being told what size house it is “politically correct” to live in, and that we should not buy any “stuff.” Now, the fact is that our economy is based almost entirely on the provision and consumption of goods and services. Professor Khe apparently finds that unsatisfactory. What does the good professor suggest we do, if we are no longer going to provide the goods and services people want? Because we DO, in fact want these things. No one is being grabbed off the street and forced to buy another microwave or Thighmaster. I’m not interested in a hunter/gatherer or subsistence farming “lifestyle.” There are those who prefer to live a “simple” life. Good for them. Me, I like accessories.

My solution is, as always, if you don’t like it, don’t do it. But you really have no business criticizing others if they choose not to live up to your standards. The sizes of one’s house, or car, or storage unit are personal, LEGAL choices. If the professor finds he is unable to accept our lifestyle without getting a case of the vapors, there are any number countries in the world where having too much stuff isn’t a problem. I understand that the lines to get into such places are very short.

Yes, here it goes again.

Another example of baseless moralizing by self-appointed (or should I say, “anointed?”) scolds. We have been told what to drive, and then that we shouldn’t drive at all. Now, we are being told what size house it is “politically correct” to live in... [etc]

Say, recently I just saw a letter to the Editor in our local paper with almost the exact same wording. It was on a different topic and the author knee-jerked an inappropriate response there too.

Did a new manifesto recently go out over the libertarian listservs to characterize every opinion or thought written down as "iron clad orders to society to immediately write a regalayshun according to this informal discussion"?

Now please. The discussion is about whether McMansions will be/are another market failure and whether they are profliage embodied energy wasters. Nowhere is there moralizing or rush to write th' regalayshun to shackle Murricans to 850 sf homes with outhouses with that cute little crescent moon on the door.




No, I don't get any marching orders from Ron Paul's HQ. I don't know where you live, but my guess is that, over the course of time, and given the finite number of words in the English language, it is entirely possible that a similar pair of sentences could be written by different individuals at approximately the same time. Whatever.

As for the piece merely being a discussion of a supposed "failed market," I didn't see it that way. The professor confessed (jokingly, I hope) to a need for Prozac, should our profligate ways continue. Or, perhaps you missed Rob's snotty comments about people who dare to live such abject splendor?

By the way, did I misspell enough words for you to maintain your (misplaced) feelings of superiority over those with different political beliefs? No? Sorry. I'll try harder next time.

Yup, nothing addressed.

I guess I should appreciate the fact that a certain small-minority ideologies' speech, argument and writing patterns are so easily apprehended - it's as if the standard boilerplate just gets slightly altered every so often.

Nonetheless, your comment and reply, thunk up all by yourself, still don't address the fact that

    1) McMansions are profligate energy-wasters, and
    2) no one is telling you that you mustmustmust do the things that you are veryveryvery afraid others want to make you do.

Now you can be all a-scared of th' regalayshun all you want, but that doesn't mean it's just ducky to project your fears onto others, such that every utterance, every phrase, every dotted i turns into a fear-filled diatribe against baseless moralizing and nanny-state something or other.

Far better to think that an opinion piece is a short essay conveying both information and opinion for others to think about & then accept or reject, rather than to think that an opinion piece is a manifesto for elites to take action to scare a few 'fraidy cats into thinking more of th' regalayshuns is a-comin'.

IOW: one person's baseless moralizing is another's thoughtful discussion item; the ideology apparently chooses the difference.




To address your points:

1. So what? The fplks that own the house get to pay the energy bills. "Waste" in this case is subjective. Only those paying the bill can make that judgement.

2. You apparently missed the numerous articles on this site and the APA site about various jurisdictions contemplating draconian laws regarding house size. Even the Feds are looking into it, so I'm not convinced that any fear is misplaced.

I guess your definition of a "discussion" is where everyone agrees, eh?

Greg Is Un-American Again

you really have no business criticizing others if they choose not to live up to your standards. The sizes of one’s house, or car, or storage unit are personal, LEGAL choices.

A basic principle of American law, guaranteed by the first amendment, is freedom of speech. Therefore, this article's criticism of consumerism is also LEGAL. According to your own reasoning, if it is wrong for the article to criticize your LEGAL consumption choices, then it is also wrong for you to criticize this LEGAL speech.

Greg is a self-anointed scold, who specializes in telling people what they should not say. If he doesn't like the American constitution, there are any number of countries in the world that do not allow freedom of speech, and he should move to one of them. The line to get to those places is not long.

The theory behind freedom of speech is that the truth is most likely to come out if all opinions are aired and discussed. This article presents facts about how much more stuff we have now than we had a few years ago, and those facts might provoke some people to think about their way of life and maybe even to change their life. The framers of the constitution protected freedom of speech precisely because they valued that sort of political discussion and thought.

If you don't want to think, you do not have to. But you should not try to stop the discussion. Freedom of speech was part of the American "lifestyle" long before consumerism was, and your condemnation of free speech is Un-American.

Also, note the obvious distortions in Greg's post:

we are being told ... that we should not buy any “stuff.”

I’m not interested in a hunter/gatherer or subsistence farming “lifestyle.”

As if this article said these things rather than saying that we have more stuff than we did a decade or two ago, when we hardly had a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Charles Siegel

Sorry, Charles

But I don't see anywhere in my post that even hints at the idea that the "discussion" should be stopped. I suggested that none of us has any "business" telling people how to live, as long as what they're doing is legal. I never said you can't do it; just that it's stupid and pointless. The planning profession is already suspect in many people's minds. I see no reason to worsen that situation.

Again, look at Rob's post, and tell me what he is implying regarding the "kings and queens" who "play" in such places? Are there truly no issues more important for us to discuss than the size of someone's house, or the fact they need/want a storage unit?

The idea that we have "too much" implys that there is some level that is "enough." My position is that the only one who is allowed to make that determination for me, is, well, me.

The nanny state is already gone too far (see New York and California). It's time to stop.

Sorry Greg

When you say,
"you really have no business criticizing others if they choose not to live up to your standards,"
and when you add: "it's stupid and pointless"
you are obviously saying that people should not even be talking about this issue. Since this article did not propose any laws restricting self-storage, you are obvioiusly just objecting to any discussion of whether we have too much stuff.

Imagine people making similar claims about other "personal decisions."

Someone writes an article saying abortion is wrong. A pro-choice advocate answers: "none of us has any business telling people how to live, as long as what they're doing is legal."

Someone writes an article saying McDonalds hamburgers are unhealthy. The management of McDonalds answers: "none of us has any business telling people how to live, as long as what they're doing is legal."

These are both personal decisions, but people can make good decisions only if they have heard the facts and the arguments on both sides of the isssue.

It is not "stupid and pointless" to tell people that it is unhealthy to eat McDonalds hamburgers: you are giving them facts about nutrition that they may want to take into account when they make the personal choice about what to eat, and these facts could help them make a better choice. Without this discussion, they might not have realized how much cholesterol a Big Mac has.

Likewise, it is clearly not "stupid and pointless" to tell people that Americans have accumulated so much stuff recently that the amount of self-storage space has doubled. In this case, you are also giving them a fact that they may want to take into account when they make the personal choice about how much to consume. Without this discussion, they might not have realized how much more stuff Americans have now than we had just a few years ago (when we seemed to be just as happy as we are now).

When someone raises an objection to the issue even being discussed, then I have to assume that person feels guilty about his own personal choices. If someone doesn't even want to hear a discussion about whether Big Macs are unhealthy, then that person is probably feeling guilty about his diet, and he doesn't want anyone to disturb his uneasy conscience.

Likewise, when Greg reacts so emotionally to someone even discussing whether Americans have too much stuff, it is probably because he feels guilty about how destructive to the rest of the world his own consumption choices are. He doesn't want anyone to disturb his uneasy conscience - which means that he might be closer to repentence than he realizes.

Charles Siegel


There is not a shred of guilt on my part about the way I live. I haven't seen anything remotely resembling a consensus on global warming, or climate change, or whatever you're clling it this week. I've seen a lot of politicians, almost entirely from the Left, jump on this bandwagon like it was the last lifeboat on the Titanic. That fact makes me extremely suspicious of the actual motives behind the shrill and hysterical attitude among the global warming cultists. the fact that the policies they promote are indistinguishable from those promoted by the Left-wingers of decades past is a clue as to the real agenda. The additional fact that much of the recent hysteria is funded by George Soros' Open Society Institute, and not grass-roots organizations. Soros makes no secret that he is anti-capitalism and anti-freedom.

Your analogy about McDonalds (another Leftist bugbear)doesn't follow. How much stuff someone has is hardly going to affect their health. Again, the vast majority of us don't find "happiuness" or "meaning" (as someone else suggested) in their things. They are just items that may bring comfort, or convenience, or maybe they're involved in a hobby. I maintain that it is pretty far down my list of things to discuss. But the impression I got, and nothing you have said dissuades me from this feeling, is that you, and amny other posters here, disapprove of how many of us choose to live. I also get a strong feeling that you all would put a stop to it, given half a chance. Tell me I'm wrong.

As far as the "destructive" allegation, that's just plain idiocy. Like I said, I'm not buying the GW stuff, but to level any criticism of ordinary folk, while Algore and the rest of the hysterics are cruising around the world in thweir Gulfstream V's, tells me that you don't really believe it either. You're just looking for another hammer to pound away at capitalism with.

Open Society

What kind of libertarian-cloning narcotics do they put in the water up in Idaho?

No consensus on global warming?

George Soros believes in mixed economy, not "anti-capitalism"

As for the Open Society Institute, the definition of an "open society" is:

A society based on the recognition that nobody has a monopoly on the truth, that different people have different views and interests, and that there is a need for institutions to protect the rights of all people to allow them to live together in peace. Broadly speaking, an open society is characterized by a reliance on the rule of law, the existence of a democratically elected government, a diverse and vigorous civil society, and respect for minorities and minority opinions.

The term "open society" was popularized by the philosopher Karl Popper in his 1945 book Open Society and Its Enemies. Popper's work deeply influenced George Soros, the founder of the Open Society Institute, and it is upon the concept of an open society that Soros bases his philanthropic activity.

How does that make Soros "anti-freedom?

Can't wait until enough global warming-induced, Sawtooth Range wildfires destroy your beloved "Gem State", and you finally stop sounding like a conspiracy theorist.

Open societal communication on man-made climate change.

vt forgot to mention the scores of corporations, insurance providers, banks, economists, brokerage houses, the Skeptical Environmentalist and organizations who are adapting their business model to the reality.

Oh, and almost the entire population of the planet save for a small scared minority of mostly white males or those whose identity depends upon denialism.



Open Society and IBD

The additional fact that much of the recent hysteria is funded by George Soros' Open Society Institute, and not grass-roots organizations.

We find that the latest industry-funded denialist totem, Hansen, wasn't in fact a beneficiary of Soros, despite what NewsBusters said. Just as he didn't receive money from Kerry for his work, despite the NewsMax lie...er...story.

Please, no more FUD stories on this comment board.



None So Blind

Greg, this response completely ignores my main point in my two posts above: that you have been trying to stop discussion of the issue by saying that how much you consume is a purely personal choice so it should not be a matter for political debate.

That was the point of my McDonalds analogy, but you missed the point. I was not saying that how much you consume affects your health. I was saying that what you eat is a purely personal choice, but it is good to have a public debate about it, so people can make an informed choice that is good for their health. Likewise, it is good to have a public debate about how much consumption adds to the good life, so people can make informed personal choices that help them to live good lives.

Your statement:
"I haven't seen anything remotely resembling a consensus on global warming, or climate change, or whatever you're clling it this week."
just proves that there is none so blind as one who will not see. The overwhelming majority of scientists and politicians as far to the right as George Bush agree that global warming is a problem. The Secretary General of the United Nations has said that the genocide in Darfur is, at least in part, a result of global warming. At some point, everyone in the world except one person will agree that global warming is a problem, and I think you are a candidate to be that last hold out.

Surely, you must see what is wrong with your statement:
"to level any criticism of ordinary folk, while Algore and the rest of the hysterics are cruising around the world in thweir Gulfstream V's, tells me that you don't really believe it either."
but if you don't, I will spell it out:

1)What would you think of someone who says: "it is okay for me to be a petty thief, because most corporate CEOs are even bigger thieves" or "it is okay for me to commit rape occasionally, because people in Darfur are committing hundreds of rapes"? Obviously, if someone else does something wrong on a large scale, that doesn't mean that I am justified in doing something wrong on a smaller scale. Did they send you to Sunday school when you were growing up in Boise?

2)From a world-wide perspective, you are not "ordinary folk." 80% of the people in the world would be very happy to have half or a quarter of what you have. From the perspective of most people, you are part of a small consumer elite that is making life harder for the great majority of "ordinary folk" in the world.

Finally, you should read over your posts to correct all the typos. When you constantly writing things like "Algore" and "whatever you're clling" (instead of "selling"), it shows that you are not stopping to think about what you have written before clicking the Post Comment button. If you stop to think not only about the typos but also about the content of your post and of the post you are responding to, you might actually learn something from this discussion.

Charles Siegel

You tell 'em, Greg! Us spudlanders gotta stick together.

After my gray wolf eradication project got its funding pulled, I had to move back in with my parents on the ancestral tater farm. Well, it didn't take long for me to see the real potential of that land, so I packed Mom and Dad off to the Kevorkian Assisted Living Community and broke ground on my own self-storage facility.

Let me tell you, we Idahoans are damn tired of the Mormons all the time bragging about their musty dragon hoards of outmoded shoes and urine-stained matresses they got in storage down there in Utah. It's time we 'hoans got a taste of the good life too, eh Greg?

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