The value of things

Recently I watched some episodes of a TV show called “Storage Wars.” The show is about people who bid on the contents of storage units. These room-sized units are being auctioned off because the original owners of the contents didn’t pay the rental fee for a certain number of months.

The rules are as follows: at the start of each auction, the bidders get five minutes to look into the unit. The bidders can look from the outside but they can’t go in or touch anything. After the five-minute examination, the bidding begins, and the unit is sold to the highest bidder. The final bid is usually between $100 and $1500. The new owners hope to sell the contents for more than they paid. If they’re lucky, they can make thousands of dollars in profit on a single storage unit.

But if they make thousands of dollars in profit, it means that someone stored thousands of dollars worth of stuff in a storage unit, and then couldn’t afford to pay for the storage!

Typically the rental of a storage unit costs $150-$700 per month depending on the size. So it would appear that the original owner of the valuable stuff made a huge mistake. Selling the stuff would have paid for several months of storage. Not only that, selling the stuff would remove the need for storage entirely.

What’s going on here

Why would someone do this? Well, even among the show’s regular cast of bidders, not everyone bids on every storage unit. The bidders own different types of stores and they have different resources for selling things. They’ll only bid on a unit if they think they would be able to sell the contents. So perhaps the original owner simply didn’t have the resources to sell their stuff.

I could almost see that as an easy way to get rid of unwanted junk; put it all in a storage unit and just walk away.

But still, why did the original owner store these things in the first place?

Price and value

In many stores, each item has been pre-assigned a price. We may imagine that each item has a “true value”; if we think the asking price is close to that “true value” we may decide to buy it. But sometimes the “true value” isn’t so clear:

  • In some environments (certain street markets, for example) it is expected that bargaining will take place. Even here, at a car dealership, nobody expects to just pay what it says on the sticker; there’s a complex bargaining ritual involved.
  • At a deli where I grab lunch, a bottle of water costs $1.50, but in the supermarket I can get a package of 24 of the very same bottles of water for $6, maybe even $4 if it’s on sale.
  • I asked someone once about the value of some old tools, and he said, “There’s no correct answer. They’re worth whatever someone is willing to pay for them.”

On the TV show, when the bidders get a storage unit, they don’t always know the value of the stuff. Often they take things to an expert in some field, such as a jeweler, a comic book store, a museum, or whatever. The expert can tell them what someone would be willing to pay for their stuff, and they accept that as its “true value”: whatever someone is willing to pay for it.

Value isn’t what it used to be

One does hear about cases where old stuff is worth even more than you’d ever imagine. But the value of stuff can also dramatically decrease over time. Just being old doesn’t automatically make something valuable.

Different mindsets may be at play here. If you had lived during the Great Depression in the 1930s, it would make perfect sense to save certain things because you literally might not be able to afford to buy them later if you needed them. If your parents or grandparents are of that era, you may have absorbed some of this mindset. Consider too the increased amount and effectiveness of advertising in recent years, and one can begin to imagine why many people nowadays hoard their stuff.

Sometimes getting rid of old stuff feels “wrong.” How can something that was once valuable now be junk? But the aggregation of stuff itself decreases its value. As unwanted clutter, things can have a negative value! They can eat away at the ambience and livability of your space.

More about hoarding in a future blog post…