Without steady income, she had to cut expenses. Velez stored a lifetime of possessions at U-Store-It, a storage facility in Linden, and moved in with a friend.
With unemployment payments, Velez, 45, was just getting by, but money wasn’t her only worry. Her father, who lives in Puerto Rico, was ill. Velez started to travel: she helped move her dad to her sister’s home in Florida. He wasn’t happy there, so before long, she traveled again to move him back to Puerto Rico.
During the back and forth, Velez let some bills slip, including the rent on her storage unit.
On Tuesday, Sept. 9, Velez received a message from U-Store-It. When she returned the call the next day, she was told her belongings would be put up for auction if she didn’t pay $300 for three months of back rent.
She told the phone rep that because the banks were closed for the Monday holiday, her unemployment check would clear a day late, but she’d pay the bill first thing.
When she called on Wednesday to pay her bill, she received a shock.
‘‘I was told that it was too late. Everything was sold,’’ Velez said.
The sale had occurred the day before.
TRYING TO GET WHAT’S HERS
Velez was stunned.
‘‘Everything I owned was in there,’’ she said. ‘‘Three rooms of Domain furniture, leather couches, three original serigraphs and other pieces of artwork, an antique desk, Lenox china from 1960 worth over $5,000, and more,’’ she said. ‘‘It had all my medical records, diplomas, books and lifetime pictures, including the only existing picture of my deceased grandmother.’’
It even had Velez’s only copy of her storage contract.
She asked the office if she could recover the personal items — records, paperwork, family photos. Those would be of no value to the purchaser of her unit, she thought, but invaluable to her.
‘‘I was told that absolutely everything was gone,’’ she said. ‘‘There was not one paper, one item left. Absolutely nothing left. In a matter of a couple of hours, my lifetime possessions were all gone.’’
Desperate, she called everyone she could think of: the manager, the corporate office, regional offices, an attorney. She couldn’t get any answers.
That’s when she contacted Bamboozled.
CAN THEY REALLY DO THAT?
Velez admits she was late with her payment, but she felt an auction of her possessions was a dramatic move. It just didn’t seem right, she said. Can they really do that?
While it might not seem fair, U-Store-It seems to have followed the law.
According to the Self-Service Storage Facility Act (N.J.S.A. 2A:44-187), the owner of a storage facility has a lien against the property contained in the unit as soon as the space is rented, said Mark Blount, an attorney with Coppel, Laughlin, Blount & Lavin in Chester.
‘‘When a bill becomes more than 30 days late, the owner has certain rights including the sale of the property,’’ Blount said.
Before a sale, the storage facility must take several steps.
The renter must be given a detailed notice that includes, among other things, a demand for payment within a specified period of not less than 14 days, and notification that unless the amounts are paid, the personal property will be sold, Blount said. The notice must include the time and place of the sale. Then, the facility must advertise the sale once a week for two consecutive weeks. Finally, the sale may occur not sooner than 15 days after the date of final publication.
At the auction itself, bidders are not allowed to enter the unit or open boxes, but can only view the contents though the unit’s open door. They’ll generally offer a very low price based on what they can see, and the bidding often starts at the amount the renter owes on the unit. Some bidders get useless items they can’t resell. Others win big, getting units filled with items that will catch a hefty price when resold, and that’s how the bidders make their money.
After the auction, the facility may take the proceeds to cover the owed rent. Any leftover money must be placed in an interest-bearing account and the renter must be notified, or the facility can send a check to the renter.
The facility has no obligation to reveal the winning bidder, nor does it have to help the renter recover personal items.
That’s the law. Here’s what we know about this particular transaction.
‘‘We’re not in the business of selling goods. We’re a storage facility,’’ said Milt Coslit, the U-Store-It district manager who covers the Linden facility.
U-Store-It said it did everything it’s required to do by law.
Tried several times to notify Velez by mail, but the letters were returned undeliverable. (Velez said each time she moved, she called the Linden facility to give a forwarding address, but it seems it was never entered into the computer.)
Took out newspaper ads for public notification of the sale. U-Store-It declined to give the publication name or dates the ad appeared.
What about the phone conversation Velez had with the U-Store-It employee who said it was okay for her to pay the bill once her unemployment check cleared? That person didn’t have the authority to tell her that, the company said.
‘‘I would have sent someone over to pay that bill,’’ Velez said. ‘‘You think I’m going to risk losing all that for just $300?”
WHERE SHE IS NOW
Velez requested the facility ask the winning bidder if he’d hand over her personal belongings. U-Store-It said it has requested that everything of a personal nature be returned, but it can’t force the bidder to do so.
Velez and Bamboozled have asked the facility several times for a copy of her contract. U-Store-It said it would not give her a copy, and that she was told at signing to keep the contract in a safe place.
Two weeks ago, Velez received a check for $33.51 — what was left over after the overdue bill was paid. (Apparently while Velez’s verbal change-of-address wasn’t properly recorded before, the facility accepted the change of address she gave after Bamboozled called.)
Come on, U-Store-It. We’ll give you the benefit of the doubt that you ran the ads and tried to contact Velez by mail. But at the very least, give Velez a copy of her contract.
If you have a storage unit or you’re thinking of renting one, make sure you understand your contract and what can happen if you miss payments. Store the contract in a location other than your unit. If you move, notify the storage facility in writing, (certified mail, return receipt requested.) Most important, pay on time.
‘‘I want people to realize this can happen. It’s just not right,’’ Velez said. ‘‘I don’t want this to happen to anybody else.’’