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May 27, 2015

Darrell Sheets of 'Storage Wars' Gives Advice on Hunting for Hidden Treasure

by Kelly Woo, posted Jan 4th 2011 4:00PM
Darrell Sheets, Storage WarsAmerica has become obsessed with turning trash into treasure. Witness the burgeoning treasure hunting genre that started with 'Antiques Roadshow' and now includes 'American Pickers,' 'Pawn Stars,' 'Auction Kings,' 'Auction Hunters' and A&E's latest hit, 'Storage Wars.'

While each show takes a different angle, they all essentially feature real-life people looking to uncover the jewels hidden among junk (theirs or someone else's) and make money off of it.

'Storage Wars,' which focuses on four men who bid on defaulted storage lockers, premiered last month to 2 million viewers, making it the cable network's best unscripted debut in 2010. The show's gotten so much buzz that it has spurred such interest in the world of storage auctions that the number of bidders has sometimes quadrupled, according to show star Darrell Sheets.

I spoke to Sheets recently about the newbies in his field, how to determine whether a locker contains valuable items and why he keeps making big bets.

The show has gotten a lot of buzz. What's the reaction been like from people you know?
Seriously, it's been out of control. This whole thing has developed this underground culture and all of these people are coming out of the woodwork. I can't believe it.

Now, you've been doing this since you were a kid, right?
Well, [since] about 20 years old.

How did you get into it?
Well, what happened was, I had a landscaping business, taking care of shopping centers and I wasn't doing it the right way, I guess, because they let me go. Two days later, I went back to him and said, "I want my job back, I'll do a better job." He said, "No, I want to show you something different that I really think you're going to enjoy."

So on the show, you're labeled The Gambler. Do you think you take bigger risks than other bidders?
I know I do. A lot of these people buy a storage locker and go one locker at a time if they win or lose. What I do, I do it by the month. In other words, if I start the month off with $25,000 and end up with $20,000, I've had a losing month. If I start out with $25,000 and end up with $40,000, I had a great month. So I'll gamble on a lot of lockers based on something I see in there, but if I don't like it I'll just give the locker away.

Storage WarsWhen you first see a locker, and you don't know everything that's in it, how do you figure out whether you're going to bid on it and how much you're going to bid? How would you describe your process?
My philosophy is if I want it, I get it. There are circumstances sometimes that don't allow you be that way, but when they first cut the lock off and open the door, there are a lot of things I look for.

Are there cobwebs along the doorjambs? Are the boxes covered with dust? Are there footprints going into the locker -- which would tell you someone had been and out of there recently. Is the lock on the door rusty? Or is it a new lock? If it's rusty, it's been in there a long time. Did they pay a mover good money to move that in there? That usually means they have good stuff. If you pay to move your stuff, it's good stuff.

So the older the stuff looks to be, the more it might be worth?
That tells me more or less what I term "virgin stuff." If there are a lot of footprints and the dust is all moved and everything, that tells me that someone had been going in and out of there and maybe they were using it as sub-storage. If it's all boxed up and dusty and all the furniture is wrapped up, you can tell no one has been there in a long time.

You've been doing this for a long time now. What keeps you at it?
All it takes a good hit and you're addicted. When you buy something for $3,000 and turn it into $100,000 that's like an addict chasing the high. I've tasted about 20 really, really good lockers in my life and I love that feeling. And the only way I can describe it to you -- and it's good that it's this time of year where you'll understand this -- remember when you were 12 years old and mom and dad had all the presents ready and it was Christmas Eve and you're laying down to go to sleep and you're all warm and fuzzy and you couldn't wait to wake up and have at it? It's the exact same feeling every time I buy a locker. I have all these boxes to dig through.

Have you ever had a string of bad lockers where you say, 'I can't do this anymore'?
I never say I can't do this anymore, but I've gone six months without getting a good locker. But this thing goes in tides, you go up and down like the tide in the ocean. It's a numbers game. If you buy 100 of them, one of a 100 is going to stick. You really have to remember that and know that it's going to happen.

Storage WarsThe show focuses on four bidders but I assume there are more out there. How big is this field?
This industry is a lot bigger than people think it is, I'll tell you that. Since the show started, we've gone from 40 to 50 people at an auction to 300 people at an auction. It's now, every guy or woman that's been out of work, sitting on the couch going, "What am I going to do now?" They watch this show and they can literally get up tomorrow morning and go do this.

I just had a girl email me that said, "Darryl, I watched the show and I thought you guys were full of crap. We live in Pennsylvania, my husband and I went out to a locker, an auction, we bought a locker for $25. It was full of all these old wooden boxes. My husband didn't want it, but I had this feeling. We opened it up and it was the entire contents of the General Mills estate from the late 1800s." And she's flabbergasted, she signed it at the end, in big letters, "This really is the wow factor." It made me feel so good that somebody got something like that out of this.

But now you're having to compete against a lot more people.
Here's the deal with that. That's the No. 1 question. They're like, "You opened up your field of business, you're telling them everything about you." I've had 32 years of experience that you can't go buy in school, that you can't get that experience anywhere except through trial and tribulation.

And when I see new people out there and they're going to act like idiots or jerks, trust me when I tell you this -- they're not going to get to buy anything. The veterans are going to run them out of business and help them spend their money so quick, they're going to wonder what they just did. It'll be worse than the penny stocks, believe me when I tell you that.

Do you have advice for somebody who sees the show and think they could do what you do?
I have the best advice you could possibly get. When you go to these auctions, don't stand around and tell everyone that you're new. Have your flashlight and your lock and your cash ready to go, and just act like you've done it a hundred times. Because if you're new, they're going to run you out. If you stand there and act like you know what you're doing, you're going to be right in there with the veterans.

Storage WarsWhat's your relationship with the other bidders? Are you all friends or is there a lot of competition and jealousy?
When we go there, before the auction, we have 20 minutes where we're all standing around calling each other names, making fun of each other. That is actually our entertainment. When the bidding starts, there is no love. It's 'Storage Wars,' not 'Storage Making Love' and it goes off. What you see is really the way it is. The minute the bidding stops, we're all buddies, we'll go get lunch. It's the weirdest thing I've seen in my life.

Me personally, if a guy that's been in the business gets a really good locker and I hear about it, I'm pissed off for about 30, 40 minutes but after that everything is cool ... But that's what makes me want to go out there and get a good locker right along with him.

There are a lot of shows about people taking what seems to be junk and seeing if they can make a treasure out of it. Why do you think there seems to be a rise in popularity with these shows?
I call it the modern day gold rush. Everybody wants to go out and find something that's worth money. That's what makes the whole world run -- money. Once again, somebody could be sitting there watching this and say, "Hey, I might go find the treasure. I might be able to change my whole life by finding that treasure." I think that, and personally, the way our show keeps score, people have somebody to root for ... [there are] a few different elements that really make this work.

What can we expect from the rest of the season? Is there anything we can look forward to?
Yeah, there is. We just finished shooting 12 days in Las Vegas. There were some big hits. Obviously I can't tell you what the big hits were, but it's going to be a lot of fun. Good old Dave the Mogul, he's going to get a little taste of his own medicine here.

I had no idea this world existed!
I'll leave you with this, Kelly, this is something no one's ever asked me or I got to tell them about through all my interviews. This job has also allowed me to take every summer of my life off. I work really hard all winter, I put my money away, and every summer I take off and buy a house on the river, a boat in the harbor, something like that.

If you know how to work it, this can be a great lifestyle. You're in complete control of what's going on. But in the winter it's 7 days a week, 17 hours a day.

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