BILLINGS -- For a high bid of $197, Alan Walter found himself inside a dark storage unit going through someone else's stuff.
His bid, placed just minutes before, was the last one of the day at a recent foreclosure sale at AAA Mini Storage in Lockwood. As the winner, Walter became the owner of everything inside the storage unit. He had 24 hours to clean it out.
Only a few things interested him: a canoe, a Minn Kota trolling motor and some newer-looking camping gear. Walter figured he could recoup his costs by selling the better things at an auction house. Most of the rest was headed to the dump.
"Oh, there are some treasures in here," he said. "If I get $100 out of that canoe and $110 out of that trolling motor, there you go. The rest is all gravy."
The previous owners of Walter's stuff stopped paying their bills months before, said Cindy Inman, who owns AAA Mini Storage with her husband, Steve. The Inmans said they don't like selling other people's possessions, but their business depends on people who will pay every month for a small storage space.
"You never get your rent back. Just give us our space back and we can rent it," Steve Inman said.
Montana law allows self-storage owners to sell off property if renters are more than 30 days in default, but several self-storage owners in the area say they give renters much more time than that. Steve Inman said his wife usually gives people several months to pay before holding a foreclosure sale, but oftentimes the owners are nowhere to be found.
"Sometimes Cindy can be the biggest bleeding heart," he said.
The sales must be advertised in local publications like the Billings Times, which specializes in legal notices. The legal ads say whose things will be sold off, and gives a brief list of the contents that are in plain sight. Storage unit owners are careful to avoid the appearance that they're going through people's stuff.
People who come to the sales are often clutching the ads. Walter keeps them on a clipboard, because there can be several sales across town on a given Saturday.
The Inmans and Randy Harvey, owner of Homestead Self Storage, said the sales are a seasonal occurrence, usually happening in the spring before garage sale season in the summer. Harvey said he hasn't seen an increase in the number of foreclosures from the recession, and the Inmans agreed. Billings Times editor Scott Turner also said that, while he's seen an increase in home foreclosures, he hasn't seen any increase in storage unit sales.
"It's not part of the economy in any way," Harvey said. "It's a regrettable part of the business, but it's required."
A few Saturdays before the sale at AAA Mini Storage, Harvey held two foreclosure sales at the Homestead locations in Billings. At his facility on Central Avenue, an auctioneer greeted a crowd of about 50 prospective bidders by laying down a few ground rules: no rifling through contents before they're sold, clean out the units immediately if you win, don't keep personal items.
"We ask that you return any personal items like tax forms and photos," the auctioneer said. "They're of no value to you."
The crowd then went through a maze of storage units to a few units whose contents were up for sale. In one, giant speakers blocked the entrance. Another had wake boards, chairs and other furniture packed tightly inside. Most were stacked high with boxes, but personal items were sometimes on display. In one unit, a painting with the handprints of small children was lying on the floor.
"I can't go to the bottom of the ocean. I'll never scuba dive, so this is the closest I'll ever come to finding buried treasure," said Steve Kuna, a browser who works at Tryans Auction Center, where some of the better items eventually are sold.
Kuna and Walter, who are friends, sometimes wind up at the same auctions. Together, they've found plenty of interesting or surprising things: drug paraphernalia, sex toys, handmade jewelry, stacks of letters from the Montana Department of Corrections. Walter said he once found a book in which the owner had used $2 bills as bookmarks.
"You'll learn people's whole lives from these units," Kuna said as he approached another unit where Walter was already peering inside.
"Anything good?" he asked Walter.
"There are no friends at auctions," Walter answered.