UPLAND - "Here we go, here we go, here we go," blurted out the auctioneer as a flock of 40 modern-day treasure hunters followed him to a storage unit at Upland Self Storage on Wednesday.

The door was rolled up and bidders had a chance to take a quick peek inside. Some brought flashlights and stretched their necks trying to see past the towering mattress blocking the view to the back of the unit.

Three minutes later, it was all done. Storage space that was $1,950 behind in rent was auctioned off for $625.

As the unemployment rate goes up, so does the interest in storage auctions and their frequency.

"We are losing units that I would never have thought we would lose," said Julie Lewis, the storage facility's district manager.

Addison Shanks, right, and his friend Brandon Bon peruse through thecontents of a storage unit they purchased at an auction for $625, onThursday, June 25,
Addison Shanks, right, and his friend Brandon Bon peruse through the contents of a storage unit they purchased at an auction for $625, on Thursday, June 25, 2009 at the Upland Self Storage.
"Two years ago, we would auction three or four units every three months. Now we auction at least six every month."

Brandon Bon, 19, of Rancho Cucamonga and his buddy Addison Shanks, 20, were Wednesday's lucky winners.

"We did it!" Bon said smiling.

Bon has been scooping ice cream for Baskin-Robbins for the past year. He shares an apartment with roommates but his pay check barely covers his share of the rent.

"I'm dead-tired of scooping," Bon said. "We are in recession and it's not easy to find a new job. I applied at 50 places."

Hoping to make some extra money, Bon and Shanks decided to buy a storage unit and sell its contents on Ebay. Their bidding limit was $1,000 - a business gift from Shanks' father.

"He said we are not too motivated as people and this should work out for us good," Bon said. "I usually wake up right about now."

Interest in storage auctions has soared in recent months, said Dan Dodson of American Auctioneers.

"Lots of people who are out of work and trying to make a living are doing this," Dodson said.

An average unit usually goes for $150 to $250, cash only. The winning bidder has 24 hours to empty out the space.

The auctioneer gets a 20 percent cut from the proceeds. If any money is left over after the past-due rent is paid, by law, the former renter is entitled to it.

Upland Self Storage has tried numerous times to work out a payment plan with the renter, Lewis said.

"For us, financially there is no upside to an auction," she said.

Grace Gonzales of Chino and her partner, Jim Wedell, gave up bidding on Wednesday at $250. They have been attending storage auctions for the past six years and didn't think the unit was worth more than that.

Some of their winning bids have brought in a good profit. A few years ago, Gonzales paid $150 for a unit filled with African artworks, including a ceremonial costume which was over 100 years old. Her profit was more than tenfold - she got $1,500 just for the costume.

"It's like treasure hunting," Gonzales said. "You have to go through everything. I found a gold ring in a trash bag."

Most of the stuff she buys at storage auctions she sells at a yard sale. Gonzales lives in an unincorporated area of Chino and is able to hold them often.

"We call it `the mother of all yard sales' and everybody knows to come to ours," she said.

There are times when luck is not on her side.

"I paid $35 for one unit and all it had was bags full of clothes and cockroaches," she said. "But that's OK, you sell clothes for a dollar apiece."

Buyers are asked to return items such as funeral urns, personal documents, financial information and photos to the storage management so they can be returned to the owners.

On one occasion, Gonzales found an interesting box that was hard to open. Wedell saw her struggling with it and suddenly yelled out, "Grace, don't open it! It's an urn!" she recalled.

Once the crowd dispersed, Bon and Shanks started to search the contents of their newly acquired unit. There was a dryer, a microwave, a TV, two sets of mattresses and box springs.

Stuffed in a corner, three neatly packed boxes perked Bon's interest. But much to his dismay, they were filled with adult diapers.

Soon after Shanks broke a lock on a large duffel bag. Among the documents and photographs was a sturdy red box. Smiles on their faces told everything - they knew they hit a jackpot. Two gold watches were among other custom jewelry stored inside.

"We'll get our money back for sure now," Bon said. "I knew they wouldn't have locked it if they didn't have cool things in it."

Someone's misfortune just helped pay the bills of another.

Bon said he considers himself somewhat of an ultimate recycler, and if he didn't bid, someone else would have been there in his place.

"It was already up for auction and he should have paid it," Bon said. "I think we are opportunists I'd say more than vultures."

Richey St. Jones of Montclair rents a storage unit few doors up from the auctioned one. Several years ago, St. Jones was going through a divorce and had to store his belongings at a facility in Santa Clarita. He lost his job and fell $800 behind on the rent for his unit before it was auctioned off.

"I lost my yearbooks, pictures of my kids, stuff my grandparents gave me," he said. "It hurt when it happened, but that's life I guess."

mediha.dimartino@inlandnewspapers.com

(909)483-9329