Dave Hester, Storage Warrior

The Trade
At 47, Hester has earned the moniker “The Mogul” in the competitive world of bidding for abandoned storage units. In this game, where the highest bidder can score $100,000 in saleable goods—or a few boxes of paperbacks and a rusty Exercycle—the rules are simple: carry more cash than the other guy, and don’t forget to swagger.

He’s been a part of the garage sale and auction business most of his life, and it shows. Of all of the bidders profiled on A&E’s “Storage Wars,” which has just begun Season 3, Hester has the largest and most professional operation, a team of blue-shirted workers sorting his booty in the background as he thumbs a roll of bills, fields calls, and makes notes. The longtime Santa Ana resident, known by his proclivity to yell “Yuuup!” with each bid, sells his merchandise at yuuup.com, and soon will publish an ebook of tips for would-be warriors. Hester stresses there’s little room for sentiment in his line of work: Your best day might be finding Grandma’s wedding gown; his best day is a room filled with restaurant equipment ready for resale.

How’d you get started?

My father, who’d been in Korea and Vietnam for about a year, came home and decided to clean out the garage. When he was done, he had a truckload of stuff he was going to take to the dump, but my mom said, “No, take it to the swap meet!” He did, and he came back home with $250, which back then made your house payment and then some. He just said, “Wow!” So we started going to garage sales. What we’d buy on Saturday we’d sell on Sunday. When I was 22, my dad said, “Hey, they’re auctioning off some storage units. Wanna come along?” So I went, bought a couple of rooms, made some money, and I was hooked.

Ever opened a box and said, “Uh-oh. I’d better call the police”?
Yes. I was in L.A. and I opened up a box that had what appeared to be hand grenades in it. I started walking to the office with it, and then thought: “What the heck are you doing, knucklehead? Put it down!” So I put it down, walked into the office, and said, “We need to call the LAPD.” They looked at it and called the bomb squad. They were dummy grenades, but I sure wasn’t going to look them over and test them myself.

Anything gruesome?
A skeleton. We had to make sure that the bones weren’t remains from some unsolved murder or something, so we had the Orange County coroner inspect it to make sure there was no foul play. Turns out it was for medical purposes—there’s a big demand for them—so we were able to sell it. But the rest of the storage room was creepy, too. Little dolls with pins in them, stuff like that.

In one episode you say you paid $750 for a box and sold it for $155,000?
That box came from a vault that had one big picture pack, a rug, and about six or seven boxes with old snub-nosed moving trusses. So I know those boxes are from the 1950s, and somebody’s been paying storage on this unit for 50 to 60 years. I watched the rug go for $7,000 or $8,000, and I said, “That’s one heck of a rug. Whatever’s in those boxes is going to be good.” I bought one and it turned out to have a painting by Jack Wilkinson Smith, “The Golden Pool.” I took it to Christie’s and Sotheby’s for appraisals, and sold it for $155K.

You must find all sorts of personal items. Ever find yourself getting lost in somebody’s life?
If it was somebody important or somebody with a famous family name, you might take a look, but the law states that you are required to return personal property. We go to great lengths to try to do that. Now, when people say, “My Patek Philippe watch was in there, and that was personal,” well, that’s not personal.

There’s a lot of psychological warfare between you and your fellow bidders. If you don’t like someone’s attitude, you’ll run up the bidding on a room you don’t want, just to make him pay more.
I knew these guys before the show and didn’t like ’em, don’t like ’em during the show, and probably won’t like them after the show. So nothing’s really changed. This is a battle, just like the poker table. The guy can be a great poker player, but you don’t mind seeing him lose his hand and have to get up from the table.

The biggest no-no in your business?
Pissing Dave off. It’s one thing to be competitive, but if you are not very smart, and you want to compete against the heavy-hitters, you’d better have the bankroll and the equipment. I’ve seen people making a living buying small rooms, and then they get lucky once, make ten or twenty grand on a room, and then they want my room. And that’s why I can’t work with people. There’s a lot of … well, I wouldn’t say greed, but it’s an every-man-for-himself kind of business. When money and egos are involved, it’s a tough game. But fun to watch.

Advice for the Sunday yard-sale junkie?
The early bird catches the worm. You’ve got a lot of professional pickers going to them. If you’re the first one there, and you create your own luck—you just happen to be somewhere that people don’t realize the value of what they have—you can score. There’s thousands of dollars to be made at garage sales. I don’t think a person should feel guilty if they see something worth five hundred bucks and they pay $40. You gave the seller what they asked for. If you realize that something has great value, you’re entitled to make that profit. A person can make a living just off of garage sales. My parents did it for years. I did it.

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.

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