Portable Storage vs. Storage Unit: The Ultimate Comparison Guide

C.E. Larusso
Written by C.E. Larusso
Updated May 5, 2022
A storage units hall
Photo: DigitalGrill / E+ / Getty Images

Highlights

  • Traditional self-storage units cost less for month-to-month rental.

  • Portable storage containers cut out the cost and hassle of hauling.

  • Traditional units are always available, while you must book portable containers in advance.

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Whether you’re moving, downsizing, or just trying to create more floor space during a renovation, a storage unit can be a lifesaver. These units offer a safe, secure place to keep your belongings for a few days or even a few years.

However, with the emergence of portable storage containers in recent decades, the options have expanded. It’s no longer just a matter of shopping around local storage facilities to compare prices, sizes, and amenities. How do you decide between these portable containers and traditional self-storage?

Read on to explore the differences between portable storage containers and traditional storage units and compare their advantages and disadvantages to decide which is best for you.

Portable Storage Container Pros & Cons

Three portable storage containers on a sunny day
Photo: fottoo / Adobe Stock

Like the shipping containers from which they’re adapted, portable storage containers are designed to offer savings by maximizing efficiency. Storage companies deliver the containers to your home so you can pack them up with anything you need. You can then opt to keep the unit at your home as on-site storage or have it delivered to a remote facility for safekeeping—or, if you’re moving, to your new home. 

Pros

There are good reasons that portable storage containers have exploded in popularity since their appearance on the market in the 1990s. 

  • Low moving costs: Though more expensive than traditional self-storage, portable storage units are highly affordable when moving, offering convenience and an alternative to a traditional moving company (though, of course, you’ll still have to pack the container yourself). 

  • Flexibility: You can use portable containers for a combination of storage and moving purposes. If you need short-term storage in the run-up to a move but aren’t sure exactly when you want to hit the road, you won’t have to decide too far in advance. 

  • Easy to pack: Different self-storage facility configurations can make loading a unit more complicated—a small 5-foot-by-5-foot unit might sit above another unit, for example, and require the use of a ladder. By contrast, a portable storage container always sits on the ground near your home, making it easier to pack than a moving truck. 

  • No hauling: The chief advantage of a portable storage unit is that it eliminates the need for you to haul your heavy, unwieldy collection of belongings to its final destination. Whether you’re moving house or storing items for a short or long while, the storage company performs all the delivery work. 

Cons

  • Limited options: While portable storage containers come in different sizes and dimensions, the options are limited by the standard 8-foot width of a shipping container and far fewer in number than what you’ll find at a self-storage facility. 

  • Large size: A portable storage container may be efficient when compared to a moving truck, but it’s still a very large object to store on your property or curbside. Additionally, you may need to contend with municipal codes and HOA rules to keep one at your house. 

  • Availability: Portable storage containers are widely available, but because of the complex delivery infrastructure, they are not available everywhere. In many places, you may only have the choice of one or two companies. No matter where you live, you’ll have to make your booking weeks or months in advance to make sure containers (and trucks to transport them) are available. 

  • Lack of climate conditioning: Though the boxes are weatherproofed, portable storage units sit outdoors, their steel or wood frames magnifying the summer heat and helpless against the winter cold. For many household belongings, this is no big deal, but it rules out storing more sensitive items. 

  • Remote storage accessibility: If you choose to store your container at a remote facility, accessing your stored items won’t be as simple as visiting during business hours. The containers are stacked to maximize space; when you want to retrieve belongings from your unit, you must pay to have them delivered back to your home.

Self-Storage Unit Pros & Cons

Close-up of a woman unlocking a storage unit
Photo: tsuguliev / Adobe Stock

With traditional self-storage, you rent a unit (or multiple units) at a secure, climate-controlled storage facility and move your belongings yourself. Some facilities offer 24-hour access to units, while you can only visit others during business hours.  

Pros

  • Cost: In most cases, traditional self-storage is the most affordable way to store your belongings. 

  • Security: At a remote storage facility, your items are kept safe not only by the lock on the unit itself, but by building security as well, often including on-site guards and extensive camera systems.

  • Climate: While you can find outdoor storage units that don’t provide air conditioning, most indoor storage facilities are climate-controlled, making them a safe environment for all of your belongings, even fragile antiques. 

  • Availability: Wherever you live, you likely have a wide choice among many different facilities—from ample indoor facilities to standalone outdoor sheds, independent local outfits and major international chains. You shouldn’t ever have to wait for a unit to become available. 

  • Flexible contracts: Almost universally, self-storage facilities offer month-by-month leases that require no advance notice for cancellation. Some contracts may commit to you a short fixed term in order to take advantage of a price promotion. Otherwise, however, it’s very easy to change your plans on the fly if you’re not sure how long you’ll need the unit. 

  • Range of uses: Self-storage facilities offer an extensive range of unit sizes and dimensions. Like portable storage units, the most commonly rented units primarily store small furniture and household goods; you can find units suitable for storing cars, RVs, and other massive items. 

Cons

  • Transport: Compared to portable containers, the disadvantage of traditional self-storage is that you need to haul everything to the storage unit yourself, adding time, hassle, and—if your car isn’t large enough to fit everything you need—expenses.

Portable Storage Container vs. Storage Unit

A portable storage unit in the driveway of a house
Photo: JodiJacobson / Getty Images

How do portable storage containers fare against traditional storage units?

Cost

The cost to rent a storage unit depends on size, location, and the unit’s features, among other factors. Prices range between $40 per month for the smallest units and $280 for the largest of the standard sizes. Larger units and those with unusual dimensions or special features in expensive cities can go as high as $450 per month. Many facilities charge additional fees between $5 and $50 per month for amenities like climate control, extra security, locks, etc.

Portable storage units typically cost between $50 and $300 per month, depending on the size and if it stays on your property or gets moved to a remote facility. There is also typically an additional delivery fee between $160 and $240 every time you move the unit. There is a wide variation depending on usage, but the average customer pays between $2,610 and $3,290 in total.

Least Expensive: Storage unit

Sizes

With so many different companies and storage facility configurations, there is an almost endless array of self-storage unit sizes. The most common options include:

  • 5x5: These units have 25 square feet of locker-style storage space perfect for small household or business items.

  • 5x10: Typically only costing a bit more than 5-foot-by-5-foot options, 50 square feet can hold about one room’s worth of stuff.

  • 10x10: Offering 100 square feet, 10-foot-by-10-foot units can contain all or most items in a studio or small one-bedroom apartment.

  • 10x15: This unit is large enough to house sizable furniture or the contents of a three-bedroom apartment.

  • 10x20: Almost equivalent in size to a two-car garage, 200 square feet can contain belongings from a one- or two-bedroom house.

While there is some variation in the dimensions between companies, portable storage containers come in a few common sizes:

  • 8-foot: Fitting the contents of a studio apartment, this size storage container is slightly larger than a 5-by-10-foot storage unit. 

  • 12-foot: Roughly equivalent to a 10-by-10-foot storage unit, this size can accommodate the belongings of a one-to-two bedroom apartment. 

  • 16-foot: The largest size of a portable storage container is a bit smaller than a 10-foot-by-15-foot storage unit and designed for the contents of a three-bedroom home.

Widest Range of Sizes: Storage Unit

Packing

Loading a portable storage unit is quite simple. You just need to cart your items from your home to the container—in your driveway or at the curb—and load them. Since the container sits on the ground, you don’t need a ramp as you might with a moving truck or a ladder as some storage units require.

With traditional self-storage, you are responsible for hauling your belongings to the facility, whether you hire movers or do it DIY. The ease of loading the unit depends on various factors, including the layout of the facility and the size of your unit. In some cases, you’ll have to take an elevator and navigate a maze of corridors. In others, your unit is a freestanding shed in a secure lot.

Easiest to Pack: Portable storage container

Availability

The transport and availability of portable storage containers depend on a complex logistics web. They must be booked far in advance to ensure your storage or moving needs arrive in time.

Self-storage units, by contrast, are way more common and can typically be booked for immediate use on short notice.

Most Widely Available: Storage unit

Security 

Self-storage facilities are designed with a single purpose in mind: keeping customers’ belongings safe, pest-free, and kept at reasonable temperatures. When you lock up your unit at a remote facility and head home, you can rest assured that the unit is guarded, air-conditioned, and subject to strict prest control protocols.

When you keep a portable storage container at home, you must provide your own security (though the containers are durable and locked) and pest control. While portable storage containers are typically weatherproofed, there’s no air-conditioning—so they can’t be loaded with any belongings that wouldn’t be safe at near outdoor temperatures.

Most Secure: Storage unit

Access

If you keep your portable storage unit at home, you can access your belongings whenever you feel like it. If, however, you have your unit brought to a remote facility, you will need to plan in advance and request the unit be delivered to your home. Because these facilities stack the units for spatial efficiency, you can’t just visit as you would with self-storage.

Self-storage facilities are designed for customers to access the units as they please. Sometimes this means 24-hour access seven days a week, and in other cases, it means that you must visit during business hours.

Most Accessible: Tie

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