When the Department of History no longer needs a filing cabinet or it’s time for the University Hospital to replace its helicopter launch pad, the used items could end up at Property Disposition — the University’s equivalent of the Land of Misfit Toys.
The little-known department, operated out of a warehouse on the outskirts of North Campus, sells discarded University property to other University departments or local bargain hunters.
A maze of office chairs of every color and condition, along with bookcases, laptop computers, other electronics and the occasional industrial kitchen mixer or piece of lab equipment makes up something like an academic flea market.
Nearly anything could potentially be found in the 15,000 square-foot warehouse, which is open to shoppers Monday through Thursday.
When asked if there were any items Property Disposition refused to accept, Sales Manager Steve Sinelli paused, unable to come up with a quick answer.
“I know there is something,” he mused.
Prices can range from $5 to $15 for an office chair to $15 or $20 for a bookcase or filing cabinet. A couple hundred dollars could also buy an upright piano marked “non-playing,” a Dell laptop or a digital projector.
But Sinelli admitted haggling the price down a few dollars is not out of the question. Warehouse regulars tend to have “a garage sale mentality,” he said.
The warehouse is run like a consignment shop, as 97.5 percent of the proceeds from the sales are returned to the department that sent the item. All items are sold as is.
Last year, sales generated between $1.5 and 2.5 million for University departments.
Property Disposition is also partly a recycling center. University computers, electronics and other items that can’t be resold are sent on to recycling plants for proper disposal.
Property Disposition processes about five moving trucks worth of new items on average each day, Sinelli said.
While computers and office equipment like filing cabinets tend to be the most in-demand items, Property Disposition also organizes closed-bid auctions for large or specialty items and University vehicles, Sinelli said.
Last week, a Kawasaki Mule utility vehicle and a banged-up Dodge Avenger collected snow in the warehouse parking lot, waiting for the next auction. In the past, items like a fire truck and a small plane have even passed through the department.
Property Disposition will also make special arrangements with departments when a campus building or residence hall closes.
When Stockwell Hall closed last spring for renovations, shipments of the bed frames and desks were staggered so as not to overwhelm the warehouse, Sinelli said.
Sinelli said he will often work with University Housing to time new shipments of furniture with the move-in rush in the fall.
The Stockwell bedroom sets sold quickly to students looking to inexpensively furnish their apartments, he said.
Now, only a handful of bed frames priced at $25 each remain.
Students, especially international and out-of-state students who can’t bring furniture from home, frequent the warehouse. But for the most part, Property Disposition clients are members of other University departments or outgoing University researchers who buy their own lab equipment to take with them to their next job, Sinelli said.
In an effort to encourage more inter-departmental sales, Property Disposition also offers first priority and exclusive sales hours to the departments.
Sinelli said the rest of sales come mostly from Michigan and Ohio residents, including a small contingent of about 10 regulars who faithfully line up outside the warehouse before disposition opens its doors each morning to take the first crack at trolling for bargains.
Many of these regulars buy up items to later resell on eBay or other auction sites to make some extra cash, he said.
Other customers turn to Property Disposition to capitalize on trading trends. Several years ago, when scrap metal prices boomed, a surge of scrappers visited the warehouse, Sinelli said. But when steel prices plummeted dramatically this fall, scrapper traffic all but stopped.
In the last year, Property Disposition has begun cutting out the middleman by occasionally posting items on eBay to expand its customer base beyond Ann Arbor.
Sinelli, who has worked at Property Disposition since 1978, said he hasn’t seen a dramatic spike in interest corresponding to the state’s mounting recession but added that business has been steadily growing in recent years.
“Every year, it seems to be increasing,” he said. “Word has gotten out.”