Rob Hoffman is looking for chairs. The University’s chief media engineer walks past rows of gray file cabinets and piles of blackboards and bookshelves on his way to a cluster of mismatched chairs.
Hoffman is one of more than 1,400 customers a month who journey to the University’s Property Disposition on Baxter Road to look for bargains on everything from furniture to computers.
Property Disposition, where University departments send surplus property, gets an average of six truckloads a day from campus and is home to about $300,000 worth of equipment at any given time, Property Disposition Manager James Day said.
Hoffman, who has bought computer equipment and furniture for television studio sets at the warehouse before, said shopping at Property Disposition is cheap. He remembers buying chairs for prices as low as $8.
“It is used furniture, but often it’s in good shape,” he said. “You can get a chair for eight or 10 bucks rather than buying it (elsewhere), where office chairs typically cost 100 to 120 bucks.”
In addition to being a good place for bargain hunting, Hoffman said there is also an element of intrigue. “It’s just an interesting place to go to browse and see the unusual types of equipment that show up here,” he said.
Among the stranger items Day has seen are skeletons from the Medical School and personal effects such as a wooden sculpture of a pair of horns with flowers carved in between them, which he keeps near his desk.
“Anything you can imagine you see come through here, I’m talking cars and boats and motors, outboard motors. We even used to sell jewelry,” he said, referring to items bequeathed to the University in people’s wills.
“I don’t know where it’s from – the private things that are left behind that eventually wind up here, that’s probably the weirdest stuff you see,” he said. “People clean out offices and they put it on the truck and they come out here, but every now and then we get some strange things, personal things, I’m pretty sure the University didn’t issue that.”
University departments with surplus items call Property Disposition and get a delivery date, fill out the appropriate forms, and then the surplus is picked up and taken to the warehouse, where items are tagged with bar codes and priced based on current market rates, past experience, and competitors’ prices, he said.
Items are then either sold to individuals, recycled to other departments, or otherwise disposed of “to the best advantage of the University of Michigan,” Day said.
When it’s time to replace some of the more than 1,600 computers and printers on campus, those being sold off campus go through Property Disposition, said Steve Sarrica, manager of Campus Computing Sites.
Customers can buy whole systems or can assemble their own computers using the parts on the shelves, for a total price of between $150 and $400, Day said.
Day added he would be most likely to recommend the systems, which are older than the latest generation of computers, to someone starting out learning computers or someone who just needs it for word processing or Internet connections.
Sarrica also said systems at Property Disposition might not be for everybody, that they might be best used by “someone who either knows how to maintain their own equipment or is good friends with someone who does.”
“One of the things is that everything at Property Disposition is sold as is. There’s no warranties and no refunds, so you can pull the machine off the shelf and plug it in and make sure it works,” Sarrica said. “But everything we send to Property Disposition, the hard drive’s been wiped, because we don’t want to distribute software through that mechanism – all of our software is keyed and won’t operate outside the sites.
“If you’re a computer person and you want to get stuff inexpensively, Property Disposition is the place to go, but be aware that if it’s been in (University computing) sites, it’s probably been beat on pretty hard,” he said.
Stacks of telephones and miscellaneous equipment line the large metal shelves in the warehouse, which Day said have seen antique equipment 50 or 60 years old, children’s toys and carpet from the president’s house.
Heavy machinery, cars, tractors and trailers are sold by sealed bids, with the item going to the highest bidder at the end of a specific period of time.
“It’s just amazing stuff that the University owns, but you stop and think – we’re such a complex system here,” Day said. “We have educational opportunities for every discipline and in that process you have to acquire the learning tools, and that’s how the University ends up buying this stuff.
“So there’s a reason for every piece of surplus asset I get to sell, there’s a reason it was bought. Everything had a purpose.”