This Teacher Earns $3,000 a Month on the Side by Upcycling Furniture on Facebook

Sara Chen, who flips furniture, poses for a portrait.
Photo courtesy of Sara Chen

After a long day of teaching Chinese to middle and high schoolers, cooking dinner for her daughter and husband and prepping her spare bedroom for Airbnb guests, Sara Chen likes to call out to her Echo Dot:

“Hey, play some soft music.”

This is when most people would plop on the coach and let out a deep sigh of exhaustion. Maybe pour a glass of wine and call it a night. But Chen isn’t most people. She’s just getting started.

Soft music humming in the background, she heads to her garage and starts sanding, priming and painting furniture – usually mid-century modern dressers – for her side gig, Sara Chen Design.

Until earlier this year, Chen, 40, hadn’t found the right outlet for her strong creative streak. It was by chance that she stumbled upon upcycling furniture, work she finds energizing and inspiring. The extra $2,500 to $3,000 a month is just an added benefit.

Finding Furniture, Fulfillment With Sara Chen Design

When Chen left her HR job in China to move to the U.S. 10 years ago, she felt like she was taking a step down professionally.

“All of the advantages I had deteriorated,” Chen said, noting the lack of parallels in hiring practices between Denver and Shanghai.

So she pivoted her career circa 2009 and took a job teaching Chinese. It allowed her and husband Justin Herbertson to raise their newborn daughter, Gemma. She’s been a Chinese teacher ever since, and she enjoys the work. It’s stable. It pays the bills. The health insurance is great. And now Gemma attends the same school.

But Chen yearns to be creative.

Pro Tip

Attaching a sense of purpose to a day job is risky. Namely because you can get fired. The Penny Hoarder spoke to well-being experts for our guide to finding fulfillment outside the 9 to 5.

In 2015, she learned about Airbnb, and, by extension, the idea of starting her own gig when the family moved from Denver to Charlotte, North Carolina. Chen jokingly calls herself a “control freak,” and listing rooms on Airbnb allows her to flex both creativity and control. While she gets to curate well-manicured rooms for rent, Airbnb doesn’t fully quell her desire to be creative.

Then she got her first taste of furniture flipping. On Facebook Marketplace, Chen found “a steal”: a mid-century modern dresser for $200 that would go perfectly in her bedroom. She brought a friend to meet the seller. “So, I went in and found out she actually had two dressers… both mid-century modern style,” Chen said. “I told my friend, ‘You know what? You should buy the other one.’”

Her friend said no. “It looks so ugly,” she told Chen.

Chen bought both pieces for $400 anyway. The first piece she kept as is. For fun, she decided to paint the second one. She bought sandpaper, tack cloth and a can of white paint – in all, about a $30 investment. Then she set up shop in her garage and got to work. In two or three hours, the dresser was like new — but better.

“Then my friend came over and she was like, ‘Is that the dresser you [tried to] convince me to buy? It looks so good! Can I have it now?’” Chen recalled.

On the spot, she made a sale: $350. And that gave Chen the courage to start upcycled furniture flipping as a side gig.

“That’s what I like about America,” Chen said. “This is a country that really promotes hard work and creativity.”

A Perfect First Customer

A woman paints a piece of furniture.
Photo courtesy of Sara Chen

Chen decided to play it safe with the first piece she made available to the public. To find the right piece to flip, she again turned to Facebook Marketplace, investing much less the second time around: $70 for a 1930s dresser from Singapore.

“My rationale is that I really like this piece,” Chen said. “And if it doesn’t sell, I’m going to use this for myself.”

She chose a dresser because it’s a versatile piece of furniture. It can double as a baby-changing station or an entertainment stand, if needed. And with a robust Hunt Club green coat and newly installed golden drawer pulls, Chen transformed the piece from rustic to chic.

Her first customer drove more than two hours to pick it up. When the woman arrived, she marveled – and shelled out $420. Including supplies, Chen earned about $300 in profit on her first sale.

On her way out, the customer encouraged Chen to create an Instagram account to showcase her work. The woman had a large social media following and said she would give Chen a shout-out. 

Chen took that advice to heart. In less than a year, with the help of her happy first customer, she has amassed more than 1,700 followers on Instagram.

Pro Tip

Social media sites are free and often underutilized tools for budding businesses to attract customers. Use these social media best practices to get your footing, the earlier the better. 

But Chen’s luck with her godsent customer didn’t end there.

“After she got the green dresser, I noticed she was pregnant,” Chen said. “I got another dresser, also from Facebook Marketplace… and then I painted it pink. I added black handles.”

“You’re looking for a dresser for your girl?” Chen texted her. “Well, I might have a piece you want.”

Chen photographed the new pink dresser and sent over the pictures. Fingers crossed.

“This is exactly what I want!” the woman replied.

The second piece, which Chen purchased for about $60, sold for $400. 

  Sale 1: Teal Dresser Sale 2: Pink Dresser
Purchase price: $70 $60
Cost of materials (sandpaper, paint, cloth, etc.): $30 $30
Sales price: $420 $400
Profit: $320 $310

And those price points weren’t one-offs from an enthusiastic buyer. Chen’s instincts were dead on. After researching her competitors on Marketplace, she typically shoots for those profit margins with each project.

For tallboys, like the pink dresser, Chen spends $40 to $70 and flips them for $325 to $425 on average. The margins for long dressers are even better – a $60 to $120 purchase price and a $475 to $525 sales price. Depending on the project, that means she regularly sees profit margins between 70% and 90%.

“You need to find a sweet spot,” Chen said. “I try to keep it in the median-high level. I feel like that’s the right spot [for me].”

Flipping Furniture Is All About the Photos

A dresser that Sara Chen flipped.
Photo courtesy of Sara Chen

After tallying about 70 pieces of vintage furniture hunted, cleaned, patched, sanded, repatched, primed and painted since early 2019, Chen has her upcycling process down to a science. But when the paint dries, her work is only a little past the halfway mark.

Next, she stages the piece for high-quality photos to include in her listings on Marketplace or Instagram. It’s now her favorite part of the process.

“It’s also probably the most important part,” Chen said. “It’s gone from a regular piece to a stunning piece, and I want people to see that.”

The added love really goes a long way.

When Chen listed the first green dresser, she added potted Monstera leaves, a ceramic bird tchotchke and a wicker lounge chair adorned with a loose-knit blanket to give the photo extra pizzazz. Those details are what convinced a pregnant lady to drive more than two hours to pick it up.

The well-produced product shots double as an effective way to showcase her previous projects on her portfolio website, which brings in more customers.

Chen even uses her photo-editing chops to profit off of her competition. Lots of people sell furniture on Marketplace, but dark and grainy photos abound. In an experiment, she edited one local seller’s pictures using Photoshop and sent them over. Their furniture started selling faster.

“She loved my photos,” Chen said. She told the seller, “I can help you post photos, I’m just going to charge you $20 every time you ask me to do a listing.”

It was a deal, which sparked a new revenue stream for Chen and yet another moneymaking idea: photography-staging courses on Udemy or Teachable, a perfect mesh of her skills.

She has already started planning the courses, but with the school year in full swing, Chen admits that she’s maxed out. Two or three furniture projects per week is her limit. And the self-described control freak isn’t ready to hire someone else to help find or flip furniture anytime soon.

“But I don’t feel stressed out because I’m doing the things I like to do,” she said.

So for now, as many teachers do, Chen counts down the days until school’s out – not in anticipation of a lavish vacation. 

She just wants more free time to paint furniture and extra daylight to snap quality photos.

Corrections and clarifications Nov. 1, 2019: Chen’s first customer purchased a Hunt Club green dresser with golden drawer pulls. A previous version of this article described another green dresser with different photo staging.

Adam Hardy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. He specializes in ways to make money that don’t involve stuffy corporate offices. Read his ​latest articles here, or say hi on Twitter @hardyjournalism.