Why You Should See Dollar Signs When Your Neighbor Puts Junk On the Curb

Image: Free couch. Photo by Charles Wagner
Charles Wagner/Flickr

Every business owner has to consider their profit margin: their net profits divided by their revenue. To have a 100% profit margin, your product must cost you absolutely nothing to acquire and sell. Is this even possible?

It is if you’re in the business of junk-picking!

Before you rule it out, listen to the rest of the story. Here’s how I’ve made more than $100 from other people’s junk — and how others have made far more.

How I Make Money Selling Other People’s Junk

As we left our condo one day, my wife and I saw a beautiful round wooden dining room table next to the dumpster. I carried it home and we used it for a couple months. Then, after junk-picking two wooden chairs, I snapped a few photos of the set and put it up for sale on Craigslist last week. The second caller came over and paid $50 cash for the table and chairs.

Last month, I found six unopened boxes of floor tiles, so I loaded them in our minivan. The next time I drove by a flooring place I stopped and sold them for $10. In January, while helping clean out my friend’s new house, I salvaged several nice items, including 55 zippered nylon pouches that each had a new bag of golf tees in them. A few weeks later, I took them to a flea market with a golf shop, and the owner gave me $40 for my 55 little junk-picked pouches.

In the last year, without actually trying (people are always throwing out good stuff near my building!) I’ve salvaged that dining table, several wooden chairs, a coffee table, an artificial tree, a music stand, tiles, tools and two pocket knives. I sold a transport chair we got for free for $35 and a junk-picked carpet knee-kicker for $10. Although I am making a 100% profit margin, my junk-picking stories involve small gains. But not all junk pickers do it on such a small scale.

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Turning Junk-Picking into a Bigger Business

During the annual cleanup week in Winnetka, IL, near Chicago, scavengers scour the neighborhoods with vans and trucks. They collect the best of the goodies before the garbage trucks arrive and sell them in various ways. One year, a man even found a sack full of money! Annual spring cleanups are common in communities around the country, and they offer an opportunity to efficiently gather free things to sell.

Of course, once you start buying gas to drive around gathering your products, your profit margins might drop closer to 90% or so. But if you can live with a bit less than a 100% profit margin, the possibilities to make some decent extra cash are numerous. Years ago, while helping a friend haul trash to the Blair Township spring cleanup collection point in Michigan, I met a man who was pulling out all of the bicycles before they were thrown into the compactors. He had about forty or fifty piled high on a trailer, and he said it was his second load. He told me that he fixed them up and sold them for $10 to $100 each, and came back every year to resupply.

Then there are the really lucky finds. Nick DiMola, the owner of a garbage collection company in New York, has found numerous valuables, including ancient Mayan artifacts that appraised at more than $16,000, according to MSN.com. Another New Yorker found a painting in the trash and sold it for $1,900. Mac Robertson, an electrician who was working at artist Francis Bacon’s London studio in the 1970s, salvaged photographs, letters and other things that Bacon was throwing away. He had to hold onto the items for a while, but in 2007 he sold them for 965,490 Euros, which was about $1.5 million.

How to Make Money Selling Junk

Are you ready to become a junk-picker and sell things with a 100% profit margin (or close to it)? Here are some guidelines to get you started:

1. Set Aside Space

You’ll need to store your finds until they sell, so clean out a corner of the garage or basement, or devote a shed in the backyard to your new business.

2. Choose a Junk Picker’s Uniform

After your first few sales, the temptation of big bucks may have you crawling into a dumpster for some half-buried treasure you just can’t leave behind. This can be dirty work, so have a set of clothing set aside just for your junk-picking forays. It might include sunglasses and other disguises so you’ll feel more comfortable with the looks people will give you as you emerge from that stinky treasure bin.

3. Be Efficient

It’s easy to spend a lot on gas while you’re driving around looking for free things to sell. Choosing to walk around the neighborhood instead means spending a lot more time on your search.

Try to plan efficient routes by noting where the best stuff is thrown out. Keep a list of garbage pickup days for various areas because most valuable junk will be put out the day before the garbage man gets there. Check the official websites of nearby towns and counties for announcements of annual cleanups.

4. Learn Values

You don’t want to have a yard full of junk, so learn what sells easily and how much it’s worth. Check Craigslist to see what people are paying for furniture and other items. Using your smartphone, you can even do this while looking through a pile of curbside trash. Carry an index card with updated scrap metal prices on it. A trashed window air conditioning unit can net you $10 or $15 for the copper, if you’re willing to take the time to remove it.

5. Have a Sales Strategy

Before you start dumpster diving, you should have a plan for selling your discoveries. Local scrap buyers want metals, so find the ones that pay the most. Sell furniture on Craigslist or, if you don’t want people coming to your home, at a used furniture store or consignment shop. If you use the latter, set up an account first (sell something from around the house to get started), so you can go straight from your junk-picking rounds to the shop, with no need to store things at home. You’ll want to bring supplies to do quick cleanings so items look their best.

See Also >> How to Make Money Online (45 of our best ways!)

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