How can I get paid to shop for used furniture all day?
January 31, 2011 8:09 AM   Subscribe

Is there a way I can get paid to hunt through estate sales for awesome furniture?

I'm pretty burnt out on my current career (web design), and I'm considering a complete change. I've been thinking that it could be awesome to make a living by finding unique secondhand housewares and reselling them for a profit. I already spend most of my weekends in secondhand shops. I'm not necessarily talking about Antiques with a capital A, although obviously the better quality the piece, the more money it brings. I'm talking about finding used furniture/housewares with good bones and character, that can be given some love if needed and then marked up and sold in a retail shop, or to interior designers' clients or something. I'm pretty sure that owning a retail storefront is not a realistic goal at this point.

Is it possible to make a real living** doing this? Is it an exceptionally stressful or unstable career? My initial internet research is only leading me to job titles like "antiques dealer" which is not really what I have in mind. I want to spend most of my time moving around, either on the hunt for pieces or refinishing something in my (currently nonexistent) workshop or trying to peddle my wares from the back of my car. I don't want to sit on a stool in a store waiting for customers to find me.

Even better, is there some way I could ease into this field, like working as an assistant or something? I've been a web designer for most of my adult life, so I don't have professional experience but I think I have a good eye and I know for a fact that I'm good at haggling. I imagine there are plenty of potential pitfalls and steep learning curves, and I know from experience that I'd do better if I wasn't completely on my own.

If anyone has any first- or second-hand experience with anything like this, I'd love to hear your input.

P.S. In case it helps, the reason I think this would be a good fit for me is because I'm energized by the thrill of the hunt. I suppose finding cool houseware bargains is a passion, in the sense that it's something I've consistently loved to do for as long as I can remember. Also, I am sick to death of staring at a computer screen all day. If you can think of any other careers in which I would travel around hunting for XYZ (I'm open to anything), please let me know!

** I live in Boston and I have my own place, so my expenses are pretty high. Living alone on less than $60k (pre-tax) is depressingly difficult for me and I'd rather not do it again, and I'm not so passionate about this that I'd be willing to significantly alter my standard of living. Just being honest.
posted by roscopcoletrane to Work & Money (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Have you thought about approaching an established dealer and working out a deal with them? You may not want to be the person sitting on a stool in a shop, but you can do the hunting and refinishing for one of those persons.

As a bonus you can ease into this by providing only a small number of pieces at a time. Since it's not your business (and they have other revenue streams) there is no pressure to find 10 great pieces a week from the very beginning. Once you get better and have some experience you can decide whether it's a feasible full-time occupation.

As an extra bonus, is there a reason you can't do free-lance web design while you get up to speed in this new venture? It will be a bit like having two jobs at first, but it's potentially a good way to keep your income high while the new work gets started.
posted by oddman at 8:22 AM on January 31, 2011

I have a friend who does this, and in Boston too. I think it's marginally possible to make a living out of this if you cut down your living costs, but I seriously doubt you're going to earn more than 60k.

It's a really competitive field - every estate sale is packed full of vultures just like you. And to make money you have to have a really great understanding of the market and be able to really quickly identify the profitable products at estate sales. This isn't a matter of junk having "good bones" that you can fix up; it's all about collectibles, even if they aren't "antiques" per se.

The more exotic your niche, the better. For example, my friend knows tons about collectible fabrics, sewing patterns, embroidery kits, plates, and knows where to resell them for (sometimes) huge markups. She can immediately spy a collectible embroidery kit (something that looks like trash to the uneducated eye), scoop it up for $5, and sell it on ebay for $200. The other difficulty is that this is a volume business. You don't have time to linger at estate sales to find things that you like. You have to get in early, scoop up likely objects, have a place to store them, and make plenty of trips to the thrift store and dump to get rid of the unsellable stuff. Not so hard with vintage board games and plates, but a much bigger enterprise with furniture.
posted by yarly at 8:34 AM on January 31, 2011

(I mean, I doubt you're going to earn even close to $60k. Maybe 25k or 30k. You'd have to move out to the suburbs, where you'd have cheaper rent and a bigger place to store all your finds.)
posted by yarly at 8:35 AM on January 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here is an eBayer you may enjoy checking out. Vintage housewares. "I detoured for a while, going to music school and playing the bassoon professionally in a symphony orchestra, but found I prefer the flexibility and variety afforded by selling on Ebay. And I must admit I love an excuse to go on a treasure hunt, for items to make available to the buying public..."

One consideration: how much storage do you have? Any? (I am a part-time eBayer, with a big country house. Part time -- empty bedrooms -- still some days I feel like I live in a store as there're piles of merchandise, piles of packing supplies...) You will have to be very tidy and willing to invest in some good shelving, willing to jettison some of your own junk, to make it work from your own city space. Sometimes things worth a lot of money are only worth a lot of money to a very small number of people, and part of the trick is being able to sit on these things until the right person finds you. One can go too far with the hoarding, but if you have to hustle everything off asap, you will lose money on that.

But, this is do-able. Check out magazines. I get all sorts of ideas, for what to find and for what to do with it, from "The Upper Canadian."

"Is it unstable" -- well, this sort of thing can be very unpredictable. On the plus you can pretty much work to your need; if I am wanting to buy a big whatever I just put in more hours and hustle up the extra cash, an option not available to people in most jobs. On the downside, well, it can be a lot of work, and it would be difficult to structure things to make you always on the go. The sourcing is the fun part. The rest is paperwork, finding good prices on packing peanuts, dealing with difficult folk, scoring a great find and dropping it down the stairs, photographing, buying en masse only to realise later that everybody found one in their dad's garage and put it on Etsy for $6 last week, and so on. Easy to hustle up cool merchandise -- the rub is in the profitable disposal!
posted by kmennie at 8:37 AM on January 31, 2011

HGTV now has a show 'Cash & Cari' where the host runs estate sales for clients. It might be worth a watch to see the other side of the equation. She also has a retail store in Michigan where she sells refinished wares.
posted by thewildgreen at 8:52 AM on January 31, 2011

It always seemed to me that it would be tough to compete with the tons of semi-retired guys who do this sort of thing as a hobby and have the space to store tons of stuff. Having said that, there is a guy I know from my dog park who does it. He's specializes in art deco pottery and seems pretty knowledgeable about early Canadian artists in general. He said that it's important to build a network of wealthy collectors and know what they're looking for. It didn't seem like the sort of thing you just jump into.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:55 AM on January 31, 2011

I don't know how you would make a living doing just this right away. And a lot of this depends on how much competition there is in your period - if you're into MCM stuff and only MCM stuff and you don't have a line on every estate sale before other people, you might be out of luck. Better to be broad and work with a general aesthetic. But eventually, you might be able to cobble together a living through a lot of different kinds of work:

- approach boutiques that sells stuff with the kind of aesthetic you like playing with - I'm sure Boston has plenty of trendy/mixed vintage stores. They may let you sell on consignment in their space.

- Business clients, scouting furniture to outfit shops, restaurants, whatever space. They pay you a fee + the furniture.

- Prop styling for photoshoots. You meet with the art director, find out what they need, go forth and get it. Most jobs won't involve selling furniture; it will come out of your stock or be borrowed from places you have relationships with. The magazine pays you $600/day for your eye and connections, instead. Memail me if you'd like more info about this.

- Individual sales. You can do a lot of this on Craigslist - especially in big cities, CL isn't just about getting rid of your old lawn furniture. Ebay. Display space in someone else's store.

I know a bunch of people who make a living doing some combination of the above, whether for furniture or clothes or props or whatever. They are all *super* organized - they have to be.

Don't call yourself an antique dealer; you're a "furniture scout" or something else cute that better describes what you can/will do. Build a website and start doing the above as you have time.
posted by peachfuzz at 9:08 AM on January 31, 2011

Also check out American Pickers show. Your description is a cross between a picker and a dealer. There is also the newest trend of storage auctions. Storage Wars and Auction Hunters are two shows dealing with them. In one show a couple has a second hand shop where they sell the goods. ( actually a few of the 'stars' of the show have stores) I bet you could find a space for very reasonable rent if you wanted to go that route.
posted by Gungho at 9:21 AM on January 31, 2011

A few years back I was wondering about doing something similar, becoming a freelance decorator and searching out unique pieces for people, since I'm also a bit of a thrift store/estate sale ninja. What I eventually realized is that running a business like that would involve a lot of decorating/shopping to other people's taste, not my own. So I think one major thing to consider is how good you are at spotting items that other people would buy, even if they're not to your taste. Also, like any freelance business, you have to be really good at the marketing/accounting/publicity aspects of the job, not just the fun parts.
posted by MsMolly at 10:05 AM on January 31, 2011

Also consider that you could always have your own stall at a consignment shop type of place, in addition to ebaying. You pay a fee and the shop does all the business end for you.
posted by lhall at 10:06 AM on January 31, 2011

If you're more interested in the research and hunting aspect, you might look into doing theatrical props. The collectibility is not an issue, but the look is of (perhaps) more importance. However, it's highly unlikely you're going to even approach your current income level doing that.
posted by Morydd at 10:17 AM on January 31, 2011

I work in this field. Just a few quick thoughts as I am on a break and heading back into the workshop for a project that will keep me away from the computer for a few hours:

Even better, is there some way I could ease into this field, like working as an assistant or something?

They key to working in this field is contacts. I understand you want to get out of doing web design so you may not want to hear this, but a great way to make contacts and learn about the business would be by doing web design work for furniture conservators, antique dealers, estate sale agents, et cetera.

I already spend most of my weekends in secondhand shops.

Secondhand shops can be a good place to find things but if you want to be doing this full time you need to go to estate sales on Friday mornings, the first day of the sale. You also need to start pursuing ads on Craigslist and classifieds in your area. You can make appointments with people to look at what they are selling at night after your finish up your day job, or better yet, if you have flexible work hours, get over there during the day.

You should get a copy of Fine Points of Furniture: Early American and start studying auction catalogs to see examples of important furniture.

Happy to recommend other resources or share my experience, feel free to email me.
posted by mlis at 10:19 AM on January 31, 2011

A friend of mine spent a few years circa 2000 selling china on eBay. He'd typically hunt through sales to find individual pieces from collections, then put them together and sell the collection. He did OK, but I think the market is pretty saturated these days and, as someone put it above, the key is finding a niche. You're also going to have a constant inventory problem: never being able to move it quickly enough, and needing somewhere to put it.
posted by mkultra at 11:14 AM on January 31, 2011

I agree with those who say it's best to have a niche. I work with someone who has a money-making hobby of buying and selling boxing memorabilia. He seems to make a nice little sideline out of it.

Maybe you could start by devoting a few hours a week to this and build it into a supplemental income, but I'd advise against quitting your day job (though perhaps you might cut back to three or four days a week). It's just too unstable a business.
posted by orange swan at 12:54 PM on January 31, 2011

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