Do you enjoy the thrill of the hunt? Would you like to make money turning hidden finds into profitable sales?
It’s not so easy to make a fortune these days, but Aaron LaPedis disagrees. He says it’s as easy as looking in someone’s garage, storage unit or thrift store.
As the owner of two art galleries in Denver and former host of a local PBS show called Collect This!, LaPedis knows how to track down hidden treasures and turn them into a profit.
His recent book, The Garage Sale Millionaire (Wiley), offers advice on how to make money by digging around garage sales, storage units and everything in between.
His belief: Not only can garage sale treasure seekers make some money reselling various items, but they can make very substantial residual profits over time.
LaPedis spoke to Mint about how potential treasure hunters can dig deep and win big.
Mint: With shows like Pawn Stars and Antiques Roadshow inspiring everyone to cash in on junk, aren’t all the good things taken?
LaPedis: I believe it’s still a great time to be a treasure hunter. What you see on reality TV is far from reality. It has been reported that one of the stars of Storage Wars said the show is fake — that it’s staged.
Shows like that make many people believe it’s easy to be a treasure hunter, but that’s not really the case.
Still, shows like Antiques Roadshow and Pawn Stars can still be good teaching mechanisms in that you can learn what items are in demand and how the experts appraise them.
The best way to become what I call a “garage sale millionaire” is to become an expert on a handful of items, so when you come across those items, you know how much, if anything, they’re worth on the market.
For example, I’m an expert on presidential and sports memorabilia and coins. You can’t be an expert on everything, but knowing about just a handful of categories can be very profitable.
Mint: What are the most valuable things to collect, and the least valuable?
LaPedis: Ironically, the most valuable items are a lot of things that people aren’t looking for. They’re unusual things, like tin toys and bamboo fishing rods and reels, which are non-mainstream antiques. Even though they aren’t “popular,” a lot of people enjoy collecting those kinds of unique items.
Take tin toys, which were made to entertain kids in the late 19th and early 20th century (until World War II).
Tin toys are frozen in time, in a way, because they represent an era that no longer exists and you can make a huge amount of money collecting those.
Just to give you some perspective on their value, they were originally priced at 10 cents to $1 and they’re now worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Mint: Do the most valuable things to collect also depend on the geographic region they’re in?
LaPedis: Absolutely. If you live in the South, you’re surrounded by Civil War stuff, whereas in Colorado, there’s not much of it, so it’s priced at a premium.
The same goes for Western memorabilia – it’s popular in the Midwest, where there’s less of it.
So when collecting, consider the place you’re doing it in: What is that state or region known for? That’s where you’ll get the best price and the best value.
For example, if you want to collect comics, you don’t want to go somewhere where they’re rare because you’ll have to pay a huge premium. Head to larger cities, where there are lots of comic book stores to look through.
One instance where this theory may not work is garage sales. We are a traveling culture and with so many people moving all over, you never know what you’re going to find at a garage sale. That’s a place where you’ll have to look closely at everything.
Mint: Where do you go to find the best deals?
LaPedis: I have an online tip for buying offline. I use the website Tag Sell It and I also have the app on my phone.
I simply put in a zip code and it lists all the garage sales, flea markets and estate sales in the neighborhood. But you have to go these early. Time is not on your side; early birds do get the worms.
If there is an estate sale, you should go to the preview first to scout out the finds. You should be the first and the last person to show up at one of those sales — be the first to get the cool things, and the last to get the rock bottom deals.
Mint: How about negotiating the price on items you want?
La Pedis: In a store setting, a sales associate can only do so much of the negotiating before they have to go to the owner.
So when you’re talking about the money, find out who the owner is because you’ll get the best deal from that person. The owner doesn’t have to worry about paying a commission and if they’re having any kind of money crunch, they’ll want to turn inventory.
Also, cash is often king, because a lot of places don’t take credit cards, so you’ll get a better deal if you’re willing to pay cash.
How you dress is also important when shopping for collectibles. That means dressing in inconspicuous clothing, leaving expensive jewelry and shoes at home and parking your car a block away. If you drive up in a Lexus in front of a garage sale I’m holding, I’ll probably be hard-pressed to give you a good deal.
Also, build a rapport before you start negotiating. Don’t immediately rush in with, “How low can you go?”
Start off by chatting about the weather. Simple conversations go a long way and when people have time invested in you, they feel more obligated to give you a better deal.
If you’re in the military, active or past, say it. I always give a military discount out of respect for their service.
Mention anything about yourself that might create a bond with the seller. Then ask, “Can you do better on the deal?”
Mint: When making an offer during negotiations, how much should you offer?
LaPedis: Don’t go too low. If an item is $100 and you offer $15, that’s an insult. You’ll turn that person off right away and they’ll never want to do business with you.
I would start just under 50% on an item, sometimes even less, depending on how badly I want that piece.
Don’t ever try to crush the other person during negotiations. The deal is never a good one if it doesn’t get done.
Mint: How can you avoid being ripped off on autographed collectibles?
LaPedis: Know that 50% to 60% of all signatures on memorabilia and documents are fake. Autopens allow people to copy signatures and unless you’re a foremost expert, you’d never know the difference.
If it’s too good a deal, it’s not a deal. If they offer a certificate saying it’s real, chances are it’s fake.
When you buy an autographed collectible, you don’t want to pay cash. Use a credit card or PayPal to protect yourself, and let them know you’ll insist on a refund if it’s not real.
There are third-party authenticators that will verify whether or not an autograph is real.
Mint: Even if Storage Wars is staged, can you still find deals in storage units?
LaPedis: It certainly is exciting but it’s a different way of collecting. Here’s how it works: Once a storage unit is opened up, you get three to five minutes to look, but not touch, and then you have to make a best guess on price right there.
There could be a computer inside the unit, a new Rolex, electric tools, almost anything. You never know what you’re going to find, which is truly a rush. It’s almost like playing slot machines.
Be careful not to get caught up in the bidding and realize that should you win the auction, you will only have 24 hours to remove the items from storage unit.
That means if you see a lot of big furniture, you must remove it all, unless you re-rent that storage unit. So, if you see a lot of kitchen chairs and living room sets, and you’ve never sold those items before, it may not be the best unit to go after.
Also know that boxes can be deceiving. You have to look at the unit and if you see a box labeled “Winchester”, you may think it’s a box of antique guns and ammo, but what’s inside may not be what you think. Or you buy a safe, but there may not be anything in it.
Start out by dedicating a whole day to simply watching so you can see how the process works and what people find. Learn as much as possible before pulling the trigger.
Vanessa Richardson is a freelance writer in San Francisco who writes about small business and personal finance.