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(Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail Newspaper)
(Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail Newspaper)

Work & Money

Find a new career in the junk yard Add to ...

Ernst Friderichs couldn't help smirking to himself as the well-to-do Toronto woman who'd just bought a 1920s-inspired banker's desk from him pulled out of his driveway.

He'd sold the freshly polished desk with leather inlay and shiny new hardware for $460.

"The woman bought it for her husband as a birthday present. If she knew where it came from, she would've freaked," he says.

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Mr. Friderichs, 50, had picked up the desk two days earlier from a Goodwill store near his home in Oshawa, Ont. Even under the unflattering fluorescent lights, he knew he'd stumbled on a great find - and it was only $39.99.

"I see this desk and right away my heartbeat starts going up," he says.

He bought it for $20 (it was 50-per-cent-off day), polished it and outfitted it with $20 worth of new hardware.

A $420 profit? Not bad at all.

The housing market isn't as robust in 2011 as it was during the heyday of the "house flip," so Mr. Friderichs has become an entrepreneur of a new ilk: He flips furniture instead of properties.

This type of entrepreneurship can be a tempting option for those unimpressed by the slim employment pickings offered in the recovering economy. New shows such as the W Network's Cash & Cari (premiering Thursday) and History Television's American Pickers document those who have had success finding treasures in the junk pile.

The growth of simple e-commerce sites have made buying and selling furniture an easy start-up option for those interested in the trade. Who needs a brick-and-mortar store when you have Etsy and eBay?

When Mr. Friderichs was laid off from his job in the fitness industry in 2008, he didn't want to stay in the same field.

"I said, 'What do you really feel like doing? What's going to make you happy?' "

He now spends his 9-to-5 on excursions to every junk shop in the area, on the hunt for vintage and antique furniture. He has a knack for spotting hardwood Queen Anne dressers and intricately carved walnut console tables hidden among the mismatched china sets and mothball-scented clothing.

After his excursions, Mr. Friderichs carts his finds home and stores them in his garage. He does minimal refinishing when necessary and then posts ads for each piece on Craigslist and Kijiji, with a mark-up of at least $100.

"People ask me where I get it from and I say I have a whole network of furniture dealers," he says with a mischievous laugh.

His background in sales has contributed to his success: After two years in business, he's sold every item he's posted and he gets his asking his price with almost every item.

Though he doesn't advertise or maintain a website, Mr. Friderichs has had repeat customers (his online classified listings are all formatted the same way - it's easy to spot them).

Mr. Friderichs says he feels pressure to keep merchandise moving, since this is his only source of income. He writes off his expenses - supplies, fuel, car repairs and improvements to his home office and workshop - but there are some months when he only makes $2,500, though on others he's brought in as much as $6,500.

People trust his taste, something that's key to his success. (Note to budding furniture flippers: You may have trouble finding a market for that bulbous black pleather sofa from 1983.)

In a cluttered online marketplace, consumers value curation. That's part of the reason why Port Colborne, Ont., couple Daniel Garbutt, 32 and Valeria Herner, 25, were able to turn their hobby of collecting and selling vintage furniture and decor into full-time work.

They run their shop, Hindsvik, through Etsy, the popular online marketplace for homemade art and jewellery as well as vintage products. It's become a hub for 400,000 sellers, many of whom are in the same curate-and-sell game. Last year, Etsy reported $314.3-million (U.S.) in gross merchandise sales.

There's little overhead - Etsy charges a 20-cent (U.S.) listing fee and takes a 3.5-per-cent cut on sales - so Mr. Garbutt and Ms. Herner get to pocket most of what they make.

In theory, any consumer could hit up the same Niagara-region auctions, antique shops and flea markets the couple frequents in order to buy the items at a lower price. (Ms. Herner says they place a 40- to 50-per-cent mark-up on their finds.) But many are happy to pay a premium for a mid-century fibreglass tulip chair and rustic wooden shipping crate (listed as a coffee or side table) all located in the same virtual shop.

Four months ago, the couple had a multiple-item order come in from a customer in China worth $500. They've also sold multiple items to businesses, including a Vancouver cooking school.

Like Mr. Friderichs, they try to scope out items that can be sold with little or no extra labour. When the practice becomes more about craftsmanship than curating, it can be difficult to maintain high profit margins.

Maris MacDonald is still trying to find that balance with her Etsy store, SemperNova. The 51-year-old finds many of her materials for next to nothing at garage sales, flea markets and on the curb, but puts about 30 hours a week into stripping, priming and finishing the items she sells. With little room at her home in White Rock, B.C., she also rents a garage for $150 a month for storage.

"It's just me, so the profit's quite small: $800 to $1,000 a month," she says. Thankfully, she has her husband's income to fall back on.

Her most popular items are vintage window frames - often found after a house has been demolished - which she converts into mirrors and sells for about $100 and up.

She tried to sell them and other pieces, such as repainted wood dressers, at a higher price point, but they just sat in her virtual store. She had no choice but to bring the price down in order to sell them.

For Mr. Friderichs, the space in his single garage limits what he can buy, which means he must sell what he has quickly to make room for more inventory.

"Sometimes you go, 'Geez, the last time someone bought something from me it was Friday night and now it's Thursday,' " he says.

"I'm just going by the seat of my pants."



GETTING STARTED



Cari Cucksey, the 35-year-old star of the new W Network show Cash & Cari, has a knack for finding treasures amid piles of junk.

The Northville, Mich., estate-sale organizer finds cheap or free furniture on curbs, Craigslist and Freecycle, gives the pieces makeovers and then resells them through her consignment shop RePurpose. The expert offers these tips to aspiring furniture flippers:

Check for good bones

Ms. Cucksey has performed some impressive transformations on the junk furniture she's brought into her studio, but there are some pieces that just aren't worth saving. "Anything that's solid wood can be brought back to life," she says. If the veneer on a solid wood piece is chipped, it can be repaired with wood filler. But if it has suffered significant water damage or has been attacked by termites (look for tiny holes), leave it.

Look past the dirt

Some of Ms. Cucksey's best finds have been pieces that are covered in grime, dust and sometimes even animal droppings. "Don't be afraid to buy something that is really old and has layers of dirt. A big part of it is being able to see past the junk," she says. Wear gloves to clean the piece well and then use polish or paint to give it new life.

Do your research

Ms. Cucksey can still remember missing out on some serious cash, all because she didn't know the origin (and, therefore, true value) of items she has found at estate sales. When in doubt, look it up. The manufacturer, materials and age of an item usually has a lot of bearing on how much you can get for it. The nails and joints of a piece of wood furniture will give you some idea of its age. A simple eBay search should point you in the right direction for pricing.

Know what's in demand

If you find any curbside furniture with the names Eames, Saarinen or Knoll etched on the bottom, grab it and run. Mid-century modern design is enjoying a renaissance right now, and pieces by those designers are among the most coveted by vintage junkies. Anything from the 1970s or earlier is a safe bet, Ms. Cucksey says. "Buying anything vintage now is so hip. It's an [alternative]way to be green."

 

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