"Why put your money in the bank and draw earnings of only
5% or 6% per year," asks Kevin D. Grothe of Minneapolis,
Minnesota, "when you can invest that same money in
'antiques' and earn a return of 200% or 300% or so per
week? " Here's Kevin with all the details.
One day the summer before last, I drove out to a farm
auction and spent $7.50 for an old oak armchair, $12 for an
oak rocker, and $10 for a chest of drawers. The very next
day, I rented a space at the local flea market and easily
resold the three pieces of furniture for $120.
On a recent Saturday morning with nothing better to do, I
went out looking for bargains at local garage sales. At one
sale, I offered to pay $1.00 each for three dresser drawers
(sans dresser) that had fancy brass pulls. I later removed
the six brass handles, stored the drawers away for some
future use, and sold the pulls to an antique dealer for
At another auction, a final bid of $55 got me a round oak
table that needed some fixing up. After six or eight
pleasurable hours of refinishing, I was able to sell the
handsome table right off my own front porch for a tidy
I could go on and on ... but I think you get the picture. I
buy and sell "previously owned" pieces of furniture for
profit ... sometimes big profit. I work strictly in my
spare time. And, in case you think my success in the
used-furniture biz is unique, it's not: Others have made
(and are now making) money this way, too, and so can you
... providing, of course, you don't mind setting your own
hours and determining (to a large extent) your own wages!
SMALL INVESTMENT, BIG PAYOFF
As you've probably noticed (what with the sudden
proliferation of antique shops across the U.S.), antique
furniture is quite popular these days. (This goes for most
any kind of old, wooden furniture, whether it's truly
antique — that is, more than 100 years old
— or not.) You don't need to open a retail
store, however, to cash in on the present popularity of
"antiques". In fact, you don't even need a several
hundred-dollar bankroll to get started in the
used-furniture biz. With as little as $50 (or less, in some
cases) you can head for an auction and come back with
enough salable merchandise to repay your initial investment
several times over.
Before you decide to plunge headlong into the furniture
recycling business, however, I'd like to pass along three
pieces of advice based on my experience as a successful
buyer and seller of household goods:
 Don't expect to get rich quick in this business.
Instead, try to make the venture pleasurable and
educational . The profits will take care of
 Don't invest money that you can't afford to lose (or
have tied up in old furniture for a while). That is to say,
don't finance your foray into the furniture biz with money
which is earmarked for rent, utilities, car payments, etc.
That old dresser you decided to buy may take longer than
you thought it would to resell ... and in the meantime, you
do have to eat.
 Be honest with yourself and everyone you deal with. The
profit potential in this business is so great that you
should never have to bamboozle a customer out of his or her
money. (Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean you have
to give away all your "trade secrets" to every client that
comes along, either. Let your common sense —
and your conscience-be your guide.)
With all this in mind, here's how you can go about making
your spare time more enjoyable-and your spare cash more
abundant-by buying and reselling old furnishings.
AUCTIONS: THE BEST SOURCE OF "GOOD BUYS"
The small-town auction — that energy-charged
social event where friends and neighbors meet to discuss
the weather, swap stories, and buy goods —
is your best all-round source of future inventory.
Auctions are easy to find. Just look in your local paper's
classified section under "Antiques", "Farm Equipment", or
"Livestock". (The ads will usually say something about
"household goods" if furniture or collectables are among
the items to be sold.) Also — if you live in
or near a small town-check for auction notices on bulletin
boards in grocery stores and farm supply outlets.
Should you be lucky enough to have an antique dealer as a
friend, you might be able to get him or her to put your
name on the mailing list of one or more of the many flyers
mailed out by the auctioneers themselves. (You can also
approach the auctioneer at any sale you attend and ask if
he mails out notices. It won't hurt to inquire.)
When you're choosing auctions to attend, stick with the
ones held on a weekday and located 50 miles or more from
the nearest large city. These sales are usually only
attended by local people and farmers (and maybe a few
antique dealers) ... folks who aren't willing to pay the
higher prices that are common at big-city auctions (and
sales held on weekends).
Also, consider bad weather an asset when you venture out to
buy. Auctions and sales invariably go on regardless of
weather conditions. When it rains or snows, however, fewer
people show up ... resulting in less competition during the
bidding and — therefore —
Try to arrive at each of the events you attend at least a
half hour early, and preferably a full hour. This will give
you ample time to inspect the merchandise. I recommend that
you carry a pad and pen and write down the names of the
items you're likeliest to buy (and what prices you're
prepared to pay for them) as you walk around. These notes
may keep you from paying more than you should for an item
during the excitement of bidding. (It's been known to
When the appointed time comes, the auctioneer will step
forward and loudly announce that he is going to begin.
He'll state the terms and methods he will use, and the
general order of what he's going to sell first and the
items he'll get to last. Then he'll stutter and stammer,
wheeze and holler until the item on the block (be it a
table, hay wagon, or whatever) is sold to the highest
The main thing to remember is to stay alert and pay close
attention to what's being bidded upon. You'll be amazed,
sometimes, at how fast the bidding will be. If you're not
quick enough-or vocal enough-your bid may go unnoticed ...
or you may find that you've bought a rusty old washtub
instead of that nice oak rocker you had your eye on. So
stay on your toes!
Also, when you do manage to get that final bid in, be sure
to jot down the name of the item-and your final offer-on
the back of your bidding card. Do this each time you "buy"
a piece, so that you'll be able to keep track of your total
spending as the night (or afternoon) wears on.
ANOTHER GOOD SOURCE OF INVENTORY: ESTATE
An "estate sale" occurs when someone decides
— for whatever reason (divorce, death, etc.)
— to sell everything that isn't bolted down
in a home. More often than not, the house's owner will hire
a professional to do the pricing (all items at these events
are pre-priced right where they sit) and conduct the sale.
For this reason, the goods sold at estate sales are often
no less expensive than the equivalent items would be in an
It's sad but true: Estate sales are becoming more and more
a seller's market every day ... mainly because of the
throngs of people that flock to these gatherings at the
first sight of an ad in the paper. Still, if you have a
sharp eye and you're in the right place at the right time,
you can make some good buys at these events.
The best estate sales to go to (from the standpoint of low
prices) are those that are little advertised and which
occur in small towns. Arrive at these sales either very
early, when there is still a lot of unsold merchandise, or
very late (when many buyers have gone home, causing the
prices of the few remaining unsold items —
in many cases — to be cut in half).
Garage or yard sales are not really in the same category as
estate sales, but the same shopping principles hold true.
HOW TO BUY MERCHANDISE THAT WILL SELL
When you're looking at furniture (whether it's truly
antique or just old), stick with pieces made of one of the
hardwoods: oak, ash, walnut, teak, maple, mahogany, etc.
(If you aren't able to identify the type of wood from the
appearance of its grain, check the item's weight. If the
piece is heavy for its size, it's probably made of a
Also, buy only well — constructed furniture.
Forget about items held together just by nails. Check to
see that the chair, bench, chest, desk, etc., which you're
considering is professionally glued or screwed together and
has no warped pieces. Generally speaking, any item of
furniture that features pressed wood designs, turned or
carved legs, or other fancy parts will be in demand and
Whatever you do, don't buy any piece of furniture
that's badly gouged, has missing pieces, or is broken or
cracked beyond easy repair. Major furniture reconstruction
is best left to experts. ( Refinishing , though,
is something you may well want to try. See the accompanying
Avoid buying dishes or glassware altogether, unless you
have some special knowledge in this area. The market for
glassware is simply too unpredictable ... and the country
is flooded right now with reproductions of authentic
collectable china, crystal, and porcelain artifacts
(reproductions that — to the untrained eye
— can't be told from the "real thing"). If
you simply must have a particular piece, at least
look for a brand name stamped on the bottom. (A few of the
many names you can depend on for good value are: Heisy,
Steuben, Noritake, Occupied Japan, Roseville, Wedgewood,
Nippon, and Red Wing. Beware of chips and cracks.
As for collectables: Anything with visible nostalgic value
that was made more than 20 years ago is probably being
collected by someone somewhere. This includes old toys
(metallic or wooden), radios, advertising gimmicks,
magazines, books, sheet music, postcards, military
paraphernalia, kitchen utensils ... you name it. (I know
one guy who collects old doorknobs!) If you think an item
can be resold, buy it.
Don't be af raid to bid on " mystery boxes", either. Most
often such boxes go for only a couple of dollars, and yet
the treasures inside are frequently worth many times the
selling price. All I can say is, I've yet to regret buying
one of these "grab boxes".
HOW TO PRICE YOUR WARES
If you have any doubt as to how much money a given item is
worth, go to a large bookstore or library and look through
the many available books on collectables and their values.
(You'll probably be surprised at just how many books of
this type there are. A few of the better ones are listed at
the end of this article.)
Another thing you can do is visit as many antique shops as
you can find and browse through their stock, taking note of
the prices. These shops are — without a
doubt — the best all-around guide to prices
in your area. If you're not sure what the going tariff is
for, say, maple desks ... all you have to do is visit a
store that has a desk similar to yours, and price your
If — on the other hand — you
can't find anything in local antique stores that resembles
the oddity you've just bought, ask a dealer what he would
pay (wholesale) for the item ... then price your piece 50%
higher. (This method isn't always reliable and should be
used as a last resort.) Ideally, of course, you should
always attempt to learn the market value of things
before you buy them.
As a rule of thumb, it's a good idea to ask yourself
— whenever you're considering a purchase
— "Could I make a profit of 50% on this
item?" If the answer is "no" . . . go on to the next piece
(unless, of course, you plan to keep the item after you buy
You can use most any kind of vehicle — from
Volkswagen to dump truck — to haul your
purchases home, although — naturally
— a pickup or van is best. (If you don't own
a vehicle, perhaps you can enlist the services of a
Whatever form of transportation you use, though, don't make
the mistake of buying more goods than you can haul home in
one trip. At most auctions and estate sales, sold items
must be removed immediately (or at least on the same day).
Loading, by the way, is no problem: Someone will always be
available to help you stash that bulky oak dresser in the
back of the truck. Do be sure, however, to bring blankets
or tarps to use as padding when you're packing more than
one precious antique into your vehicle.
SELLING YOUR WARES
There are basically three ways to get the most out of your
wares, once you're ready to sell:
 Reserve a space at a swap meet,
 run an ad in the paper, or
 hold your own garage or yard sale.
Flea markets and swap meets are probably among the best
ways to "move" your merchandise, simply because of the huge
number of people who shop in this manner. Booth space at
these open-air markets (which are usually held at drive-in
theaters and shopping centers) costs from $1.50 to $5.00
per space assignment per day ... which is more than
reasonable, when you consider that as many as 5,000 to
50,000 shoppers may see your goods in a day's time.
If you decide to go this route, try to arrive early (7:00
or 8:00 a.m.) and stake out a good spot. (Sometimes, you'll
be required to make advance reservations. Check it out.)
Bring along a folding card table (more than one, if
necessary) to set your smaller items on. If nothing else,
throw a nice blanket on the ground ... it'll make a
passable and effective display.
Organize your wares so that your customers will find it
easy to browse, and so people won't knock your breakables
over or step on your magazines to get a better look at that
painting way in the back. And set your prices a good 10 or
20% higher than what you actually expect to get for each
piece of merchandise. This way, the shopper has a chance to
"dicker" on the price (as is customary at swap meets).
Then again — rather than go to a swap meet
— you may want to run a classified ad under
the appropriate heading of your local newspaper. Advertise
your most interesting items only, and keep the ad itself
short. (This will prompt interested parties to call for
more information.) Include the price in your advertisement
only if you consider it to be an especially low one.
If you prefer to hold your own garage, porch, yard, or
living room sale, that's easy too. Run a short ad in the
paper or just put up signs on strategic street corners. If
you live on a particularly busy thorough —
fare, you won't have to advertise at all ... just set your
inventory in plain view, and customers will begin to
gravitate to your house. Before you go this route, however,
be sure to check local ordinances. (Some municipalities
have restrictions on the number of sales you may hold per
year others issue special licenses.)
THE PROFIT PICTURE
By now you're probably wondering how much money a person
can expect to make buying and selling pre-owned household
goods. It's hard to give a definite, dollars-and-cents
answer, since the profit on your investment can range from
zero to several hundred percent, and since you can approach
this business either full time or (as I do) part time.
Roughly speaking, though — if you hustle and
if you have a good eye for items that will sell
— you can count on grossing between $200 and
$400 a week on an investment of $50 to $100 ... working
only 15 to 20 hours! (That's on the average . As I
mentioned at the beginning of this article, I've made as
much as $90 a day — and more
— in this lucrative field.)
A FINAL WORD
If the idea of selling a piece of furniture for four times
what you paid for it makes you feel a little like a
"capitalist pig" . . . perhaps you're not cut out for this
kind of highprofit enterprise. Just remember, though, that
antique dealers charge whatever they feel they can get for
their wares, even if they picked up the merchandise for
free. (And don't forget that their customers are usually
happy to pay every penny of the purchase price, or else
they wouldn't buy the items[s] in the first place.)
Not that it isn't a good idea to practice a little kindness
now and then by passing a savings on to your customer. If I
get an exceptional deal on an item, I pass the savings
right on to the next lucky person ... and so should you.
When and if you cross paths with this individual again,
you'll certainly be remembered ... either as a fool or a
friend. (It doesn't matter which. The customer will still
be more likely to buy from you the second time around.)
The used furniture business isn't for everybody. It's just
for people who don't mind going to swap meets and auctions,
surrounding themselves with fine old pieces of furniture,
and earning $200 a week (or more) in their spare time. I
know that includes me ... maybe it does you, too!
1. Antiquing From A to Z by Michael DeForrest
(Simon & Schuster, 1975). Hard cover. $8.95
2. Collector's Price Guide to Bottles, Tobacco Tins,
and Relics by Marvin Davis and Helen Davis (A & W
Visual Library, 1975). Hard cover. $5.95
3. The Kovels' Complete Antiques Price List, 9th
Edition, by Ralph Kovel and Terry Kovel (Crown
Publications, 1976). Soft cover. $6.95
4. The Kovels' Official Bottle Price List , 3rd
Edition, by Ralph Kovel and Terry Kovel (Crown
Publications, 1975). Hard cover. $6.95
5. Primer of American Antiques by Carl W. Drepperd
(Doubleday, 1944). Hard cover, $5.95
Oftentimes in your search for good used furniture you'll
encounter a strikingly beautiful chest, rocking chair, or
other item that could be even more strikingly
beautiful if the object weren't painted algae green or mud
brown. When this happens, don't pass the piece up ...
instead, buy it and refinish it. Afterwards, you'll have an
item that's much more valuable — and much
more marketable — than it would otherwise
It's not difficult to refinish furniture. Here's what
you'll need in the way of supplies:
 A couple of paint brushes.
 Light-bodied furniture stripper.
 No. 2 steel wool and cotton rags.
 Small tools (toothpicks, nail files, etc.) for working
the paint out of deep crevices in the wood.
 Furniture stain (optional).
 Varnish, wax, boiled linseed oil, or tung oil (as
 A well-ventilated working area.
Follow the manufacturer's direc tions when you work with
the stripper. Try to avoid breathing the fumes, and
whatever you do, don't smoke or light a match ... most
light-bodied finish removers are exceedingly flammable.
After you've removed the old finish from the chest, chair,
or whatever, it's time to put on a new preservative. I
prefer boiled linseed oil, since it  can be applied
easily with a soft cloth,  keeps wood from drying out,
and  brings out the true beauty of the grain. (Also,
linseed oil has a non-toxic and-in my opinion
— pleasing odor.) The oil's only drawback is
that it takes a long time to dry ... two or three days,
depending on temperature and humidity. Apply two to three
coats for a nice, uniform finish, and allow the object to
dry completely between coats.
After you've stripped and ref inished a couple of pieces of
furniture, you'll have gotten the hang of the operation ...
and you'll be well on your way to earning higher profits in
the used furniture biz. —KG .