Rebuilding Small Trailers for a Profit

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
Often you can double your investment by buying a diamond-in-the-rough hauler, reconditioning it, and selling the refurbished trailer at a tidy profit!

Whether you live “uptown” or “down home”, you can make money from this part-time business. Learn how to create a small business rebuilding small trailers for a profit. 

With automobile and fuel prices climbing while the average
American’s disposable income shrinks, the cars and pickup
trucks that we buy are, for the most part, getting smaller.
However, our carrying capacity requirements — whether
for work or recreation — remain as large as ever.
That being the case, it’s no wonder that the market for
moderately priced, reconditioned utility trailers has never
been better.

If you’re already a seasoned bargain hunter, scrounger, and
barterer (or are willing to learn how to become one), you
can get in on the trailer boom with a minimum investment
and expect returns of 25%, 50%, or even 100% on your
initial outlay. Simply use your skills to find a suitable
“reclamation project”, and then to acquire building
materials . . . accumulate tires and other spare parts you
may find useful . . . and arrange for any services (such as
welding or metal cutting) that you can’t perform yourself.
Reconditioning used trailers isn’t especially difficult,
but it does require that you be organized — and
systematically opportunistic — in order to reap the
best returns for your time and money rebuilding small trailers for a profit.

KNOW YOUR TRAILER MARKET

I’m fortunate to live in a west central Oklahoma town that
boasts a four-year college and is surrounded by farm
country. The available mixture of urban, rural, and student
markets almost guarantees that I’ll find a customer for any
reconditioned trailer I have to sell . . . if I
take the time to understand what each group of buyers will
be looking for.

Take the students, for instance. Just as the turkey
buzzards return to Hinckley, Ohio every spring, these
scholars arrive in late August and hustle home in mid-May.
So at summer’s end I buy the trailers that the newly
resident undergraduates (who can always use extra cash) no
longer want . . . and in the spring I have little trouble
finding migrating collegians in desperate need of
conveyances to haul their possessions (which seem to
increase magically over the course of the school year). For
the most part, students favor two-wheelers that are
lightweight and inexpensive, with 1- to 4-foot sides and no
extras . . . something, in other words, to do little more
than get their goods and chattels home.

My other groups of customers are more choosy. Farmers and
stockbreeders, for example, tend to want sturdy, no-frills
carts capable of standing up to the punishment of carrying
agricultural equipment, feed, and fertilizer. In my
experience, such individuals are particularly eager to buy
low-profile flatbeds that measure 4 to 6 feet wide and 10
to 15 feet long. And most country buyers expect to see good
rubber on the ground and to have a spare tire thrown in
with the deal.

Townsfolk, on the other hand, seem to be more concerned
with the cosmetic aspect of a vehicle (although there are,
of course, exceptions to all of these general rules). City
and suburb dwellers are usually willing to pay top dollar
for trailers they can use to haul lawn clippings,
furniture, motorcycles, riding mowers, and such . . . but
will often ignore a bargain if it doesn’t have an
attractive two-tone paint job. They also generally prefer
light- to medium-weight trailers that look sharp and have
fenders, taillights, easy-operating ball hitches, and
locking tailgates.

Finally, there’s a category of customers that I call the
“hobby haulers”. These people use trailers to transport
everything from artworks to motorized water skis, and are
often willing to pay premium prices to get exactly what
they want. They also tend to be very demanding. In fact,
such buyers are likely to request a custom paint scheme to
match an already owned car or truck, or any of a number of
other frills that can run into lots of time and money on
your part . . . especially if you don’t have the skills and
shop equipment necessary to tackle tasks like welding and
automotive-type spray painting. Since I recondition
trailers primarily as a hobby, I pass up the hobby haulers
. . . but these individuals could represent a lucrative
market for anyone who can take the time to satisfy their
whims.

FINDING AND BUYING USED TRAILERS

Once you know your market, you can go about finding the raw
material . . . that is, trailers that can be readily put
into shape. I locate most of my fixer-uppers by prowling
the streets and alleys around town, and by keeping my eyes
open when driving along country roads. If I happen to spot
a likely candidate, I simply stop and ask whether the owner
is interested in selling. (Auctions make good hunting
grounds, too, and are also economical sources of the
materials — such as paint and plywood — that
you’ll need to prepare your wares for resale.)

When examining a prospect prior to making an offer on it,
be thorough. In order to be sure of a reasonable profit,
you must learn to shy away from old broken-down “dogs”
that’ll require too much labor to be worth your
while. (Just how much repair work is too much will, of
course, depend upon your talents and upon just how the
hobby and business aspects of your enterprise balance out.)
I make sure that any trailer I purchase has a good solid
floor that isn’t rusted or rotted through . . . sides that
can be easily strengthened if they aren’t sound already . .
. and bearings and axles that are in good working order.

Try to avoid “boxes” built on the converted back axles of
rear-wheel-drive cars or trucks, since the
differential-equipped units are heavier than the front
shafts are, and more likely to have gear or seal problems
as well. Furthermore, if your prospective purchase has
metal sides, they should be in fairly good repair, because
body work can be both expensive and time-consuming.

Don’t be ashamed to use a little “trader’s psychology” when
you’re negotiating a deal. Look skeptical, scratch your ear
dubiously, and mumble a bit under your breath. Maintain a
somber mien as you kick the tires, open and close the
tailgate, and pick up the tongue to evaluate the balance
and the hitch weight. Then, while you shake the trailer
from side to side to test it for spring strength and wheel
wobble (which could be a clue to bad bearings), it probably
won’t do any harm to grimace a little.

In short, you should try to put the seller on the defensive
without being too obnoxious . . . a talent that’s shared by
almost every trader worth his or her salt. When you’ve got
the owner almost to the point of apologizing for the
quality of the goods he or she is trying to fob off on you,
it’s time to make your offer.

And just how much should that initial bid be? Well, I find
that a good rule of thumb is to visualize the trailer all
fixed up and ready to sell, estimate your asking price, and
then deduct 75%. If the owner looks thunderstruck
and threatens to run you off the place, up your offer to
50% of your estimated selling price. Generally, if this
tactic isn’t successful, you’ll be better off looking
somewhere else. Of course, there are exceptions. When you
run across a real find — a goods hauler that’s slick
and clean and pretty nearly ready to sell as is — you
can settle for a smaller profit margin because you’ll have
to invest less time and material than usual in readying the
trailer for sale.

RECONDITIONING SMALL TRAILERS

I never (well, maybe once in a while, as a last resort) buy
anything new to use in remodeling a secondhand
hauler: After all, that’d cut into my profit. Instead, I
improvise. For instance, despite the present state of the
economy, there seems to be a construction boom in our area,
so I haunt building sites and scrounge lumber from their
trash piles. I also make regular checks of the local dump
to look for salvageable materials there. [EDITOR’S NOTE: In
many places it’s against the law to take anything from a
public dump. Check your local ordinances before trying to
do so. It’s also a good idea to ask before hauling anything
away from a construction site, regardless of how
“discarded” the material may appear to be.]
 

I dearly love to attend garage sales and auctions, and
they’re prime places to stock up on reconditioning goods. I
shop for hubcaps, wheel covers, taillights, wood, tires,
rims, and paint . . . while always keeping one eye open for
likely trailers.

When it comes to maintaining a good supply of tires,
though, my best source is the owner of a local gasoline
station. Whenever he gets a decent 15 inch or 16 inch trade-in, he
puts it aside for me . . . and I pay him $2.00 to $5.00
apiece. The used rubber replaces the threadbare or
completely treadless tires that are generally to be found
on the vehicles I buy to recondition.

Once a to-be-refurbished trailer is in your shop, the
creative part of this business can begin. Always work with
the buyer in mind . . . letting your own critical eye
function as the customer’s representative. Hauling capacity
and mechanical condition are important, but I find that
“eyewash” — or appearance — is the factor that
sells two-wheelers to most people. If your for-sale cargo
hauler looks good, the money is halfway into your
pocket. So keep asking yourself that all-important
question, “If I were shopping for a trailer, would I buy
this one?”

Start the spruce-up job with a general cleaning . . . to
remove old paint, grease, dirt, and trash. (I’ve found that
a small air compressor with a hose and nozzle is a great
labor-saver, since it allows me to blow-clean the vehicle
before washing it.)

Next, make any wood or metal repairs that are necessary,
then patch the floors and fix any deep flaws with a
commercial filler such as Durham’s Rock Hard Water Putty.
(This product can be purchased at most lumberyards and
hardware stores. It’s easy to work with, and as tough as
bullhide when it dries . . . but it won’t flex, so
don’t use it on areas that will have a lot of play.) If
you’re handy at sheet metal work, you can now hammer out,
fill in, and otherwise fix up any damaged metal body parts.

Then comes the painting . . . which is perhaps the single
most important part of your effort. I coat the wheels,
hitches, tongue, and undercarriage with the least expensive
spray enamel I can find . . . but I always dress up the
body — whether it’s wood or metal — with
exterior latex house paint. Two brushed-on coats of latex
covering will have most trailers looking sharp, and I make
it a point to paint the trim a second color . . . because
doing so adds eye appeal and increases the cart’s value to
most customers. If the floor of the two-wheeler is beat up
or badly stained, I cover it with a dark shade, usually
brown or flat black.

After painting, I tackle the finishing touches that take
little time or money but dramatically boost a trailer’s
appeal. Tail-lights (don’t wire them up, because you don’t
know what kind of wiring rig the buyer will have), chrome
wheel covers or hubcaps, and reflector lights on the
tailgate may enable you to tack an extra $10 to $25 onto
your selling price . . . and will do so at minimal cost if
you’ve had success as a salvager.

MAKING THE SALE

It often pays to advertise, but I try to keep my publicity
costs to a minimum. In fact, I spread the word for free
whenever possible . . . by simply placing descriptive ads
on bulletin boards at the college and in laundromats, farm
and garden supply stores, and supermarkets . . . by using
the local radio station’s “swap and shop” program . . . and
by putting my trailers on display at a busy corner service
station. Classified ads in local shopping guides and daily
newspapers can also provide good exposure for my
merchandise.

I don’t usually have to wait very long to sell my finished
products, either . . . there seem to be plenty of people
around who can use a trailer, and seeing or reading about
one of my fixed-up cargo haulers is frequently enough to
make them pull out their wallets. In fact, the only thing I
really have to worry about, as I show each customer my
reconditioned wares, is trying to spot the particular brand
of trader’s psychology that the buyer is using on me!

Icon Photo by Danilo Cestonato on Unsplash