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Recycling, rebuilding old furniture as a DIY money-maker

By Gary Foreman

The New Frugal You
New Frugal You columnist Gary Foreman
Gary Foreman is a former financial planner who currently edits The Dollar Stretcher website and newsletters. He writes "New Frugal You," a weekly Q&A column about frugal living, for CreditCards.com

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear New Frugal You,
I'm good with my hands and could use a second source of income. All the time I'm seeing people leave nice to not-so-nice to wrecked pieces of furniture out on their curbs for the bulk trash pickup, or sometimes with a sign that says "free" on it. How much does it take to pick up and fix up this old junky furniture and how can I sell it once I fix it / make it? -- Blake

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Blake,
I like the way you think! Recycling furniture is the ultimate in frugal living. You're taking something that was headed for the landfill and giving it new life.

But, as you point out, it requires some effort and a few dollars to make it work. Let's see what it would take to get you a second income.

Your first task is to make sure you have the ability to transport a good piece that you've found. Do you have a large enough vehicle or trailer to bring it home? Borrowing your friend's pickup every time you want to go castoff hunting won't work.

And, once you've brought your find home, you'll need a space to do your repairs. It could be a garage or basement workshop or even a backyard shed. It should be space that's dedicated to this purpose since you'll be creating sawdust and fumes.

You'll need some tools, too, probably including a workbench or sawhorses to raise your item to a more workable height. Some hand tools and woodworking clamps will help, too.

If you've been doing repairs, there's a good chance that you have most of the tools you'll need. Watch Craigslist and estate and garage sales for any that you'd like to acquire.

Next you'll need supplies. You won't make much money if you have to go out to buy paint/stain for every project. Instead, build up a stock of mis-tinted paints. You'll also want to begin collecting various hardware, such as drawer pulls and hinges.

Assuming that you have the vehicle and place to work, none of the rest should be a deal breaker. There's a good chance that the only out-of-pocket expenses to start will be simple things such as nails, screws and paint brushes. You can build up your tools and the rest of your supplies over a number of months.

Now it's time to go shopping ... or rather, collecting castaways. The first thing you'll want to do is to check with your city or town and find out if there are any laws about picking up curbside items. It is illegal in some places. You wouldn't want to get picked up for picking up!

Assuming that it's legal, you'll want to plan your hunt. Often wealthier neighborhoods provide the best picking. No surprise there. But also watch for special situations, such as the end of semester near college campuses. Also, yard and estate sales at the very end of the sale or neighborhood bulk pickup days.

Next you'll need to evaluate the piece. Not every item, even if it's free, is worth your time and supplies. Avoid pressboard and other items that weren't that good even when they were new. Look for a piece that was well constructed and will provide a good base for your efforts.

Be on the lookout for supplies, too. The chest you found might not be worth repairing. But you could remove the unique drawer pulls for another project.

Before you bring it home, have an idea in your mind of what you'll do with the piece. You can use Pinterest and other home decor sites to stir your creativity. Some items you'll just want to repair and sell. Strip, paint or stain it and you have a restored piece ready for sale.

But, if a piece isn't a good candidate for refurbishing, consider repurposing it. Your goal isn't to restore its original beauty, but to create something new and unique. It represents an opportunity to let your imagination rule -- for instance, an old highchair might become a colorful entryway plant stand.

When you evaluate a piece, look closely at its condition. Some repairs are minor. But others require too much work and time. Don't even bring them home.

For those you do pick up, keep your eye on the clock. Don't allow yourself to spend too much time with any one item. Time is your most valuable commodity. Your goal is to turn items as quickly as possible. Getting stuck on unworthy pieces is a good way to go out of business.

Finally, it's time to cash in. Advertise the item on Craigslist or other free local sites. Price your item based on comparable items. Don't hang onto any item too long. If you can't sell it in a week or two, drop your price and try again. Your goal is to turn items quickly, not to build up a valuable inventory.

Since you have DIY skills, this project could be perfect for you -- a way to create a business for yourself without requiring a lot of cash to get started. I hope you'll have a lot of success and create some great nearly new furniture!

See related: Fixing up furniture the frugal way, How to sell used furniture

Meet CreditCards.com's reader Q&A experts
Vexed by a personal finance problem? CreditCards.com's Q&A experts answer questions from readers every weekday. Ask a question, or click on any expert to see their previous answers.
Gary Foreman, New Frugal You columnist Gary Foreman,
"New Frugal You"
Sally Herigstad, To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad,
"To Her Credit"
Tony Mecia, Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia,
"Cashing In"
Barry Paperno, Speaking of Credit columnist Barry Paperno,
"Speaking of Credit"
Elaine Pofeldt, Your Business Credit columnist Elaine Pofeldt,
"Your Business Credit"
Erica Sandberg, Opening Credits columnist Erica Sandberg,
"Opening Credits"

Published: October 5, 2013



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