How to Make Money Like the Guys on "American Pickers"

Photo: TomPurves

"American Pickers" is one of the most popular shows on cable TV. But how do Mike and Frank make picking look so easy and the picking life so darn sexy? After 22 years of picking barn sales, thrift stores, rural auctions, and alleyways, I’ve learned there are a few key rules of the road that all pickers follow. If you’d like to venture down a country road and do a bit of freestylin’ yourself, here’s how to make sure you come away with a pocket full of profit. (See also: Simple-Living Lessons I Learned From "Hoarders")

1. Know How to Move Your Inventory

Even before you begin buying, you have to be fairly sure you can sell your items at a decent profit. It helps to have a working knowledge of how to sell online and/or a network of active antique dealers, collectors, or interior decorators. Knowing there’s a group of willing buyers can help inform your purchases and give you confidence about what to buy and how much to pay.

2. Do Your Research

For pickers, luck accounts for about 20% of our success. The other 80% comes from diligent, never-ending research. Knowing what to buy, what to pay for it, and understanding the cycles of the collectibles and antiques market is absolutely essential. Researching sites like eBay is a quick and relatively painless way to get started. Searching by category and keyword and then refining your search by completed sales will give you a general idea of current market prices for particular items.

3. Generalize

As with most businesses, in picking it helps to have broad knowledge of many categories of collectibles and hot items. I’ve sold everything from vintage suits to mid-century furniture, from industrial tables to old Monopoly games. Generalizing will improve your chances of discovering a great piece in nearly any environment.

4. Get Dirty

Picking is hard, sometimes dangerous work. When you fully commit to hardcore picking, you need to channel your inner Indiana Jones. Get used to cobwebs, spiders, bad smells, sweat, and backaches. Just remember, sometimes the very best items are undiscovered because they’re hard to reach.

5. Know Your Minimum Profit Margin

Many times when picking, you’ll come across an undervalued item, but it doesn’t make sense to simply buy everything that’s undervalued. Smart pickers ignore the items that have too small a return. Decide the minimum profit you’re willing to make on any single item you buy. Is it $10? $15? $50? When you factor in your time spent picking, cleaning, photographing, listing, and shipping or delivery, making less than $10 per item might not be worth it.

6. Negotiate Like a Master

Shows like "American Pickers" and "Antiques Roadshow" have brought antiquing to the masses and helped a whole new generation appreciate and preserve items from our past. But the downside is that everyone now thinks they’ve got a basement full of priceless treasures. This makes the picker’s job a bit more challenging and makes some basic negotiation know-how more valuable than ever. Brush up on your haggling skills and don’t be afraid of a little friendly push back on prices.

7. Don’t Buy Emotionally

Falling in love with the items you pick is the quickest way to kiss your profits goodbye. Before you buy, make sure you’re calculating your potential profit objectively and afterwards, fight the urge to keep everything that appeals to you.

So if you’re ready to profit from picking, pack your work gloves, a flashlight, some hand-sanitizer, and cash. Hit the road and explore what’s selling at auctions, estate sales, and on the roadsides all across America. With a little luck and a lot of research, you can give Mike and Frank a run for their money. Happy picking!

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