I'm pleased to announce a new feature for the blog: Real People Success Stories. These are real people who have achieved financial success on average incomes. You will not find in this Series are IT professionals, Engineers, Lawyers, and Physicians making six-figure salaries. You won't find bloggers or people trying to sell eCourses or books; these are real blue-collar people.
The format is simple: I invite them to my office and turn on the recorder. The only editing is to clean up punctuation and protect the identities of the innocent.
Kicking off the Series is Norm, who's been successfully flipping cars and items and since before flipping was cool. (Like, 1958) Norm breaks down, making money flipping items, the best things to sell on eBay for Profit, and how he got started flipping cars.
My questions are in bold, and Norm's answers are below.
How To Make Money Flipping Items
So, let's get started. How did you get started in flipping?
I started flipping back when I was a teenager. I grew up in a very low-income family. I had no money. There were no clothes, no food, and I had to fight for myself so that I would go to the junkyard. I'd buy a bunch [of] bicycle parts, put them together, go up and buy some paint, paint them, and put them out in front of the house for sale.
That led to a bicycle repair shop. All the ladies would say, “Hey, Johnny's bike is broke. Can you fix it, Norm?” Well, that turned into the father bringing stuff. Getting back to the flipping. When I was at the junkyard, the man said: “Would you like to work for me on Saturday afternoon for $5, and you can have lunch.” Sure!
What I would do, I'd get those tires out of the cars and mark them for sale, and the batteries I'd clean them and put them for sale. Then it turned out where I didn't have to spend any money on any of the bicycle parts at the junkyard. I got them all free, and that's what that job led up to. So, I would have anywhere from 10 to 12 bicycles in front of the house for sale. That's how I got through school through the bait, the bicycles, the paper routes.
Norm on Flipping Cars
How did you get started flipping cars?
So then I am 14 years old now, and my next-door neighbor passed away. She came home and said, “Normie, you want to buy Pa's car?” Sure! I'm already driving at 14 years old, a different car. So I went over, gave her the $25 for it, brought it right back over next door, got a hose, and scrubbed it. It was a 49 Ford Club Coupe with all goodies. Pa really liked to fancy the things up. He had those fender skirts and everything. I'm washing it. I'm up on a stepladder.
A guy pulls up, and he says, “Hey son, you want to sell that car?”
And I never turned around. “You ain't got enough money, mister.”
My mother had me sitting on the porch. She says, “You don't treat people that way.”
I said, “He will back tonight when the car is all cleaned and polished.”
The next day at 06:30 a.m., he pulls up. He says, “I think I got enough money now,” and I say, “Well, now we can talk.”
So he came over and looked at it. I said, “Take it for a drive.” He came back, and he says, “How much you want?” I said, “$1900.”
“Well, I can't do that. I can do $1400.”
I said, “You know what? I think we're wasting our time because if you can do 14, you can 17. So I'll meet you halfway.”
He says, “That's not quite halfway.”
“To me, it is.”
He bought it.
Okay. And a little bit of context. When was that?
That was in June, and that would have been 19'… '58 or '59.
So, that led to “Hey, there's money in cars. I would go through town looking for cars for sale; I'd buy them, bring them back, clean them, clean the inside, put a For Sale sign out. That was big money compared to fixing bicycles.
At the time, how many cars do you think you flip through a year?
Before I graduated from high school, I sold over a hundred.
From 14 years old, I was a hustler, and that turned into parts. Box scrap, fender skirts, Teardrop, or the spotlights put on cars, the metal visors over that cars. Then I got to installing them. So then, I branched out, and people would have me detail their vehicles.
So now I graduate from high school, and I joined the Ingersoll Rand, and I worked third shift, and during the day, the ladies across the street from my house would park their car there, and they would make appointments with me to detail their vehicles, change the oil, spark plugs, whatever. So that turned into recognition by these people that: ‘hey, I got a car for sale or I got a car that needs work, give it to Norm.'
As of today's date or a week ago, I had bought and sold, and this is the gospel, over one thousand vehicles, or it includes motorcycles, trucks, cars. So then that led to a lawyer calling me and asking me if I wanted to do some work for him. I said, sure. I did carpentry and everything.
I picked it all up on the side. So I started taking care of those places, and then he says how about doing this (appraising) for me, and I did, and I learned how to appraise, and I started buying estates. If I had known buying and flipping estates were so lucrative, I would not have put 48 years on Ingersol Rand.
But the thing about all this is you've got to believe in yourself. You've got to believe in taking chances. You can't be a little wimp.
The way I look at operating, you take a pie, and you put it down, and you buy a 49 Ford Convertible, and you make a little wedge in there. How many people out of 100 people in that pie would be interested in the product I have for sale? And that is what makes you successful because if you go around the area and look, Broncos. I mean, the Broncos are really popular. Why aren't they on the lots? It's because people are buying them. So, I started buying Broncos and blazers, and they went like hotcakes.
Then when the Mustangs came out, 64, 65, 66 were very hot. When 67, 68 rolled around, I went around the whole countryside and bought 64, 65, 66, 67, 68 Mustang fastbacks.
Now so this would have been before the internet?
So before the internet, how did you find items to buy and resell or cars to flip?
It was all by word of mouth going down to Hershey, going down to Carlisle, going to New York, Pennsylvania, and going to Elizabethtown in Virginia. New Jersey.
For those people who don't know, those are big car shows.
Yes. These are major car shows where people come from all over the United States. As the years progressed, when the internet came into being, everybody said, “Norm, why are you traveling? You can find it on the internet.”
So, I started looking on the internet. The internet now has opened up the world to anybody and for anything. You do not have to go to the local Joe shop and wait for this. You get on the internet, buy it now, free shipping, then you have it the next day. And I just did it the other day.
That's cool. Do you think the internet has made it easier, made it harder? A little of both?
They've made it much easier.
What about the prices? Do you think the internet has driven up prices, driven them down?
I have driven them down because I was just down Carlisle a few weeks ago. Carlisle used to be where you could not go in on the ground for parking. You had to park blocks away because everybody all over the United States and even abroad came for parts.
Now, with the internet, you can get your '56 Chevy fender; you can get whatever. You do not have to go to these places. I compared the prices down there. I was just looking at some '55 Chevy stuff 'cause I just got a whole barn full of Chevys, and I can get them off the internet faster, cheaper, and they're shipped to my door. I don't have to spend the time and the energy to go out there.
So, when you're buying items off eBay or Craigslist, you are then selling them locally for higher prices?
Okay. How do you find the people locally?
Everybody knows me.
That's all these years of doing business. Everybody in this area knows me—everybody from Syracuse. I just got a call three days ago from Syracuse “Norm; I need some '66 Mustang spinner hubcaps” 'cause I got them.
If someone was just starting or just trying to do this as a side business, what would you recommend they do?
I guess knowing your public. If you're after car parts, get to be friends with people in the car clubs, car cruises. Get talking with them, find out their ways of doing things, what they're looking for, and how they get it. Books. They'll tell you whether the carpenter has all these stuff for Fords and da da da da.
Once you get involved, and the people say, “Hey Norm, do you have…? Do you have…? Do you have…?” All my neighbors rely on me for—it is amazing. “Norm, I need this.” I have people giving me orders. I just bought a Tiffany lamp on Friday night. She had no idea how much I paid for it. I delivered it to her house yesterday afternoon in the rain, came out, fell in love with it. She says, “Bring it in, bring it in, bring it in. How much do I owe you?” That's what a reputation does for your profitability. It just opens the door. You got to be fair, but the profitability is there.
It's amazing. I can just put a search on and find what I'm looking for. The thing about the internet opens up the whole United States and abroad for what you're looking for. It's at your fingertips. You've just got to decide where you want to specialize in, but most of all, you've got to believe in yourself, and you've got to believe in your product.
You've got to believe that you are going to sell this. You can't panic 'cause you had it a week and gave it away for 50% less than you just paid for. You just can't do it. You've got to have the money upfront, and you've got to be able to stockpile stuff. And Craigslist. List it. It cost you absolutely nothing. You just bought it off e-Bay, and you put it on Craigslist for nothing.
What percentage do you think you sell online and compared to what percentage you sell locally?
Twenty percent local.
You talk about flipping cars a lot, but what are some of the easiest things to flip for Profit?
Machinery, fire machinery, lawnmowers. I buy riding mowers and push mowers all winter long. I'd work on them. In the spring, my yard has got a line of lawnmowers. Bang! Gone. Log Splitters.
Anything that the normal guys were to use. If you're in an area where generators are needed, you go to an area where they're not needed, and people have bought them. I just… Three weeks ago, I bought one that the lady bought over here at Lowe's. They were panicked because we were getting storms. She paid $838 for it. Do you know what I bought it for?
It had never been run, $200.
I put it on Craigslist for $500; it was gone in 20 minutes. There you go. And they come and pick it up, give me cash. Cash. Cash. I worked with as much cash as possible.
So what is the most fun thing you have ever flipped or the most exciting flip you have done?
I guess a… The most exciting? Okay. It was an auction that I went to, and the snow was blowing, and there were 2 feet of snow on the ground, and the old auctioneer said
“I'm going to sell this stuff as quickly as possible, so don't be afraid to put your hand up and yell.” So, the people were leaving. I mean, it was just blowing sideways, and the next thing you know, he says:-
“Contents of the barn!”
I go, “Five bucks!”
“You got it.”
I couldn't get into the barn for a month. So my son and I and two of his sons went up. We took my truck. The most exciting thing I got out of that barn was a milk can full of cash.
I still have it
How much cash was in the milk can?
I don't know yet.
You don't know yet? You still haven't..?
It took three of us. To lift it into the back of my truck. A milk can full of cash. It's an astonishing amount of money. Anyway, I still have it in one of my barns.
Have you looked at any of the money in there? Could it be a collectible?
Oh, without a doubt. I'm a coin collector also. I buy and sell coins. Like today, I found old silver dollars. How many there are, who knows? But that's going to be exciting. My grandson said he wants to help with it, so I'll set up tables out there, and we'll sort it out, and we'll see what we have. I have one house I got through a lawyer.
I bought the estate, and I have always been going up in the attic. Always. Always. Always. ‘Cause people years ago went through the Depression. They did not trust the banks. That's still true today. I would go through the attic and look for any loose board possible, especially by the chimney or over in the corner. I found jars and jars of coins and gold and rings and…
And I guess the most exciting flip I ever did was I bought a house and its contents for $132,000. That night, I had it sold to a neighbor for her daughter moving up to Florida for 178,000.
Already? One day?
That's minus all the jewelry, all the cash, all the stuff inside. Then she and her husband bought almost $8900 worth of furniture.
Wow. Did you know that they wanted to buy a house before you bought it?
No. No, no.
So you just bought the home, hoping that with the inventory and everything, it would work out?
Correct. That's exactly how I have done it. Yeah.
I have never had a house for more than three weeks after I bought the estate. I have been very fortunate because I know a lot of people. I always… If I met a group.
“Hey, do you know anybody that needs a house? Three-bedroom… dada da… You know, it's got this, this, this…” and the word spreads. I'll tell you one thing, word of mouth is the best advertiser you can do.
You can put $100 worth of ads on the paper and maybe one or two responses, but word of mouth is worth its weight in gold, and I have capitalized on this for years, and I'm not afraid of giving up a nice bird dog fee.
How does the bird dog fee work?
I always tell everybody. You can help me make a sale. I will give you a hundred bucks. You know what? There's a lot of people. That 100-dollar bill means a lot.
So how many people have bird-dogged for you, and you've paid like that?
I mean, I'm talking all over. I could go and talk to a friend of mine next town over. He tells his family. His family—it's just like if you sell a car, and the battery goes down in two weeks, and the customer calls you up “The battery went dead.” What's your instant response? “No problem. I'll give you a new battery.”
Do you know what they've just done? Increased your potential customers. If you didn't, where are your potential customers? They're gone. They're not there. Complaining, you know, he didn't even want to replace the battery.
Believe me, being honest as much as you can be with the public is worth its weight in gold.
More so than the cost of the battery.
Correct. Absolutely right. So, we paid $100 for it, or what it's worth back then $70, $80, $100 for a good battery but the next thing you know, their daughter is coming by and all, and the next thing you know, someone is calling me.
Yesterday I got a call “Norm, my dad passed away…” 2005 Lincoln Continental town car. They bought a new one. “It probably has 80,000 miles, and we need to get rid of it.” I said, “Nine hundred bucks, is that okay?” Just like that. Nine hundred bucks.
That's a good deal.
And I've already got it sold.
Really? For how much?
I'm not going to tell.
(Laughs) You're not going to tell? Okay.
It's gonna be cash.
So what's the one thing that you will buy every single one of?
Coins. Cars, trucks, boats. Four-wheelers. Motorcycles. Every one of those. I go through them like… And you always want to buy offseason that way; you don't pay the big bucks.
Is there anything you won't buy that you've maybe gotten burnt by that you won't ever mess with again?
Oh yeah. Buying a huge refrigerator for an 85-year-old lady.
‘Cause she tells you it works perfect (Chuckles), and it's not plugged in, and you get home… It's wiped out, and you go back, and you say, “You know what? 85 years old, so she got me.” So I just came back home. But I am a person that trusts everybody.
Until you show me that I shouldn't trust you, you have got my trust. In other words, what you're telling me, I believe because I want you to believe or anyone else what I'm telling you is the truth.
Now, I've just gotten into buying mineral rights. This is escalating. One neighbor told the other neighbor. Now, believe it or not, I swapped a Buick car, a barbeque, and a riding mower for 3.2 acres of mineral rights that are paying actively $3,000 a year. That's what I just swapped.
I bought the car for a thousand bucks—the barbeque for nothing. I could pull that up along the road. The lawnmower I bought at auction for 300 bucks. So, what do I have in the investment?
And I have already—this had just transpired. Three weeks ago, I already got three checks for $500. Already.
I guess my thought on this is don't be a sissy; get out there and do it. If you're going to do it, you want to make some extra money; the internet is the way to go. I mean, it's open and gets savvy with the internet.
How much of this stuff do you end up keeping?
Very low. Because I think of the auction, so, after doing it for just so long, I'll bundle it up and make someone a deal. Like, I'll go down the livestock place. These guys have set up all the time.
I'll say, come out and look at everything in the truck, make me a bid on it, then it's gone. Of course, I don't have a penny in it, so whatever I make on it is another clear profit, and it opens the garage space for something else.
Is there anything that you have passed up on buying that you turned around and later said, you know, “I wish I would have…”?
Oh, without a doubt. Without a doubt.
In an auction, a barnful of brand new those steam water things going from under the house for your…?
Yes. A barnful of them for five bucks.
Five bucks. I left there. I mean, I am always, always failing to buy something in an auction, and when I walk away, I'm sorry that I didn't buy it. It's… You're always going to do it no matter what. I did it Friday night, a boxful of baseball cards. This came out of the lady's estate.
They were in a drawer where there was no moisture, no condensation, no nothing, no sunlight. And these were all from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. No one researched them. I did a little bit. That whole box sold for 30 bucks. There had been a thousand cards in them. One Mickey Mantle lucky card is worth 500 bucks. And when I let it go, I thought, ‘What was that? That was a mistake.' But yeah, I do it all the time.
Was there anything that you bought that you couldn't sell, or you ended up getting burned on other than the refrigerator?
Yes. Back years ago, buying cars, you had to be pretty good. You had to drive it, and you had to listen. Years ago, when rear ends were getting worse or the trannies were getting bad, the guys would stuff sawdust in to quiet the gear. So, if it didn't get driven a lot when you bought it, you weren't going to hear, but when you sold it, it became very predominant. You could hear the sound.
I bought a '55 Ford Victoria. It was a sweetheart from Texas. A guy says I just drove it from Texas. There's not a thing wrong with it, 272 v8… So I bought it, and I paid more money than I really wanted to. So I cleaned it all up, bucked it all out, put it up for sale, made close to $2,000 on it.
A guy bought it for his son and came back two days later. He says, “The rear end is bad, and I want my money back.” I said, “I'm not going to give you your money back, but I will fix the rear end.” So I called a repair shop and “got a rear end?” I had to pay to have it put in 'cause I didn't have the time. My golly if that thing wasn't stuffed with (Chortles)…
…sawdust. And I had to go and get another rear end, but it turned out okay at the end.
And the customer was happy ultimately?
Yes, yes. I kept right after it. And he says, “Well, you just invested about $400,” and I was just “I've got to stick with you. You are working with us.” I just “I did not know it,” I said. There was a story that was given to me. The car did come from Texas, he did bring it from Texas, but he brought it up on a trail I had later found out. So yeah, I bought another car, and the motor let loose, bringing it home.
Down at Raleigh, Pennsylvania. I blew right up! Straight out on, and the piston came right through the block. There I was, stranded. So yeah, there have been a few. You're always going to have lumps.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to get started flipping?
Well, I guess I would research what it's had on the market. One of the items that you don't want to get into now is glass. Five years ago, glass that was selling for $250 can buy 10 of them for $5 now. Glass is on the way out. Antique furniture on the way out for even as gorgeous as it is, today is a throwaway society that wants to go to Walmart and buy a put-together piece of crap that's made of glue and particleboard.
I would look at four-wheelers, motorcycles, trucks. Something that someone always needs. Stay away from small appliances. Cars, trucks, motorcycles, boats, but you've really got to know what you're doing there. Fishing equipment, old wooden plugs. Something collectible. Research on the internet and look at what is being sold.
All the mechanical toys they have not dropped a price. I just sold them the other day for 1800 bucks. I've had that—now that I've had it for 20 years, and a guy mentioned at makes auctions… He says, “Norm, do you know—?”
Well, old mechanical toys. Stay away from mechanical brakes simply because they have been reproduced to the point where unless you know where you're looking at, don't buy it. Do your research. When you're buying something, find out who manufactured it and determine if it's authentic right to the screws.
One thing that people—I watched a guy in an auction the other night. Boy, he had his card up. He wanted that mechanical bank, and I thought (I looked at it over), ‘that's a reproduction,' and the key to it was it had a Philips head screw in and opposed to the old steel bolt, one slope. The steel bolt and one slot…
Okay? Yeah. So you have to do your homework?
Any other questions? Anything I should ask that I'm not asking?
No, I think you're pretty well covered. Just remember you've got to be confident in yourself. If you're not, you're not going to be successful. You can't give up on the first months of not making any money. It takes time. It takes time to get a clientele. Like I said, word of mouth spreads like wildfire, and look for estates.
Go and look at the stuff. Get to an auction early. Listen to someone that's standing there with that item in their hand. Watch the people, watch the dealers, and watch what they bid. If a dealer is bidding $100 on this item, guess what? If you can pick it up for 110, 115 bucks, you're gonna make yourself a 50-dollar bill. So, always watch what other people are doing. You can learn from them.
And that's how I've done it. I watch it all the time. I listen to them. I buck right up next to them. I'll throw a question on them. “What do you think?”
“Yup, yup, yeah. This is real.”
“How do you know you that's real?”
“Most of the time, I know, but I look at the enameled paint that's on the old stuff, I look at the stenciling. Child's rockers, old ones. Child's cribs. They always do well even though they're antique.
And stuff like that so. I guess if you're thinking about buying something, getting into something like that, get on the internet and see what it is selling for. Read the write up from the seller and look at his stars.
See how he's been received by his selling public, the public that he sold to, and there's a guy that you might be able just to call and ask a question too. Get on a forum. Put the question out there.
Best Items to Flip for a Profit
What are the best items to flip?
Another good thing is the crocks. The old crocks?
With its stenciling. The old cracks with its stenciling, the pickled crocks. They have not lost their value. Get them with the stenciling. Get them from the local if you can.
If you're in a local area and dairy years ago, dairy bottles with the town on it. Can you pick them up for a little bit of nothing? You can always sell them for about 10, 12 bucks apiece. You get them for a buck. You buy a whole box of them, and you just made yourself a 100-dollar bill. Some people still collect milk bottles.
Best Things To Sell on eBay for Profit.
What are the best items to pick up locally to sell on eBay for a Profit?
Early Coke, early Pepsi, there's so much of it. That's another thing to look at. When you're buying something, look and see how much of it is available. In other words, are you cornering the market, or are you just jumping in? There are one hundred other people that got them for sale. Look for it… I'm just searching for a word. Look for something unique to the market.
Tiffany. Good old' Tiffany lamps. Good old' railroad. If you are near a railroad town, try to get some railroad in China. Railroad China is hot all over the world. Railroad lanterns. Railroad memorabilia. Pictures.
There is another thing. If you go to an auction and there are photo albums of old cars. Say a family and they went up through the years, and they bought those cars… If you find an album with many old cars and buy it for nothing, buy it because people buy just the pictures of old cars. There are very avid collectors out there. Postcards! Local postcards of your town.
Yeah, that's very cool.
Well, that's my advice. Look and see how much of that product is out on the market because if there is every Tom, Dick, and Harry is selling it, there is no sense in you having one for sale because you're going to have to give it away. Look for something unique—my advice.
Thank you very much. That was great advice.
You're welcome, Michael.
Michael launched Wealth of Geeks to make personal finance fun. He has worked in personal finance for over 20 years, helping families reduce taxes, increase their income, and save for retirement. Michael is passionate about personal finance, side hustles, and all things geeky.