One of the biggest stories of 2021 is the disappearing worker. As the economy has been returning to normal in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of workers are not heading back to their jobs. There’s much confusion about exactly where people are going, and how they’re making a living. It’s believed many are finding some alternative way to survive.
This is a story about one couple who ditched their regular jobs, long before the pandemic became a front-page story. They’ve turned to a life and occupation of flea market flipping. It’s possible at least some of those disappearing workers are doing something similar.
You’ve probably heard that saying, “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure”. But sometimes there’s a lot of treasure in another man’s junk – like six figures worth. And for some, that junk can even turn into a career.
Meet Rob and Melissa Stephenson, professional flea market flippers and hosts of the website The Flea Market Flipper. They’ve not only turned flea market flipping into an occupation, but it’s also given them freedom to build an exciting lifestyle – one that’s free from the constraints of a 9-to-5 job.
They also think anyone can do what they’re doing. In fact, the purpose of their website is to teach others how to do just that.
What is Flea Market Flipping?
The basic idea is to buy merchandise on the cheap, then sell it at a higher price to someone else. And while buying merchandise at flea markets is the classic method, it’s certainly not the only way. Sellable items can be found at garage sales, thrift stores, and even through online sources, like Facebook Market and Craigslist.
Once purchased, the merchandise can be sold in the same place where you bought it, or through a different venue.
Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding bargains someone is trying to get rid of, then selling it at a higher price to someone else who is anxious to buy that exact item. Other times, you might buy an item that needs some elbow grease. By cleaning it up and making minor repairs, it can sometimes be sold for several times the price you paid for it.
Why Flea Market Flipping?
I’ve made it a part of my career to learn about new and exciting ways to make money. But I’m also always interested to know why people choose the money making ventures they do.
“The thrill of the hunt!” was Rob’s response. “There is nothing like waking up every day knowing that there is treasure to be found everywhere! What would you do if you could make Christmas morning happen every day? That’s what it feels like to me.”
That was the immediate response, but there’s a lot more.
By having complete control over their schedules, given that flea market flipping is completely flexible, the Stephenson’s are able to seamlessly blend their personal lives with their business.
According to Rob, “Having our own schedule is so important to us.”
They start the day by dropping off the kids at school and then going for a run together in the morning. That gives them an opportunity to start the day together and talk about what they need to accomplish that day.
“Melissa used to have to get up early every morning to meet a personal training client at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning. She never slept well because she was worried about over-sleeping and it really took a toll on her health.
Now we can just wake up when the kids need to get off to school and it’s awesome.”
Including the Kids in the Business
Rob and Melissa are able to arrange their schedules to be at any events or games for their kids. “We want to be as present as possible because we know the years are short and our flipping business has allowed us to do that,” says Rob.
Being present with their kids has always been a priority for the couple. “We didn’t want to put them in daycare when they were little,” says Rob, “so instead we would sometimes work later nights and also include them in a lot of our day as well.”
The Stephenson’s children have all been going to the local flea market with their parents since they were babies, carried in a backpack or pushed in a stroller. Meanwhile, many aspects of flea market flipping, like taking pictures, listing, and shipping can all be done from home. That meant Rob was able to be home to help Melissa with the kids when she needed it.
That kind of work/life balance is missing with a lot of careers these days, but Rob and Melissa have found it with flea market flipping.
Combining Business and Pleasure
One of the advantages of flea market flipping is that it can be done just about anywhere, even on the fly.
The Stephenson’s recently went on a five-week trek around the United States. They traveled from Florida to California to Washington to Michigan and back home – and made money on the way. How many careers do you know that let you do that?
The goal was to visit National parks, find items, and resell them along the way.
According to Rob: “We filled up our trailer along the way with over $16,150 in inventory (in 14 items) that we picked up for $870!”
And while they were gone for those five weeks, they sold 4 items on eBay for a total of $24,340!
Are you starting to get excited?
“We had our store set so the buyers knew the items weren’t getting shipped until we got back. One item we actually picked from the road for $35 (it was a wallpaper steamer), listed and it sold that day for $750.”
Rob and Melissa and their kids drove 11,000 miles, saw 10 national parks, visited friends and family along the way – and found some great items to resell.
“The best part was we didn’t have to ask anyone to take the time off. We just made a plan and made it happen,” Rob told me. “How would we have been able to do that with a “real job”?”.
What Does it Take to Be a Flea Market Flipper?
I’m always interested to know what people did before they hit pay dirt, and what motivated them to take on an unusual venture as a way to make money. Rob and Melissa’s story is like so many I’ve heard over the years.
Melissa was a horse rider performer in a dinner show in Orlando when they met, and then personal trainer for 10 years before she decided to stay home with the couple’s kids.
According to Rob, he’s never been a “good employee”. He held several jobs earlier in life, the longest being home inspections for an insurance company.
The benefit with that job was the flexibility in his schedule. Since he could do a bunch of inspections in two or three days, he had plenty of time for his flipping gig on the side.
Flea Market Flipping was Something of a Family Business
The home inspection job isn’t where Rob’s flea market flipping career began. I guess you could say he was kind of born into it.
“I’ve actually been flipping items since I was 16,” says Rob. “My parents had seven kids (I’m the youngest and the only boy), so they were always shopping at thrift stores and yard sales to provide for us. They started buying some things at yard sales and would resell them in the classifieds to make a little extra money.”
At 16, Rob had his eyes on a mustang convertible, so he started flipping NordicTrack ski machines with his sister.
People would move down to Florida from up north and no longer use the machines since they could exercise outside more. Rob would buy them for $5 to $20 and sell them on eBay for $200 to $900, depending on the model. “I even had one sell for $1,700 one time!” he reports.
Melissa married into it and the couple always used flipping as a source of extra money. It was money for vacations, unexpected bills, Christmas gifts, and other expenses.
Making the Dreaded Leap of Faith
When their third baby was born, the Stephenson’s decided it would be best for Melissa to stay home with the kids. There were three, all ages three and under. Rob would fill in any financial gaps by flipping more items, all while he was working at the home inspection job.
What happened next was a situation I’ve seen with many side hustles. It’s how they convert from part-time gigs to full-time ventures.
“One month before the baby was born my supervisor told me they were cutting health benefits for employees and we were now contractors,” Rob recounts. “Benefits ended March 31st and our baby was due April 1st. You can imagine that Melissa was more than a little stressed.”
The Stephenson’s had a choice to make. Would Rob go find another job, or should the couple dive into this flipping thing full-time?
Flipping won out.
That was 2016, when the couple had their high-water mark of $133,000 in sales. What started out as a potential disaster – a loss of health insurance benefits before the arrival of the baby – provided the motivation for the Stephenson’s to make flea market flipping their full-time occupations.
And in an example of how things have a way of just working out, the baby was born on March 23, which meant the family was covered under the company health insurance plan for the birth.
How to Be Successful as a Flea Market Flipper
Once again, Rob recommends starting by selling items from your own home that you no longer need. He recommends taking an inventory of your closets, under your bed, the garage, the basement, and elsewhere. If you find anything that you haven’t used in at least a year, you probably don’t need it. If it’s in reasonably good condition, and is fairly good quality, you should be able to sell it for a decent amount of money.
“If you paid a lot of money for an item,” Rob advises, “chances are you can make around 50% of retail on eBay, and 10-30% on local selling apps.”
He recommends anything brand name in clothes, electronics, appliances, and similar merchandise. Each will always bring in more money than the lesser brands. You should start with 10 to 20 items you find in your home.
“Look them up on eBay to find what they could be worth now,” he recommends. “Don’t just look at what items are selling for either. Filter your search to items that have sold so you’ll have a better idea of what you can ask.”
If the range of an item is $20 to $50, you should be at the lower end of the range since you’re a beginner. But as you grow your feedback you can be on the higher end of that range, as long as your item is in good condition compared to the others.
Once you’ve pulled out your items, clean them, take pictures, and list them.
Where to Sell Your Stuff
The Stephenson’s preferred platform is eBay. It has 187 million active registered users. By comparison, Poshmark has 7.7 million and Mercari has 19 million. “Both of those selling apps can be good to cross post on too” reports Rob, “but eBay has been our bread and butter. Of course, if someone really likes the clothing niche, Poshmark is worth looking into.”
Cross posting is something Rob recommends to speed up sales. “Don’t get overwhelmed with learning a ton of apps,” he cautions, “but they are all similar and you may find one or two that work best for you.”
Rob and Melissa typically cross post on eBay and Facebook Marketplace. But he cautions that organic reach on Facebook Marketplace has dropped dramatically because they want people to ship items through them as well.
Rob and Melissa can even help you to make your first sales. On their website, The Flea Market Flipper, they offer one free download of 47 household items to resell to make your first $100.
Flea Market Flipping Obstacles to Be Ready For
Like all business ventures, flea market flipping isn’t without a few hurdles. First and foremost, Rob warns to expect a learning curve. Though the business is pretty simple to figure out, it does require practice to get it right. That’s why it’s important to start now and to start small, selling what you already have.
Other obstacles: “There will be times in the business where you’ll get returned items, or you’ll underestimate shipping costs, overpay on an item, or send an item to the wrong customer,” Rob warns. “Any of those problems can surface, even when you’ve been doing it for a while. But they are more common when you’re just starting out.”
You might also expect some pushback from family and friends. After all, flea market flipping isn’t exactly what most people think of as any kind of stable career.
“As far as our friends go,” Rob recounts, “I think most of them wrote us off as dreamers early on – thinking it’s not a real source of income. But now I think our friends think it’s a pretty fun gig – and some of them have even started flipping things on the side!”
Are You Ready to Become a Flea Market Flipper?
The whole point of interviewing and writing about entrepreneurs like Rob and Melissa Stephenson is to show you how ordinary people are breaking out of the 9-to-5 straitjacket of the job market, and creating a new way to earn a living, one that blends better with your personal life. That may be more important than ever on the heels of the Covid Pandemic.
Flea market flipping has the benefit of being the type of venture you can start as a side hustle. You can use it just to make extra money to pay for what your regular income doesn’t cover.
But if you find it’s working well for you, and you can see the potential to ramp it up, it just might be your ticket out of your office, cubicle or shop, and into the life of your dreams.
Editor’s note: The content of this post was originally published on Forbes. It was written by Jeff Rose on Nov 2, 2021 with the same title.