In Silicon Valley, A Booming Trade in Used Goods

In Silicon Valley, A Booming Trade in Used Goods

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Ed. Note: Economic disparities in Silicon Valley are growing as tech companies continue to expand, driving up rents and housing costs while leaving behind large swaths of the community. But tech isn’t the only game in town, writes San Jose native Fernando Perez. In the wake of the recession, a growing number of residents have found a lucrative business in the buying and selling of goods found at neighborhood garage sales and flea markets. And, writes Perez, competition for that “mega find” is heating up.

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure – and for some of us in Silicon Valley, it’s an entire economy. I’ve been working the garage sale, flea market, Craigslist circuit for years, and as unemployment checks run out and jobs continue to run scarce, I’ve seen a major increase in what I call “second-hand hustlers.”

Families now are organizing yard sales year round, not just on the weekend anymore to make extra cash. That’s where we come in – to get that stuff, and sell it elsewhere. You can spot us at your local garage sale, estate sale, swap meet or flea market, hustling for those second hand goods so we can flip them online.

For over ten years I’ve been doing the rounds, searching for rare treasures to bring home, and I’ve never seen the competition so fierce. On the hustle trail, I run into more and more people who are now doing this as their full time job. For some people second hand hustling is the only job they have, and for others it has become a second or third source of income.

When a friend was laid off recently he started buying different electronic items at the local swap meet and yard sales. He’s been reselling them online and making a living for his family, sometimes bringing in over $500 dollars a weekend. He says when he works the swap meet through the week, he makes as much as when he held down a 9 to 5 job, and he isn’t too motivated to go back to the traditional workforce. In this gig he calls his own hours, spends more time with his kids, and has no boss to worry about.

The best second hand hustlers specialize: antiques, vintage items, electronics, construction tools, basically anything they know that can be sold quickly or is hard to find online. For those who want to start second hand hustling, always be sure to try and make at least three times what you paid for an item because every purchase is a gamble. The job comes with a lot of research and traveling. The difference between a pro and a rookie is in the preparation. First time buyers just go with their gut instincts to determine the value of an item, pros go with their smart phones and knowledge.

The best places to start second hand hustling is in the more affluent areas like the Evergreen, Los Gatos, Sunnyvale, Willow Glen or Santa Clara neighborhoods, mainly because they sell better items, and have wider streets with ample parking and bigger yards to browse in. Second hand hustlers are in such a rush driving around that they don’t even stop, they just pull up, browse from their cars and toss the items in the back.

After stopping at all the yard sales in the nice areas, we usually make our way towards the more populated areas on the other side of town, near the Capitol and Berryessa flea markets. It’s not as easy to find parking here, and it seems like everywhere you turn somebody is trying to make some money. Yard sale vendors in these neighborhoods use fence posts and tree branches to hang clothes on, and items are set out on tarps or blankets on front lawns or driveways.

But buyers aren’t the only ones looking to cash in. Vendors are catching on. A second hand hustler’s nightmare is stopping at a yard sale where all the items are priced too high. These kinds of bargain hunts are difficult because the vendors know exactly what their wares are worth. Just the other day while browsing around at a big yard sale, the vendor started announcing that all items bought in the next 15 minutes were 50 percent off. Immediately it created a skirmish among the crowd fighting to snatch up anything in site.

Eventually, my cousin sold the speakers for $30,000.

I haven’t made my mega-find yet. Til I do, you can find me, iPhone in hand, at your local sale, haggling with the best of them.

Silicon Valley DeBug is a multi-media platform covering San Jose and the South Bay communities and is a project of New America Media.