Hawaii’s Buy and Sell Entrepreneurs
Meet the resourceful entrepreneurs who snap up other people’s castoffs, clean them and then resell to you and me
Cory Asuncion was born to sell. He jokes that he would have rented space in his mother’s womb if that had been possible. “I could sell oil back to the Saudis,” Asuncion says confidently, and with good reason. He’s had lots of practice.
“I’ve been selling things since I was 8 years old to make money and it has just sort of grown into a passion over the years,” the 42-year-old says.
Today, selling things is his livelihood, everything from selling the contents of abandoned storage units to flipping cars on Craigslist. Asuncion’s garage sales attract more than 200 buyers a day, which forces him to hire a valet to manage the traffic on his street.
He is part of a growing community of entrepreneurs who earn at least part of their income buying and selling new and used items for a profit, without operating a traditional store. For some, it’s a hobby or sideline; for others, it’s a fulltime obsession.
Asuncion says the tough economic times mean more people are looking for deals. With so many avenues to reach potential buyers online, Asuncion says, his cell phone rings nonstop.
“I love the sound of my ring tone,” he says. “I should just change it to ‘cha-ching!’ because, every time my phone rings, I know it’s another business opportunity.”
Everyone in the resale business has his or her own tactics, venues and methods for acquiring and hawking “new” inventory: antique shows, Craigslist, eBay, garage sales, swap meets, forfeited storage units, estate sales or even collecting junk off the side of the road – practically anything and anywhere is fair game. “It’s almost like a treasure hunt,” Asuncion says. “I still get a rush when I find something really good.”
His current interest is storage units whose owners have defaulted on their rent, with the contents auctioned to the public.
“We give the owners 90 days to pay the agreed-upon rent and we make every effort to keep the unit in their possession before we auction it,” says Kristi Hoohuli, manager of Hawaii Self Storage Kapolei and Kapolei West. The company is required by law to publish a public notice in the newspaper two weeks before the auction.
Asuncion says he goes to about a dozen auctions monthly; he doesn’t always win the bidding but rarely walks away empty handed.
“If I don’t see a unit that I want or someone outbids me, I don’t sweat it, because I always have a backup plan,” he says. Asuncion never leaves home without his business cards – and he’s got several for the different businesses he owns. “I give the winning bidders my card and tell them to call me if they need help moving the items in the locker,” he says. “For a fee, of course.” Or, if they plan to set up shop at the swap meet or have a garage sale and need a way to promote the sale, he also owns a sign company.
Hoohuli says Hawaii Self Storage gives the winning bidders three days to remove the unit’s contents. After that, owners can pay a day rate or the items will be discarded or donated to a local charity.
Unlike many other resellers, Asuncion says, when he bids on auctioned storage units, he isn’t necessarily looking for big-ticket items, such as electronics, rare artwork or antiques. “You have to do a lot of research when you try to sell those things and I don’t know much about that stuff, so I try to stay away from it,” he says. “Plus, everyday people aren’t looking for those things – they want bargains – so to have expensive, valuable things would mean I would have to spend more money for them, store them longer and that ties up my cash flow. I’m looking for things I can buy, shine up real quickly, turn around and sell tomorrow.”
Other collectors and dealers seek rare, often specific items that are worth more and, thus, usually take longer to sell. Dolly Domingo of Ohana Estate Sales says she has a customer database of more than 700 people who range from buyers of everyday items to those willing to spend thousands of dollars on rare finds. Estate sales commonly occur after a death, divorce or foreclosure, or when people downsize their homes. Domingo says Ohana Estate typically hosts one to two sales a month, with the most popular ones in Nuuanu or Hawaii Kai.
She says the biggest demand is for rare, antique Chinese furniture, nautical products, vintage and antique toys, musical instruments and koa furnishings.
Leroy Goo has been buying and selling items online for years, but purchased his first storage unit at an auction in June for $1,700 and entered a whole new world.
“It’s really easy to sell things on Craigslist,” Goo says. “All you do is put up some information and some photos and then your phone starts ringing. With storage units, you have to work a lot harder, but the payoff can be much bigger.”
Unlike Asuncion, Goo looks for storage units with big-ticket items.
Even though it takes more effort to sell a single big item, it’s still easier than selling 50 smaller things, he says. “But it’s always a gamble when you purchase a locker because even if you see 10 flat-screen TVs, they could all be broken, so there’s no guarantee that what you see is what you’ll actually get.”
Fortunately, Goo says, he was blessed with beginner’s luck. The first unit he ever purchased contained several pieces of solid-koa-wood furniture, including chairs and a dining table, two big armoires, nine sets of golf clubs, a crystal vase and several paintings. Goo says moving the items was challenging since he doesn’t own a truck, so he hired two men he found on Craigslist for $80. It took about one month to sell the unit’s contents, but he ended up making a $6,000 profit.
“It’s a challenge to try to find dealers who will buy the items, but I think once you know where to go and who will buy what, it gets easier,” Goo says.
Charles Yeehoy, owner of Alii Antiques in Kailua, says he no longer scours auctions and garage sales because people come to him to sell their finds. But, for Keith Tanaka, owner of Roots and Relics, a popular downtown Honolulu store that sells new and used golf clubs and accessories, the treasure hunt never ends. Tanaka has been going to swap meets and estate and garage sales almost every weekend for 35 years. Nine out of 10 times, he buys something.
“I’m mostly looking for unusual things,” he says. “Experimental clubs, clubs that tour players like, collector-type clubs from the ’50s and ’60s.”
Roots and Relics also accepts trade-ins, and that’s where Goo unloaded the clubs from the storage unit he purchased.
“We have a guy who refurbishes the trade-ins for resale,” Tanaka says, “and they come back looking almost like new.” In a good month, he’ll sell about 1,000 clubs, with used ones retailing for as much as 75 percent under the price of a new club.
With dealers like Tanaka offering such low prices, Goo says, “You have to be realistic about how much you’ll get for things. Just because you think – or know – something is worth a lot, it doesn’t mean you’ll sell it for that much. Sometimes what it comes down to is: How badly do you really want to sell something because holding onto it for a long period of time won’t do you any good?”
Hawaii’s Storage Wars
Hawaii’s auctions are similar to those on the A&E TV show called “Storage Wars.”
“You sign in, get a number and then a locksmith comes and cuts the storage lock in front of everyone,” Goo explains. “Most times the process is really quick so you could have just a few seconds to see what’s inside before the live auction starts.”
The rules are: You can look but you can’t touch. Goo says he’s been to auctions with only a handful of prospective buyers and others with several dozen, and sometimes the competition is fierce. Hawaii Self Storage’s Hitzeman says normally the bidding starts at $10 and increases in $10 increments. The most he’s ever seen paid for a unit was $3,500.
Asuncion says he has a tried-and-true strategy for auctions. “It’s a psychological mind game,” he explains. For starters, auction-goers must pay in cash, so Asuncion takes small bills bound by a money clip and, often, when he bids, he’ll hold up that wad of cash to show other bidders that he’s in it to win. “Sometimes I might only have $200, but when it’s all in fives and tens, it looks like a lot more,” he says with a smirk. “Some people will see that and assume I’m willing to pay top dollar for the unit and that could cause them to drop out early.”
He also brings a flashlight and a handful of padlocks on a chain to intimidate other bidders. “If you buy a locker, you need your own padlock to close it up, so I bring about six so that people will think I’m serious about spending money and that I came to do business. For people who don’t know me, it looks like I’ve been doing this for years and they assume I know what I’m doing.”
Once the lock is cut, Asuncion will shine his flashlight into the unit, sometimes also pulling out binoculars to see items further back.
“That’s when I’ll start talking super loud and say stuff like, ‘Wow, you see that?’ or ‘Oh, yeah, this is the one I want!’ and I make sure people hear me.”
It’s all part of his plan.
“Once people get excited and think that I’ve seen something valuable, they’re more likely to bid on the locker. So, I let them outbid me, and before you know it, it’s theirs. Then, when it comes time to bid on the unit that I really want, nobody has money anymore and I can get it for cheap.”
Goo brings a stepladder to get a better view of items in the back or stacked. “It’s all a big risk, but it’s fun,” he says. “One time, I found a safe in one of the units, so I thought I was going to hit it big, but when I opened it, all that was inside were papers.”
Yvette Sahut began buying and selling on eBay three years ago when she was pregnant with her first child. She started by cleaning out her closet and realized it was a quick way to earn extra cash for her growing family and easier than holding a garage sale and haggling with buyers over 50 cents.
Sahut, a legislative assistant for the Kauai County Council, says her former hobby has developed into a 15- to 20-hour-a-week addiction. In addition to finding good deals and earning extra income, Sahut says, “I really feel like I’m doing what is right by preventing items from going to our landfills. For me, it’s living the reduce-reuse-and-recycle mantra that we all learned growing up.”
Sahut says she visits thrift shops one to two times a week and occasionally goes to garage sales. She’s even created her own jewelry line, called Kahakai Jewelry, with shells and supplies she finds at garage sales or purchases from other crafters on Etsy, an online crafting community, where users can create their own retail shops.
“I’m looking for anything that will turn a good profit – clothing, jewelry, housewares, toys and collectibles,” Sahut says. “I believe you can buy and sell anything on eBay. It pays to do your research and find out what other people are selling, so I participate in an eBay forum called eBay Underground and read a variety of blogs that help me learn what’s hot and what’s not.”
Flea Market at the Storage Company
Hawaii Self Storage recently launched Flea Market Fridays at its Kapolei West location, which allows buyers of auctioned units to roll up the doors and sell directly to the public every Friday. Other unit owners can join the sale by moving items from their storage units into the flea-market area for the day.
“We’re trying to help small-business owners and vendors who want to grow their business,” says Brett Hitzeman, director of outside sales and community relations. “This is just another opportunity and venue for them to expand. It’s good for us, good for the business and good for the economy.”
At the flea market, Cory Asuncion’s approach is so smooth you’d think he was selling Lexuses, not used stuffed animals. Each time customers stop by his 10-by-20-foot unit to inquire about an item, he tells them its retail value, how much his aunty, who, coincidentally, has the exact same product, loves it so much, and even explains how much he spent getting the item into top selling condition before finally revealing the price.
About 80 percent of Asuncion’s merchandise is sold for $1, with higher prices for bigger items, such as an exercise bike, a TV or a bedroom-nightstand-and-vanity set. At the first Flea Market Friday, Asuncion says, he made about $400 in sales.
“In less than five hours, I made back what I paid for the storage,” he says.
You’ll Probably Need to Pay Excise Taxes
Anyone who buys or sells personal property at garage sales, swap meets or on Craigslist is responsible for paying taxes. As long as you are in business with the object of gain or economic benefit, you must apply for a general excise tax license (and pay a one-time fee of $20) and remit GE taxes based on the gross proceeds of your activities, says Mallory Fujitani, public information officer for the state Department of Taxation.
However, the law provides an exception for casual sales, such as a one-time garage sale. Besides the frequency of the sales, the department also considers what is being sold and for what purpose.
“Regarding the sale of your personal car,” Fujitani says, “you would not need to pay taxes on that sale – it would be considered a casual sale, as you are not in the business of selling cars.”
However, the buyer might be required to pay a use tax when he or she changes the car registration.
If you have questions about whether your activities require a GE tax license, the best thing to do is consult a tax professional or call the state Tax Department’s Taxpayer Services Branch at 587-4242 or by e-mail Taxpayer.Services@hawaii.gov.
Most Profitable Transactions
Cory Asuncion saw a listing on Craigslist for a 2000 Ford Mustang and 2001 Ford Windstar van. The owner was asking for $3,000 for both vehicles and needed to sell quickly before he moved to the Philippines. Asuncion offered $2,500 in cash and the seller accepted.
“I took the cars home, washed them, cleaned them and then posted the Mustang on Craigslist for $4,000 and the Windstar for $3,000,” he says. “Both were gone the next day. It was the easiest money I ever made.”
Yvette Sahut says she’s bought shoes for $1 at a garage sale and resold them for $110 on eBay. She also has sold Christmas ornaments, which she purchased for 50 cents, for $50.
“You just never know what you’re going to find that someone else will desperately want,” Sahut says. “With a little effort, imagination and creativity, you can sell practically anything.”
That’s Not Trash, It’s Our New Home
One of the great advantages of reusing and reselling products is that your work is good for the environment. One of the best examples is Re-use Hawaii, which, in fewer than five years, has saved 1,500 tons of construction material from ending up in Oahu’s landfills.
The nonprofit is a licensed demolition contractor that doesn’t just tear an old kitchen or old building down – it deconstructs, so most of the wood, usable fixtures and other elements can be repurposed into new projects.
“Deconstruction is an affordable and sustainable alternative to conventional demolition,” says owner Selina Tarantino. “Our skilled crews can salvage up to 80 percent of a building’s major components by taking down structures by hand to preserve the materials for reuse.”
The nonprofit offers its deconstruction services to homeowners, contractors, architects and building owners.
At its Kakaako warehouse, Re-use Hawaii sells the salvaged materials to do-it-yourself homeowners, artists and small contractors for a fraction of their retail price. Customers can find everything from lumber, light fixtures, screws, flooring, desks and everything in between.
Tarantino says Re-use has grown three times faster than projected, so the organization is expanding its facility. It will soon begin to create custom furniture from salvaged material.
Contractors can also make tax-deductible donations of surplus building materials to Re-use Hawaii.
30 Forrest Ave., Kakaako
How to Sell on Craigslist
Include as many details about the product as possible. Make sure the item looks presentable and then take pictures from every angle, Cory Asuncion says. “It’s all about appearances.”
Talk to interested buyers on the phone and answer questions before scheduling a time and place to meet. “Many so-called ‘interested buyers’ aren’t serious at all, so you want to try to weed out the good prospects from the bad, so you don’t end up wasting your time,” Leroy Goo says. “That’s one of the downsides of buying and selling online: You have to be willing to deal with a lot of crazy people.”
Whether you’re the buyer or seller, it’s always a good idea to meet in a public place that is well lit, such as the parking lot of your neighborhood grocery store, when you close the deal. It’s also better not to go alone.