How to start up an architectural salvage business

Architectural salvage requires a range of skills, from sourcing stock that is in demand to upcycling and recrafting pieces to add value. Our easy-to-follow guide will help you to start up and run your own architectural salvage business. 

Research your target market

Doing some market research will help to make your cash flow forecasts as accurate as possible. It will also help you with many of the details of your business planning.

Customers

Think about who is likely to buy architectural salvage. You key customers will probably include:

  • home owners and collectors, particularly more affluent people who live in expensive period properties
  • building restoration specialists, general builders and property developers
  • interior designers, architects and landscapers
  • other dealers in architectural salvage, antiques and antiquities

Thinking about who your customers are likely to be will help you to plan what sort of things to stock and to set your prices appropriately. Find out about period properties in your region - this will help you identify the sort of items that local customers are likely to be looking for. Make sure also that you keep up with current trends in furniture, furnishings and interior design.

When you've identified your key customers you can focus your advertising and marketing efforts on them.

Establishing the level of competition

Once you have decided who your customers might be you need to find out how well they're already served.

How many other architectural salvage specialists are there in your area? A browse on Yell.com (categories 'architectural antiques', 'salvage and reclamation', perhaps also 'demolition' and 'waste products reclaimers') and other similar directories will help to identify some of your competitors.

If you're hoping to sell nationally or even internationally, you could search the web to see who's already doing this. For example, if you intend to specialise in stained glass then you could search for 'architectural salvage stained glass' and follow some of the links that are returned in the search results. Check out eBay too to see who's selling what in the 'architectural antiques' section.

Look at some of your competitors' advertising material, including their website if they have one:

  • what sorts of salvage do they specialise in
  • what range of services do they offer
  • what do they charge for the sort of things you'll be selling
  • how extensive is their stock inventory and what is the quality like
  • do they advertise any special features - for example compliance with the Salvo code (a non-statutory voluntary code of practice)
  • what sort of impression does their advertisement give you (for example, does the firm come across as small and friendly, large and businesslike, good value, high quality)

Visit as many of your local competitors' outlets as you can. Spend time looking around at their stock and see how they've organised the outlet. Don't be afraid to borrow some of their good ideas!

Bear in mind that some local councils run their own salvage yards to help conserve local architectural features. While these are generally not run as businesses, they may be an additional source of competition if some of the items you stock are available from them.

Forming alliances

It can be advantageous to find out more about businesses in the area that might be prepared to pass on your details to their own clients. You could consider contacting builders who specialise in working on period properties, architects, designers, landscapers and so on. Demolition specialists may be prepared to tip you off if they discover something on a job that could be of interest. Ideally you'll build up close links with businesses that complement your own.

It can be beneficial to co-operate with other salvage yards in the area too. Sometimes they might be able to help you locate a difficult-to-find item - and you might be able to return the favour some other time. Maybe they'll point customers in your direction if they can't supply a particular item themselves. Perhaps they'll use some of the specialist services you offer. Also, day-trippers will be attracted to an area where there are several salvage yards and antiques dealers to visit - so everyone benefits. You also could consider working with local antique dealers to trade stock from time to time - you might sometimes acquire items that they are better placed to sell and vice versa.

Research current trends, plus legal and tax issues

What to sell

There's a huge range of different things you could sell. You might decide to buy and sell 'anything and everything', from antiques and curios to reclaimed bricks and slabs. Or you might decide to specialise, for example in doors and windows, external fittings and fixtures, or perhaps garden items.

Some important things to consider when deciding what to focus on include:

  • how much space you've got - can you store large numbers of bulky items, or would it be more practical to focus on smaller, high value pieces
  • the type of storage space you have - think about how much exterior storage there is (for things like building materials) and how much dry but unheated storage (for timber) and interior storage you have available
  • where your own expertise and interests lie - you might want to concentrate on an area of the market you know very well
  • what your customers will want to buy - there may be local demand for certain regionally distinctive items and materials, for example Welsh slate
  • what you can actually get your hands on
  • whether you intend to build up the mail-order side of your business, particularly online. If so, you'll probably need to focus on smaller, easier to send items

The following list is just an overview of the sorts of things you might decide to stock:

  • doors and windows, including stained, leaded and etched glass
  • reclaimed flooring, including block, parquet and boards
  • fire surrounds and cast iron inserts
  • antique stoves, wood-burners and ranges
  • reclaimed timber
  • interior joinery like panelling, architrave, staircases and balusters
  • exterior fixtures like decorative bargeboards, roof finials, rainwater goods and corbels
  • building materials, including reclaimed bricks, blocks, slates, tiles and stone
  • flagstones, cobbles and quarry tiles
  • ecclesiastical salvage like church pews and settles
  • ornamental wrought ironwork
  • cast iron radiators and antique plumbing fittings like taps
  • bathroom fittings like roll-top baths
  • kitchen fittings, including Belfast/butler sinks and classic fitted cabinets
  • antique lighting
  • ornamental plasterwork and mouldings
  • garden items, like granite troughs, quoins, fountains and ornamental statuary
  • specialist items - for example pub and bar fittings or old school fixtures
  • other popular items like wooden railway sleepers, decorative columns and chimney pots

Some of the things you sell might be just as they were when you acquired them. Others might need to be repaired and renovated. As well as salvaged goods and materials, you might decide to sell some or all of the following:

  • items made from scratch out of reclaimed materials - for example doors made in the traditional style using reclaimed timber
  • 'upcycled' and 'recrafted' items - pieces that have been refurbished beyond their original condition, for example by giving them the 'shabby chic' distressed paint treatment
  • reproduction items - particularly when it's very expensive to buy the real thing (or difficult to get hold of it)
  • items that complement salvaged goods. For example, you might decide to stock a range of plants and shrubs if you sell salvaged garden items like urns, planters and pots
  • goods like polish, wood stain, paint, wax and filler

You might decide to stock other antiques like furniture, curios and general bric-a-brac.

Adding value

Some architectural salvage outlets look a bit like a junk yard. Everything's piled up in a haphazard way and it can take customers a long time to find the hidden treasures among the heaps of what may look like worthless rubbish. Most items are just as they were when they first came into the yard - and some that have been there a good while may even have deteriorated!

Other outlets feel more like an upmarket antique shop, with a few expensive pieces carefully displayed and other stock neatly stored and catalogued. Most items have been cleaned and restored and look fantastic - usually with a price tag to match.

There's no right or wrong way to go about selling building salvage - the best way for your business will depend on things like the types of client you want to attract and the sort of things you want to sell. However, you may find that a relatively small amount of effort on your part can add a good deal of value to the goods you sell.

Cleaning, stripping and preparation

Much of the stock that you buy in will be dirty and stained from years of use and, perhaps, neglect. Using the right tools, materials and a few tricks of the trade, you'll usually be able to clean them up and make them look much more presentable quite quickly. Needless to say this can add pounds to the price when it comes to selling them.

Some items, like old doors, can be transformed by stripping off the old layers of paint. This is quite a messy and time consuming task, but if you've got a caustic tank then it can be well worth it - top quality antique doors, for example, sell for hundreds of pounds. Alternatively, you could pass the work on to a specialist.

Timber joinery can often be improved by staining, waxing and polishing. Once again, this can be time consuming - but on an item that you hope to sell for hundreds or even thousands of pounds well worth it. Things like reclaimed floorboards generally benefit from being de-nailed and sanded or planed.

Some items, like old reclaimed bricks, may be more or less unsaleable until they've had some work done on them - in this case removing old mortar.

Repairs, renovation and upcycling

Some items will be in less than perfect condition after years of use. If you've got the skills, or you know someone who has, it can be well worth making the effort to repair them before you put them on sale. Try to use old and compatible materials wherever possible and carry out the repair using sympathetic techniques. Sometimes it'll just be a matter of doing a small repair - in other cases it may be worth carrying out a full restoration. And sometimes it may be better to 'upcycle' an item to create something fresh and different - for example by giving it the 'shabby chic' look. Always be honest with customers about items that have been restored - don't pass them off as 'mint' items in original condition. You might decide to offer repair and restoration services to customers only once they've agreed to purchase an un-restored item.

Recraft - making new items out of old materials

Sometimes there just aren't enough genuine old items to go around. When that's the case prices usually shoot up and, if you've got the skills, it can be well worth making some 'new old' items to meet demand. It might just be a case of making quite a simple alteration - for example swapping a clear glass panel in an old door for an attractive etched one. Or it could involve actually making something from scratch out of old reclaimed timber. Of course, it goes without saying that you should be honest about the provenance of newly made or altered items.

Putting complementary items together

Often, just your specialist knowledge and a little imagination can be enough to increase the value of an item considerably, or to sell several things where you'd otherwise have just sold one. For example, matching a period fire surround with a suitable cast iron insert, or adding appropriate vintage fittings to an antique bath, can create a very attractive package. It could even be as simple as planting something eye-catching in a vintage garden urn. Depending on your range of stock it might be worth displaying items in room settings to show customers how they might be used.

Testing

Some things may be a lot more saleable if customers know that they're safe and in good working order. For example, all vintage electrical items like lighting should be properly tested to ensure they're safe to use. Similarly, antique cast iron radiators can be pressure tested to check for leaks (it may be worth stripping and priming these too).

Other added value services

There are other ways of making things more attractive and saleable. There are also other services you could offer that complement the business of buying and selling salvage. Some will earn you extra income. Examples include:

  • stripping, repairing, restoring and maintaining items for other people (including private individuals and other businesses)
  • delivering and installing fittings and fixtures for customers
  • carrying out specialist demolition, dismantling and salvage removal work
  • sourcing specific items to customers' requirements
  • displaying goods imaginatively and accessibly in your outlet
  • giving dimensions in both metric and imperial units and possibly displaying prices in several currencies
  • sending non-local buyers detailed descriptions and photographs of an item - using email is ideal for this. Alternatively you could display pictures and descriptions of your stock on your website
  • letting customers take goods home to try them in-situ before they buy
  • storing customers' goods until they're ready to pick them up
  • packaging items up properly for shipping and export
  • design, architectural and structural consultancy, including interior design, garden design and landscaping
  • stonemasonry
  • general carpentry and joinery
  • general building services, including specialist techniques like lime rendering and cob repairs

Trading online

There are four main ways of using the web to boost your sales:

  • selling goods online
  • using your website, classified advertising websites and/or other specialist online directories to advertise your business and stock to a wider audience
  • using specialised internet advertising services to promote your business and website - for example Google AdWords
  • using social media such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter to maintain your business profile, and to network with potential and previous buyers and sellers

Selling goods online

You may well decide to sell things online. There are two main ways of doing this:

  • by setting up an e-commerce website of your own
  • using eBay (you could also use online classified advertising websites like Loot and Gumtree, but unlike eBay these don't generally enable you to complete the transaction seamlessly online)

If you decide to use your own website for e-commerce, you'll need to set up things like a shopping cart facility and a secure online payment system. Professional web developers can do this sort of thing for you if needs be. If you use eBay, you'll need to familiarise yourself with how the website works and learn how to put together good auction pages. There's lots of helpful information about how to do this on the eBay website itself. You'll also need to set up a PayPal account or another payment solution so that people can pay online for the things they buy from you.

Obviously, some types of architectural salvage are more suitable for selling online than others. Ideally, items that you offer for sale online should be fairly small, light, not too fragile and easy to package and send securely. Bear in mind that it often takes the same amount of effort to sell a £2 curio on eBay as to sell something like a £250 vintage bath tap set, so you might want to concentrate on higher value items if you don't have much spare time.

Business websites

Many people use the web to search for hard-to-find salvage items that they're looking for. Having a good website means you can advertise your business to people no matter where they are in the country - and indeed the world.

If you keep a good, up to date list of stock on your website, complete with photographs, price details and descriptions, then would-be customers can browse for and locate the items they need without even leaving their homes. Once they've found what they're looking for, some will be prepared to travel a considerable distance to get the right item. Others might ask you to send it to them.

It's worth making the effort to get a good, professional looking website designed and built. And you'll need to make sure that it's visible to the major search engines too - specialists can help you with this. Keeping your online stock-list up to date can be time consuming, but the effort should be rewarded by additional sales.

Remember, people all over the world can look at your website, so don't just assume that they'll know what you mean when you say something like 'we're just opposite the big pub on the river'. Consider displaying prices in several currencies - or at least linking to a currency converter website. Give dimensions in metric as well as imperial units. Make it clear where you will ship items to internationally - and where you won't. If you're really serious about attracting overseas buyers, you could get key pages on your website translated into other languages.

Consider maintaining a regular 'blog' to keep visitors to your website up to date with your latest finds, trends in the salvage industry, and other important events in your business.

Many people use mobile devices with small screens to browse the web, so it's important to make sure that your website looks good and works fine on these.

Online directories

There are plenty of online business directories available. Some you have to pay to be listed in, others are free. One advantage of being listed is that people who search for, say, "architectural salvage in Gloucester", may click though to your own website from these pages.

Some online directories are specially for the architectural salvage industry. For example, the Salvo website has a directory of dealers, classified advertisements, and a searchable database of salvage items for sale nationally.

Online advertising

There are various different ways of making sure that many people see advertisements for your business when they're browsing the web. Some specialist online advertising services such as Google Adwords can also help to target your ads at the people who are most likely to be interested in them. However, this type of advertising can be costly and you'll need to decide whether you can justify the cost - it may not be suitable for businesses like architectural salvage specialists.

Social media

More and more businesses consider it essential to have a presence on social media websites like Facebook. In a specialist trade like architectural salvage there will be plenty of people with an interest in your latest items of stock, special offers, hints and tips on restoration and maintenance, and so on. Keeping a Facebook page up to date can help you to stay in touch with regular customers and keep them coming back to your website and showroom or yard. You might decide to Tweet regular pictures of your latest acquisitions to help you find buyers for them.

You might decide to contribute regularly to online forums for people interested in things like traditional architecture, period living, restoration and recraft. This could help you to establish a name for yourself online and boost your credentials as an authoritative expert.

An integrated approach

If you're serious about using the power of the web to boost your business then you'll probably use a combination of some or all of the above and integrate them as much as possible. Your website, for example, could include links to your eBay listings, while your Facebook page could link to your website and blog. You could also include links to your website wherever possible on forum posts and online classified ads.

You might also decide to use email for marketing purposes - for example to tell regular customers about your latest items of stock - but you'll need to make sure you stick to privacy regulations and avoid irritating people by 'spamming' them with unwanted messages.

Selling on ebay

Setting up your own ecommerce website can be expensive and you may not be sure at the beginning whether the value of the sales you'll make online will justify the set-up costs. As an alternative, trading on eBay lets you get a feel for selling online but with much lower start up costs. And you may decide to keep on selling through eBay even when you have your own online shop.

Getting started

You might already have your own personal eBay account that you use to buy items for yourself and to sell things that you don't need any more. But if you're trading as a business on eBay you're legally obliged to make it clear in your listings that you're a business seller. This means that you'll either need to register a new business account or upgrade your personal account to a business one. There's guidance in the eBay Business Centre on the definition of 'trading' if you're not sure whether you need to register as a business seller.

If you're not already running a business and you intend to start selling things on eBay - perhaps just in a small way to begin with - then you'll need to notify HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) that you're trading. There's a guide on what counts as trading and self employment which gives advice about notifying HMRC and other tax obligations on the Gov.uk website.

Decide whether to have your own virtual 'shop'

Having your own virtual storefront will give your business a valuable online presence and will allow you to display all your products together in one place.

When you sign up to sell on eBay, you have the option of setting up an eBay Shop. This allows you to create your shop using an existing template or to customise it to your own design. You don't have to choose the eBay Shop option straight away - you may decide it's best to wait until your monthly sales build up to a certain level and then upgrade.

How much does selling eBay cost?

Before you start selling on eBay it's a good idea to find out how much you'll have to pay in fees. Depending on the items you sell and the method you choose for selling them, your total fees can be quite substantial. And while some of the fees you pay will be linked to the number of items you sell each month, others are likely to be fixed costs which you incur even if you don't sell anything.

eBay gives you the option of selling as a business seller without paying any fixed monthly fees, although it's usually more cost-effective to choose a subscription-based package unless you're only selling a small number of items each month.

The eBay website has a fee illustrator tool and a fee calculator that will help you compare the fees for different selling methods and get a good idea of how much your actual per-item selling fees are likely to be.

Managing your listings

Uploading your inventory to eBay and managing your listings can be a time consuming task, particularly if you're planning to sell a large number of items.

eBay offers various listing tools designed to streamline this process, some of which are free and others that you'll have to pay for.

Promoting your items

Because there's such a huge number of items for sale on eBay at any one time, it's very important that you do everything you can to stand out from the crowd.

Always make sure that your listings include accurate, spell-checked descriptions and that your photos and other images show the items that you're selling in the best possible light.

You might want to take it a step further and use the various marketing tools provided by eBay such as search optimisation and cross-promotions.

Your reputation

As an eBay seller your online reputation is extremely important. All sellers have a feedback score based on actual customer feedback and this is the main measure that future customers will use to check that you are trustworthy and reliable.

So you'll want to keep your rating as high as possible by providing an excellent level of customer service and fast delivery at reasonable prices. Make sure you always respond promptly to customer queries, deal with returns efficiently and keep an eye on your stock levels to avoid your listings showing an item as being in stock when it has sold out.

Be aware that packing up orders and sending them out can be time consuming, but it's important to stay on top of the job to make sure that the right items get delivered in good time to the right people. Very many parcel delivery services now offer bulk shipping tools that integrate with your eBay account and these can greatly simplify the process of arranging and tracking your deliveries.

More information

The eBay website has a great deal of useful guidance to help you get started as a business seller and to expand your business as demand for your products grows. There's also a lively seller community forum where experienced sellers are often happy to answer questions.

Pricing policy

Setting your prices at just the right level can be tricky in a trade where no two things are exactly the same. Ideally you'll already have some knowledge and experience of the industry - if not you'll have to learn by trial and error, picking up clues from your competitors.

Buying prices

Correct pricing starts at the buying stage. When you make someone an offer for a salvage item they're selling, or for the salvage rights to a whole building, you'll need to be thinking about how much you can sell it on for. You'll also have to take into account any cleaning or restoration that will need to be done before you can sell it on. If you're buying overseas, be careful to factor in costs like currency exchange and overseas money transfers.

If you decide to buy an item of stock, you'll aim to offer the seller the lowest price that they'll happily accept for it (remember - you want them to come back to you if they've got anything else to sell) - too low and they'll take it to one of your competitors, too high and you could make a loss.

You might decide to try and stick to a basic policy of always aiming to multiply the cost price by a certain amount. You could, for example, decide that you'll aim to double the cost price and add to this the cost of any renovation work. However, you'll probably find in practice that you need to be a bit flexible, making up on one item what you lose on another.

Selling prices

In general, you'll need to set your prices according to the type of outlet you have and the sort of clients that you aim to attract. Customers who are prepared to spend hours rummaging through a disorderly yard looking for anything which, once cleaned up, might look nice will be expecting a bargain. On the other hand, wealthy individuals who are looking for a particular high quality period item may be prepared to pay top prices.

Pricing individual items

When it comes to setting your buying and selling prices, take into consideration the following:

  • the condition of the item
  • the scarcity of the item
  • any costs incurred and time taken cleaning and restoring it
  • how much value - if any - you think you have added to the item
  • how much space it takes up in your outlet - particularly if space is at a premium
  • how quickly you expect to be able to sell it on
  • the state of the market - are items like this in demand at the moment?
  • what other salvage dealers charge for similar items - and what sort of price they go for on eBay
  • if applicable, how much a similar item sold for last time you sold one

Special prices

There may be some situations when you're prepared to accept a lower price than normal for an item. These could include:

  • when you sell an item to a fellow salvage dealer, or to an antique dealer
  • when you sell an item to a regular business customer like a builder or designer
  • when you source an item to order for a client (although if this takes a lot of time and effort you might actually decide to charge a higher price than normal)
  • when you sell something online - a special internet discount
  • because you're offering a discount for some other reason

When you sell an item by auction on eBay, the price you get is normally the price that the auction finishes at - you can't control this. You can, however, set a starting bid and/or a reserve price. Or you could use a 'Buy it now' advertisement with no bidding.

Haggling

Many of your customers - buyers and sellers, private and trade - will expect to haggle over the price. Keep negotiations friendly and fair and always have in mind a maximum price you can pay for an item and a minimum price that you can accept for it. Of course, there may be times when you'll be prepared to accept almost anything for an item which has proved hard to sell.

Charging for other goods and services

If you sell other goods, like wax polish and wood filler, then you'll need to decide how much mark up to add to the cost price. Your suppliers may be able to advise you on this.

If you offer services like wood stripping, restoration and installation then you'll probably charge by the hour. You'll need to set your hourly rate at a realistic level. If you carry out specialist demolition services then you'll be able to offset the value of the salvage against the labour cost of demolition.

When it comes to other services, like packaging items for export and storing them for customers, you'll need to decide on your pricing policy. Will you pass on postage and packing charges at cost or will you make a profit on these? Will you charge customers for services like storage or will you offer these free as a goodwill gesture?

Promote your business

It's important to advertise your business effectively, to let potential customers know who you are, where you are and what you offer. It's often worth advertising certain high value items individually in classified ads or on your website.

Advertising online

A good website of your own is an excellent way to advertise your business and perhaps show off some of your stock. If it's an e-commerce website then you can sell online too.

eBay can be an excellent way to sell goods like architectural salvage items online. Other classified advertising websites like Gumtree can work well too. You could consider using online directories to promote your business and the range of services you offer. The industry website Salvo has a 'for sale' section, a trade directory, and banner advertising for salvage and related businesses.

Don't ignore mobile commerce - more and more people are browsing the web and buying goods online using mobile devices like smartphones and tablets.

Think about other ways of advertising, marketing and promoting your business online - for example social media websites, forums and blogs.

Directories

A listing on Yell.com and other similar directories can be an effective way of advertising your business. Think about what you stock and place your entry under the most appropriate category or categories. For example, you'll probably put your main advertisement under the 'architectural antiques' section and/or 'salvage and reclamation'. But if you specialise in, say, leaded and stained glass then you might consider a second entry under 'leaded lights and windows'.

Other ways of advertising and marketing

Think about other ways of promoting your business. For example, you could:

  • distribute a catalogue or flyer via a mail-shot or leaflet drop
  • advertise in the local newspaper
  • advertise in building, design, home and garden and architecture magazines
  • place advertisements and flyers in local garden centres, nurseries and other home improvement outlets
  • network with people like builders, designers, architects and landscapers. Some of these might use your services on a regular basis. Others might be prepared to pass on your contact details to potential clients
  • exhibit at fairs and events
  • contact the people responsible for buildings and estate management in organisations like the local authority, the Landmark Trust and the National Trust

Try to tell people as many of the good things about your business as possible in your advertisements, particularly things that distinguish your business from its competitors. If appropriate, let them know that you regularly get new stock in, and that you buy and sell salvage. Tell them what sort of things you specialise in too.

Remember that your vehicle can be a very effective means of advertising if you have it sign-written and keep it clean and presentable.

Word of mouth

Word of mouth recommendations are very valuable to your business. Salvage yard bargains can be a real talking-point and a satisfied customer will usually pass your details on to friends who are interested.

You'll have to earn your good reputation by offering high quality, helpful and friendly service, open and honest dealing and a good range of stock. Make sure that any staff you employ are good ambassadors for your business.

Buy an existing business

You might decide to buy an existing architectural salvage business rather than start your own venture from scratch. Buying a going concern can mean that the products, customers, regular sales, staff and premises are already in place.

Businesses like architectural salvage yards are popular with 'downshifters' - perhaps the current owner has decided that they made the wrong decision and wants to change career again.

Check over the condition and value of any stock you are buying carefully before agreeing on a price. Bear in mind that it can be very difficult to put a price on unique items like architectural antiques - the adage 'they're only worth what people will pay for them' applies here

If you are paying a large amount for stock - particularly valuable single items - then it may be worthwhile establishing that the seller holds undisputed title to them and that they were acquired legitimately. Also check that valuations are accurate and up to date. A well run business should keep the necessary paperwork to prove this.

But buying a business can be a hazardous, expensive process unless you have the right skills and experience on your team, including legal and financial know-how. Establish the genuine trading and financial position, so that the price you pay for the business is not too high.

 

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