Pile of Scrap Metal

If you Google “brass stolen” you’ll see news stories like the one about brass vases stolen from a cemetery. You can Google “aluminum siding stolen” for more horror stories. Stealing metal to cash in at scrap yards is a preferred way for thieves to raise cash, and everything from beer cans to old air conditioners contain valuable metal.

Fortunately for us honest folk there are plenty of legal ways to round up and sell scrap metal. To make a living at it you need to spend a lot of time finding metals to sell. But it can become a big business. Consider Stephen Greer, who wrote “Starting from Scrap: An Entrepreneurial Success Story.” He built a $250 million scrap metal business after stumbling into the business.

If you’re not interested in making a business of it you can still make some extra cash with scrap metal. You can do like I do and accumulate metals, cashing them in when you have enough to make a trip to the scrap yard worthwhile. In other words, save those soda and beer cans, and don’t throw away that broken aluminum lawn furniture or air conditioner.

My Experience Selling Scrap Metal Last Week

It’s just extra cash for me, although the thought of making more with metals intrigues me. I sold a broken washing machine for $25 once, got $5 for an aluminum car wheel another time, and have cashed in as much as $15 in various metals occasionally.

Last week I went to the recycling center a mile from home with ten bags of soda and beer cans, three iron bars, and a small coil of old electrical wiring I had found in the attic. Total take: $4.26. The ten bags of cans were worth just $1.80 at $0.20 per pound, and the iron bars just $0.16 at $0.04 per pound. The wire, still coated in plastic, brought in the most. At $1.15 per pound the 2-pound coil netted me $2.30.

Lesson #1: Clearly some metals make more sense to collect than others. Wire I could fit in a shoebox was worth more than aluminum cans that filled a good portion of my minivan.

Lesson #2: Check out more than one buyer. I later looked online and discovered that a scrap yard in Tampa pays $0.35 per pound for aluminum cans — almost twice as much. Too far away, but it made me wonder if there is a better place within ten miles, in case I have a larger load of metals.

Lesson #3: It may not be worth the time to save those metals. $4.26!?

In regards to the last “lesson,” perhaps a better lesson is to be patient. I had brought a load of metals in eight months earlier ($16 that time), and one day after my recent sale I decided to remove some aluminum gutters, which now sit under the carport. I should have just waited until I had $25 worth of metals.

When we lived in Colorado our next-door neighbor kept neat piles of sorted metal scrap behind his garage, taking donations from myself and others whenever offered. About once per year he would cash it in and make $200 to $300. That’s the way to make extra cash without too much effort or time. Keep it simple.

How to Make More Money With Scrap Metal

Two years ago I was helping a friend clean out a foreclosure he had bought to flip. Two guys in a pickup stopped to ask if they could take the metal objects we were throwing out. They filled the truck in forty-five minutes, and I asked, in Spanish, how much they would get for the load. “Quizás dos cientos dollares” one of them answered: Perhaps $200. And they planned to do a second load that day.

The old sinks, with their attached copper and brass parts, were the most valuable things they salvaged by weight. But they took just about anything at all that was made of any metal, even helping us tear out some old fencing. They had wooden panels on the sides of the pickup bed and used a lot of rope to hold it all in.

If you want to make significant money you need a van or pickup truck, although you could focus on high-value-per-pound metals if you have a car with more limited space. In any case, you also need a more active plan. Here’s a start:

  1. Locate buyers near you (a Google search for “scrap metal buyers” should work).
  2. Determine which place pays the most (you may have to go in person).
  3. Make a list of the common metals and items and what they sell for.
  4. Make a list of places to find your scrap.
  5. Get up early and get to work.

One buyer might pay more for copper and another pay a higher price for sheet metal. If you find significant differences you can sell the appropriate metals at different places. But if it’s a small difference it’s probably more efficient to just go to the buyer with the best prices overall.

My impression is that this is a business in which you make very little for your time until you learn enough. Eventually you’ll have a good grasp of the value of items so, for example, so you’ll know whether to go get that free stove advertised on Craigslist. You’ll learn where to get the most metal for the least time spent, and when to go to the scrap yard to avoid long lines. As you get more efficient you’ll probably double your hourly profit within a few months.

It can help to read a book or two and watch some YouTube videos on the subject. Here’s one to get you started. The narrator/star of the video has been scrapping for nine years, so he has some good advice on what to look for.

Where to Find Metals to Sell

I love the “treasure hunting” aspect of this business. I’ve watched guys on the hunt around town during spring cleanup days, grabbing a dollar’s worth of metals objects from curbside piles of junk here and there. I’ve seen them get excited when they discover something more valuable, like a box of brass fittings or an air conditioner.

Spring cleanups bring out all the scrappers. But where else can you find metals to sell? See what your friends have for starters. You might find an old car behind a friend’s barn, one he’ll let you tear apart. You could get $40 for the catalytic converter (platinum inside), $25 for the radiator (copper), $30 for the wheels, and more for all the other metal parts that are easy to remove.

Here are some other places to find metals:

  • Your own garage and attic (at least to get you started)
  • Bulk pickup days (in towns where residents can put out large items weekly or monthly)
  • Rummage sales (go late and offer to take metal items for free)
  • Rural areas (look for piles of junk and ask if you can pick through)
  • House undergoing renovations (get to know house flippers)
  • Craigslist (under “for sale” click “free”)
  • Dumpsters (it’s best to ask first)
  • Abandoned houses (look up the owner online)
  • Anywhere (in time you’ll start to spot opportunities)

What Can You Sell?

  • Here are some of the metal objects scrappers look for:
  • Platinum (catalytic converters)
  • Copper (wire, water lines, radiators, air conditioners)
  • Brass (spigots, fittings, musical instruments)
  • Aluminum (cans, lawn furniture, doors, gutters, house siding)
  • Sheet metal (car doors, grill parts, doors)
  • Iron (rebar, old tools,)
  • Stainless steel (household objects, restaurant equipment)

Take a look at the price sheet for Edge Metals Recycling in Tampa, Florida. They show what they pay for about 60 different items ranging from car heater cores to chain link fence and Christmas lights. Print it out; it will give you a good idea of what to watch for.

It’s great if you can find a scrap buyer near you that puts this much detail online. If not, ask for a copy of the price sheet in person, or at least make a list in a notebook of the items they’ll buy and the current prices.

To Learn More

You can learn a lot by hanging out with other scrappers in an online discussion forum, like the one at ScrapMetalForum.com.

It also helps to recognize the various classes of metals and the objects you’ll find them in. There’s a great photo gallery that can help you learn more at iScrapAppOnline. It has hundreds of photos for metals and electronics (a nice addition to your salvaging efforts).

You can get an idea about scrap prices around the country at websites like ScrapRegister.com, but find a website for a local buyer to see what you can sell metals for where you are.

Your Thoughts: What’s the most you’ve ever made selling scrap metal?

Photo Credit: Harald Kobler on Flickr.com