The Locksmith Trade – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Are you thinking about becoming a locksmith? Many people ask me about my profession when I arrive at a job site. The idea of working with the public, working with hand tools, making a quick buck on lock-out calls, and of course the power and ability to unlock doors, cars and safes is quite intoxicating for some people. I don’t place help wanted ads, but nevertheless I average one unsolicited résumé a month via e-mail. Usually it arrives from an eager teenager looking to do an apprenticeship. O.J.T. (on-the-job training) is a fine way to go if you can get the gig. That’s precisely how I started. That and reading every trade magazine I could get my hands on, endless hours doing research on the web, taking classes, attending trade expos, and talking with any locksmith who would take the time to chat with me (and many would, so long as I wasn’t one of their competitors). But that’s how it is for most lock jocks. Once you begin work as a locksmith it gets under your skin. It consumes you and becomes an obsession. That’s not exactly a bad thing after all; to be (God willing) financially successful at what you enjoy is a great way to pay the bills. There is, however, a price to pay that does not fit with most people’s lifestyle, and thus — the purpose of this article.
The Good: Helping the public and making a few bucks while doing it. First off, I rarely charge to unlock a car or house when there is a child locked inside. When I get the call, usually from a panicked parent declaring his or her child is locked inside a car, I rush to the scene. There are few better moments for me as a locksmith than seeing the relief in a mother’s eyes when I unlock the door and she pulls her child from a sweltering car on a warm summer day. “You’re my HERO,” she says as she holds her child close with tears in her eyes. “No charge ma’am. We don’t charge for children locked in cars. If you like, for a small fee, I can make you a copy of your car’s door key so it’s less likely to happen again.” They almost always say yes, and the payment for the key usually accompanies a tip. The “up sale” is simply to cover my gas going out on the call, and the tip, if any, buys me lunch.
The rest of my jobs are typically for-profit jobs. Still, over half of what I charge goes right back into the company in the form of gas, insurance, advertising, trade organization dues, license fees, vehicle maintenance, tools, supplies, and other expenses.
As a locksmith you will never get rich, but if you play your cards right you could retire well. The plan, as I read in a popular trade magazine, is to sell a well-established shop with a long list of customer accounts, while owning and collecting rent on the property the shop sits on. It’s even better if you own an entire complex and collect rent from your shop’s neighbors, too. I personally know a retired locksmith who did exactly this and I understand he is doing quite well for himself.
Many locksmiths make and sell tools and/or reference books, or teach classes (as I do) to supplement their income.
The Bad: Being on call 24/7. After-hours and weekend service can account for a large part, if not most when first starting out, of your income. Then there are the late night calls. 2am, half drunk and he can’t find his car keys: “I’m sorry sir — I can’t help you drive your car tonight, but if you call me in the morning I will be happy to assist you.”
The locksmith industry is a highly regulated (but necessarily so) security industry. The licenses, insurances, and bonds you have to carry can cost a small fortune. I have a city business license, a state locksmith license, a State Contractor’s License for lock and security work, two insurance policies (general liability and commercial vehicle insurance), two different bonds, and I am a member of two major national trade organizations. In California, you need to be fingerprinted and pass State and Federal background tests. I am also a member of some local organizations including the Chico Chamber of Commerce and the North Valley Property Owner’s Association.
The cost of running a business like this can be overwhelming and there is always another tool you need to buy, another software update, or replacement parts/tools that need to be ordered. I am currently saving up for a high security key machine that retails for $5,800.
Let’s not forget the paperwork. You will need to keep legal forms for customers to fill out and detailed records of who, what, where and when. The last thing you want to do is make keys to a car or house for someone who does not have authority to hold a key to that property.
Lastly, buy a nice shirt and tie because there is a good chance you will find yourself in a court of law before long for, among other things, domestic disputes.
The Ugly: Evictions, repossessions (R.E.O.’s), and re-keys after a domestic dispute. There are few things as humbling in this profession as writing a bill for after-hours service and handing the new keys over to someone wearing a fresh black eye. I vividly remember one woman who was standing next to a hole in the drywall where her head was forcibly inserted only a few hours earlier. The local sheriffs know me because it’s not uncommon to perform the re-key and security checks while they are still there, filling out their report.
Can you say fleas? Yep, now I keep flea powder in the van because you never know what condition a recently foreclosed house will be in.
Angry former tenants who have been kicked out can also present a challenge. Sometimes the locks are disabled or destroyed, and I keep latex gloves in the van in case I ever have to pick open another lock that has been urinated on.
The bottom line: I am quite happy being a locksmith, most of the time. The pay, the freedom of the job (I can leave my schedule open if my kids have a school event), and the satisfaction of helping people while making a profit for myself keeps me going.
My advice to you:
1. Do your research before entering the market as a locksmith. My town has too many locksmiths per capita. There is barely enough work to go around much of the time.
2. Get on with another locksmith and be willing to relocate, as you may be required to sign a “no compete” contract saying you will not leave to be your boss’s competitor. Locksmith schools are okay, but a seasoned locksmith can show you some tricks of the trade that can help you make higher profits or perform jobs better and quicker than the basic skills taught in most schools.
3. Be willing to pay your dues. It will take many years to build up a customer base, and a name for yourself. A wise locksmith once told me it takes at least three years before they (the customers) know you’re there, and seven before they notice you are gone.
4. When you start out on your own, get an easy to recognize professional logo and put it on everything: your van, invoices, pens to hand out, and every other piece of advertising (see our professional logo below).
5. C.Y.A. Document everything and have pre-printed, professionally prepared, legal forms for your customers to fill out.
6. Don’t get too carried away. If you have other obligations, like a spouse and/or kids, make sure to make time for them. It’s hard to turn the phone off, or turn down calls because you’re turning away money, but you can’t get back the days you miss.
A former employer of mine occasionally tells the story of how he made $2,000 in one weekend dispatching calls to his on-call locksmith, while he was on a boat on Lake Shasta with his wife. It was a rare weekend vacation for them and he spent a good part of the day on the phone. She died of cancer two short years later, and he later told me he would give just about anything to have that day back. I know this story personally as I was the on-call employee that weekend.
To quote Uncle Ben (from Spider-Man, the movie): “With great power comes great responsibility.” The ability to unlock doors, bypass alarm systems, unlock safes, and the inside knowledge of customers’ security systems has been the downfall of unscrupulous locksmiths. In short, if you can’t handle the temptation, don’t pursue the profession.
Finally: Never take advantage of someone. Like Grandpa always said, it can take a lifetime to build up a good reputation but only a moment to ruin it.
Good luck in whatever you decide — unless, of course, you are planning to open a lock shop in my service area.