Thinking about becoming a locksmith? Many people ask me about my occupation when I arrive at a job site. The idea of working with the public, working with hand tools, making a quick buck on lockout calls and of course the power and ability to unlock doors, cars and safes is quite intoxicating for some people. I don’t post help wanted ads, but I still send an average of one unsolicited resume per month via email. Usually it comes from an enthusiastic teenager looking for an internship. OJT (on-the-job training) is a great way to go if you can get the gig. That’s exactly how I started. That and reading every trade magazine I could get my hands on, researching endless hours on the internet, taking classes, attending trade shows, and talking to any locksmith who would take the time to talk to me (and many would, as long as I was not one of their competitors). But that’s how it is for most lock jocks. Once you start working as a locksmith, it gets under your skin. It consumes you and becomes an obsession. That’s not exactly a bad thing; to (God willing) be financially successful in what you love is a great way to pay the bills. However, there is a price to pay that doesn’t suit most people’s lifestyles, and so — the purpose of this article.
The good: Helping the public and making a few bucks doing it. First, I rarely charge to unlock a car or house when a child is locked in. When I get the call, usually from a panicked parent declaring that his or her child is locked in a car, I rush to the crime scene. There are few better moments for me as a locksmith than seeing the relief in a mother’s eyes as I open the door and she pulls her child out of a sweltering car on a hot summer day. “You are my HERO,” she says, holding her child close with tears in her eyes. “No charge ma’am. We do not charge for children locked in cars. If you like, I can make a copy of your car key for a small fee to reduce the chance of this happening again .” They almost always say yes, and payment for the key usually comes with a tip. The “sale” is just to cover my gas on the call, and the tip, if any, buys me lunch.
The rest of my jobs are mostly for-profit jobs. Yet more than half of what I charge goes directly back to the business in the form of gas, insurance, advertising, trade association dues, licensing fees, vehicle maintenance, tools, supplies, and other expenses.
As a locksmith you will never get rich, but if you play your cards right, you can retire well. The plan, as I read in a popular trade magazine, is to sell an established store with a long list of customer accounts, while owning and renting on the lot the store is located on. It’s even better if you own an entire complex and also collect rent from your store’s neighbors. I personally know a retired locksmith who did exactly this and I understand that he is doing quite well for himself.
Many locksmiths make and sell tools and/or reference books, or teach classes (like me) to supplement their income.
The bad: being available 24/7. After-hours and weekend services can make up a large portion, if not most, of your income when you first start out. Then there are the nightly calls. 2 a.m., half drunk and he can’t find his car keys: “I’m sorry sir – I can’t help you drive tonight, but if you call me in the morning, I’ll be happy to help.”
The locksmith industry is a highly regulated (but necessarily so) security industry. The licenses, insurance and bonds you must carry can cost a small fortune. I have a city business license, a state locksmith license, a government license for locksmithing 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 associations. In California, you must 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 costs of running a business like this can be overwhelming and there is always another tool you need to buy, a new software update or replacement parts/tools that need to be ordered. I am currently saving up for a very secure key machine that retails for $5,800.
Let’s not forget the paperwork. You need to keep track of legal forms for customers to fill out and detailed records of who, what, where and when. The last thing you want is making keys to a car or house for someone who is not authorized to hold the key to that property.
Finally, buy a nice shirt and tie, because there is a good chance that you will soon be in court for domestic disputes, among other things.
The Ugly: Evictions, Repossessions (REOs), and New Keys Following a Domestic Dispute. Few things in this profession are as humble as writing an after-hours service bill and handing the new keys over to someone with a fresh black eye. I vividly remember a woman standing next to a hole in the drywall where her head had been forcibly inserted just hours before. The local sheriffs know me because it’s not uncommon to get the new key and security checks done while they’re still there and filling out their report.
Can you say fleas? Yes, now I keep flea powder in the van because you never know what condition a recently foreclosed house will be in.
Angry ex-tenants who have been evicted can also pose a challenge. Sometimes the locks are broken or destroyed, and I keep latex gloves in the van in case I ever need to break another lock that has been peed on.
The bottom line: I’m pretty happy being a locksmith most of the time. The pay, the freedom of the job (I can leave my schedule open when my kids have a school event), and the satisfaction of helping people while making a profit for myself keep me going.
My advice to you:
1. Do your research before entering the locksmith market. My city has too many locksmiths per capita. There is barely enough work to walk around much of the time.
2. Contact another locksmith and be prepared to move, as you may be required to sign an “uncompetitive” contract stating that 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 get jobs done better and faster than the basic skills taught in most schools.
3. Be prepared to pay your dues. It will take many years to build a customer base and a name for yourself. A wise locksmith once told me it takes at least three years for them (the customers) to know you’re there, and seven for them to notice you’re gone.
4. If you’re starting your own business, buy an easily recognizable logo and stick it on everything: your van, bills, pens to hand out and all other promotional items (see our logo below).
5. CYA Document everything and provide pre-printed, professionally prepared, legal forms for your clients to fill out.
6. Don’t get too carried away. If you have other obligations, such as a partner and/or children, make sure you make time for them. It’s hard to turn off the phone or reject calls because you’re refusing money, but you can’t get back the missed days.
A former employer of mine occasionally tells the story of how he made $2,000 in one weekend by making calls to his locksmith on duty, while on a boat on Lake Shasta with his wife. It was a rare weekend vacation for them and he spent much of the day on the phone. She died of cancer two short years later, and he told me later that he would give just about anything to get that day back. I personally know this story as I was the on-call worker 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 knowledge of customers’ security systems has been the downfall of unscrupulous locksmiths. In short, if you can’t handle the temptation, don’t go for the profession.
Finally, never take advantage of anyone. As Grandpa used to say, it can take a lifetime to build a good reputation, but only a moment to ruin it.
Good luck with whatever you decide, unless of course you plan on opening a locksmith shop in my service area.