A Nanaimo couple gets paid to take a first-hand look at what goes on behind closed doors and get rid of it.
Alison and Grant Belbin pulled up roots in 2008 and moved from Kelowna to Vancouver Island. They were drawn by the Island’s climate, scenery and an opportunity to turn other people’s junk into treasure, or at least a living, by purchasing a 1-800-Got-Junk? franchise.
It wasn’t that they wanted to get into the junk removal business. It was just something they could apply their skills to – Alison’s background was in marketing and photojournalism and Grant’s in heavy construction and demolition – and work at together.
They packed up, sold their house and 24 hours after arriving in Nanaimo they were in the junk-removal business.
Unfortunately 2008 was not a great year to start a business.
“We bought it from a previous owner and it was a record month and then the taps turned off,” Grant said.
For three and a half years.
One thing in their favour was a team of employees they inherited from the previous owner who knew the business and their way around the Nanaimo area, but they couldn’t compensate for declining business.
Grant took a job in pipeline construction in northern Alberta to supplement their income and the business was forced to downsize to make ends meet. To keep franchises from closing, the parent company helped franchisees where it could, Alison said.
“The stress on us was immense,” Grant said. “The stress on our kids, everything.”
What got them through, Alison said, was there was never a moment when both of them were prepared to toss in the towel at the same time. When one was ready to give up the other wanted to press on.
By the end of 2012 the market began its turnaround and they bought a second franchise in Victoria.
“Now it’s a completely different business because Victoria’s a whole different market than Nanaimo and up [Island],” Alison said. “So we had to market differently, our guys have to have different skill sets. It’s just different jobs.”
In Nanaimo and the North Island, people who are overwhelmed by the volume of material they have, call to have rooms full of articles, or even contents of entire homes, cleared out or have or mouldering trailers and campers removed from properties.
In Victoria clients frequently call to have a single couch, a TV or a bed taken off their hands. The business also does city bylaw cleanups and clears illegal dumping sites for the Regional District of Nanaimo.
“You see everything from garbage bags to truckloads of roofing material,” Grant said.
Sometimes jobs border on the bizarre. A call to pick up a couch on a logging road prompted one employee to phone in and report his find before proceeding.
“He called in and said, ‘Yeah, well, it’s a couch alright, but there’s a deer on it and it’s on fire,’” Alison said.
Employees sent to pick up a broken freezer three quarters full of meat in an elderly woman’s home reported they could smell it as they walked up to the house. Attempts to move the freezer only resulted in the workers becoming violently ill. It was the only job they were ever forced to abandon.
Grant said hoarding cases are common. Most times the hoarder’s family or mental health practitioners call for help cleaning up, but in rare occasions the hoarder will reach out for assistance.
“As hard as it is to do some of these jobs, it’s fascinating what’s behind closed doors,” Alison said. “We walk into some of these situations and they’re sad, they’re weird, they’re interesting.”
Not all unusual finds are simple junk. Grant recovered float plane pontoons from the home of a woman whose husband was a pilot before he died.
“Grant picked up a bazooka one time,” Alison said. “A real bazooka.”
“I got it from a guy in Comox,” Grant said. “My father-in-law is into military stuff and he said Canadians didn’t even have bazookas, so he must have got it from the States.”
Folding bicycles, a piano, wheelchairs, wood sash windows, home electronics and a myriad of items are stacked up around the warehouse.
“I’m sure there are people who need beds and kitchen tables and things, but sourcing those out takes a lot of time,” Alison said.
Unwanted household items are often given to women’s shelters and charity garage sales, but many charity organizations already have more stock than they can deal with. Charities even call to take away garbage or junk dumped around donation boxes and drop-off points.
To divert articles from the landfill, the Belbins operate a wing of their business, called Full Circle, which runs charity garage sales. When the warehouse gets full, charity groups are called in to price items, hold a weekend garage sale and keep the proceeds.
“So that’s our way of supporting community groups with our junk,” Alison said.