How to make money with yard work and cleanups

How to Make Money with Yard Work and Cleanups

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You might be surprised how fast you can make money with yard work, otherwise known as cleanups: the simplest and easiest form of landscaping. If you start with cleanups, you can quickly grow a profitable landscaping side business.

I’ve been landscaping for other people since I was a kid, and my first business of my own was a landscaping company. I wholeheartedly recommend landscaping as a side business for anybody who needs some extra cash, fast, without much investment.

If you’ve ever been part of a crew or even took care of your own yard, you know that this can be tough work physically, but it’s pretty simple. You need very little equipment to get started with yard work and clean outs.

Forget investing in a $10,000 zero-turn mower. If you’re serious about landscaping, the bigger toys will come in time. To get started, all you need is a rake, a tarp, and your own two hands. 

What is a yard cleanup?

Yard cleanups, also called cleanouts, or spring/fall cleanups, are the easiest way you can make money with yard work. They’re the bread and butter of a novice landscaper. A homeowner will call a landscaper to rake leaves, edge the garden, trim trees and shrubs, drag branches into the woods, and generally tidy up the property.

Some yard cleanups are huge operations which include dump trucks full of yard waste that need to be carted off to another site. Leave these jobs for the big operators.

What you want starting out are the small jobs, jobs that don’t require the wholesale removal of debris and which can be done efficiently without power tools: raking, clearing fallen branches after storms, even small shrub trimming jobs. Jobs that look like this:

Arrive at job site. Rake leaves onto tarp. Dump tarp in woods, or at the curb for town pickup. Repeat.

Would you believe that I have made up to $75.00 an hour doing this kind of work? In the same week, I’d make $15/hr on my mowing route, because when I was starting out, I didn’t have the expensive equipment, or the business experience, to do mowing efficiently. 

I did have the right equipment to do simple cleanups, though. Take it from me. As a new operator, the humble yard cleanup is where you’ll make your easiest cash.

Start with small and simple jobs to make money with yard work

But wait, Dan, you’re trying to tell me that I can make more money with a leaf rake and a raggedy old tarp than I can with a brand new commercial mower? Come on, man.

Yes. Yes, you can, and for one simple reason. A mower costs thousands of dollars. A rake and a tarp might cost you twenty.

You don’t need a truck and a trailer or even a driver’s license to operate a rake and a tarp. Rakes don’t break down. You don’t need any space to store a rake. A rake doesn’t need gas. You can’t run over your customer’s dog or send a rock through her windshield with a rake, so you don’t need liability insurance.

A rake is a gloriously simple tool. It will make you money.

Reinvest your earnings from cleanups to grow your landscaping side business

The fastest way to make money from yard work is to start with a rake and a tarp. I did it that way, and I’ve seen other people do the same. But if you are serious about landscaping, you will have to upgrade your equipment as you go. The jobs you are able to do will expand as you grow your toolkit. 

Here is the basic yard cleanup loadout I used for 80% of my jobs.

Hand Tools

  • Leaf rake
  • Steel rake
  • Spade
  • Flat shovel (edging shovel)
  • Heavy-duty tarp (Harbor Freight has great tarps, but any brand will do. Don’t buy a flimsy tarp)
  • Hand clippers (Fiskars are great)
  • Hand trimmers for shrubs
  • Pruning saw (Fiskars is also excellent here)
  • Stiff push broom
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Safety glasses
  • Ear protection
  • Gloves

Power Tools

  • Backpack leaf blower (Husqvarna is expensive, but worth it)
  • Gas-powered weedwhacker (string trimmer) with an interchangeable head (I loved my Ryobi)
  • Premix gas can (for your 2 cycle trimmer and blower)

Specialty tools I acquired for specific jobs

  • Chainsaw
  • Brushcutter attachment for string trimmer
  • Shrub trimmer attachment for string trimmer
  • Pole-saw

These tools can fit in the back of a truck bed or a minivan. I even stuffed them in a Honda Civic a few times.

A note on power tools: mechanization can speed up jobs immensely, so you’ll be able to charge more per hour. But beware: power tools are expensive, and equipment comes with a lot of hidden costs in maintenance time and other headaches (chainsaws are the poster child for power tools that are more aggravating than they’re worth). 

Never use a power tool when a hand tool would suffice, and mechanize with care.

Don’t acquire tools until you know they will make you money

Budgeting is just as important for a side business as it is for your personal life. Start with whatever you have. Borrow whatever you can. If you have to buy, buy used (especially for hand tools).

Most importantly, never buy a piece of equipment until you land the gig you will use it for.

For example, one of my early cleanup clients asked me if I do shrub trimming. Her initial job had required nothing but a rake, a tarp, and my labor, but she had a lot of shrubs. So I said sure, I do shrub trimming at $50/hr, figuring she had at least four hours of trimming to do.

She agreed. The next day I used some of the cash from the first job I did for her to buy a cheap gas-powered shrub trimmer. The machine paid for itself and then some on its very first job – and her neighbors saw me using it and asked me to do their shrubs, too!

That equipment purchase made me money immediately and continued to allow me to make money with yard work throughout the rest of the season. This is the safest way to grow your landscaping side business!

Do I need to register my business with the government to do yard cleanups?

Be aware of the laws that govern business in your state and town and follow them. In most places, you do not need an official structure like an LLC to do business, and you are not required to collect and remit sales tax long as your revenue remains under a certain amount.

Read our article on how to turn your hustle into an official business, but for now, start with cash-only transactions and don’t worry much about the regulations while you are starting out. It’s really not as big a deal as many people make it out to be.

But after your first month or two, I recommend you register an LLC with your state;  register to pay state sales taxes; acquire a Federal Employer Identification Number (FEIN); purchase business liability insurance; and get a business bank account. Do it legally.

But don’t take my advice: Go to your local chamber of commerce. Ask about small business mentorship opportunities that may be available to help you with these questions. I recommend SCORE.

How much should I charge for yard cleanups?

My landscaping side business was based in New Jersey, so I charged NJ rates. Depending on where you do business, you’ll need to adjust your rates. Whatever you do, don’t guess.

The standard thing to do is to call up other landscapers in your area and pose as a customer; get them to come out to a site and give you a quote on a job, then use their rates as a baseline. Everybody does that, but I hate this practice. It wastes the person’s time. Would you want someone to do that to you?

I recommend you call up landscapers in a neighboring area, just far enough away that your activities won’t affect each other, and just ask for their advice on what to charge. Some people will say no, but you’d be amazed how helpful others will be. If you start your venture in the spirit of cooperation, rather than cut-throat competition, you will make more friends and allies, learn faster, and go farther in the long run. You may even earn a mentor.

Once you find out the going rates in your area, I recommend you don’t start out with quoting flat rates for jobs. Estimating jobs is a skill that takes time to develop, and if you make a mistake, it can cost you a lot of money or a lot of unpaid time. 

So as you are learning, set an hourly rate that makes you more affordable than your competition, but make sure it’s higher than what you make at your day job (I recommend 50-100% more). 

You may make a little less than you absolutely could for a little while, but trust me, it’s way better than underquoting jobs to be done at a flat price.

How to find good clients to make money with yard work

Start ultra-local. Ask all your friends and family who they know who could use your services. Walk down the street knocking on doors. 

Look up all your local realtors and property management companies and talk to every single one (these are people who need care for dozens of properties). 

Post flyers on all your local bulletin boards. Place a small ad in the newspaper (if anybody reads your hometown newspaper). 

Get a few T-shirts plastered with something to this effect and wear them everywhere:

YARD CLEANUPS

(123) 456-7890

Get a Facebook page if you want, but don’t waste any time or money on a website. It will not make you money in the short run.

For every client you do get, ask them, “Who else do you know who could use my services?” Notice I didn’t say, “Do you know anybody else?” Assume they know someone, and don’t give them an easy out. When you get referrals, contact them as soon as possible. A hot lead is always worth more than a cold call.

Clean up your act – Presentation matters

Your landscaping side business may be a hustle for you, but it’s the real deal for your customers. The truth is that the more professional you look, talk, and work — the more gigs you will land, the more referrals you’ll get, and the more you can charge. 

Get together with some friends and family and brainstorm a simple company name that tells prospective clients exactly what you do. Get a simple, text-only business card with your company name, your name, and your phone number. Leave several cards with everybody you talk to.

Be friendly and not salesy when you talk to people. Don’t smoke or swear on the job (even if your customers do), and pick up the phone when your customers call. I can’t tell you how many people stuck with me just because I picked up the phone. Professional contractors are famous for never calling people back.

And remember, that’s what you are – a professional contractor. A professional can charge a whole lot more than a kid with a rake.

One more thing – be interested in the people you work for. Ask questions. Take a few minutes to listen to their stories, and you will earn their friendship along with their business. And you might just learn something. You wouldn’t believe some of the conversations I have had while raking leaves and shoveling dirt. 

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