The Key to Residential Success

July 18, 2023
New Jersey locksmith David Sykes started his successful locksmith business in the back of his station wagon.

Every locksmith approaches their job differently. In the second part of our interview series, David Sykes, owner of David Sykes Locksmith in Cape May, N.J., shares his approach to the challenges of residential locksmithing.

Locksmith Ledger: Dave, is it true that you began providing locksmith services out of the back of your station wagon about 30 years ago?

David Sykes: Yes, while working as a shoe salesman at a mall in Atlantic County, I realized that without a college degree, I wasn’t going to move up into management, so I started thinking of what else I could do. And I wanted something more local since my commuting costs were going up. Then I happened to be looking at a Popular Mechanics magazine and saw an ad for Foley Belsaw. I began the course and would receive assignments in the mail, complete them and send them back. I remember getting a key and file and was taught to file a key using the smoking method. By this time, I was working for a local hardware store six days a week. 

LL: Did they do some lock work at the hardware store?

Sykes: Yes, I trained under the resident locksmith who ran the key counter and –  in addition to doing the lock work for the store – had his own business going. He taught me the basics of key identification and duplication. Unfortunately, he passed away so now I was the one handling things. I learned how to calibrate and maintain the key machines, and I was also doing the rekeying for walk-in customers.

LL: So now you and your station wagon were ready to hit the road as the locksmith? Tell me more about your station wagon era?

Sykes: I had my station wagon and two 50-foot extension cords and a little Ilco 040 key machine. I remember using the hatchback to keep myself dry when it rained. I’d use my one-hour lunch break to make service calls, rekeys, and repairs around town. I got a 15% discount from the store so there wasn’t much profit with parts, but I’d make some money on the labor and tips. With my small business set up and registered, I started getting work via word of mouth and slowly built things up from there. I was even able to upgrade to a used van!

Later I worked in the maintenance departments at two historical sites in Cape May as an institutional locksmith, while still running my part-time locksmith business. It was interesting working in that environment for a while, but then I went to work full-time for another locksmith before going off on my own. 

LL: Fast forwarding to now, what percentage of your work would you say is residential locksmithing and what kinds of change have you seen since you began?

Sykes: I’d say at least 40% if not more is residential. I’ve seen lots of change, good and bad. The quality of hardware seems to have declined somewhat. I used to be able to service the same Kwikset knob lock for 10-15 years without a problem, other than it tarnishing from the weather. Also, the finish, design, and features of the hardware are becoming more important to the customer, so it’s not one size fits all anymore.

LL: Anyone working as a locksmith will have a few stories worth telling after a while. Would you agree that the stories tend to be about the people part of things?

Sykes: One that comes to mind is the older woman who was visiting a gravesite in a cemetery on a hot summer day and locked a little Yorkie dog in the car while it was running. By the time I got there, the car had been running for nearly an hour and was close to overheating. She was worried about the dog and the car. She was hoping that the dog would jump onto the unlock button, but I beat him to it and opened it instead. 

LL: I’m thinking the process of qualifying people on the phone is somewhat challenging?

Sykes: Generally speaking, it’s not too challenging, just the basic stuff. Very often they count how many doors they need rekeyed instead of counting how many locks are on the door, because they don’t understand that I’m charging per cylinder. You have to ask how many places the key goes into, and they also aren’t typically aware of the fact that in New Jersey, you can’t have double-sided deadbolts. 

LL: How about when they supply a lock that they bought at a big box store?

Sykes: I ask if it’s keyed on both sides and they ask what I mean. I ask, “Is there is a little turn knob on the inside to turn to open and close?” A common answer is, “No,” and that they’ve always had locks with a key on both sides. They get upset when they find out I won’t install the lock they bought. “But that’s what we have in the city,“ they reply. We can service an existing double-cylinder lock – repair or rekey – but we can’t carry it on our truck to sell and we can’t install one. It’s confusing to the customer since they were able to buy one in the store.

LL: How about communicating with customers when they call? Do you sometimes have to use terminology they understand and is that challenging?

Sykes: You and I both have a sales background and can be pretty chatty. I’ll nicely ask them what the measurement is from the edge of the door to the center of the hole and then I’ll ask them to measure the door thickness. Most of the time, they’re happy to do this since they want it done right. They love sending me pictures as well, and that helps.

LL: Are there times when the information you get on the phone turns out to be not so accurate in spite of the questions you ask?

Sykes: Sometimes I’ll speak with the wife, for example, and then the husband will give me different information when I get there so I have to determine which is accurate. Or, I’m prepared to work on just one property, and then learn there’s another one to do (this is the Jersey Shore where people have vacation homes). That doesn’t work out well when I’m pressed for time and wind up working on 18 locks instead of the nine they told me about on the phone. Sometimes the finish is wrong when you get there, or even the agreed-upon time; this happens more often with the person who did not make the initial call. 

LL: What about the functions, how the lock will actually work? Any problems there with the homeowners?

Sykes: Kwikset and Schlage make a simple turn button inside the keyed knob; turn the button and it’s locked, turn it back and it’s unlocked. When it comes to commercial entry knobs or levers that some might not be accustomed to, they try using it the same way by pushing the button in and wind up getting locked out. With the old Schlage F series entry locks, you always had free egress from the inside whether or not it was in the locked position, so people could also easily lock themselves out. The newer Schlage version will automatically unlock each time you turn it to exit. An indicator of some kind would help.

LL: Have you had situations where you look at a job and don’t have a solution? Maybe an old mortise lock that can’t be gotten. for example?

Sykes: Generally, in a situation like that, I have to do research and then give the customer alternative options that will fit the application.  Also, keeping a few old locks and lock parts on hand can be helpful when looking for an obsolete part, especially for hardware on older buildings. 

LL: Do you attempt to upsell products while servicing residential customers? Is there a way you go about pointing certain things out that they might be unaware of?

Sykes: Generally, it’s difficult to compete with the big box stores and Amazon. I charge an additional $20 per hour to install hardware provided by the customer because I’m not making any profit on the resale of hardware, and there’s been no hesitation by customers about it. 

Many people also want electronic locks that work with various credentials like Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Usually, I remove the manual deadbolt and locking knobs, and install a passage lever or knob along with the electronic lock. Many are more comfortable with that setup these days. There are a large variety of door wraps available on the market to cover the different situations that arise with converting them over to electronic hardware if need be. 

Recently a customer had me install a no-name brand lock their daughter bought on Amazon. Fortunately, the installation went well, but it was a Wi-Fi deadbolt. 

LL: Was it being a Wi-Fi lock a problem for you?

Sykes: I did get it to work but I don’t like getting involved with the person’s Wi-Fi profile. I’m not the Geek Squad and don’t normally get into IT stuff. I don’t want access to their Wi-Fi router, or passwords, so I prefer to leave that up to the discretion of the customer. 

LL: Have you been called out to repair what someone has tried to do themselves?

Sykes: It’s common to see stuff that a handyman may have tried to do or the homeowner themselves. They buy a nice lock online or from a big box store and then proceed to botch it badly. Two months ago, a guy hired a painter, and he asked him to install a Kwikset Powerbolt. It was done wrong; screws were stripped out and it didn’t latch correctly, and he managed to kind of mangle the door frame, creating a lockout situation. If I were doing it from the start, I would’ve given him a Schlage Encode so he could have it keyed alike with the existing Schlage lock on the back door. Instead, he got a Kwikset and now he’s locked out! Now he and the painter are locked out as well as his brother-in-law who he called for help. 

LL: What else do you run across like this?

Sykes: Down here at the shore, I run into a lot of nice homes built at a considerable cost, but many times the doors aren’t hung correctly and they sag. Very often it’s because they used the short screws in the box instead of shoring up the top hinge, at least, with longer screws where necessary. Alignment is crucial with electronic deadbolts that move in and out by themselves, as well as for smooth movement on standard locks. And sometimes locks are installed using impact guns on the screws. They get stripped out when the contractors are working to get things done quickly, and they don’t pay attention the way I would. 

LL: It sounds like you take a lot of pride in doing things the right way, yes?

Sykes: I think of myself as a consumer advocate of sorts. We have to protect consumers, not only against locksmith scammers, but also in the overall quality of work performed. Sometimes that means connecting the customer with someone in a better position to help. One customer called and showed me an Anderson sliding door that wasn’t opening or locking correctly. I looked at it and did a door and frame inspection and wound up going to my van to get her a 1-800 Andersen warranty card. She called and someone from Andersen came out to re-install the door correctly. 

LL: Are there jobs that you go look at and decide not to have anything to do with?

Sykes: There have been situations where family members are battling for control of a property or no proper ID is shown when I need to confirm ownership. I’ve had to suggest to people that they go through the courts before I do the work. You can’t just tell a tenant, for example, that the family decided you should leave, and a locksmith is coming to change the locks. It doesn’t work that way. There is a legal process and proper channels to go through.

LL: Have you ever been told a property was vacant that wasn’t?

Sykes: Once, I was called by a realtor and was told that a property was vacant and needed to be re-keyed. I decided to do a drive by first to check on any activity and saw trash cans out by the curb. I figured that was OK and it was a clean-out situation. I also noticed that, in spite of the blinds being drawn and closed, there appeared to be a TV on. I was assured that nobody was there and finally went in to do the job at about 9:30 p.m. I began working on the exterior porch door and, despite the house being pitch black otherwise, I spotted a light coming from the bathroom: not a good sign. So, I knocked loudly on the front door. Out comes a woman in a bathrobe, still dripping wet. She demanded to know who I was and what I was doing there. I explained the property was in receivership and should be vacant and she replied that the owners let her rent for cash. The owner was illegally subletting for cash and never told the realtor. I got out of there and immediately informed the realtor.

LL: Are there things you won’t do now that you may have done when you were younger?

Sykes: Sometimes you have to learn to say no. You can’t be Superman and help everyone with everything. We’re in business to earn a living and to take care of our families. I like helping people and the community, but there are services and entities in place to help those in need. And I’m not a handyman service. Now I’ll walk away instead of doing something I know is not worth the aggravation.