How to (try to) protect against a car restoration rip-off

Sunnie Schwartz

This is not my usual Ask an Appraiser column. Appraisers of collector vehicles sometimes get drawn into a dispute between a customer and their repair or restoration shop, and the outcome is never pleasing to at least one of the parties. Prevention of disputes isn’t possible, but we can at least try to figure out a way to help avoid the problems in the first place.

In my experience, most problems happen when the shop gets involved in a restoration that is beyond their ability, or when a financial difficulty necessitates using customer X’s money to complete customer Y’s car. The first might happen when a shop known for the restoration of ’50s and ’60s British sports cars attempts a Mercedes-Benz 600 restoration, or something equally complicated. The second scenario happens all the time. Sometimes it’s a short-term problem, but often it’s not.

Then there are the rip-off artists, the grifters, and the conmen. Recourse can be a real challenge in this situation. Just remember, if it’s too good to be true, it always is. Getting the feeling your pocket is being picked the second you meet the shop owner? Run, do not walk, to the exit.

engine timing adjustment car restoration shop
Getty Images

I’m thirty-plus years into my appraisal business, and frankly, I usually think I’ve seen it all. But a recent spate of news articles has convinced me otherwise. Are rip-offs in the world of repair and restoration on the rise? Maybe, but it might also be that as the dollar figures get bigger, these rips-offs get more attention. In any event, there are avenues to help lower the chance of being tangled up in a dispute. In no particular order, here are my thoughts.

Define “restoration.” No, I’m not kidding. As an appraiser, I’ve looked at a car with a MACCO (not that there’s anything wrong with that) Premium paint job, silver-painted bumpers, and bathroom carpets (there is something wrong with those) that I was told had just been freshly restored. In the owner’s eyes, the car had just finished a“restoration; to the world of car collectors, it was anything but restored. The word means different things to different people. If “restored” to you means your car must have a powder-coated frame and cad plating on all underhood pieces that aren’t painted, you should say so at the outset. In writing.

If it stinks from the start, it will never get better. Had a bad first few months? Get vocal. The shop and you might not be a good match, or you or the shop might have unreasonable expectations.

Get recommendations. Lots of them. If you have a friend who had restoration work done at the shop you are thinking of hiring, great. Start there, but don’t go on just one person’s experience. Ask around. If the shop is in your area, you will often find other people who have used their services. Be mindful of online reviews—read them with an eye toward metrics that matter to a quality build, rather than whether they’re open on Saturday or other trivialities.

Woody car restoration shop interior
Getty Images

Interview the shop. Can they make time for a visit? Go, take notes, take photos (ask first, they may not allow them with customer cars in the background), and enjoy learning about what they do, and how they do it. What is their philosophy of restoration? Will they only do a full, frame-off job, or are they okay with doing something smaller like a routine service? Do they bill monthly, bi-weekly, or when they run out of cash? (Warning, that last one is not a good sign.) I was visiting a shop a few years back and they made a point of listing their “celebrity” clients (yawn…). I started thinking about their named list of about a dozen celeb clients on the drive home. Seven of them were dead, one had sold the car at auction in the 1990s, and two were more like locally known folks than actual stars. Is the shop living off a reputation it earned in the Reagan years?

Ask a lot of questions. No one likes a pest, but on the flip side, it’s your money, your car, and you are hiring them. Write out a list, and just ask. Keep in mind you may not be a good fit for them just as much as they might not be a good fit for you. Best to discover that before handing them the keys.

396 badge muscle car restoration
Gabe Augustine

Visit the shop often when your car is there. Get more photos. If you can’t be there, hire someone who can. Get more photos, again. Never let a week (or two weeks, or one month) or whatever timeline you are comfortable with, pass without a visit. Not only do you want photos documenting the work while the payments are going out, but photos of your restoration work will also enhance the value of your restoration. Total win-win, if you ask me.

In many cases, the shop you hire will serve as a general contractor, perhaps farming out some things like powder coating or interior restoration to another business. Can you do some of the work yourself? Are you good at, say, stripping old paint or restoration of the interior wood? Talk to the shop first. Be sure, if you do some of the work that you work to their timeline.

Ask about costs. There is a saying in the world of car restorations: “If you want a 95-point car, the cost is X. For 100 points, it’s two times X.” Laugh line? Nope. It’s surprisingly close to correct. Talk with them about setting a budget and try to stick to it. That can be hard, even with reputable shops. Badly done prior repairs, rust damage, or even incorrect parts that create compatibility problems are only some of many problems that can be discovered during teardown.

Get to know other people in the shop, including the “front line” of those who work in the office. You are entering into what could easily be a multi-year financial relationship. Be a real person, not a faceless checkbook. Buy the crew pizza from a local shop on some random Friday. Coffee and doughnuts when you are checking on progress. The cost is almost nothing, so be kind and show that you care.

classic car restoration on life
Fatemeh Bahrami/Getty Images

“They have a TV show, so they must be great, right?” You’re really asking this question? No, having a cable show or well-subscribed YouTube channel is not a stamp of approval. Television has the power to make smart people look clueless, and clueless people look smart. And no, your car cannot be restored in 26 minutes, just like they do on television.

One more thing: I have found that far and away, most shops try their best to do a good job for their clients. Misunderstandings can always happen, but staying in touch and keeping your head—and your sense of humor—can make the restoration go much smoother.




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    Reputation is key. How long have they been around. What are their results are important.

    A deal like this is not like a car repair. You really begin to have a relationship with the shop. Odds are you will be working with them over a long period of time so really get to know them and find if you can deal with them. If there is a personality clash then find another shop.

    You also need assurances and confidence that those unobtaimium parts you have sourced over the years actually find their way onto your own project. Especially internal parts.

    I’ll say it again you need to see their past work and talk to the owners about their experience. Not likely to get to much useful information on a Yelp review or something like that.

    The shop I used did a lot of collision repair to keep the money coming in, but had three or four 70s cars in there when I was contemplating using them. The owner encouraged me to look over their work before I brought my car in. This was in the early 2000s. One Pontiac (may be a GTO or LeMans) was getting new quarters at that time. There was another GM car and a Mustang in there as well. Most of the work seemed decent quality. So I removed drivetrain, side glass, interior, chrome and everything from car down to rolling body and brought it in. I knew it needed some steel, so I sourced a roof, package tray (rear window shelf), and firewall from a yard 100 miles away and brought those pieces in also. Naturally there were hiccups. A fender required major work (it was a “new” replacement from the dealership in the late 70s). Apparently it had been folded during shipping before being placed on the car by the dealer at the time. The shop then lost the package tray I brought in. But mostly progress took place weekly, and I paid for progress monthly.
    As most projects go, it took twice as long as I thought it would (9 months versus 4), and cost twice as mush as I thought it would. But the result met my expectations, and I got the car back 2 weeks after my daughter was born. Needless to say, the reassembly of everything else that needed to be brought back up to the level of the body took a ***long*** time.
    The shop must continue to be doing fairly honest business. I just looked them up, and 20 years later, they’re still in business with the same owner. I must have simply gotten lucky.

    I lost thousands and a piece of my heart when the shop I paid a handsome deposit to went bankrupt. I suppose I was lucky to get my stripped rolling shell back, minus the nose and trunk lid I had provided. My very expensive lesson: you’re not being a nag if you visit the shop at least every week just to see that things are moving in the right direction, and your parts are still on site.

    Integrity and accountability are everything in that business. I’ve supervised a number of restorations for clients over the years. I’m a high end auto detailer and recognize quality work. I am not a great expert on authenticity, numbers, dates, or correctness on most cars but I’m not completely illiterate on those subjects either. It is definitely important as this article suggests to interact with the shop regularly, or have a guy like me taking photos, asking questions, and keeping an eye on progress and quality.

    In the late eighties and early nineties I had a shop as a detailing client that did gorgeous work, but the owner was an absolute fraud and criminal who ended up taking his own life when the walls closed in on him. The aftermath was a nightmare for his clients, many unknowingly owned the same cars and were paying for restoration work. I always wondered what his end game was going to be and found out why cars never got completely finished and moved on to their owners. He owed me a lot of money when he checked out as well, not to mention his very talented staff.

    Here was a shop that knew quality, but the integrity and accountability was not there at all.

    Follow the money, because it’s YOUR money!

    He had a stellar reputation as a fine young man who was attentive at doing first-class restoration work for local car enthusiasts – most notably, Austin-Healeys were his specialty. His restoration shop is located in Sidney, BC Canada.

    I had a 1958 Austin-Healey 100/6 (BN6) with 390 hours of body and chassis work already done by a friend who had been in the restoration business for decades. Due to extenuating circumstances the restoration project had to be indefinitely postponed, and so the Healey sat in a shed for a few years.

    At an Austin- Healey Christmas dinner I was approached by Jason Stoch who had the Sidney restoration shop, and he asked if I’d like him to do a primer coating on the Healey, which had started to show some oxidization. So I said yes.

    After the primer coating was completed he really wanted to keep the car and do “a little bit more work”. Long story short; the “little bit of work” ballooned into thousands of dollars, the invoices only listed the hours, the parts and the amount owing (he was billing me for parts I’d already bought). He consistently refused to detail or disclose what work he claimed to have done and if I didn’t pay the invoiced amount he said he had a legal right to keep the car, the $10,000 in new parts, and the money I’d already given him. How many people are going to continually hand over thousands of dollars and not know what they are paying for?

    His motive? He wanted the Healey for nothing and whatever money I’d foolishly throw his way. All totalled; I’m out between $45,000 to $50,000 and at this juncture it would probably take a miracle to get the Healey and all the parts back. Long after the fact, it has come to light that other people have had issues and he has even been taken to court. The takeaway is that the seemingly nicest guys can sometimes turn out to be the absolute worst.

    A freshly completed, bare metal restoration, 356, sent to the dipper to be done over. Over $250K AND a ton of NOS and restored hardware and parts gone and not used. Clecos used to hold the passenger kick panel in. Mig welding wire hanging from everywhere. Half inch thick bondo everywhere. You really feel bad for someone to get mugged like that.

    A freshly completed, bare metal restoration, 356, sent to the dipper to be done over. Over $250K AND a ton of NOS and restored hardware and parts gone and not used. Clecos used to hold the passenger kick panel in. Mig welding wire hanging from everywhere. Half inch thick bondo everywhere. You really feel bad for someone to get mugged like that.

    Outward appearances is what I got burned by,I knew that only certain shops were capable of doing classic car repairs.Went with a recommendation from my insurance company.Being naive about the process I went with this shop they recommended,looked pretty good to me as they always had a couple of hotrods sitting in their showroom. Started off good and then got worse, owner was usually not around or had plenty of excuses about the progress of the repairs (parts on order or countless other reasons) I made weekly visits to see the progress and numerous times there was none. After months of this and about 90% of the repairs done I couldn’t take it anymore and I picked up my truck and bid them farewell.A word to the wise do your due diligence and you will be better off.

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