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