Here’s why I don’t work on other people’s cars for money

Rob Siegel

Those of us who are backyard mechanics know the drill. Maybe the request comes from a buddy with the same vintage car that has become our shared lifelong passion (in my case, that’s 1970s-era BMWs). Or maybe it’s a single mother at the end of her financial and emotional rope who just received a nosebleed-inducing quote on a muffler for the minivan. She knows your spouse, your spouse mentions it to you, you sigh, and against your better judgement you say, “Tell her to bring it by.”

It’s rarely a good idea. It can often land you in “no good deed goes unpunished” territory.

Having said that, before I spin out the stories, let me immediately walk it back. Believe me, being an automotive savior is just about the best feeling ever. Whether it’s a jump-start … or cleaning someone’s corroded battery terminals and having their car spring to life … or an illuminated check engine light for which you can read the code and assure the person that it’s a get-to-it-when-you-can issue and not something imminent that’s about to cause damage … or a low tire for which you show up with a cigarette-lighter compressor, a can of Fix-O-Flat, and a floor jack and use whichever is necessary and appropriate … few things feel as good as being a knight in shining armor.

The problem is that although some repairs are a quick-in-and-out, most aren’t. Many have an unclear diagnostic process and a slippery slope for completion, and you, as a do-it-yourselfer, aren’t often equipped to deal with them, particularly on an unfamiliar car. It’s one thing if you snap off a bolt on your own car and have to spend hours dealing with it before moving back onto the repair itself; it’s quite another if it’s someone else’s car. If you’re doing it for free, you begin to resent it. If you’re not doing it for free, it raises all sorts of other issues—insurance, permits, etc. It’s easy for both parties to feel dissatisfied with the result.

The first time this happened was during my sophomore year in college, fairly early on in my wrenching years. I’d owned my 1970 Triumph GT6+ since graduating high school. As I’ve written, it constantly broke down, so both the car and my ability to fix it myself became pretty well known in my circle of friends. My friend Paul had a VW Beetle that needed brake work. He was poor and begged me to fix it. I eventually relented and told him that if he bought the parts, I’d install them for him. Unfortunately, in addition to front pads and rear shoes, I discovered that the car had a leaking rear-wheel cylinder. This was a rusty New England car with Fred Flintstone floors, and the brake lines didn’t look much better. I explained to Paul that there was risk of the line snapping when I unscrewed it, but there we were, with the car jacked up in the dorm parking lot, at 3 o’clock on an October afternoon with daylight burning. He asked me to press on, and—you guessed it—twang went the brake line.

Nowadays, of course, I’d know how to deal with it. First, I would have tried to prevent it from happening by first heating up the brake line fitting with a torch and using penetrating oil or wax to loosen it. But at the time, I probably still thought that WD40 loosened stuck fasteners (it doesn’t). And now, when a brake line snaps, I known how to deal with it, either by buying a replacement, or by making my own with copper-nickel tubing, a flaring tool, and the correct fittings. At the time, however, this exceeded my nascent mechanical capabilities, so there was little choice but to take it to a real repair shop. To avoid paying for a tow, I put the brakes back together as best as I could and drove the car to the shop at 2 a.m. with only the other half of the tandem braking system and the handbrake to slow it (a risk I’d never take now). Paul wound up having to pay more than what it would have likely cost him had he simply taken it in for a brake job. He didn’t blame me for what had happened, but it was a highly unsatisfying experience for both of us. It warned me off working on other people’s cars for about 15 years.

Then, in the late ’90s, my wife and I were in a band with a guy named Blair who owned a 1979 VW bus. The exhaust in his bus had gotten loud, he knew that I fixed my own cars, and that my wife and I had owned a succession of similar buses (as well as Vanagons), and he asked for my help. I gave him a lengthy monolog on the slippery slope of exhaust work—that if one exhaust component has a hole, the odds are that the others aren’t far behind; that new and old pieces often don’t seal well against one another; that, on air-cooled VWs, the heater boxes are a part of the exhaust and they’re bolted to the head; and that having to remove the nuts on head studs is rife with danger because if the stud snaps, you’re in for a world of hurt, as the head may need to be removed in order to drill out and replace the snapped stud. This dissuaded him for several months.

But as the van’s exhaust got louder and louder, Blair begged me to give it my best shot and swore that if something went south, he wouldn’t hold it against me. He bought an all-new exhaust along with replacement heater boxes. I did use heat and penetrating oil on the nuts holding the boxes to the head studs, but regardless, when loosening one of them, I felt that sickening sensation of it twisting without any accompanying screeching or the loud crack of a nut coming free, and the stud snapped off.

Someone else undoing the nut on the exact stud I snapped off. Mustie1/YouTube

Blair shrugged, but that was only because he didn’t really understand how serious this was. In theory, you can try to drill the stud out with the head in place, but I was concerned about messing up the head. I put the replacement heater boxes and the new exhaust on, and it was way quieter than it was before, but it was obvious that some exhaust was leaking past the gasket on the exhaust port that had only one stud instead of two, and such things only get worse over time. Again, I was left with the feeling that I’d done something wrong. “I am never going to do this again,” I said to myself.

And I didn’t. For almost another 15 years.

Until a woman I went to high school with put out a call on social media saying her car needed brakes and she didn’t have any money. She’s someone who used to be a very good friend and unfortunately had developed health issues, lost her job, and was on disability, so I said I’d look at it. It was a rusty old Subaru that anyone with a paycheck and a commute would’ve junked, but it was all she had. Fortunately, she had a printed estimate from a repair shop that itemized what was needed, which included not only rotors and pads but also a front caliper. When I called a local parts store to find out availability of the parts, there seemed to be some confusion over the size of the rotors, so I put the car up on my mid-rise lift and measured them directly, then picked them up. Unfortunately, when I began the repair, it turned out that the pads I was sold didn’t match the rotors, and by this time, the store had closed. Oh, yeah, it was Sunday evening. She didn’t have to work the next day, but I did.

Doing a brake job on a car that looks like this doesn’t make a lot of sense, but people in tough situations try to get by. Christopher Ziemnowicz/WikiCommons

I made it into the nearest AutoZone by the skin of my teeth and bought pads that matched the rotors. I put everything together, bled the brakes, was about to test-drive the car, and found that the brake pedal went right to the floor. If a central brake component like the master cylinder is replaced, it’s not uncommon to have to bleed the brakes multiple times, but it’s a little unusual when it happens on replacement of an outlying component like a caliper. Finally, I got the pedal to firm up, but something in the brakes still didn’t feel right. It was probably just that more bleeding was needed, but I would’ve hated to be wrong and for it to be the master cylinder.

It was now 9 p.m. on a Sunday, I’d been dealing with the car for almost nine straight hours, and my wife was entertaining the woman in the living room. There was nothing wrong with any of this—in fact, it fit with my self-image of helping people, particularly old friends—but it did need to have an endpoint. I sent her home with the instructions to call me if the brake pedal travel suddenly increased (it didn’t). It was a very odd feeling sending an old friend off in a car whose brakes had some vague asterisk on them, and I was relieved when I learned that, a few months later, she did get another car. But not unlike the first two examples, I was left feeling like I’d done something wrong, and I swore I’d never do it again.

And I didn’t, until circumstances forced me to. And again, the issue was brakes. When I abruptly lost my job in 2016 and had to scramble for income, I did briefly hang out a shingle and let it be known in the local vintage BMW world that I’d wrench for actual money. A friend of mine had bought a long-stored BMW 2002 and asked me to sort it out. He had it towed to my house. As part of the work, I did what I considered a full brake job—front calipers, rotors, and pads, rear drums shoes, and wheel cylinders, and new braided stainless flexible brake lines. About a month later he called me, saying that he was about to drive the car that morning, but the brake pedal went right to the floor. When he looked closer, he saw that the brake fluid reservoir was empty, and found brake fluid on the garage floor, in front of the driver. I was absolutely livid. I told him I’d have the car towed to my house at my expense and would fix it. It turned out that the brake master cylinder had been leaking fluid asymptomatically into the power assist booster, only spilling on the ground when the booster had literally filled up. I replaced them both at no charge. With the nightmare of someone getting killed due to brake failure on a car whose brakes I’d just worked on, I realized that I either needed to go all in and get permits and insurance or stop. I stopped.

engine bay internal corrosion
The brake master cylinder is on the left side of the large cake-shaped vacuum booster. Fluid can leak asymptomatically from the former into the latter. Rob Siegel

Now, in truth, there have been exceptions to this. I’ll swap batteries for friends, natch. And when my friend Bob—the guy with whom I road-tripped 3000 miles to Mid-America 02 Fest from Massachusetts to Arkansas and back—asked me if I would try to locate a snotty metallic rattle that occurred under the car at certain RPM, that was an easy favor for someone who ran and got me antifreeze when my car blew a coolant hose on a different road trip. And then there was the time my friend Mike bought two 2002tiis, had me sort them out, and offered me a week in his house in Nantucket (my wife really liked that). And after I sold my 1999 BMW Z3 roadster to our friend Kim, I continued working on it for her, including fixing it when her son ran it into a median strip, as I couldn’t stand the thought of the car being totaled and parted out (I eventually bought it back). And the whole episode of the “mitzvah 2002tii”—helping a widow sell the car her husband had bought new 50 years ago, including performing a lot more mechanical work than I’d anticipated—was enormously satisfying.

I fixed my former Z3 for a long-time friend rather than letting a curb strike total the car. Rob Siegel

The big one—I mean huge—was installing the engine in my friend Alex’s piece-of-junk Passat wagon. I got into it like the frog not knowing when to jump out of the pot of water as temperature was increasing. The engine in the wagon died, Alex needed a place to park it “temporarily,” then he found a replacement engine and needed a place to put that. As winter neared, I needed it all out of my garage, and the only way to make that happen was to do most of the work myself. Alex is one of my dearest friends, and he is the contractor who did most of the work on our house, including building the garage. He has done me more favors and saved me more money than anyone, so helping him with his car was a no brainer.

pulling an engine on lift
It made sense at the time. Rob Siegel

In general, however, there’s a good reason to say no to repair jobs on cars that aren’t yours. True, part of that is risk and liability, but a bigger part of it is that if you wrench on your own cars for that combination of money-saving, self-reliance, and the Zen that comes from taking on a problem and fixing it your way, realize that much of that goes straight out the window when it’s not your car.

In other words, if you do it because it’s fun, make sure it stays fun.


Rob Siegel’s latest book, The Best of the Hack MechanicTM: 35 years of hacks, kluges, and assorted automotive mayhem, is available on Amazon. His other seven books are available here, or you can order personally inscribed copies through his website,

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    Working on others cars is mostly common sense.

    In my case I try to help where I can and if there are limitations I try to state so up front.

    In my circle we all have different skills and often we help each other with our own specialty.

    We don’t charge as we are here for each others and one good deed is often repaid down the road with the others help coming back.

    Also the work is often don’t at the owner space so if it is an issue it only ties up their space. We respect each others turf.

    If the car is a total mess we state so up front be it ours or someone else.

    The deal is to be honest and considerate. In our group we are some are not so blesses.

    I once helped a buddy sap an 1800cc Austin engine from the ubiquous Land Crab model into his Mini. We worked in sub zero temperatures in a garage with no heat except for burning charcoal briquets in a wheel cover turned upsidee down.
    The swap was successful and then, just before Christmas holidays he announced that he would take the train home. I could of killed him but we remain good buddies.

    When I was in College, I bought an old Dodge for $100. Had no money to get it fixed. A friend in my dorm worked as a mechanic at a gas station and went to classes as well. I helped (well watched) him rebuild a WV engine in his dorm room. Only thing I really did was find the tools and help him carry it. He took the time to teach me how to service my Dodge, from tune-ups, to alternators, starters and radiator issues. I always remembered that he gave me his time and expertise and asked nothing in return. Having rebuilt and driven classic cars since I could afford it, I have gotten the rep for being a decent mechanic. I don’t mind giving advice, when I’m asked for it, but lately, shy away from doing the actual work. That being said I have done a LOT of work on other peoples cars, including a tune up on a Vega in a grocery store parking lot in freeing weather. And Changing a starter on a Big ass Grand Prix in the parking lot of an apartment complex. And so many brake jobs, I can’t even count. I never charged anyone, it felt good to do the right thing. Last brake job I did was for my neighbor with a Challenger SRT8. But THIS time, I supplied the garage, tools and just supervised. He was grateful, and happy, that’s all I ask.

    So I got “involved” with a good friend who bought a V6 Toyota truck with a blown head gasket. The truck is straight and when he called to ask whether we could manage the job I of course said sure, it will be a piece of cake!
    Well I was thinking in terms of doing my Sprite, or small block Chevy or easiest of all my Dodge flathead, all of which could be cranked out in a leisurely weekend.
    The Toyota turned into something else! After a very long Saturday the fluids were drained, the intake and exhaust bolts removed distributor, alternator, radiator, power steering, and all the other pipes, wires and components, making up the job. The different size nuts, and bolts, torque to yield head bolts, and the number of unidentifiable components was staggering.
    I am impressed by the build design and quality and can see that at least we shouldn’t have to do this again for a while, but gosh there are a lot of pieces to this puzzle and little bits like manifold nuts are $8.00 each.
    Anyway, the project has occupied my driveway and the warm Indian summer is gone from the Northwest, and we still have a ways to go toward the finish line, and time is of the essence, the project was fun for a while, but ENOUGH ALREADY!!

    Yes! This was one of the things that prevented me from replacing the head gasket on my sister’s Prius when it blew at 200k.

    If this was a late 80s – early ’90s 3L V6, Toyota has a recall ,still, that covers the first replacement forever. I didn’t need one for my ’89 truck even at 270k, but my ’93 4Runner daily driver needed one by 115k. When the Toyota dealer said it might take a couple of weeks to get the job done, I dumped the 4Runner at Carmax. Apparently it wasn’t the most straight forward job for their techs either!

    I do a lot of favor work – a lot of it for free since the daytime gig is doing alright. One thing I stress heavily is the ‘taillight warranty’. I also generally avoid doing desperation jobs – approaching a broke person with an expensive car problem is a lot like approaching a drowning swimmer and needs to be done with caution

    Thanks Rob – I can sure identify with this article. Working on others’ cars is a losing proposition. Without insurance and the protection of an LLC you can be wiped clean in court. The only option I’ve found is buying cars, restoring them and then selling. Finding candidates at a sensible price has eluded me for the last couple of years however. Hopefully things will change soon.

    I’ve been restoring cars as a hobby since I bought my first 55 Chevy at 15. I’ve always had a project car of some sort. While walking the dog on a winter’s day through my new neighborhood, I spotted a 65 Mustang convertible with the top down in a garage. I knocked on the door to suggest to the owner they may want to store the car with the top up. With no response I left a note with my phone number. The owners wife called me and said they lost interest in the car and were having serious health issues. I offered to buy the car, but they thought my offer too low. I offered to get it running for them for the cost of the parts so they could get more money for it. Well, once running, they changed their minds and started driving it again in the Spring. Of course, the repairs went from a battery and carburetor rebuild to replacing the water pump, and because of a broken bolt, a new alternator, and a fuel line repair, oil change and so on. By the end of the Summer they lost interest again and asked me to help them sell it. Bottom line, they sold it for the same price I offered them the year before.

    Nice. I’ve done the “get the car running as part of deciding whether or not to buy it thing” too. I’m very straight with people and usually say something like “Okay, you and I both know that I just increased the value of this car by a thousand bucks, and all’s fair in love and car sales, but here’s my offer.” Most of these cars still need other work, and many of them are unregistered and/or uninspected, so it’s not as if suddenly they can be returned to service as daily drivers, so usually the need for them to be sold hasn’t changed and the seller is happy to have someone show up with enough interest to make the car go away.

    Decades ago when I didn’t have a legitimate job I let the word out I was taking in auto repair. Within months I stopped spreading that word since the work began finding me unsolicited. I was too naive at the time to be concerned about liability; what stopped me was the endless parade of different cars lining the driveway every week. All these years later I still get an occasional call from someone who kept my number.

    Yah, yah, keep rubbing it in, F&%$ Passat. Should have kept my 300TD Merc. On the positive side you got good material for this article and I far as I know, we are still friends……. So about the suspension on my E46 touring……..never mind.

    Love yah.

    Alex, I almost included the photo of the two of us standing triumphant in filthy clothes after the engine was in, but it, you know, sent the wrong message :^)

    Some problems become the gift that keeps on giving and some help is worth withholding due to the drain on time/money and liability if it all goes wrong

    This is true for just about anything that requires tools – carpentry, plumbing, electrical, etc. Some dear friend, neighbor or other who believes that you would be doing them a big “solid” if you could just lend them a hand, show them how to do it, advise from the phone. Inevitably they lack the knowledge to do the job and it is always faster and easier just to do it yourself. Famous last words “I have all of the materials that we’ll need to do this project!”

    Do you and the wife still play in a band. Kind of looks it.

    Reading your articles indicates to me that you are a master of sorting out problems on cars that need to be trashed. For me, that would go well beyond fun. I keep my language fine-tuned as it is when working on my 5 cars, which are all in great shape. No telling what might come out working on cars of others. Well, maybe I could invent some new curse words.

    That last thought has some merit.

    I enjoy your writing. Keep it up.

    She was a looker…. so I offered to do a GENERAL SERVICE on her car. That offer culminated in me getting a SEAT BELT TICKET during the test drive. WOMAN POWER stickers on the bumper caught the cop’s attention.

    I was selling my 77 Vette and a good female friend wanted to buy it. She had money and could afford to pay to have it fixed.

    Given a car that old, I had replaced most every thing that went wrong. But, still, it’s the little bugs that can get you. I like to sleep at night, so I ended up selling it to an engineering type guy that would love to wrench on it.

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