How to plan for the best restoration–and what to do if it goes wrong

Photography Credit: Chris Tropea

We’ve all been around the restoration world long enough to hear a few horror stories: botched jobs, runaway bills, delays that last years, missing parts and more. These miscues rarely end well, and on top of that, the owners still need to get their cars properly restored. Now what?

We’d like to say that these things happen for simple reasons—maybe incompetence, maybe dishonesty—but the truth is usually a little more complex. 

We’ve seen great restorations from bad shops and bad restorations from great shops. To us, the common factors in success or failure are project management and effective communication. 

So, what do you do if you’re the victim of a botched restoration? Unfortunately, there isn’t a sure-fire course of action. The solution usually involves negotiation, a willingness to redo parts of the build, a fair amount of cash, and some heightened emotions. 

Be prepared to cut some losses, too. Rarely will a shop be willing or able to accept all of the cost and work—hence the negotiation—and emotions will usually flare on both sides of the situation. 

Need a silver bullet for a problem with an ongoing restoration? The closest thing we can offer is a popular phrase: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. 

Before signing a contract, check the shop’s references and look at their previous work. This can go a long way toward selecting the right place for you. We’re surprised at how rarely car owners perform due diligence. Most of the horror stories that we hear start similarly: “I should have checked references.” Also, employ good project management and communication before the trouble happens. While this part of a restoration is essential, it’s often neglected. 

A successful project requires three types of management: technical, financial and time.

Technical Management: Exactly What Work Is to Be Done?

The technical component of project management starts with an overall assessment. What is the scope of the work to be done, and how much detail will it involve? Each part of the restoration should be covered with written agreements or estimates stipulating how the work will be handled and what it will cost.

For example, a line item simply stating “Rebuild the engine” is unacceptable. The original agreement should be much more specific: “Disassemble, clean, line bore and machine engine block; machine the crankshaft; install new main and rod bearings; install new stock cam and cam bearings,” and so on.

Here’s another unacceptable line item commonly found on agreements: “Fix the rust and paint the car.” There should be descriptions of the damage and how it will be fixed, including which patch panels the shop will use, the exact paint process they will follow, the materials they will employ, and whether the car will be wet sanded and buffed. 

Think about it: If the car returns with a body full of newspaper and putty, a vague line item leaves little room for remediation. The shop could say that they did, in fact, fix the rust. According to our more detailed description, however, the shop didn’t do what they promised, and you’ve got some recourse.

Financial Management: Who Pays What and When?

The financial components of project management are critical but often not carefully discussed. A restoration involves not only a great expense, but properly managed cash flow on both sides of the equation: The shop needs enough money to continue doing quality work, and the owner needs to pay on a schedule he or she can afford. 

This cash flow, like other aspects of the restoration, should be discussed in advance and ideally written into the estimates, contracts or plans. Our overall advice is to make sure the cash flow is commensurate with the work done. For example, when the restoration is roughly 30 percent complete, about 30 percent of the cash total should be spent.

This is a rough approximation, as some stages of a restoration require large portions of the budget—like when a lot of parts are being purchased or subcontractor bills come in. Our main point is to avoid situations that involve large deposits. We wouldn’t recommend paying 50 percent of the estimate before any work is started, for instance. 

We feel that paying an inflated deposit is a very bad way to start a project. While shops often require an initial payment to cover the work they perform, the deposit should be intended for something specific. Perhaps it should be enough to cover the parts and labor for the first month.

Another critical part of the financial plan is to understand whose money the restoration is running on. Does the owner pay in advance, or does the shop bill in arrears? 

Either method is acceptable if properly negotiated and understood. If the owner pays in advance, the shop had better do the work properly and on time. If the shop bills in arrears, the owner had better pay on time and before too much more work is completed. In both cases, the owner needs to be monitoring and approving the work as the bills come in, not just hastily writing checks.

Time Management: What Is the Pace for the Job?

Finally, the project’s timetable needs to be managed. Unfortunately, we can’t give any tight guidelines for the best time management practices, as they depend on the way the shop likes to work, the owner’s schedule, and the pace that the cash flow can support. 

However, like our other advice, whatever time management mechanism is used should be discussed in advance, written down, and referenced often. If the shop is using the restoration as a fill-in between other jobs, then the owner needs to understand that and realize that the work and bills will be sporadic and unpredictable. 

If the shop is committing to milestones and deadlines, those need to be stated in writing—followed by details explaining what happens if those dates are missed. Will the shop face financial penalties, simply restructure the calendar, or do something else when running late?

We usually like a plan that falls between the fill-in and deadline approaches, meaning the shop can commit to working on the car for a certain number of hours per week or month. We feel that most bad restorations either have extended periods of downtime (no work being done) or rushed thrashes (too much work being done too quickly, resulting in poor quality). In our experience, the best time management approaches emphasize consistency; they tend to prevent extended downtime and thrashes, and they’re more likely to lead to successful restorations.

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

When Things Have Gone Badly: Now What?

Of course, our tips work wonderfully if your restoration hasn’t begun, but this is a story about what to do after things have already gone wrong. How do you make the situation better? 

Note that we’re saying “make the situation better” and not “get everything you want.” There are no silver bullets here—if the restoration has gone south, it’s important to realize that you’ll face some challenges, both financial and emotional. Your main goal should be to mitigate and remediate, not eliminate those losses. 

Once the damage has been done, full recovery gets difficult. Follow our advice, and hopefully you can turn a bad situation into something you can live with.


1. Plan to Cut Your Losses

We’re not going to sugarcoat this: We talk to too many people who think they’re going to sue someone, threaten someone, or even sweet-talk someone into fixing everything and turning around a bad restoration. That just doesn’t happen. 

If the situation has gone bad, you need to realistically think about cutting your losses and salvaging what you can. The sooner you think this way, the better the outcome. Nipping things in the bud makes the process of backing out that much easier. 

Here’s something to consider: If you think it’s hard to fix a problem when $2000 has been spent (or lost), think how much harder it is when $20,000 has changed hands.


2. Establish Rational Goals

Once you realize that your restoration has gone poorly, anger or shame often start to affect your judgment. When this happens, sensible options and plans rarely come into the equation. Find a way to get yourself into a rational state and consider the issues that you really want remedied. 

Are you happy with the price, but not the work? Figure out exactly what work needs to be addressed. 

Are you happy with the work, but not the price? Figure out what price is more reasonable and go from there. Notice that we’re not necessarily saying the price you initially expected is reasonable.

The bottom line here is that you can’t just say you’re unhappy with a restoration and expect the shop to magically take care of every problem. You need a tangible and reasonable set of complaints that will dictate your goals for remediation.


3. Find Appropriate Help

Tackling a restoration problem is hard. Doing it by yourself is even harder. Try to find a trusted person to help you define and carry out your strategy. 

Some people want to jump right to a lawyer, but we’d suggest an expert or a trusted friend. The lawyer is a last resort in our book. Your partner is going to help you stay rational, consider your goals, and work as a sounding board while you go through the steps of improving your situation.


4. Decide Whether To Stay With Shop or Move On

These situations require you to make a quick yet carefully considered decision: Can you keep working with this particular shop? If you think they’re downright incompetent—and your helper agrees—then accept that fact and get your car out of there. 

Too often, people will let themselves be talked into giving their shop a second—or third or fourth—chance. With each successive go-round, it gets harder to cut the losses. Plus, at this point, the losses will be bigger. If you think the shop is competent, then put a hold on all work until there is a negotiated, written solution in place. Only then should work resume.


5. Negotiate in Good Faith

Our first four steps are really your homework for whatever negotiations you’ll need to tackle. Storming into negotiation without this preparation is a “ready, fire, aim” strategy that likely won’t serve you very well. 

Even if you feel you’ve been cheated, you’ll find that using good-faith tactics will likely bring you a better outcome than playing dirty. Using your homework, make a negotiation plan. Arrange a discussion with the other party. This is better done face to face than on the phone or via e-mail. 

Use e-mail or written documentation to lay out facts and timelines (not accusations). Use the phone to set up a discussion and maybe frame your concerns (not accusations). However, try your hardest to meet with (not accuse) the shop face to face, ideally with the car nearby so you can point out the issues. 

Why are we telling you to avoid accusations? They’ll only hurt the discussion. Your main goal in the negotiation is to lay out facts that tell a story and lead to a remediation. Accusations are not facts. Fact: “The car sits 1.5 inches higher on the left side than the right.” Accusation: “The suspension rebuild was botched.” Which take is more likely to get a positive response?

As a side note, if you haven’t done much high-pressure negotiating in your life, you are in trouble. Perhaps a savvy friend can give you some advice, but we’d also recommend reading up on negotiation skills before the discussion. There are scores of good books on the market and in your local library that cover the topic, and giving one or two of them a quick read would be worthwhile.


6. Work Quickly, but Don't Rush

Time can be your best friend or your worst enemy, so manage it wisely. If you push toward remediation too quickly, you’ll make mistakes. If you push too slowly, the situation will start to fester or deteriorate.

Set a pace that maintains progress but doesn’t lead to excessive stress or mistakes. If you want the shop to fix certain issues, don’t demand a lightning-fast turnover. However, make sure they’re making reasonable headway. 

If the pace falls off the agreed-upon schedule, it may take more than one meeting to negotiate a solution. Even so, ensure that each discussion makes some progress toward an acceptable outcome. (If this isn’t happening, go back to Step 1 and restart the process.)


7. Remember, a Good Compromise Makes Nobody Happy

This step is important. Even if you’re 100 percent in the right, you may have to compromise to resolve the situation. Remember, some success is better than none. 

Too often, people say that a good compromise makes everyone happy. We’d say that’s not a compromise; if everyone is happy, then they probably all got what they wanted. We just haven’t seen compromises work that way. 

Usually, both parties have to give a little. If everyone walks away a bit dissatisfied but able to live with the results, that’s a good compromise in our books. 

Most restoration problems usually end at this step. If you understand and expect compromise, you’ll have a less emotional process and likely a better outcome.


8. Walk Away for a While

If you’ve gotten this far, you’re likely pretty tired and maybe also broke. Don’t swear off the car or the hobby just yet.

Sometimes a little distance will help you recharge your interest—and maybe your bank account, too. Make sure that when you get back to it, you can afford the car and enjoy yourself. That’s why you got into this in the first place, remember?


9. Move Forward

You’ve done your homework, negotiated your solution, and cut your losses. Maybe you have pulled your car from the shop. Hopefully you can live with the results. Now it’s time to move forward. 

Whether you’ve decided to stay with the original shop or find another one, you’re much wiser now. Take that wisdom and put it to use. 

If there is still work to be done, you know how to better manage it and keep it under control. If the negotiation and remediation process left you with an acceptable outcome and a running car, start enjoying it. 

Even if the whole thing left a terrible taste in your mouth, try to forget about the dark days and move on. Dwelling on it or reliving it will suck you dry. You’ll quickly remember that this hobby can be great fun.

Photography Credit: Dirk de Jager

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8/24/20 9:50 a.m.

The stories I imagine you could tell!

I project manage for a living. A restoration is the quintessential example of a project that can and must be managed. Ant the truth is that car projects are pretty esy to manage since there are few surprises to a qualified team.


What I never see in restoration management is what I call "Cute Puppy Killing" A lot of projects should never get off the ground, and a good project manager will kill these cute little guys before they grow into mean dogs. I could save people a lot of time money and marriages by talking them OUT of doing a car project.


ShawnG UltimaDork
8/24/20 10:52 a.m.

We've fixed several bad restorations now. Autobody guys need to learn to get on the ground and sand rocker panels.

We also kill the cute puppies. A customer had a sad the other day when we told him his 1975 Corvette wasn't worth the trouble.

I've told members here that restoring their baby, even doing it themselves isn't worth the trouble but nobody listens until they're over budget and still have a project taking up two bays of a garage and part of a storage unit.

300zxfreak Reader
8/25/20 7:04 a.m.

Just food for thought, there are quite a few free project management apps and software available, and they can really help keep a project in line and manageable. Seeing a visual timeline is quite a motivator, at least most of the time. Unless you're "that guy", and never look at it once you've filled in the blanks.

TinBox New Reader
9/18/21 12:53 p.m.

As a 30+ year restorer being realistic (on both sides) is crucial! Never low ball a job to get it, we do quite the opposite - ugly truth first, if we're still talking after 10 min then that's a good sign. It's not a cheap hobby, there's no getting around that, your car doesn't know what it's worth and you're primarily buying time. Education on the part of the shop is one of your jobs - tv shows in particular have given people an unrealistic expectation of time and cost. 

Had a guy stop by in an early 911, clearly rusty, and asked about restoring it - I said if we do everything, expect to start at 150...he asked if that was hours! No, that's (Canadian) dollars...he went white and drove off. Had no concept of what 'restoring' the car would entail. 

A big up front deposit should be a giant red flag. Unless there's a big parts purchase the shop should be solvent enough to carry the labour and misc costs for the month, and bill every month thereafter...then everyone's on the same page. As the client, if your situation changes, say so! We've had a number of jobs paused for a period of time over the years - wife wants a kitchen, kid started uni etc - easy to deal with before you can't pay a big labour month. 

Trust your gut! Again, on both sides - we've declined work based on the hair on our neck, and found out later we were correct in doing so. Same goes for a client, if it doesn't feel right move on to interviewing someone else.

Stop by on a regular basis, don't drop it and say call me when it's done. We enjoy showing you the progress, and seeing your enthusiasm for the car and work. We're all car guys, and enjoy doing work for the same. 

Underpromise and over deliver, and remember that restoring a car can be fun...and if it's not ask yourself why. We're currently running a four plus year wait list, and everyone of them is a repeat client. 

Happy motoring!

Casor New Reader
5/8/23 2:01 p.m.

Aside from the shops giving clients the usual vague and ambiguous "fix the rust" or similar, none that I know of give a detailed hours estimate plus parts.  And it's usually accompanied by the equally ambiguous  "a number".  The reasons for this are many.  First, they don't want to pinned down or analyzed as to why the door took ten hrs to fix when they quoted five.  It's just all part of "the number".  Next, the shops have no concept of "billable hours" since most of them are run by body guys, not businessmen with a talent.  Assuming a 40 hr work week, the most a shop hand can bill out is 2,000 hours - 40x50 weeks.  But that is assuming the guy not only works 40 hrs/wk, but also the hours he spent are billable - working on a car.  Going to the bathroom, cleaning tools or doing paperwork doesn't count.  The guy will probably be on the clock for 2,000 hours but the most he can realistically bill is maybe 1,800, assuming an 80% efficiency rate which is high.  Last, they're lazy.  "Why should I do all the work for a detailed estimate, only to be pinned down later for working too long on a door?"  Another reason for all this is demand.  If a shop is in demand and has too much work, they can get away with anything.

californiamilleghia UberDork
5/8/23 3:39 p.m.

Is there any Excel  spreadsheet or something like that that  plots a generic restoration , 

just so you or the customer can see all that is involved , 

I have "restored" lots of cars  but not to the point of taking every nut and bolt off.

and they were my cars , not a customer.

Thanks for the info

frenchyd MegaDork
5/11/23 4:55 p.m.

When I ran S.I.R.  ( Stale Iron Restoration ( or racing ))

    I couldn't accept people who just wanted a paycheck.    Guys motivated by doing a perfect job just didn't stop in.      Eventually I gave up on hiring help and did it all myself.    
  The trouble with that approach is time vs space. A complete restoration take 2000 hrs.  You need several projects to keep a shop going  because sooner or later most people will run out of money.   If when that happens you push it outside and tell them to come and get it,  your reputation is shot.  
  So you are going to have to sit on a few partially done projects.  1800 sq ft isn't enough. Stack and label parts as neat as possible and 4 projects will barely leave enough room to work.  An hour a day will be spent dealing with everything. 
         Plus even 4 isn't enough to properly cash flow.  You'll simply have to use credit at times and it's pretty easy to lose thousands in interest costs.  Put it on a credit card at 24% interest? It's the fastest and easiest way to deal and yes time really is money.  But the bank wants a lot of paperwork even with flawless credit. That takes time.   Eventually I worked with a banker that wasn't the time problem but finding that right guy takes time.    
       My administration was far simpler.  I would collect the money and achieve what that reflected before presenting him with another new bill for additional work.  Things outside of what was discussed  earned a phone call and further discussion.  If something was acceptable without additional work  or only partial work that too got a phone call and credit on the next bill. 

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