Ask An Appraiser

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

by Dave Kinney
28 September 2023 4 min read
Sunnie Schwartz

This is not my usual Ask an Appraiser column. Appraisers 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. 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 define it 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.

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.

Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via 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.


  • Mark W Bailey says:

    Be wary of the “abrupt genius artist” types – they generally will be very difficult to deal with, especially if you are not happy with some aspect(s) of the project. If they don’t make you feel welcome, chances are they don’t really care about your wants and opinions. On the flip side, watch out for the overly friendly ones that may be great to deal with, but have less than high standards for the work they perform. You really need to go to multiple car meets and ask those with the type of car you are interested in…they will know who the reputable local/regional restorers are.

  • Tom says:

    I am looking for a reputable shop in the long island new york area

  • BG95PreludeSRV says:

    Related question: how do you qualify an engine rebuilder? I’m restoring a ‘78 Civic and can’t get bearings and rings etc.. from Honda (discontinued 35 years ago). Not an impossible quest, as there’s nothing special or proprietary about the bearing shells and piston rings. They just need to be the right size. But how do you know the shop is competent enough to pull it off? (Frustrated because you can go anywhere and get these parts for any SBC or VW, but those of us with Japanese brands are up the creek)
    Any advice would be immensely appreciated.

    • Eddy Eckart says:

      BG95Prelude: King motorsports in Wisconsin is one of the foremost Honda builders in the country. I have several friends who have bought engines/had engine work done there. I don’t know if they would work on an older mill like that, but I bet if they can’t, they might be able to steer you in the right direction.

  • don cox says:

    My experience has been that of low Quality work & shops without the Knowledge to do things Properly– Trying to Fake it– was having brake issues on my 63 Dodge–Shops says-Drum brakes No problem–Pick up car—they say shoes in good shape just needed adjustment– stopped at store -went to leave & front wheels were locked—Wheels were actually Hot– Drums were out of round & they just tightened things up-Two Different paint shops in the last two yrs—Crap work–I really Thought I taked to them enough for them to do Good work (not show Quality) but better than I can do at home–so I don’t know how to avoid the problems—

  • Robert Schwope says:

    Never go to a body shop or collision repair shop, they don’t have the skilled labor or expertise to do a true restoration, they will take your project and use it for “fill in work” when business is slow. You will never get your your project completed. Take a look around the shop. Is the shop clean and organized? Check out the employees and their attitudes. Good Luck

  • Timbo says:

    I went to a place that was supposed to be expert at restoration and repairs or older vehicles. They charged a high hourly rate, so I figured they had the pros to find and fix my problems quickly. WRONG! They were inept and I just ended up with a big bill and the same problems I came in with.

  • Rick McNamara says:


    Let me tell you my story of shop restoration right here in Michigan with two or our own Mustang specialty shops!

    I did everything the author suggests in his article including buying lunch and I still got burned by two shops to the tune of $29,000.

    Shop #1 said all the right things on the phone and again when they came to pickup the car, a 66 GT-350H replica in Highland Green with Gold stripes.

    When the car got up north to their shop, I live in metro Detroit. I again clarified I just wanted them to do a RH front frame rail repair and add a RH torque box. Then finish re-assembly of the car. Yep, we get it, a “Driver”.

    I had to up to the shop again soon after the first visit because they sent me photos showing they had cut out the entire floor pan and trunk panels, stripped the engine, front & rear suspension and took out sheet metal I had already put in(poor welding by me?!

    Shop #2 came and got the car from Shop #1, now in a thousand pieces, a roller when it had left my house. I went up North to see them about every 1-2 weeks, buying them meals etc.

    Long story short, Shop #2 incorrectly put in the floor pan too high and then cut down the seat riser to fix it. They left big gaps(1/4-5/16”) between the torque boxes and the toe boards(their motto-We never made a gap we couldn’t fill with seam sealer)!

    They did have a great painter though! He did a marvelous job fixing my paint issues. I got out of Shop#2 right after the painter finished!

    So, I spent $29,000 between 2 great shops and was actually in worse shape than when I started.

    I filed a complaint with the Attorney Generals office for State of Michigan. Eventually I received a $8500 check from Shop #2 as a result of the State’s investigation. Shop #2 did make me sign a non-disclosure letter. Hmmmm?

    Once last comment on the saga. When Shop #2 returned my car downstate, their driver ended up in the front yard of my neighbor across from my driveway!

    When I ask what the hell he was doing on their lawn, he calmly replied, “backing the trailer into your driveway!” I called the shop owner and told him to have the driver come back and fix my neighbors lawn!

    So, I hired a welder to help me fix all the bad installation of sheet metal and I may be driving the car next summer-maybe!

    If you see a 66 Shelby GT-350H replica, Green with Gold stripes, wave or honk the horn! I’ll be in the one with a blue Michigan vanity plate, “MYPOSM”(I checked, it really is available)!


  • paul s murray says:

    This is all in a way ‘greek to me’ Most all, if not all , of the restorations I’ve helped with have taken place over a period of years and the owners had, at the very least, some mechanical aptitude , often more than mine. It seems a lot of people restoring a car are likely to ‘vacuum the living room, when the kitchen is on fire’ . So the idea of dropping a car off and then just walking away is foreign to me. But of course that’s the difference between having done so for years and jumping in feet first. You become part of the network, know who from who, who might have that part you need, who excels at what. So the, ‘you guys just do it all’ , doesn’t apply. You use one shop for one thing a different for another. However, I knew I guy ,and his brother Johnnie more so, who did a lot of auto collision work to keep the shop open, but they could also go the extra mile and did for me on one than more occasion. So you never know, unless you know. The value of having bought old cars and then just trying to get them reliable and nicer can’t be overstated. You can scrape all that undercoating sprayed over rust yourself and you’ll then know what the condition the floors are really in. Strip the vinyl top off , sand and spray bomb it so no more damage occurs until it’s time to take her to the body shop. Replace those tie rod ends yourself and then take it in for an alignment. The more time you spending just looking under the hood the better off you’ll be. Is that hose leaking? You learn by doing. If you’re not D.I.Y. ‘ing what part of you can you say you contributed other than writing a check? What fingerprint have you left? It’s one thing to say “I rebuilt the engine” when you took the block to the local machine shop and another to say “I rebuilt the engine” when in truth you had the engine rebuilt. Why do that?

  • Rick says:

    Mecum said “you could not restore said vehicle for what the purchase at auction is” Even if you have a reputable shop, the cost is most likely going to exceed what was anticipated and unless it is a rare vehicle most likely will exceed the value. I’m lucky to be able to do the majority of restoration myself. Now if I only had a lift.

  • Steve says:

    I avoid 99% of the above issues by doing all of my own work. I rebuild cars. I do not restore even if I rebuild an original car. Yes, I learned everything by just trying things over many years. My willingness to make mistakes and keep learning is the key to my success. Finally, my experiences have taught me that I can try something once, twice or even three times (usually once or twice works) and eventually succeed. Plus, I now know how to do it, I have the tools, and it usually still cost less and got done sooner than trusting someone else to do it

  • Jim Liberty says:

    I pay my outside shops every week on Friday. That is body paint, and upholstery. I do everything else in house. For a full on #1 job, which is all I’ll do, it is a year and $100 to $200K. Not for everyone. ……………Jim.

  • Alansdaniell says:

    First rule of restoration after 60 years experience make sure you title the car in your name ( no open titles)and that you carry insurance fully on car wherever it might be

  • Ken Kyle says:

    My motto is: If you want a restored car, buy a restored car. Just be sure to look it over very, very carefully before you buy, preferably with a marque expert if you aren’t one yourself, to make the restoration was done right. You’ll almost certainly save money and avoid a lot of aggravation, plus you’ll get instant gratification instead of waiting years for your restored car to come out of the shop.

  • Larry H says:

    The biggest red flag I’ve seen is to look around the shop. If there are several projects sitting all disassembled that looked to have been a while since they have been touched… run. These are usually the shops that ask for payment or a large deposit up front. They start on a car, get half way through and run out of money, so they take in another project. Eventually it catches up with them, they close shop and the owner has to not only get their car back, but finding crucial parts can be a real issue. I was a landlord of a shop that the guy just left town leaving me with the mess. I had trouble even finding the owners, some could not even prove it was their car. I really felt bad for these folks, but there was nothing I could do.

  • Gary Bechtold says:

    Going to a shop for restoration scares me. Too many wannabes out there.

  • Beach says:

    Sound advice. I knew better than entering an agreement without doing my research. It cost me financially, emotionally and more importantly time. I would add it is extremely important to establish an escrow account requiring your signature on ANY funds given as deposits etc … .

  • Brian says:

    If you’re new to a restoration, knowledge about your vehicle and managing each process is critical to end results, costs and satisfaction. For example if a shop is doing the work, buy the parts you need (if you can) in advance for the job they’re working on such as the front end, so you know the real costs. Get a quote from the shop for labor per hour. Get familiar with shipping costs for parts and save time with backordered parts. This way you know what’s going on and what you’re paying for. A good shop will list with descriptions what they’ve done on the invoice and their costs for labor for that process. If you can budget for it, it’s a good way to proceed throughout the restoration and it keeps you informed and in charge. Have fun visit the shop and talk to the mechanics, learn what they do. I agree ‘restoration’ means different things to many people for example: cars and parts can be refurbished, repainted, renewed, rebuilt, replaced, renovated, reupholstered and rechromed. What is costing $2500 today may be costing $4000 in 5 years, who knows. There’s a lot to take into consideration to keep an advantage..

  • Pod says:

    The only way to have total control over the restoration is to do it yourself. If you are not willing, or able, to perform a competent restoration, then you have the choice to either move the vehicle on or take the risk of getting ripped off/ disappointed.

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