When I think of the term “backyard mechanic,” all kinds of negative stereotypes come to mind. The prevailing idea is that they are hacks that could not handle a “real” job. They are known for doing cash work and not paying their fair share of taxes, for poor-quality workmanship and cheap parts, for very low labour rates that drag the marketplace down.
On a recent flight, I happened to be sitting beside a medical professional. As we chatted before take-off, it came out that her husband was what she called “a mechanic that was too honest for his own good.” As it happens, he was a backyard mechanic, working from the two-car garage of their house. She explained that he had had some bad experiences working for others, and decided to strike out on his own.
But guess who brought home most of the money? “I am subsidizing my husband’s hobby,” she said. “He does not have the heart to charge properly for what he does.” I have met dozens of couples like this over the years, where the family income of the shop owner has to be subsidized by their spouse, because the spouse has a better education and a profession.
I recently met another shop owner who started working out of the garage of his house 18 years ago. He now owns a nine-bay shop, with two service advisors and five technicians. He has a high-tech shop that is profitable and has a great reputation.
Like most people in this industry, I used to have a negative bias towards backyard mechanics, but that conversation with my fellow passenger reminded me that each person has their story. Her husband loves cars; he is a good mechanic; he has a big heart; he had so many bad experiences at the shops he worked at in his early career that he does not believe there is such a thing as a good shop. Her story broke my heart, but it gave me a new perspective on backyarders.
All successful shop owners learn how to manage and run their businesses so that they can provide the highest wages and benefits in the industry, so that people don’t have to moonlight. And really, the last thing most technicians want to do is work on cars in the evening and on weekends. The truth is that the biggest problem with backyard mechanics is that there is no one to hold them accountable, in the same way as a professional shop. I have heard countless stories of consumers whose vehicles were not repaired correctly, and they have no recourse because the backyarder has no insurance or money to make it up to their customer.
There is a huge shortage of technicians today, and some backyarders could actually be a good source of competent, experienced employees, if you can persuade them to join you. Advertise to them, or their spouses, that you have great paying positions with great benefits. At the same time, work with government at every level to enforce land-use bylaws, business licensing, environmental protection, and most importantly, consumer protection, for the customers of the remaining people that insist on working on cars in their own backyard.
And if you are a backyarder reading this, ask yourself if your homeowners’ insurance company knows you are working on cars in your garage, and what would happen if you got sued or got pinned under a car while working by yourself. All that cash you have made, tax-free, is not going to replace your home or your ability to work if you lose them.
Here’s my advice to the backyarders out there: not every shop is a terrible place to work. Your skills are in demand, and there are plenty of well-run shops that will be eager to give you the work environment, salary and benefits you are looking for. But if you are convinced you have the skills and the smarts to work for yourself, then go ahead and take the risk: open your own – legal – shop.