LIVONIA, Mich. — A few months after Dayna Freeland bought her 2008 Ford F-150 last year, she discovered the frame was so badly rusted that it was in danger of breaking apart. Rather than storm into the used-car dealership to complain, though, she took the truck to My Mechanics Place along with an uncorroded frame she had picked up for $200 at a salvage yard.
A week later, Freeland, a 22-year-old doctoral candidate in physics from Milford, Michigan, who is also an actor and a model, drove away in her newly stable truck, with a rebuilt timing system to boot. Her total cost was a little over $2,000 because, despite having never done such a thing before, she did all the work herself.
My Mechanics Place, in suburban Detroit, is among a couple of dozen do-it-yourself auto repair shops in the United States. It provided the bay, the lift and some tools for $125 a day.
For the rest, Freeland read parts manuals, watched YouTube videos and chatted up the more experienced DIY-ers working at the garage.
“People keep coming up to me and saying, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe you’re doing this, it would suck to do this,’ but I love it,” Freeland said, her arm adorned with a reminder to herself, written in black marker, of the correct order for screwing back on the engine’s timing cover.
“I started getting into the mechanical stuff out of necessity because mechanics are expensive and I didn’t have the budget, so I had to figure it out,” she added. “And then I learned that I liked it.”
Most customers use My Mechanics Place for simpler tasks like oil changes, brake jobs and tire alignments, said Jay Rabaut, 56, who opened the shop in 2015. But his garage, with 22 service bays that include eight car lifts as well as a paint booth, draws an eclectic array of ambitious, cost-conscious wrenchers who frequently include millennials like Freeland.
The field is growing. Andrew Koretz owns Garagetime, where people can search for and book places to rent a garage or lift in their area.
“The younger generation,” Koretz said, “is holding on to cars longer than ever, are tech-savvy, are inspired by what they see on DIY Network and used to being able to find cheap parts online and have them shipped to them for free in two days.”
DIY car repair is obviously not a new concept. Beyond the perennial image of the dad under the hood of his car in his suburban driveway, The New York Times in 1978 reported on a “relatively recent phenomenon” in which oil companies like Shell and Mobil were testing the concept of leasing garage stalls and lifts to customers to do their own work. In most cases, customers sign waivers releasing the garage from liability should they be injured during their repairs.
But those efforts largely died out in the subsequent decades in part because cars became more durable, more affordable and, with all those electronic and computerized amenities, seemingly more complex.
“Parts and cars became easily replaceable in the 1980s and 1990s, so it was easier to buy another car or take out another lease than to take pride in taking care of your vehicle,” Koretz said. “Now we’re in a stage of society where we’ve moved away from the higher-consumption mentality.
“The average age of a car on the road in the U.S. today is a record 11.8 years,” he added, “so people are keeping them and investing in them longer than ever.”
Rabout and other latter-day DIY garage entrepreneurs saw the escalating cost of auto repairs and the reputation of some dishonest mechanics as an opportunity for a renaissance. Many military bases offer bay and lift space for amateurs to fix their vehicles, he noted, and he wondered if civilians would want that opportunity. Turns out they do, he said.
“People are tired of paying $100 an hour for a guy to hold their car for a week and work on it on the last day and call you up and say it’s done,” said Rabout, who charges $25 an hour or $125 a day for a bay. “People can bring their car here and work on it that day and save 60 or 80% on the repair costs.
“My goal is not to charge a lot, because I’m talking about the guys who can’t afford to take it somewhere anyway.”
Koretz said My Mechanics Place was among the nation’s largest and most elaborate DIY auto repair centers. Garagetime lists about 50 locations in 14 states where garages or bays are available for rent, although many are simply underused bays in existing full-service repair shops or even residential garages where apartment dwellers can go to work indoors.
Koretz, in fact, said he had gotten the idea for the website while trying to do car repair work on the rooftop parking structure of a Whole Foods in Chicago in freezing weather and noticed with envy the many empty residential garages nearby.
At Rabaut’s shop, Freeland is an outlier in the sheer ambition of her work, but the clientele ranges wildly.
Karl Vernon, 50, spent a few days there with a 2006 Winnebago replacing a leaky roof and cutting out accumulated mold and dry rot, reducing the cost of the repair from more than $10,000 in a shop to under $2,000.
Gjoka Lucaj, 44, frequently rents a stall and the paint booth to complete independent body repair jobs, which Rabaut encourages as Lucaj also offers free advice to other customers if he sees them struggling.
But the typical client is more often like Logan Kubin, 20, who popped in one Saturday to replace the exhaust pipe on his 2018 Subaru with “one that’s a little more free-flowing to make it faster for racing.”
“For about five years, I’ve always done everything under a shady tree in the backyard, lifting the car on ramps or gas cans, but I wanted to actually use a lift and I found this spot on Google,” Kubin said. “It’s hard to get the car high enough to get in the middle here, so putting this on the lift turned an all-day job into about a two-hour job.”
Freeland said she welcomed advice and oversight from others and believes that with a little bit of guidance most people could do more auto repair on their own than they thought. But she also related a cautionary tale of an Audi owner who showed up to refill his transmission fluid.
“He had no idea what he was doing, and he just wandered around talking to people, asking them for help, and didn’t get done what he came in to be done,” she recalled. “The employees here did their best to help him, but he just had no idea what he was even trying to do. He ended up leaving and going to the dealership.”