As drivers cling to decaying cars, garage offers DIY repair space

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Does your car need an oil change, some brake work, or maybe fresh transmission fluid? A new garage has a simple message for you: Fix it yourself.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Does your car need an oil change, some brake work, or maybe fresh transmission fluid? A new garage has a simple message for you: Fix it yourself.

The four entrepreneurs behind Fix It Yourself Garage, in a north Charlotte warehouse, are offering a new service they say is designed to save people money on car repairs, give car enthusiasts a place to gather and help eradicate the average driver's fear of their engine.

"Working on a car isn't as difficult as people have been led to believe," said David Lopez, 28, a mechanic and one of the garage's founders. "Obviously, you're not going to start with a transmission change."

As the downturn grinds on, people are keeping their cars longer and pulling back on buying new vehicles. FIY Garage's founders believe people also want to save money badly enough to do car repairs themselves.

But those old cars need maintenance. The North Carolina Automobile Dealers Association says there has been a 30 percent drop in new-car sales since 2005.


And a study by auto market analyst R.L. Polk & Co. earlier this year found that the average age of American vehicles on the road has crept up to 10.2 years, compared to about 8 years during the 1990s.

The FIY Garage founders say they want to do for car repair what Lowe's and Home Depot did for home repairs: Convince people they can do work that they might have left to a professional before.

"Your car's not going to instantly explode, which seems to be the common perception," said Will Rice, 29. The garage's other two founders are LeeAnn Shattuck, who runs a Fort Mill, N.C., business helping women buy cars, and Dan Gotte, a self-described entrepreneur.

They've outfitted the warehouse, which used to house a granite shop, with two 9,000-pound car lifts and another six flat bays equipped for working on cars and motorcycles placed on jack stands. They've also bought cabinets of shop tools, compressed air and specialty tools for customers to rent, and plan to offer classes for those who can't tell an engine from a muffler.

The standard package costs $20 an hour and includes time on a hydraulic lift, use of all the shop's nonspecialty tools and disposal of used fluids.

The garage opened in November, and plans a grand opening in January.

"I started working a lot on my car in college to save money," Rice said. He realized he could do a lot more work on his 1997 Ford Explorer if he could rent time on a hydraulic lift. "There was never a place that I could," he said.

Rice, now a researcher studying wastewater, thought there might be a place in the market for such a garage. So he put together a business plan that he pitched this year at Charlotte's Five Ventures Conference for entrepreneurs.


Gotte, his coach through the competition, thought the business had real-world legs and helped enlist Shattuck and Lopez to get the business off the ground.

The four say they've financed the project themselves, but won't say how much they've spent. If the concept takes off, they will seek outside financing to expand to more locations.

Robert Botzenmayer, a 26-year-old civil engineer in Fort Mill, used the FIY Garage in November. He's been trying to save his money since he was laid off from a private firm several months ago.

Botzenmayer estimates he saved about $250 in labor costs when he took his car to the garage for a few basic repairs. In total, he spent $250 on parts at Wal-Mart, Auto Zone and his Chevrolet dealer and lift rental fees at the garage.

He spent four hours of his own time to do suspension repairs, a transmission fluid flush, change the differential fluid and replace the fuel filter of his 2002 Silverado pickup.

"It's basically stuff you can do in your driveway," he said, "but it's all under the car."

Renting a lift, as opposed to jacking the car up and working on his back under the car in his driveway, kept the projects from sprawling into a day-long debacle, Botzenmayer said.

He's changed his oil and done other minor repairs before, but Botzenmayer said having a place of his own to do work helped him do more complex tasks. He would have saved even more if he hadn't needed to replace his differential fluid, Botzenmayer said, a specialized task that added $130 for the fluid.


Brendan Byrnes, a spokesman for AAA Carolinas, said that as far as his company knows, FIY Garage is the only such business in the state. There have been similar businesses in the past, Byrnes said, but many ran into liability problems.

"Their demise generally came when someone operating a lift hurt themselves," Byrnes said.

The FIY Garage founders think they have that problem figured out. They say they have extensive liability insurance and require customers to sign a waiver before doing any work. Kids under 12 aren't allowed.

A garage shouldn't be viewed as an especially dangerous place, they say.

"Quite frankly, they insure people who throw people out of airplanes for fun," Gotte said.

Byrnes said that as long as the garage is managed safely, anything that helps the public understand their cars is a positive.

The garage is designed to appeal to two different segments of the market: People who can't tell a brake pad from a transmission and want to learn, and people who already work on their cars but need a more convenient, safe place to do repairs.

In the end, the founders say people learning how to fix their cars might make mistakes -- but so might a mechanic.


Said Rice: "You can screw it up, or someone else can screw it up for you."

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