Home / Car News / Selling A Crappy Car To My Landlord Was A Mistake That Continues To Haunt Me Five Years Later

Selling A Crappy Car To My Landlord Was A Mistake That Continues To Haunt Me Five Years Later

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It seemed like a nice gesture at the time. My landlord had just totaled his 2003 Kia Rio and needed something to get around in. I’d just revived a broken 2001 Oldsmobile Alero I’d bought for a $1 from a kind friend, with plans to trash the car as part of a video series. A simple trade seemed like the right thing. My landlord would get a nicely-running Olds, I’d get a running-but-totaled Kia to trash further, and everyone would be happy. Except me — five years later.

I’d just turned 26 when I made the trade with my landlords, a sweet couple that has been so accommodating to my automotive tomfoolery over the years. I’d just like to quote an old story I wrote back in 2017 titled “How The 2017 Ford Raptor Lowered My Neighbor’s Property Value,” because it really spells out how awesome my next-door neighbors/landlords are. To set the scene, I’d just received a text from the couple asking me to come to their house just days after I’d torn up my muddy backyard with a Ford Raptor. Upon arrival, a solitary chair sat in the center of the living room, and I was asked to take a seat. Here’s the rest:

My other landlord (the husband) then walked into the room, and the couple sat down to have what I could tell was definitely going to be a serious talk with me. “It’s about the backyard,” they said, confirming my fears.

My heart pounded in my chest. How long would I have to pack? What do I do about the vehicles that won’t move under their own power? How much will it cost to tow them all to my new house? How am I going to find another affordable place with a garage? All of these thoughts ran through my mind as sweat began to bead on my brow.

That’s when my landlord got to the point: “After talking it over, we’re going to need you to take that mudding you do in your backyard…over to our backyard.”

The record scratched.

“Yes, the neighbor complained that you were lowering property values by mudding in the backyard so close to his, and he complained that you were making noise, so just come over to our backyard when you want to go mudding. We’ll show you the soft spots.”

Not only does the sweet couple let me mud in the yard, but they regularly invite me over for some BOMB Biryani; plus, they seem to actually like the fact that I work on cars. “You are a REAL ENGINEER!” the husband tells me frequently when he walks by me wrenching on my latest shitbox in the driveway.

Anyway, I’m painting this picture because my great relationship with my landlords has led me to basically be their pro-bono mechanic. I’m happy to do it, since they’ve been so nice to me, and because they haven’t jacked up rent since I started living here in 2015. Still, that won’t stop me from complaining about this situation to you, dear readers. I need someone to complain to, after all.

The first few months after the Olds-for-totaled-Kia trade, things were going okay. The Kia completely gave up the ghost in a huge mudpit in my backyard, leading my neighbor to literally call me an “animal” to my face, but the Oldsmobile was running well, and my landlords were enjoying the sweet song from GM’s Twin-Cam inline-four (a derivative of the legendary Quad 4 that I wrote a long deep-dive on a few years back). The car got 30 MPG highway, pretty much everything worked (power windows, locks, possibly even the AC), and the ride was quiet and smooth.

Then, just a few months into the Oldsmobile-Landlord honeymoon, the husband knocked on my door to tell me his brakes had gone out. Relieved that nobody had been hurt, I told him I’d take care of it. After over a month of waiting, my Landlord told me he was tired of being carless, so I got things into gear and conducted an absolutely miserable brake line-replacement job (see above). It involved cutting and yanking out yards of brown, rotted brake line, and carefully trying to snake new line under the car. It sucked.

Then, not long after that, my landlord told me about transmission woes. “It won’t move forward,” he told me. My inspection revealed a severe transmission fluid leak at the in-tank radiator cooler, so I replaced the radiator, but stripped the transmission cooler fitting when I went to install the line into the new heat exchanger. My workaround was to just plumb an entirely-separate transmission cooler out front of the radiator (I used a Jeep ZJ cooler — see below):

There were also some electrical issues along the line that required me to replace the car’s entire interior fuse box. But, for the most part, I hadn’t heard a thing about that Oldsmobile in at least three years. Until yesterday.

It turns out, the car has been sitting in a garage for years. My landlord had let it sit, and the battery was now dead. Given that my landlord literally came to my house yesterday with an Air Conditioning Recharge bottle and asked me why it wouldn’t inflate his lawnmower’s tire — and then he came back with a grease gun to ask me the same (no, I’m not joking) — I recognized that even something as simple as a drained battery was beyond his wrenching experience.

He asked me to mend his car, so I went over to the garage, installed a new battery, topped off the coolant, and fired the motor up. I have to say — there’s just something fantastic about firing up an engine for the first time:

The engine sounded great, and all systems seemed good to go. Popping the vehicle into reverse didn’t yield the driveline jolt I was expecting, and the vehicle wasn’t creeping forward via its torque converter, but I figured the transmission fluid still needed to get pumping, plus the brakes were a bit rusty/maybe locked up.

I pumped up the J-body GM’s tires, then took the thing around the block. It drove great, except from a stop, when it would shudder and sometimes even stall out the engine. Looking at the fuel gauge, I saw just a quarter tank of probably three year-old gasoline, so I topped the Olds up.

With new gas in the engine, the four-cylinder motor sounded the same — which is to say, really good for a 170,000 mile mill in a rusted-out $1 Oldsmobile that’s been long-neglected. Unfortunately, the car still shook and stalled when taking off from a stoplight. I’d experienced this type of thing before, and it’s almost always a low-transmission-fluid issue; the sweet smell of Dexron/Mercon III in the air led me towards the front of the vehicle, where I crouched down and discovered what I knew would be there: A fast drip from my transmission pan directly to the ground.

Dammit.

I’d replaced the transmission cooler a few years prior, now I get to replace the transmission oil pan. This won’t be a huge job (I just have to remove a bunch of 8mm bolts, catch all the fluid, take out a filter, reinstall a new filter, install a new pan gasket, zip the bolts back in, and re-fill the transmission), but it’s going to be messy.

It’s just more bullshit from a car that I’ve been unable to get rid of in five years.

Why did I not listen to these commenters back in 2017? WHY?!:

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68 Responses

  1. Thanks David! You really are awesome!
    Not everyone blames the giver.
    I Know for a fact that my dad never did burnouts in the Italian Tin Worm eaten Fiat that I blew the engine in! I realize that getting rubber in three gears contributed to it’s demise, but so did push starting it in reverse! God what a piece of work I was!
    But, Young and STUPID!
    In reality it was probably best that it gave up the ghost when it did, before someone got hurt more than me, but that was just the shame and agony of destroying my first car!
    Keep the faith David, I’m pulling for you!

  2. David Tracy: Making you feel better about your automotive decisions!

    You’re a good dude, David. May your bolts not be locked or cross threaded, and your tires always be inflated.

  3. For all the work you do on your landlord’s cars, he ought to do you a solid and install a lift for you so you don’t need to lay on your back on the cold concrete driveway (been there, done that too often myself).

  4. Looking at it objectively you have been saved so many inop car parking tickets, rent hikes and gotten awesome food out of the deal compared to a usual apartment. I would argue you have done well even if you had to rebuild half that olds. Cool landlords are few and far between.

  5. Unless a family member of friend is auto savvy, I do my best to not help them out. It sounds like a jerk move, because I work in the business and I’m quite handy with cars, but my good deeds have punished me far too much. I’ve been waiting for about 10 months to be repaid thousands of dollars from someone who “needed some help”.

    I have forgotten everything I know about cars since.

    1. Yeah if you read Jalopnik you’d realize DT would be living in his cars if not for his landlord. Of course if he could find a place to park all his vehicles together he wouldn’t have a garage but would have about 10,000 sqft of living space.

    2. I learned about a legal principle called “reckless endangerment” being a nice guy. A friend had some relatives visiting and asked to borrow my boat. The borrower had been out on the boat many times and knew how to handle it. While they were out, one of the guests decided to hop into the water. The water was about waste deep, and she picked a spot with rocks covered in razor-sharp barnacles. Her feet were badly lacerated.

      About nine months later I was served notice that I was being sued in civil court. The suit said that her injuries were my fault because I should have known that lending my boat to my friend would endanger the guests. I wanted to fight it, but my insurer paid her $50k to close the case “without prejudice.”

      Think long and hard before you lend anyone anything.

      1. Or very smart. Like when Dan tells Becky he’s going to put tinfoil in the microwave to warm up dinner (on classic Rosanne).

        “Ya can’t put tinfoil in the microwave, dad! […] Nevermind, I’ll just do it.”

    1. I would say DT is lucky to have his landlord. I can’t believe the landlord is as laid back as he is. Anywhere else DT has the minimum requirement by law to move, loss of deposit for damages. I’m thing land at both places, a dishwasher used to clean auto parts, all kinds of shit no sane landlord would allow. But a $1 shitbox and a few repairs over 7 years and no increase in rent to boot? I bet nice landlord been getting screwed by mechanic for years and is willing to put up with our beloved DT antics to save thousands. Too trustworthy. DT take care of these wonderful people fix anything needed, though maybe check monthly so it doesn’t become a huge job and thank whatever God you believe in that brought the three of you together.

  6. I gave my sister’s fiance a car not to long ago. Scott free. Shortly thereafter I got a call from my sis bitching me out because the gas tank was leaking and I must have know about it before. Like I would do that to anyone. I could tell from her voice, that she somehow thought I should pay for the repairs.

    Note that my sister just turned sixty, so it’s not like this faux pas was committed by someone young. No good deed…

    1. Sounds like my sister-in-law. They were borrowing a Mercury I had. A title to a Kia I had purchased got sent to her house by mistake (post office accidentally forwarded it).

      She says, “oh, we have already replace the alternator and changed the oil like twice, so that [Mercury] is pretty much ours now, so I’m keeping this title and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

      I explained that if she would actually look, the title is for a Kia, not a Mercury. So, logically, she trashed it instead.

            1. My mom calls me and says she doesn’t understand why she doesn’t hear from them anymore.

              “Didn’t you tell me you were going to stop loaning them money since they take in more than you every month?”

              “Oh yeah.”

      1. I let my brother borrow my 2004 Camry for a year when he graduated college and was between cars. I told him that regular maintenance was on him as well as anything that would reasonably be considered a wear item although I recognized that it was an old car and if something obviously not his fault broke, I’d cover it. Aside from curbing one of my nice new wheels, everything went fine.

        I find it unbelievable that some people think that just because they did some basic maintenance for a car that they are putting miles on (that alternator and oil change had to be done only because they are putting miles on your car) means that they now somehow own the car. It just boggles my mind.

        I get it if you just don’t want to ever have to interact with your sister-in-law again, but why not report the car stolen? Or get it towed? Heck, if you didn’t give them both sets of keys and still have the spare, you could go pick it up in the middle of the night and take it home. Sure they’ll complain, but they already burned their bridges with you and you can prove that the car belongs to you so they’ll have no recourse whatsoever. Some people need to learn that just saying something is theirs doesn’t make it so.

      1. Nowadays I could probably sell it for $6,000 with the leaky gas tank. I should also mention that the car only had 85k on it, runs perfectly, and every single damn thing still works on it, including the A/C.

        Gift Horse Dental is always open and ready to serve.

    1. Yeah I’m thinking the forgiving, sweet, gullible landlord is well worth the occasional trouble the Olds brings.

      Besides, he’s keeping an Olds motor in an actual fuckin Oldsmobile alive and on the road. That’s gotta be reward enough!!

    2. Agree, you went three years without working on it and seven years without a rent hike and having a free kid out in their backyard – think you’re still ahead on the deal!

      Hope you aired up his lawn mower tires as well after that!

          1. Miss the free range kids day…therapist friend told me I was a free range kid and how horrible that was…I think I turned out quite well…learned responsibility, compromise, how to win and lose…and how to survive…

  7. This is something I learned from being a landlord . . . the repairs you slap together to keep YOUR shit working is not and can not be the same shit you do to keep THEIR shit working.
    You are intimately familiar with all the ins and outs, you can listen for weird noises and know what they are, you can identify problems before they blow up, you’re generally able to keep an eye on things. That allows you to do weird, slapped together repairs that just BARELY allow your stuff to function because you know you can fix it again when it craps itself.
    THEY can not do this stuff. When you fix THEIR stuff, your fixes can’t be “eh, it’s working, more or less.” Those fixes have to be 100% bulletproof. (In my case, this involved plumbing and closet builds, but it works for cars, too.)

    1. So much this. I’m also a landlord, and the fixes I do in my own house don’t cut it in an apartment / rental situation. Things need to be right, and durable. If it’s questionable, it’s not good enough – tear it down a little further and make it right.

  8. You seek to add pointless drama to your life because you are bored, or maybe afraid of a new challenge, maybe both. Time to ditch everything and find someplace that holds more authentic challenges.

  9. I made the mistake of selling my pickup to my sister in law, it was a farm truck but ran decent- over the two years they had it they liked telling me about how things broke- like a wiper blade, it needed an oil change and that synthetic the lube place recommended was so expensive. They sold it 2 years later for about triple what I let them have it for. About six weeks later they told me that the kid who bought it blew the clutch and they agreed to pay $600 towards the repair and expected me to pay half of that, over 2 years and 25000km since I sold the truck, I laughed and said nope- it has been 7 years and they still mention it saying it is hard in church seeing that family and knowing how they were put out by having to pay the whole bill less $300.

    1. This is what I have learned when it comes to selling stuff to family: write up a word document explaining the terms of the sale and then have two copies printed out and have both individuals sign each copy. That way in the future there can be no “well, I remember you said this” kind of disagreement.

      Apples to oranges, but 9 years ago I sold a 5 year old desktop computer to my brother. The document I wrote up specifically stated that if something broke on it in the first year, I would replace the part. After a year, it would no longer be on me. Three years later he told me something had broken as if it was my responsibility to fix. I pulled out our contract and told him that he was far past the agreed upon window in which it was my responsibility. He realized that I was right and we’re still cool.

      The lesson I learned: people are a lot less likely to blame you for stuff if there’s irrefutable proof that they agreed to a specific set of conditions.

  10. Can you just swap them into something that’s actually reliable? Buy a $1200 Corolla/Prizm from Facebook and take the Olds back into your fleet. Put the GM 4cyl into one of your Jeeps.

  11. Given that you haven’t had a rent increase in 7 years, I’d say you got a pretty good deal out of this whole thing. Imagine how living costs would’ve been on a monthly compared to buying parts and servicing that Olds once in a while.

  12. Mmm, on the flip side, that engine bay looks nice and clean. I love seeing older cars being kept in running condition, especially ones that run this smooth. It’s a pain for you, but keeping old olds on the road is just nice.

  13. Your landlord sounds great! I think that if I went mudding on the greenbelt next to my house, the HOA president would have a spontaneous aneurysm.

    Also, one small correction: the Alero was an N-body, not a J-body. I believe the first two generations of the N-body *were* J-body based, but the third-generation version that bore the Alero was its own thing

  14. Have you learned your lesson yet? I would never sell vehicles to people I know, they automatically think I’m some sort of free warranty coverage for their car. Actually, I never sell my vehicles, I just run them into the ground. Then fix them and do it again.

  15. At least he’s a good landlord???? Thanks for sharing! And I will share these skills with anyone interested for Educational Purposes Alone:
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  16. Dangerous ground there DT. I too live next door to my landlord. He too can be a bumbling fool mechanically.
    He hasn’t raised the rent in 4 years, probably because I’m a bit of a handyman and therefore a perfect renter. I fix all sorts of things around the properties that would probably cause him more pain in time and out of wallet than any of his nightmare renters past. The key is to communicate clearly via written statements. Even texting works as a pseudo paper trail. If he needs something done I ask him to text it to me then we agree how much to take off that months rent for the work and I take pictures of all the receipts.
    Cover your ass. The old neighborly handshake doesn’t mean what it used to.

  17. First rule of selling cars: Never ever sell a car to a friend, a member of your family, somebody you know, somebody you might meet again, somebody someone you know could meet again…
    Ideally sell it to someone who lives at the other end of the country.

    The last time I sold a Car, the new owner called me 5months later because of a problem we talked about while selling and that was also mentioned in the contract he signed. Luckily, otherwise you’re in trouble in Germany. Instantly blocked his number and since then never heard of him again.

  18. Your picture of the brake lines (I am sure the fuel lines look similar) gave me PTSD to replacing the three fuel lines on my brother’s ’01 Century last year. Thanks.

    If you haven’t replaced the fuel lines yet – you probably will be. Thankfully I avoided replacing the also-rusty brake lines on that car years before – I made him have a shop do that. I tried to do the same for the fuel lines, but I ended up being too good of a brother.

    I swore at him a lot during that ordeal.

      1. Yup – more than likely it comes apart far easier. While I’ve had my fair share of issues with that Century over the years (sadly…and thankfully…my brother sold it to a friend of his earlier this year), I think most of the issues were specific to that very vehicle (I believed it to be very ornery and resistant to any kind of change for its own good). Overall, the W-bodies are pretty straightforward to work on – and the Olds does not look to be a rustbomb or anything like the other slowly-degrading automobiles strewn throughout the front yard of DT’s home.

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