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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

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