The smart home buyer looks for good schools, transit access and future appreciation potential. Then there is the gearhead real estate investor, who looks for a grease pit, room for a decent-sized air compressor and a price low enough to leave money for the purchase of new tools and an array of vehicles.
My wife (they say she's the smart one) is in the first camp. I am a charter member of the second.
So if you want some tips on how to erode your net worth but have a really great place to work on cars, I'm your man. And now, at no charge, I present my mechanical real estate wisdom:
Beware of downtown areas that are recommended by investment professionals. Manhattan and Toronto real estate may have proven to be wise financial investments, but as far as working on cars goes, they're ghettos – the lots are tiny, zoning restrictions make it tough to put in a decent paint booth, and your neighbours will probably object if you leave a parts car out in the front yard. There is an inverse relationship between property values and mechanical working space. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has a decent garage in downtown Manhattan, but it apparently cost him more than $10-million, which is sad. There are Ozark hillbillies with more garage space than Seinfeld – land in a back hollow costs less, freeing up valuable car and tool funds.
The way of the gear head is not always easy. The mechanical faith demands commitment and sacrifice – your life partner will want walk-in closets, a gas stove and access to good schools, but these will come at the price of decent shop space. Remember, you need space for a two-post car lift, a 78-inch Snap-On toolbox, and an air compressor with a 60-gallon tank (80 gallons is better). You will be tested as your partner selfishly demands that family resources be devoted to luxuries like a working refrigerator and laundry facilities, but hold fast to your mechanical faith – it will all be worth it when you're out in your heated shop working on your dream car with those Snap-On ratchets. Even if you are single at that point.
When it comes to real estate, only three things matter: garage, garage and garage. You can always add a house and central heating later, but if there's no garage, you are building a castle on sand. Remember, you can sleep and eat in a garage, but it's almost impossible to work on a car in the house (unless you put in a roll-up door at least eight feet wide).
The gearhead journey is a marathon, not a sprint. Early in my marriage, I thought that I could make my wife understand the need for washing engine parts in the kitchen sink, and baking freshly painted cam covers in the oven. I was wrong. But I am still hoping to convince her some day. Our 29th anniversary is next month.
Almost any place can be a workshop. Back in our university days, my friend Ian worked on his Norton motorcycle in a second-floor walk-up apartment. It took two of us to push it up the stairs, but once it was there, Ian had a beautiful, heated workspace with music, a bathroom and a kitchen. The landlord did complain about the grease stains, and Ian's girlfriend did leave him, but it was worth it – we had a great time honing cylinders and rebuilding forks. A garage would have been better, of course, but the cost would have forced the sale of the Norton – as always, Ian had his priorities straight. (Now that I remember it, my girlfriend left me around the same time that Ian's did. This may or may not have been a coincidence.)
The middle part of a gearhead's life is the hardest. From your late twenties until your late fifties, you will probably be raising children and paying a mortgage. This will put a crimp in your vehicle and tool buying budgets (especially if you have been so foolish as to buy a home in an excellent neighbourhood). You would have been far smarter to either rent an apartment or buy a large industrial space outside town, but thinking about what might have been will only depress you, so you may as well live in the moment (no matter how depressing that may be).
Don't let yourself be house-rich and garage-poor. Consider the plight of my friend Dan, one of the most successful and smartest guys I know. He bought a house in Rosedale and spent more than $4.5-million on a renovation that includes a designer kitchen, a home theatre, and a climate-controlled wine cellar. And yet his garage is barely large enough to get the wheels off his Porsche. Sure, Dan's home has appreciated more than 50 per cent since he built it, but I know unemployed guys with better workspace. Better priority setting would have given Dan a lot less net worth, and a heated shop with a compressor and two hoists.
Wood is not good. Of course I appreciate natural materials. They are deeply aesthetic, and connect us with the environment. But they also flammable, and they absorb oil. What you want are materials like the ones that go into a submarine pen or a NORAD command centre – steel and concrete. Steel roof trusses will support industrial light fixtures and allow you to attach an engine hoist anywhere you want (this will come in handy when you're pulling out a V-8 with a blower on it). The walls can be either framed steel, poured concrete or insulated block (I'd go with the insulated block, but be prepared for objections if your spouse likes to read design magazines or attend art gallery openings). You also need a smooth, level concrete floor with built-in drains and radiant heating pipes cast into it so you can lay on your back while working on a suspension without suffering like Michelangelo as he painted the Sistine Chapel on that freezing scaffold.
As with all truly excellent investments, gearhead real estate demands that you take the long view. While others indulge in get-rich-quick schemes like buying a nice house in a good neighbourhood, focus on your long-term workspace. Some day, you will be worth dozens of dollars. And if you really want to enjoy your life, I advise against listening to investment professionals. What do they know about rebuilding an engine?
Have faith. A few weeks ago, I visited the garage of Oliver Collins. It was one of the most beautiful shops I've ever seen. He lives in Toronto, and he is still married. Miracles can happen.
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