I've been burnt by poor planning and project execution badly in the past on several occasions and am afraid of repeating the same mistakes with my Lumina engine/transmission damage assessment project.

I'm looking for generic advice/lessons learned from both a project-management perspective and the automotive-DIY domain that can serve as a concise guide or checklist for anyone planning to undertake an automotive DIY project.

  • 1
    Not trying to be difficult and I mean no offense. It could just be me, but I don't feel it is a good fit for this site because it is so subjective. As the guidelines state; "Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise".
    – CharlieRB
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 13:00
  • @CharlieRB I wish I had the chance to respond earlier. The reason I feel this isn't an opinion-oriented question is because I'm looking lessons learned from practical, real-world experiences. If the word "generic" is throwing anyone off, it's because I don't want to turn this into a "What could go wrong with a brake job?" vs "What could go wrong with an engine rebuild?" checklist. In any case, I'm writing up an answer to represent what I feel is in line with the question I'd put up yesterday.
    – Zaid
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 18:20
  • @CharlieRB see my answer - it's full of experience-driven lessons learnt.
    – Zaid
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 18:41
  • That is great experience you have shared! Unfortunately, there is no way you can cover all situations and projects with that answer. That does not diminish your opinion and your experience. Please don't take this personal, others may have a different opinion or experience to yours. IMO, Zshoulders answer is more in line with the question you asked about project management.
    – CharlieRB
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 19:29
  • @CharlieRB I respect your opinion. This question came about as a result of seemingly commonplace frustrations aired on The Pitstop. I thought it would be beneficial to have some sort of best practices guide for DIY projects. The question's wording probably doesn't do justice to what I described in this comment, but that was the intent
    – Zaid
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 20:02

4 Answers 4


TL DR; Project Management techniques in use today are difficult to apply directly to something as small as fixing one car.

Project management is a term used to refer to a number of different techniques that can be used to make sure a project is done on time and at the proper cost. I would narrow this down to 2 main types of project: construction and science-y stuff. We'll talk more to construction, as it is a far more direct comparison than science-y stuff.

Construction projects work VERY well with modern earned value systems. RSMeans publishes cost books every year that average how long it will take X workers in Y location to accomplish Z task for $xx,xxx dollars. These are industry standard, and surprisingly accurate. They are used before starting a project to plan out the whole thing. If the construction company cannot keep to the baseline schedule that they agreed upon using these data, they usually have to make up the difference out of their own pocket. Barring extenuating circumstances.

A house is about the smallest thing that I can think of that requires Project Management. A wide range of workers, conflicting tasks, materials, specialists, and a deadline; something is needed to keep all of these in line and on time. You can't build the frame until the foundation is poured. The electricians need to come before you drywall. if you get pushed too far back, your roofers might not be availible. Things need to happen at certain times based on where we are in the project.

Compare this to working on a car - 1 unpaid worker (you), doing all of the work, parts, no real gonna-get-fired deadline. AND its not your primary source of putting food on the table (based on the "DIY" part of the question). There are some things that have to happen in a certain order, but not nearly the level of interconnectedness that a construction project has. Unless you are starting with the rights to a VIN and a dream, a car is too small a project to apply "Project Management."

So What Can I Do?

We can take a lot of lessons from Project Management and apply them on smaller scales. I am misusing some terms here for understandability, don't get mad if you are a project manager.

Deadline -- All of what I am going to say is based around creation of a deadline. At the end of the day, human beings are easily distracted creatures. You need to be honest with yourself and come up with some kind of vaguely binding contract. Have your SO hold you to it. Get some friends that are going to come check up on you. Set calender reminders. You can't have a beer till you get X done. Something. Once you are beholden to some power greater than yourself:

1.) Planning -- When you are planning out your project, you are going to want to take a few things into account. Draw this plan out. Write it down. Make it something that physically exists.

  • Uncertainty. The longer your project, the more life is going to pop up and get in your way. Don't make plans that you know you are going to be unable to stick too. Guess how long something will take you to do, and double it. This way you have some extra time built in to deal with life and ordering tools you don't have.
  • Risk. Take some time to consider how this project could metaphorically blow up in your face. The car could get hit by a meteor; huge setback but low probability. You could break a bolt off; slight setback, much more probable than meteor strike. Write down some of the big risks and be ready for them. This way when they pop up, they will be FAR less surprising/heart wrenching.
  • Overplanning. Be honest with yourself. You aren't gonna work on it every day of the week. You aren't gonna spend 6 AM to 10 PM on a Saturday. Set reasonable chunks of time at intervals you can actually commit to.
  • Underplanning. Don't set your intervals too far apart though. If you go much more than a week without doing anything, you are going to lose motivation to continue.
  • Feelin good. Every time you get something done, its a relief. Build in some easy stuff in intervals, and check it off when you get it complete. It will help to deal with the long, difficult parts.
  • Unknown Unknowns. Something is going to pop up that you haven't ever seen or heard of. You don't know what these things are, and they are going to push your schedule back. Accept this. Redraw your plans when this happens. It isn't a failure, you had no way of knowing. Accept, re-plan, move forward.

2.) Executing -- With your plan planned, its time to execute. This is the hard part that falls vaguely into the realm of opinion, I feel. We built in time for life and problems and even a little bit of saying "meh, dont feel like it tonight." The construction workers need to come to work tomorrow to get paid. This is powerful motivation. You... don't. Which brings me back to the deadline I mentioned earlier. Beholden to your SO or friends or beer, you are about it. You will get something done. Even if its just a little bit, you are still working on it. You go from the neighborhood junk collector to the person that gets sh*t done.


I do a lot for DIY, from mechanics to woodworking to building to whatever gets in the middle of my path :) and by my experience I can resume:

Never assume more tasks you can handle: if you see you need to do a lot of work in several systems, do a hand written list in paper then go strictly item by item, to start and finish each one before moving to the other. Check mark the ones done. Sounds silly but it improves your efforts a lot and you can see "progress" when there are a lot of things to do.

Never get into things you don't have spares, tools or materials for it: first, try to find out what's needed, by experience, by manuals, by Q&A in forums, do good analysis and diagnosis of the task, etc. Then once you get all the ammo, get into the task properly prepared.

Never assume task will be "easy" and "quick to be done": specially in mechanics...disassemble a good looking but failing part and there is a large chance it is all screwed inside.

Always add some extra % of the total time you think it will take: if you think it will take you 1 hour, schedule for 2 hours...weather, willingness, kids, phone, toilet calls :) all that can prevent you to finish in a tight schedule.

Source? my latest project (actually a megaproject) rebuilding an old car. It needs work in every single system, and also I want to improve a lot of things. So I did my list by system: engine, transmission, brakes, interior, bodywork, etc. Took a loooong diagnosis session for each system, wrote down all I could find, then I'm working each system solely until completed. If I get stuck waiting for a part, then I would refinish whatever I can find in that same system, or go deeper in ideas/diagnosis for the next systems. But I won't touch anything until the current one is done and wrapped.

  • Great insights, especially regarding budgeting for time. I always need far more time than what is advertised online. Because life
    – Zaid
    Commented Feb 4, 2017 at 3:49
  • @Zaid - My general rule of thumb is 3:1 ... if I think it will take me an hour, it will take three. If I think it will take a month and a half to complete, it will probably take 4.5 (or more). My estimation skills suck. This is why I don't wrench for a living. Commented Feb 4, 2017 at 14:18

From my own personal experiences:

  1. Damaged a thermostat gasket that was seized on while try to remove a stuck-open thermostat; learnt that the replacement part was at least 2 weeks away after the damage was done

    Lessons learned:

    • try to avoid removing parts until the replacement part is at hand
    • don't skimp on inexpensive consumables like gaskets/seals, especially if they're prone to failure

  1. Ordered generic O2 sensors, spliced the old connectors into the new one, realized the generic O2 sensor didn't fit in the exhaust bung; had to wait one week to get my daily driver back in service; car sat in the driveway, blocking access for other cars

    Lessons learned:

    • make sure you have a backup to serve your daily transportation needs
    • test-fit before you begin surgery; measure twice since you can only cut once
    • just because the thread size is standard doesn't mean the entire part is compliant
    • don't work on your vehicle while blocking other perfectly-usable vehicles

  1. Bought a car with engine damage and a few months of road permit left; couldn't work on it because of long hot summer, ended up selling the vehicle

    Lessons learned:

    • don't bite off more than what you can realistically chew
    • factor in weather/climate/environment when planning/scheduling projects
    • know when to cut your losses and let go

  1. Decided to change valve cover gaskets and stripped a thread the aluminium timing chain cover causing significant oil leakage; messed up the subsequent helicoil repair

    Lessons learned:

    • have a backup plan
    • have a backup to your backup plan, if possible
    • don't assume that you'll be careful enough to prevent damage
    • specialist tools can be a lifesaver (e.g. Helicoils)

  1. Put the car on jack stands to replace a timing chain cover; the job took 7 months since I couldn't proceed without lining up a camshaft's timing marks without a specialist tool; was able to complete the job eventually without missing a single bolt thanks in part to meticulous bagging-and-tagging

    Lessons learned:

    • take photos of progress; they serve as documentation for later
    • sandwich bags, labels and a pen help you keep your sanity
    • don't disassemble more of the vehicle than what is needed unless it makes subsequent tasks a whole lot easier
    • don't begin a task without having tools capable of doing the job
    • have redundancy built into your toolbox

In my experience it goes something like this; estimate a job will take five minutes, it takes hours. You'll find that most of your time is spend on just one or two bolts that are stubborn as mules.

When you research the parts needed to complete a job, remember to check what tools are required, especially any specialist or odd sized tools.

Don't assume that a part is going to be serviceable and don't start a job on a vehicle you are depending on using in a day or two.

I have a white-board hanging in the workshop with some dry markers. I use part of the board to list the jobs needed on the vehicle, part of the white-board to list parts needed and part of the white-board to write down relevant info from the manuals such as torque settings or tightening order. I'll update the white-board before starting the next phase of a job. I'll update it whilst reading the manual and / or watching youtube videos.

Finally; the piece of advice that is transforms everything; the right tool for the right job. It'll take you less time to go get the most appropriate tool then to ruin the job with the tool you have in your hand. If a bolt looks like it's going to round off, don't just keep on at it until you round it off.

Spending a reasonable amount on tools pays you back ten times over. I used to always buy cheap tools and when I finally started buying quality tools, I didn't get stuck anything like as much.

Oh, one last thing, you have friends here. When you hit a low point on a project, step away, come here, talk it though and get some new enthusiasm. A project stalls when you hit the point where you're completely stuck and sick of a job and don't have the sense to walk away and do something else for half an hour.

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