Every couple of years, we dive into the fray and look for another project car. We’re in that mood again, and our new search has brought to the surface some of our hot buttons with sellers who are on the prowl for a quick buck at the expense of newbie buyers. Even if you’re an old pro, you probably have some of the same gripes, or have been burned in the same way we have, so we’re laying it all out on paper. Think of it as equal parts fair warning and hot rodding humor. Since our car shopping mood was immediately preceded by a selling episode, we’ve included some informative (and tongue-in-cheek) selling advice too. So, were we successful in finding a new project car? Readers of our PHR blog, watchers of our YouTube channel, and followers of our Facebook feed already know the answer! We’ll have more on that topic in the August issue, but there is a clue right here in our last tip in this story ...
If it has the words Project, Custom, Classic, or Complete in the title, beware—the sales job has started before any details are even given. You already know your next car is a project, you know it’s old, and you would expect any car to be complete.
If all the photos in the ad are taken from the same side, you can count on the other side being trashed.
If the vehicle description is more flowery sales hype than hard-core detail, walk the other way. The more real detail provided in the ad, the more likely the seller is on the level.
Know your target car. A Nova and a Ventura might look similar, but there’s a huge difference in searching for simple items like trim parts. If you find something you really like, take a day or two to really dig deep and learn about it before you make an offer.
Beware of innocuous comments like “radio works fine” and “A/C blows cold!” This invariably means nothing else does.
Sellers are happy to inform you their car has been covered while sitting outside for years. Sounds good, but this is actually a no-no. Car covers trap moisture inside, especially when stored over earth or grass. If it has to be stored outside, uncovered is best.
If the interior photo shows an air freshener, it could be a good sign. It means the car is driven regularly, or was driven recently. Or it could just really stink.
If you find anything truly mint in your price range, it will almost assuredly be a four-door. If you don’t mind a crew cab muscle car, this is your best bet—but don’t expect any resale value down the line.
“Rust free” almost always means “this is rust in the shape of a car.” There is always some rust in a 40-year-old car, and saying that there’s zero rust on anything but a ground-up resto should make you suspicious. A straight buyer will point out exactly where it is, and how bad it is.
“Straight body” almost always means “body filler Easter egg hunt.” Even the most well-kept cars suffer the occasional fender bender. There’s nothing wrong with a solid repair of a modest ding, but often it’s far worse. Never take the seller at face value on the sheetmetal’s integrity. The more filler you can find, the lower you can leverage the price.
As a general rule (with the exception of ponycars) compacts of a given make are less expensive than midsize cars (Nova versus Chevelle, Falcon versus Fairlane, Dart versus Charger, Valiant versus Road Runner). Use this to your advantage.
If you see pieces missing in the photo, this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Time is on your side. If in doubt, wait it out. The price will never go up, only down. And you could find a better deal on something else.
Be open to good deals. The more specific your search, the more you’re going to pay. We’ve found our best deals while looking for something completely different.
If a seller is evasive about anything, cut bait and walk away. If he doesn’t know the answer to a question he ought to know the answer to, there’s trouble lurking.
Is the title in hand? Buying a car without a title (or with a salvage title) is a nightmare. In some states like California, you also have to ask if the registration or nonop is up to date. Hidden back registration fees and late fines can cost thousands after you’ve bought the car.
Is the title in the seller’s name? Guys who flip cars for extra cash don’t like registering them because it costs, and there’s a limit on how many cars they can flip in a year without being considered a dealer. Ask the seller if the title is in his name. Walk away if it isn’t—or pay big time at the DMV.
You can save yourself a lot of time when contacting a seller by telling him exactly what you’re looking for condition-wise. Then ask, “Is this the car I’m looking for?”
Beware when the seller distances himself from the car as if he’s not that familiar with it. Acting ignorant allows the seller to play dumb when you discover all that rust and body filler.
We’ve found that contacting a seller on Craigslist through the Craigslist email link works maybe 20 percent of the time on a good day. Don’t get your hopes up too high and keep your other options rolling. Your best bet it to stay with listings with real phone numbers and email addresses.
Avoid the “lost dreams” pile of parts. Along with the car, the seller lists a pile of parts he spent bank on that he expects you to pay for. Moreover, he expects you to buy into his dream of finishing the car his way.
Don’t get hung up on a destroyed interior —seat covers, door panels, and headliner are relatively cheap to replace. The most important thing in the cockpit is the condition of the floors. Spend most of your time checking out the sheetmetal and powertrain.
Going out to see a car? Before plugging the address into your GPS, plug it into Google maps and take a “street view.” If you’re headed into the ghetto, know it in advance, and take a buddy or pack some heat (provided that’s legal where you are).
Where you find the car listing is important. Most distressed sales will be found on Craigslist.com because the ads are free. A seller who needs to raise cash in a hurry to pay the rent probably isn’t going to shell out $60 to advertise his car. The other side of the coin is that somebody who pays to sell on ClassicCars.com, AutoTraderClassics.com, or eBay.com probably has a much nicer car to sell —albeit at a higher price.