Show Me The Title!
We have seen a scenario where someone is selling a car they don't legally own yet. What happens is that they put a car up for sale, collect money for the car, and then go buy it from the real owner. Of course you think the guy you're sending your greenbacks to already holds the title. What's happening is that the seller is acting as a secret broker, which is unethical, and in many states, illegal. Maybe it will work out, maybe it won't. Don't be afraid to ask about the title and see if the seller will fax or e-mail you a copy of it to show he owns the car free and clear.

Another scenario we recently ran into is where a hobbyist buys and sells cars as a side business--it's strictly "on the side," and not subject to the same regulation as a storefront dealer. While not technically a scam, it's usually illegal to buy and sell over a specific number of cars in a year's time. Problems can arise for you, the buyer, when this interim seller tries to flip a car that he's bought, but hasn't yet registered as his own. (He's trying to get out of paying registration fees and he doesn't want the state to find out he's running a side business.) You go to buy the car from him and the seller presents a real title, but with the previous owner's information on it. You submit that title to the state DMV to get retitled in your name, only to find out there are back sales taxes, back registration fees, and overdue parking tickets. You sometimes get stuck having to pay thousands in fees and/or fines, and with no recourse.

The Meeting
When checking out a car for the first time, be very careful. One of our favorite practices is to meet a seller or prospective buyer in a public place, like a busy parking lot, shopping center, restaurant, or service station. Meeting at a residence gives thieves the opportunity to rob or physically harm you, and selling (or buying) a car may only be a pretext for robbery. During our search, we would ask sellers if they could meet us somewhere publicly in the middle to cut down on drive time. Some sellers say, "No, come to my place. If you really want the car, you have to come to me."

That, of course, is an invitation to discover all kinds of interesting info about a seller--an opportunity to "turn the tables," so to speak. To protect yourself and to gain a bargaining advantage, you can use a seller's address to pull up public information on their homes at www.zillow.com. In past searches, we've found out what kind of neighborhood the owner lived in, the value of their home, when it was last sold, how much they bought it for, the size of the home, and we even got multiple aerial photos of the home and adjacent properties. For one car's address, we even saw the car that was for sale in the satellite image! And completely outside of providing a small measure of safety, it will allow you to make qualified judgements about the buyer ahead of time to gain a bargaining advantage. The moral of the story: If you're a greedy seller, you may unwittingly be giving your buyer the advantage.

Dealer's Choice
Given the current musclecar craze, many dealers specializing in classic cars have popped up. Some are great, and others may bend the truth. Regardless, they are often safer than buying blind from a private party. The downside is that it's a business, and they have to make money. That means that the deals aren't as smoking hot as they are on the private market. This is the price you pay for a smoother transaction. When going through a dealer, it pays to check out the local Better Business Bureau to see if they have had any complaints filed.

VIN and Body Tag Decoding
If you're buying a collectible model, you're just asking to get ripped off if you don't verify the simple stuff. There are VIN and body tag decoding references all over the Internet. For instance, if you're buying a Chevelle Super Sport and paying the full "SS" price for it, ask the seller to send you a photo of the Fisher Body tag and any supporting documentation like a broadcast sheet, original bill of sale, or protect-o-plate. These can be faked, but it's a lot harder than just slapping reproduction badges on and calling it a day. A legit seller will in many cases have owned the car for a few years, and can pass on the ownership history for you to verify. If there is no supporting documentation and the seller is cloudy on specifics, you'll want to pass on it.We're sure that by the time you read this, a guy in Trinidad has come up with a new way to take your cash. Crooks may not be overly bright, but many are good at what they do. The key is to check things out as best you can and to weigh the risks of any particular deal. Let common sense and the phrase "let the buyer beware" be your guide.

We Found A Project Car For PHR
We have been hot on the trail of a new project car, actually two cars, but this one is mine. This time I decided to try a Ford. I checked all my favorite Web sites each day looking for just the right ride at the right price. I wanted a car that had nice paint and body, since that part is expensive and time consuming.

Then Tas Scourtis, an acquaintance at Pro-Touring.com, sent me a link to a sweet '70 Fairlane 500 on eBay. Even though I was looking for a '66 or '67 Fairlane, this ride was just too clean to pass up. The only problem, there were only a couple of days left on the auction, so there wasn't time to check it out in person (it was located about 1,000 miles away).

Nevertheless, the seller, Dave Hannan, had good verifiable feedback selling classic cars, and he gave an honest-sounding description of the Fairlane. It also helped that he posted over 20 high-quality pictures of all areas of the car. I made a call to the seller to ask some questions, then I pulled the trigger and placed a bid. One thing to keep in mind with eBay is that much of the action can take place in the last minute of the auction. This was no exception. The Fairlane sat at $7,500 for days, but in the last few minutes, it started to creep up. Some dude with zero feedback ended up costing me an extra $400 in the last 30 seconds of the auction, but that's eBay for you. My winning bid was $8,100, and that's a deal for such a clean ride. Look for more details on our new project in an upcoming issue of PHR.--Steven Rupp