(Editors note: please also read our Fraud Awareness Tips found here for additional information.)
Buying a hot rod long distance is all about dollars and sense. The reason you’re shopping long distance is either because similar cars aren’t available locally, aren’t in very good condition, or aren’t as attractively priced. National selection is far better than local inventory. Buying a rust-free car can easily offset the added costs of transporting it home.
Buying a car from afar can be intimidating; the following are a few things to consider before buying long distance.
THE BIGGEST PROBLEM
The number one problem is matching your expectations with the seller’s descriptions/photos. You’re excited and suffering from new car fever, which can affect your objectivity. The seller has new cash fever, which can affect his objectivity. Even the most honest, candid seller will err on the side of optimism, because he wants to sell the car. We suggest lowering your expectations (be satisfied at the price/expectation ratio) so when the car arrives in better condition you’re thrilled instead of the opposite.
THE BEST SOLUTION
A personal inspection is best. If you’re truly serious about a car, a discount airline ticket is cheap insurance and peace of mind. If personal travel is out of the question, try to find someone who can do an onsite inspection. Most car people are happy to help out a friend or even a friend of a friend. Even if your local contact doesn’t know a thing about old cars, you can guide them with a checklist or talk to them via cell phone while they inspect the car. A cell phone with a camera feature can provide some basic images. More detailed photos should be taken with a true digital or video camera.
PHOTOS AND VIDEOS
There’s no substitute for an in-person inspection, but that isn’t always feasible. The next best thing is a thorough photo/video inspection. You can’t get too much visual evidence. Don’t simply rely on the photos the seller chooses. Send a list of areas you want to see. Ask that the digital photos be taken at the highest possible resolution so that you can blow up the images to the largest possible size.
JOIN A CLUB
There are many good reasons to join a national club. Members tend to be experts on these cars. They’re keenly interested in particular cars and likely to know ones for sale. The best reason for club membership when you’re looking to buy is the possibility of having a fellow member inspect a potential purchase. A personal inspection by a knowledgeable person is invaluable.
DEALERS VS. PRIVATE SELLERS
Private parties almost always price their cars more attractively, but dealers shouldn’t be overlooked. Dealer benefits can sometimes justify slightly higher prices. Dealers have to be more pragmatic than private sellers. Dealers need to turn inventory quickly to maximize profits.
A primary benefit of a specialty car dealer is that they have a reputation to uphold. They don’t want to be known as junk dealers. Dealers can often arrange financing, and they have contacts for shipping. If something is terribly wrong with a car when you receive it, you have a better chance of an adjustment/settlement with a business than a private seller.
If you want a special car now, dealers can eliminate months of searching. They have great contacts and know where desirable cars are.
LONG DISTANCE BARGAINING
Everyone wants a bargain and, understandably, sellers want top dollar for their cars. The challenge is to bargain effectively without being rude. Hardnosed, aggressive, low-ball tactics rarely work. No matter how eager a seller is to unload a car, there’s a point where they decide an aggressive buyer is just too much trouble.
Instead of denigrating the car, make your offer more about your financial constraints (e.g., “I sold my last car for X and that’s how much money I have to spend.”). Include the costs of inspecting and transporting the car in your offer. If the car needs work, tell the seller how much you think upgrades will cost.
Be prepared to raise your offer a little. Leave room for the seller to feel he got something out of the negotiations, too.
Always ask about spare parts, shop manuals, literature, receipts and anything else that might be related to the vehicle. Adding or subtracting parts can be used as a bargaining tool. If a seller thinks a high performance engine is more valuable than you do, let him keep it and lower the price.
A great thing about buying a street rod is that the sum of the parts often exceeds the selling price. Depending on the parts used and their condition, this equation can provide added peace of mind.
No one wants a bad deal, but if the component value is high enough, it may be possible to get out of a poor deal by parting out the car. Discount the parts value, because they are technically used (even if they’ve never left the seller’s garage). Use mail order catalogs to approximate values.
IT WAS APPRAISED FOR A MILLION DOLLARS
On the surface, appraisals seem like a good idea. The problem is accuracy. Much of the value of a hot rod can be subjective. You want to keep the equation focused on tangible parts and realistic labor costs.
Even the most accurate appraisals are seldom the same as transaction prices. An appraisal can be a good starting point or reference, but don’t be fooled by overly optimistic figures.
Some sellers boast about how much money they invested. Since the “investment” is always much higher than the asking price, one might well question their financial acumen. Just because the seller overspent doesn’t justify you perpetuating the mistake.
It can be very expensive to have the latest, wildest rod built by a nationally known street rod shop. By the time the car is for sale, chances are that it’s past its prime value, so factor that into your offer.
Closely related to overblown construction costs and pumped up appraisals is the tagline “show winner.” That implies a high quality car, and if that show is the Pebble Beach Concours, it means something. If the show was held in a local park the award might have had more to do with attendance than appearance.
Every car has a story, and most owners have several stories. It’s important that those stories match. When buying a car, you’re also buying what the owner says. One of our favorite questions is “Why are you selling the car?” We prefer simple, straightforward answers such as “I need the money to build my next project” or “It’s too small for my growing family.”
Make sure your inspection matches the seller’s claims about the condition and amount/caliber of work done. Be wary of overblown claims that don’t match the car’s condition.
Hot rods are seldom totally finished. Buying a project or unfinished car has good and bad points. On the plus side, you can personalize the car by painting it your favorite color. The counter to choosing paint is that a seller seldom recoups painting costs, so a painted car can be a bargain.
Realize that there could be good reasons why the car is incomplete. The missing parts may be very rare and/or expensive. An unfortunate reason some cars (especially customs) may be unfinished is poor workmanship. It’s more expensive to correct mistakes than to do the job right the first time.
MAKE CONTACT AND STAY IN TOUCH
Some of the best long distance buys are cars that have been slow to sell. Often, the initial price was too high. It can take months of rejection or super low offers for some sellers to get realistic. Sometimes financial or personal situations change and a previously unacceptable offer is suddenly sufficient.
A more important reason to make an initial contact and stay in touch is to establish yourself as a genuinely interested buyer, but one that can’t quite afford the present price. That way, if the seller decides that the price is flexible, you’re at the top of the list.
KEEP OLD ISSUES
Recycling is great, but a library of past issues of AutoTrader Classics magazines can serve as excellent price reference material. Some bargain hunters call up sellers a couple months after ads have expired. A car that still hasn’t sold can be ripe for a screaming deal.
Nothing sours a car deal quicker than legal troubles. A car with bogus (or more commonly, missing) paperwork can be more trouble than it’s worth. If the solution was simple, why didn’t the seller take care of it? Under the best circumstances, street rods have somewhat shaky paperwork, so ones with obviously problematic titles/registration should be avoided.
Cars with reproduction bodies may be registered as an original with a bought title or as an assembled/kit car. Regulations vary from state to state. Make sure that your state recognizes the standards of the state where the car is currently registered.
The best cars (paperwork-wise) are those that still have the title that matches the original car.
The best way to avoid scams is to abide by the old adage – if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. There’s too much readily available pricing information for anyone to price a $50,000 street rod at $4,000.
We’ve only seen these bogus ads on free Internet sites (scammers like low overhead). The beautiful images are obviously lifted from legitimate ads. These ads are quickly flagged and removed, but some suckers must bite or else the ads wouldn’t proliferate. The point is to always be vigilant. It’s better to err on the side of caution and miss a potentially hot deal than get ripped off by a scam artist.
You can do it yourself or hire a professional. If you do a little research, you’ll often find that the pros are tough to beat. If you want a vacation/adventure, go get the car yourself, but after you factor in all the costs (including time away from work) the professional carriers are very attractive.
Compare rates, especially the difference between door-to-door and terminal-to-terminal service. If you live in or near a major city (ditto the seller) you can save a lot by delivering and retrieving the car from the transporter’s headquarters. Take photos at each end in case of any damage.
Buying a non-local rod doesn’t have to be painful. With a little bit of planning, you can take advantage of an entire country’s worth of selection – without worrying about being taken advantage of, yourself.
Unfinished street rods can be excellent deals if it’s the right car (a 1932 Ford coupe is a no-brainer) with the right (high quality) parts, because selling prices are usually less than the cost of the components.
Some of the most initially expensive street rods can quickly become dated and unpopular, so expect heavy discounts or stick with more traditional cars.
Custom paint jobs are very expensive, but it can be costly to undo dated graphics. The pearl base color of this 1938 Chevy makes repairs/changes even more difficult and costly.
If you can’t inspect a car in person, get someone to take as many photos as possible. Get lots of close-ups of things such as the condition of the grille and other chrome items.
Close-up photos can show flaws such as a bare spot on a leather seat that’s also quite soiled. The problem is this leather isn’t being reproduced.
Very careful inspection is required on cars with radical bodywork such as a chopped top. If the top has been chopped, make sure the glass is installed. Be careful with primered cars. They look cool, but primer can hide a myriad of flaws.
Do your homework when shopping for a car with unique features. The electrical/mechanical components of this 1959 Ford Skyliner are quite complex and expensive if broken or missing. The car also has unique body panels.
Rust is a primary concern, but many older cars such as this 1932 Chevy have wood inner structures. Rotten wood is costly and time consuming to repair.
Limited photos (and an unscrupulous seller) could lead to big disappointments. From this angle, this well-worn 1956 Nomad looks straight with some obvious rust in the rocker panels and a little surface rust on the fenders…
…but this close-up of the left rear fender and tailgate shows just how severe the rust problems are. This is an extreme illustration, but it shows that even west coast cars do rust.
Another close-up of the same Nomad shows two problems—a poor fit of the liftgate (very common) and deep rust on the roof (a major concern). Such problems might not show in overall photos, so make sure to get plenty of close-ups before you buy, if you can’t check it out in person.
A beautifully restored mild custom like this 1949 Ford coupe can be an excellent long distance purchase, because you could drive it home. Also, it’s a very popular car/body style that will hold its value.
Vintage racecars are hot and in high demand. That means you can’t be very fussy about things such as the mismatched paint on this straight axle 1957 T-Bird.
If a car is new enough to have a modern VIN, be sure to check it out thoroughly before parting with any cash. Good, clean titles are a must on any car.