Buying a Car

Now you get to go on a car purchasing adventure! So let’s say you’ve found an ad that looks very promising and you want to pursue it.

Get in Touch

Use whatever their preferred method of contact is, be it email or phone. I’m very leery of people who recommend you text them. It’s too short form and you won’t be able to ask the questions you want to ask. On that note, there are a lot of red flags you could see here. Short or curt replies, poor grammar, or rudeness should all be big red flags.

Ask for Photos

Pictures are worth a thousand words. From a good picture you’ll be able to tell how well the car has been maintained, how it’s been stored, or where possible problems are. If they are hesitant to send photos, send old or out of date photos, or very specific photos (no wide shots, no close ups) your hackles should be raised; that’s a bad sign.

If there are any photos that look concerning, ask about them on the forum that you’ve made friends on. (Blank out the license plate if it’s in the picture. It really doesn’t put someone at risk whatsoever but many are concerned about that so you should respect their privacy.) While you’re there, ask if anyone in the area knows the car. Chances are good that someone will have went to see it, used to own it, or used to work on it.

Ask some Questions

Start with a few general queries. These are some of my favorites:

  • “Why are you selling the car?”
  • “How long since the car was last on the road?”
  • “Did you put many miles on the car?”
  • “Are you flexible on the price at all?” (This will give a decent idea how much they’re willing to negotiate without outright asking for a deal.)

The answers to those questions will reveal a lot about the owner and the car. Next ask some specific questions about the car. Refer back to buyer’s guides and forums for examples. Ask about common maintenance items; if a particular component is known to be unreliable or need special service a competent owner should be aware of it. If they’re not the car probably hasn’t been taken very good care of. If they’re offended by you asking so many questions that’s a red flag. They’re probably trying to hide something. As long as you’re polite about it, ask away.

Set up a Time to Meet

In most circumstances don’t ask them to meet you halfway. Ask them what time would be convenient. Decide if you’ll be going to possibly buy and bring the car home or if you’re going to just take a look. This depends on how far away it is and other factors. Keep in mind that U-Haul does pretty cheap car hauler rentals, less than $100 for 24 hours. Before you leave check the local U-Haul locations and know their hours. Their car haulers are about 2000 lbs and you’ll need a decent sized truck to pull them. Using a tow dolly can also be a good option but check the laws in the states you’ll be travelling through; many require the vehicle on the tow dolly to be registered and/or insured.

Meet up with Them

To prepare, bring some hand tools, a jack, and a compression tester (and use it if they don’t mind). If possible bring a spare battery and some gas to make it easy to start up the car. Bring someone knowledgeable about cars if you know someone who’s willing to tag along. While you’re at their place, try to be likable and strike up conversation. The more they like you, the better it will go.

One important warning; you’ll be excited to go see the car. Don’t decide to buy it before you see it. It sounds crazy but it happens all the time. Be prepared to walk away from the deal and know that whatever money you invest in going to see it and getting ready to bring it home could be an unavoidable expense of the search that you’ll have to eat.

Inspect the Car

Be thorough! This step can save some nasty surprises later on.

  • Jack the car up and look for rust. Some universal rust spots are fenders, rockers, and suspension mounts.
  • Check out the interior. Condition of the seats? If the car’s been sitting, any evidence of animals living in there? Pull up the carpets and look for floor pan rust.
  • Check over the engine compartment. Does it look clean? Does the wiring look to be in good shape?
  • Examine the brakes carefully. If it has discs you’ll be able to look right at the surface of the disc and the thickness of the pads. If it has drums you’ll at least be able to see if they’re seized or not. Look at the hydraulic lines for rust. Always expect to do a complete brake job.
  • How complete is the car? Remember that trim and accessories can add up quickly and put a dent in your budget.
  • If you can, take it for a drive. See if the steering pulls or the suspension knocks. Just be on the lookout for anything that might be wrong. If possible, drive or ride in a well-maintained example of the car before you go look at yours, maybe someone on the forums local to your or a car show.

But what problems are okay (read: fun and cheap to fix) and which are very bad?

Rust: An almost universal problem for most areas of the country. Body work is time intensive and will require some initial investment. You’ll need a welder and someone who can use it or a lot of your budget will go to a body shop. When you’re looking at rust look at the complexity and location of the metal it’s on. For example, a spare tire well in the truck is a pretty simple piece of metal with good accessibility. Replacement parts are available and, more importantly, it’s hidden from view. Lastly, it’s not too structural so a poor repair job won’t make the car unsafe. A-pillar (between the windshield and the front windows) rust is much harder to fix because it’s very visible, a complex piece of metal, and structural.

A note about the overall build of the car as it makes a difference also. There are two predominate varieties of car construction: body-on-frame and unibody, with the switch from the former to the latter commonly being in the mid ’60s (though there are some outliers). Body-on-frame has a ladder frame that the entire running gear is attached to and a separate, non-structural body bolts onto it. You can drive just the frame and drivetrain around with no body. Body-on-frame cars are easy to repair rust in as all the sheet metal is non-structural and easy to access. In a unibody the structure and shape of the car come from one complex piece of sheet metal. The roof, the frame, and the body panels are all one complex and integral piece. This makes them safer and lighter but more difficult to work on.

Mechanical condition: Many of us are far more likely to fix mechanical wear and damage than body damage. A lot of people get into project cars *to* learn about mechanical repairs. With this in mind, the big concern with fixing an engine or drivetrain is the cost of parts. A typical engine rebuild will consist of at least a full gasket and seal kit, piston rings, some head work (valve seals, possibly valve seats and new valves), and of course a carburetor rebuild. Price some of these things out before you go to see the car to know what you’re getting yourself into. As far as the actual work, with the exception of some rare and specialty engines *don’t be intimidated*. Rebuilding an engine is a pretty straightforward process and there’s a lot of educational material available. Just be conscientious and do your research but jump right in there.

Transmissions are often trickier to rebuild and parts are more difficult to replace. When considering a car with a worn-out transmission, expect to replace it unless your research indicates that they’re rebuildable. Usually it turns out replacement with a good used unit is the more cost effective option.

Ask them if they have any spare parts or documentation. Spare parts are always useful and they might have some old doodads in the barn they forgot about. Most of the cars on my list are appreciating in value and any documentation might really improve resale value.


Negotiating is a bit tricky. You don’t want to come across as a total cheapskate. Ideally you want to seem like someone who is capable of paying full price but knows enough about the car to know that it’s not worth it. If you can find something wrong with the car that the seller didn’t know about that gives you some bargaining power. (“Oh well with those rusted cab corners, that truck really isn’t worth your asking price.”) Start listing the costs of repairs. (“It’s gonna be at least $500 to rebuild that engine, just in parts.”) Be firm and confident but never a dick. Understand their situation as well.

Like I said above, I’ve found the best question to ask is: “Are you flexible on the price?” This is a very neutral way to open negotiations. You don’t come across as a cheapskate and you’re also not asking them to cut you a deal or show their hand too early (like asking, “What’s your bottom dollar?”). Some people also get personally offended if you insinuate the car is worth significantly less than their asking price. But their response to that question will give you a very good idea of how much bartering could happen. They could say, “Yeah I think I could wiggle on the price a bit”, in which case expect to knock a bit off but not too much. Or the response could be, “Very flexible, I want it gone” which means it’s time to lowball.

I feel like I hardly need to say this, but you won’t be able to pay with a check, money order, or any of that stuff. Bring cash.

Get it Home

This can be a tricky part. If you have a trailer just hoist it on up. If you plan on driving it home, here are some tricks. Many states offer temporary tags specifically for this reason, they’ll cost $20-$40 at the DMV and you’ll probably need a title, bill of sale, and proof of insurance. Make sure someone has a smart phone or internet access to get insurance. If you’re driving really far away see if someone back home could register it for you and overnight the plates to wherever you’re going. Once on the road, be very cautious of possible issues with the car. You’ll generally want to avoid driving it illegal (those are some expensive and risky tickets if you get caught) but if you must, use plates from a similar make/model of car and keep your chase vehicle behind you to hide the plates when at all possible. Make sure all the stupid stuff that gets people pulled over is squared away, like lights. And lastly, like I said in a previous section, you can rent tow dollies or car trailers at U-Haul for pretty cheap.


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