In this day and age, finding a good project car is all about practicing search-fu and constant vigilance. Before you start looking, set a maximum price you’ll pay and a maximum distance you’ll drive. Really. Set those numbers hard and fast, or you’ll fall into the trap of ‘well this one is only $500 more and it’s only 100 miles further away’ until you’re spending 90% of your budget and driving 1000 miles for a car.
On that note, be smart about your budget. If you blow your whole wad on the car you’ll suffer through having no tools and not being able to afford the parts and services you’ll need to get the project done. You’re going to have to resist a lot of temptation but here but trust me; completing a smaller and cheaper project to a higher standard with better tools will be much more gratifying. As a general rule, you want to spend only about 1/3 of your budget on the initial price. If your budget is more of a running income stream that will give you some wiggle room but just be practical.
Look up buyer’s guides for the chosen vehicle to get an idea of common problems and decent prices. Hemmings Motor News publishes a lot of buyer’s guides that will be available online, and many forum users will have written them as well. Search around google to see what you can find.
Here are the most common sources for a car and some tips on how to use them:
eBay is wildly popular. This is both the advantage and disadvantage. On one hand you can find most anything on there… on the other hand everyone else can as well. You most likely won’t find an amazing steal on eBay but you’ll probably find what you’re looking for. A few tips: use their saved search functions and email notifications. Definitely don’t browse eBay without an account, it’s free and opens up a lot of tools. One of the most important tools is the ability to look at completed listings and whether or not they sold. This is really useful for getting a good idea of what cars are actually worth. eBay also has a project car category that most people don’t know about.
You will probably buy your project car on craigslist. CL has taken over from eBay as well as a lot of the local classifieds and you can find anything on here. While it’s widely used, not a lot of people use it to full potential. The first key is using boolean, aka search operators like AND, OR, and NOT. CL has a slightly different boolean code and you read about it here or here. Set up craigslist searches for the car you’re looking for and key in all the years you’re interested in, every possible spelling of the name including common mispellings (GT-R and GTR, or Alpha Romero and Alfa Romeo for example).
Once you’ve done that, what I’ve found to be the best way to keep up with a search is using the RSS feed or email notification function. Craigslist allows you to create an RSS feed of any search. RSS feeds are essentially an email-like subscription to a blog or site and the feed will update anytime there’s new content or, for CL, a new item that matches your search terms. Create CL searches in every region you would drive to for what you’re looking for, click the orange RSS button in the bottom of the page, I recommend Feedly for your feeds, and this Chrome plugin will make everything easier. Voila, now you will literally never miss a car that you might be interested in buying. If you’re not down with RSS you can also do email updates on saved searches.
Find the local classifieds in your newspaper or specialty publications and keep an eye there as well. These are the papers being put out of business by CL, for better or for worse. There won’t be much there but there’s a good chance you’ll find a non-internet savvy seller who’s posted their car here and nowhere else. You’ll likely have to visit a brick and mortar store to find copies but it could be well worth it.
Make/model specific forums and owner’s groups
Early on in the process you should create an account on a forum. Introduce yourself nicely, use proper capitalization and grammar, and let everyone know that you’re interested in a car. Ask any questions you have about them, use the search function, and ask if anyone knows a good place to buy one. Don’t forget to ask about some common problems to look for! Though it varies, these communities are usually very helpful and very enthusiastic to share their love for whatever they drive. Once you get into the project these folks will likely be a primary source of parts and information so best to make a good first impression.
So now that you’re seeing tons and tons of listings for your desired car, how do you sort out which ones to contact? Here are the primary factors you should be considering:
Price: Unfortunately, this is most often the number one requirement. But a lot can be determined by the price of a classifieds listing. If it’s high: does it seem like the seller is reaching and dreaming, hoping for a sucker but would take a reasonable amount for it? The ‘OBO’ (or best offer) tag is usually a good indication of this. Is it too low? If the price of a car is wayy too low there’s probably something the seller isn’t telling you or it’s a scam. There’s a small chance that they just don’t know what it’s worth but that’ll be clear from the ad. Is the price the kind of number that you would choose? Round, even, ends with 0s or is it a $1999 kind of a thing? Most of these are dealers but some also list their cars at that price to sneak in under a $2000 maximum search. To best prepare you for this, look up completed listings on eBay, NADA valuation, and Kelley Blue Book values to see what’s reasonable. But beware: NADA and KBB lag market values and aren’t always particularly accurate with rarer cars.
Location: Of course there will be a maximum radius you’ll travel but the distance will affect some other criteria as well. If the car is cheap but it will cost you $500 in gas and towing costs to get it home then that doesn’t help you much. If the car looks a bit dubious but is in your hometown you can easily roll the dice and go look at it. Do you have friends in the area of the car who would go check it out or store the car for a week or two while you get ready to bring it home?
Listing text: Does the seller sound like a total moron? Does he seem to know anything about the car? Look at these two sample ads and tell me who you would rather deal with:
alpha romero 4 sale, runs good, needs nothing, fast car 3000 text 555-555-5555
I’m selling a 1982 Alfa Romeo Spider. The car’s in good shape for the year, currently on the road and running well. Had a lot of fun with this car but time to move on. Asking $3000, call or text 555-555-5555
Even though the second ad has almost no new information I predict a much smoother experience. The deal would have to be really sweet to call on the first ad.
Photos: I’ve included a lot more information on photos in the next section as you’ll most likely get the best pictures after you get in touch with the guy. An ad without photos is an inconvenience but not as much of a red flag as you’d think. Some people can’t quite figure out the technology, or they’re used to older classifieds where photos aren’t an option. Of course, good clear photos are a great sign and should make you a bit more optimistic. And if even after getting in touch they’re still hesitant to get you pictures then you should assume they’re trying to hide something.
Mileage: This is a tricky one. In a daily driver you want the lowest mileage you can find. However, in a project it’s not nearly as big of a deal. Especially with an older car you’ll likely be replacing most of the wear parts anyway and in a newer car you’ll likely be upgrading. Mileage wear items include:
- Suspension components: shocks and sometimes springs, bushings, struts if the car has it
- Brake components: pads/shoes, rotors/drums, lines, slave and master cylinder
- Drivetrain: transmission and rear end
- Engine: pistons, rings, cylinder wall/liners, valvetrain
As you can see, much of this is easy to replace and encouraged anyway. One of the most expensive wear items is the cylinder block itself but the availability of oversize pistons and overboring at a machine shop make it easy to bring an engine back. Long story short: don’t worry too much about mileage.
Red flags: Here are some common red flags:
- “Super reliable, hasn’t needed any work!”: It’s about to need a LOT of work.
- “Basket case”, “Would make a great project”: They’ve lost so many parts that they can’t actually call it a car anymore.
- “Selling for parts”: Sometimes this means that they don’t have a title (if you live in a non-title state this is awesome), often it means that it’s truly not worth bringing back
- Any form of promise about how cool it will be when fixed: Don’t let them sell you on what the car could be, let’s talk about what the car is
- No technical details like engine and drivetrain listed: They probably don’t know and that tells you a lot about how well it’s been taken care of.
- “Custom”/”Customized”: Run.
- “Modified”: Run, fast.