Disaster avoidance when looking for an old car

Disaster avoidance when looking for an old car

Story by Jim Volgarino

Get an inspection before you regret it later

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Bob and Carol talked for months about finding a car that matched the one they had when they dated during high school. Bob had regretted ever selling it, but the couple’s marriage and subsequent family obligations pushed the two-door hardtop with bucket seats out of the garage to make room for a more family-oriented van.

The couple’s best friends, Ted and Alice, had the same idea and found a vintage car they also wanted, and it was located within 50 miles of their home. Bob and Ted had gone to see it before Ted handed over the funds. The car was in fair condition, but Ted admitted there were some things he wished he would have discovered before bringing the car home. He was satisfied, and the couples made regular use of the car for runs to the local ice cream parlor and tours of the countryside.

Bob did find a car; however, it was located three states away and he struggled with buying something he couldn’t see beforehand. Remembering Ted’s experience, he asked lots of questions about body condition, rust issues, how the car ran and whether it needed anything important, knowing there would be minor blemishes and issues that a vintage car might have.

Not having bought a car from afar, Bob was nervous, but he didn’t have a budget that included a plane flight, a rental car and a couple of overnight stays in a hotel to see the car firsthand. It looked great online, and he and Carol were excited to find something so similar to their past transportation.

Bob went ahead and made the deal, getting questions answered that he believed would indicate the condition of the car. A couple weeks later, it arrived on a trailer right in front of his house. He and Carol called Ted and Alice to enjoy the delivery of their new vehicle. But it quickly turned to concern when the transport driver started the car and clouds of smoke erupted from the tail pipes, and the driver struggled to get the car in gear to back it off the trailer. He managed to get the car down the ramp, but all of them could hear the squeaking and clanking as the car settled onto the street. Bob was white as a sheet.

Why inspect a prospective purchase

This story regularly plays out when vintage vehicles are purchased by buyers who haven’t been able to fully inspect a purchase ahead of delivery. The spreading interest in vintage vehicles, growing number of outlets available to buy those vehicles, and a market that appears friendly for investing in older vehicles despite rising prices is making the services of third-party inspections more important than ever.

Though a pre-purchase inspection might not have caught all the issues Bob found when his car arrived, an inspection might at the very least uncover issues a seller might not realize and provide some additional background so a buyer could make a more informed decision.

Finding an inspector qualified to carefully investigate a vehicle that has caught your eye might not always be an easy task, and following are some ideas to help potential buyers make a more informed decision in order to prevent a nightmare from being dropped off at their front door.

Today, we are fortunate to have an abundance of information available at our fingertips. A simple internet search for classic or vintage vehicle inspections and inspectors should get things started and provide an initial indication if this type of service is available near the vehicle being considered. A wide range of potential services are available from nationally based organizations that use a cadre of people across the country.

Most of the services provide some background information of expertise and advice related to avoiding scams, buying from private owners versus dealers, and how the organization provides its service. Some services will describe the use of checklists that are filled out by contracted inspectors who do the traveling and visual examination before turning the findings over to a centralized office where the report can be finalized.

Many will describe longtime experience with collectible cars, which can be an advantage if you are considering something that might be out of the ordinary. Some services are very selective, handling projects involving just exotics, imported vehicles or specific brands and models, and you’ll want to read through each service’s background information to see if they might fit what you need.

Cost is always a consideration, and you’ll want to determine if the cost is based on the type of vehicle, its relative condition and how far away it is located from the inspector. Most inspection services will have an established fee plus possible travel costs, and many will offer additional services such as confirming vehicle factory markings or numbers, or providing more in-depth information about drivetrain components (with images) so you can determine if the vehicle retains some or all of its factory equipment. Costs appear to generally fall between $250 to $400 plus any travel expenses. Obviously, someone located far from the vehicle will cost more than someone close by.

You may want to consider some questions for the inspection service before making a final decision. Here are some potential questions.

• What is the experience or expertise of the service? Do they have third-party reviews you can see? How about certification? Has the inspector completed any training in appraisal fundamentals?

• How long does it take to produce a finished report? Is a sample report available for viewing?

• How long does the inspector spend with the vehicle, on average? Is video involved? How many images are provided? Is there additional cost to have more images? Does the inspector make certain the car is in good lighting? What areas of the car are included in the images? Would you like the vehicle to be located on a lift? Will that be an additional cost? If a list is not available, is the inspector equipped to get under the vehicle anyway?

• Are descriptions of each area included, and can the seller talk directly with the inspector? If you expect the inspector to drive the vehicle, does the service arrange that with the seller, or is that up to you to arrange? What should that test drive include?

• You may have very specific areas of concern. Will the inspector look for particular issues and present questions to the seller about the vehicle’s history, any documentation or recently completed repairs or refinishing?

These questions cover many of the issues you may want considered as you send an inspector out to be your eyes and ears. You’ll want to know if the vehicle starts hard, idles rough or makes strange noises when the transmission is engaged. You’ll want to know if there are hidden blemishes or damage that might look presentable now, but may become more visible as the vehicle is driven or further ages.

Inspections can be completed using different approaches. Some are very straightforward and perfunctory, checking off items for operability or condition and offering little opinion on overall condition of a particular area, i.e., the exterior, interior, underhood, drivetrain, trunk, suspension, electrical, etc.

Many safety issues should be considered as well, so the inspector needs to be critical of all operating systems to ensure you aren’t getting a vehicle that proves to be dangerous to you or your family. 

Looking to buy? Here are a few helpful articles that will provide additional assistance in your quest

Related: Collector car buying on a budget

Related: Collector car buying advice from Drew

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