Whether you are buying through the AutoTrader website or a print ad, chances are the car you are looking at is a good distance from you. Buying sight-unseen, not only lessens your ability to haggle face to face, but exponentially increases the potential for getting ripped off. A friend recently purchased an early ‘90s GM wagon for a daily driver. It had been lowered and looked good in the photos. The owner said the car was a Texas car, and it was rust free. A deal was made and the car was delivered. Upon delivery, the car showed its true colors. Beyond the torch-heated coils (which is bad), the 10-footer Maaco paint and trashed engine, the car turned out to be from Michigan, as in Lake Michigan. The entire body below the belt line was rusted through, including the frame. The sparks plugs were literally rusted in half. The amount of bondo probably cost more than the car itself.
The moral of the story is to inspect any car before you put down money. If the car is 1,000 miles away, there are options that you may have not thought of. When you buy a used car locally, you have the opportunity to look it over, test drive it, even take it to a mechanic to get it checked out if you want. Getting that done long-distance is not so easy, and it’s going to cost you a little bit too. There are several key areas that you need to keep in mind when buying a car long-distance.
Research the car. Whether you are looking for a specific make and model or you just want an early Mustang, you need to do as much research as you can. The internet is a valuable resource for this, as are many books you can find on building and restoring specific cars. Once you have found a car you are interested in, make\model websites and forums, such as AllFordMustangs.com, can teach you quite a bit about the car you are looking at. VIN decoders, buyer’s guides, and chatting with other members in the forums, will help you make an informed decision. Books such as “How to Build a Killer Street Machine” will also help you plan your purchase (and the rest of the project too).
Long-Distance inspections are a must in the world of car buying. Even if you are buying a project hull, getting a set of actual eyes on the car before you put any money down is just a good idea. You never know what might show up on the trailer otherwise. Pictures can only tell you so much and the seller may or may not be giving you full disclosure. If the seller gives you a hard time about having it inspected or seems to never be home when the inspector shows up, you may be well served to just walk away. An inspector can pull back carpet, knock on quarter panels and listen to the motor. Finding the appraiser or inspector is the hard part, but even that is not too tough. If you are buying from a reputable classic car dealer, they will often have a couple of local independent appraisers that they can send you to. Your research is critical when buying any car, even more so when buying long-distance. “We have a couple of local appraisers that we work with on a regular basis for our customers,” said Fred Murfin of Red Line Auto Sports, a classic muscle car dealer in Wilson, Ok. “Our mission is to provide the absolute best possible buying experience, from inspection to delivery.”
If you are buying from an individual, you can search for local inspectors online (or at a local car dealer), but there is yet another option for finding an inspector- the chat forums. Chances are you already belong to an automotive internet forum or two, and if you don’t, they are easy to join and offer a great level of assistance. You can usually find someone on the forum that is in the area of the car you are looking at. By posting an inspection request on the board, you can get a low-cost set of eyes on the car, a few digital pics of specific areas and even get a listen to the motor. This is a great option for project cars that might not be worth the expense of a professional appraiser. A professional will charge upwards of $250, where as you might manage to get a local to do it for $50-100, and sometimes for free.
Once you have located an inspector, you must provide them with some information on the car. The obvious stuff includes the seller’s contact information, directions to their place and details on the car. You should also provide a list of specific areas you want the inspector to look at, such as checking the floor boards for rust, quarter panels for body filler and frame damage. A professional inspector will already do these things, but may not be familiar with that make/model’s particular trouble spots, providing a list of what to look for gets you more value for your dollar. You can also request the inspector to take pictures and even test drive the car. A professional appraiser or inspector will provide you with a comprehensive list of inspection points along with any issues they found. An appraiser will also provide you with an overall value range for the car. Not only is this good for insurance purposes and liability, but also a good bargaining tool for you. If the car is worth less than the asking price, that is good to know, but if it is worth considerably more, you can decide how much cash to cut loose.
Striking a deal with the seller after the inspection is completed is only part of the equation; you still have to get the car home. If the car is road worthy, then you can always fly out and drive it home, but that is not always an option. Project cars and high-value cars are often shipped on a transport, which is a real opportunity to get taken. Your research will pay off in this area as well. Most shippers are trustworthy, but there are some that promote themselves as top-shelf transports when in reality they are just shipping brokers, or a guy with a trailer. We have had a guy show up to haul a truck to Florida with a 1-ton Dodge and a 30-foot trailer with three cars on it, not the typical shipper. The buyer had paid over $800 for the haul. The less-reputable shippers will quote you one price and then once they pick up the car call you to get more money or your car will be held in a yard until they have more cars shipping to your area. A proper shipper gives you a quote, sticks to that quote and delivers the car in a timely fashion. Asking for references is a good idea, if they can’t provide any; you may want to look elsewhere. This is another area where a professional inspector or classic car dealer can steer you towards a reputable local shipper.
There are three main types of transport trucks- a small truck and trailer, a Semi-truck with an open carrier, or an enclosed carrier. The small truck and trailer rig works, but the price should reflect that. An enclosed trailer costs considerably more than an open carrier, about double, so you have to decide if you need an enclosed trailer for your car. Open carriers are typically double stacked, meaning you have 4-5 cars on the bottom, and 3-4 cars up top. When you hire a transport, your car will likely be loaded and unloaded several times. If the car does not run or drive, your shipping will cost more because they won’t be able to move it easily. You should get your car insured BEFORE it is shipped and make sure the transporter is fully licensed, bonded, and insured for your state. If they are not licensed for delivery in your state, then the car will be dropped at a regional yard where you will have to pay another transport fee by a different company, and possibly storage fees. This is not something the less-scrupulous transport companies tell you about, you have to ask.
In our experience, things happen on a transport. In one incident, the truck we sold came loose on the carrier. The car behind it was a Porsche Cayenne. The truck (a 1950 Ford F1) was fine, but the Porsche was beat up to the tune of about $6,000. The shipper covered the repairs, but when traveling thousands of miles, it happens. A typical professional transport will cost between $600 and $1500 on an open carrier, while the costs of an enclosed carrier can easily go past $3000 for a single car. It is also a good idea to Google Map from point A to point B to get a clear understanding of the mileage. If you are being charged by the mile (and you should only be charged per LOADED mile), then you need to make sure that the shipping company is clear on the actual mileage.
It is important that you have the seller fill out an inspection sheet for the vehicle when the shipper arrives and that if they do not, they will be held liable for any damages. “We take pictures of the car being loaded and ALWAYS fill out an inspection report before the car leaves our property,” Fred Murfin of Red Line Auto Sports told us, “and then we fax the inspection sheet and email the pictures as the truck is driving off. This ensures that customer has proof of the condition of the vehicle as it shipped.” Murfin expressed to us how important this aspect of buying long-distance, “It happens all the time where a shipper does not want to take responsibility for damages, you must make sure you protect yourself.”
There are a lot of shady people out there; you have to protect yourself from fraudulent car deals. While it may sound great, you simply can’t buy a ’67 Fastback in near mint condition for 5k. That one may seem obvious, but cloned cars advertised as the real deal and payment schemes are a quick way to lose a lot of money. Buying from a classic car dealer is usually a good bet, however not all classic dealers are reputable. In September of 2010, the owner\operators of American Classic Cars in Conroe, Texas were sentenced to prison in a scam that took customers for over 1.5 million dollars. This father and son team will spend the next 50 years in prison (42 for Stephen Wood, 50 for Geoffrey Wood) and have to repay $10,000 in restitution for each conviction (each theft was a conviction) for running a ponzi scheme on wheels. This is another area where an inspection is handy; it lets you know the car is really there. Most sellers require a down payment, be wary of exorbitant down payments, $500-1000 is typical; half of the total price is not. Be sure to ask if the down payment is refundable as well.
Long-distance buying opens up the market for your car search, and is a tool you should learn to use. Your research and hard work will pay off in the end with the reward of a new car and no hard lessons to learn. Just remember- know the car, get it inspected, get it home safe, and then all you are left with is, what are you gonna buy next?