Red Flags When Buying a Classic Car on CL

Updated on December 9, 2016

So, someone may have done this story already, but here are some observations I have made in regard to looking for classic cars for sale on Craigslist, i.e., "buyer beware" kind of stuff.

A Picture Can Tell You a Lot

There's a lot going on here, most notably, the visible rust holes in the front fender, door and rear quarter. Wonder how the rest of the car looks, probably not good.
There's a lot going on here, most notably, the visible rust holes in the front fender, door and rear quarter. Wonder how the rest of the car looks, probably not good.

Seems obvious that if the picture of the car you're looking at in a CL ad looks like a hunk of junk, it probably is. But be cautious if you think it looks good, and ask yourself, are you looking at everything in that picture?

Is the car in the picture taken at a distance? Like a good 20 feet away? Maybe at that distance you won't notice paint blemishes or rust issues. Could it be the seller is just bad at taking pictures? Could be, but always remember that the obvious isn't always so obvious, it's not like cameras are a new thing, or even digital cameras for that matter; lousy pictures are probably taken that way on purpose.

Always examine a picture and look for things like blocks under the tires. This is clearly an indication the car hasn't moved in a while, or that the brakes are bad. The seller may disclose this in the ad, but you always have to assume there's info they aren't telling you.

Notice the rocks under the rear wheels-a sign it has no parking brakes, at least not that the owner trusts.
Notice the rocks under the rear wheels-a sign it has no parking brakes, at least not that the owner trusts.

I've actually seen this (not a joke): the picture of the car for sale shows it on the back of a tow truck, or only partially covered by a dirty, rotted tarp. Maybe you're looking for a car that has sat for decades, doesn't run, and needs a truckload of work, but never blow off what these things mean.

Yes, this was from an actual CL ad, notice that the seller tilted the image so it looks straight. You have to wonder why is it on a tow truck?
Yes, this was from an actual CL ad, notice that the seller tilted the image so it looks straight. You have to wonder why is it on a tow truck?

Key Phrases and What They Really Mean


"It ran great when I parked it."

I see this all the time. The car obviously doesn't run NOW, otherwise, why even say this? I know, for some, this could mean that it just doesn't start and run now because the battery is dead, and it hasn't moved since the last time it was parked in its driveway cocoon, but why not just say that? I mean, you wouldn't tell someone hey, Grandma was doing great 5 years ago, but she's dead now. I get it, the reason most people say this is because the implication isn't that the car stopped running because of some major mechanical issue, but don't kid yourself, if all it needs is some gas and a battery, it would have been started up and running before an ad to sell it was even written. The point is, regardless of whether or not it was a running car when it was parked years ago, remember that time can deteriorate seals and other rubber parts, and even the seller has no idea what could be wrong with it now.


"It just needs a paint job."

Don't think that means it won't need a ton of work. If it does need paint, you can bet it needs body work as well, and paint is NOT cheap. Granted, if you have your own paint booth, or can do all the body work yourself, go for it, but if you're like most people, you'll have to pay a professional for that paint work, and it could cost more than the price of the car, so keep that in mind. R

emember too that some things the car may need may seem simple, but simple does not mean cheap, like new tires for example. By themselves, tires aren't a huge deal, although good ones can be expensive; but with new tires, it will probably need a wheel alignment, and if it hasn't had new tires in years, or a recent alignment, it may need new suspension parts.

"It's rare."

Rare doesn't mean valuable; those terms aren't mutually exclusive if you know what I mean. The seller could have a 1970 AMC Matador with the Barcelona Edition trim package, but that doesn't mean that's valuable since a 1970 Matador isn't valuable to begin with. A good rule of thumb is to check and see what other models are selling for, and if a 1986 CJ5 is worth about $4K in decent shape, the rare Daisy Duke edition probably isn't worth three times that much. Typically, upgraded performance parts will make a rare model classic more valuable.

This Chevelle doesn't look bad, but look at the picture below, and you can see how it really looks.
This Chevelle doesn't look bad, but look at the picture below, and you can see how it really looks.

Why Is it So Cheap?

Like I said before, not everything is so obvious. So the car you're looking at looks good, the seller lists off some new parts and says it runs good, so what's the catch? Odds are, there's a big issue affecting the price, like possibly the title. The seller may have lost it, or it's a salvage title, which could mean A LOT of things regarding the car's provenance.

It could also be that the car has really high mileage. Remember that some older cars odometers don't read 100K plus miles, they flip over. So the question is, how many times has it rolled over.

The important thing to remember is that a project is just that, a project. Maybe you know what you're getting in to, but most of the time someone is selling a project cheap because they're in over their head. Ironically, they may have bought the project not realizing they were already in over their head, so don't make the same mistake they did. Happy hunting.

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