Would you spend $60,000 on a car sight unseen? Steve Linden, a highly rated auto appraiser, collector car guide author and inspector in Smithtown, N.Y., says it happens more frequently than you’d think. “I’m involved in a case now where a five-minute inspection would have saved the buyer from a bad purchase,” Linden says. “The horror stories are all the same, and we’re talking about $60,000 and $90,000 purchases.”
No matter where a classic car falls on the value spectrum, it’s generally a good idea to get a pre-purchase inspection (PPI), Linden says: “The most important thing to know is that it's worth the minimal investment – it’s like an insurance policy.”
Why is a pre-purchase inspection important?
With the advent of eBay and other online auctions and classifieds, experts like Linden say more classic car buyers are willing to purchase cars from distant parts of the country. And, too often, the buyers take the seller’s word or put too much faith in online photos of a vehicle.
“You can hide a lot in pictures,” says Dustin Foust, owner of highly rated Classic Restorations, a restoration shop in Floyds Knob, Ind., that offers inspection and appraisal services to its clients. “You may think you have a jewel, but it could be a rust bucket.”
But who would be willing to purchase a vehicle based on price, pictures and the seller’s word? Mike Atwood, owner of highly rated Big Sky Classic Motors in Bozeman, Mont., has an idea. “Many more deals would fall apart if more people actually did a PPI,” he says. “But most guys dream of owning a car for years before they do, so there’s a lot of emotion wrapped up in it.”
Atwood recommends classic car buyers, especially first-time buyers, spend as much time researching a vehicle as possible prior to making an offer. Once you have a particular model in mind, “Utilize all the price guides you can find, use local clubs to help get you educated, and it helps to know the overall market, so look at sold and completed listings on eBay,” he says.
Foust recommends a patient approach. "Don’t get in a hurry – look around, there’s more than one vehicle that you’re looking for that’s going to be for sale out there," he says.
How much does it cost?
After doing your due diligence, experts say it's a must to get a vintage vehicle inspected before committing to a purchase. “Unless you’re buying the vehicle from someone you trust implicitly, I recommend an inspection,” Linden says. He charges $250 plus travel fees for a top-to-bottom inspection of a prospective car.
Foust says his shop generally charges his shop’s hourly rate, which increases depending on how much travel time is involved. Atwood says most buyers can find a good mechanical inspection priced at $100 to $200, depending on the shop. “It will be the best $100-$200 you ever spend a car,” he says.
What does it cover?
At a minimum, a PPI for a classic or vintage vehicle should include inspecting the following:
Engine and chassis VINs checked for matching numbersTest driving the vehicle for proper function and road worthiness of engine, transmission, brakes and suspensionEngine compression test, if necessaryDrivetrain/transmission for leaks or wearSwitches, knobs and controls checked for proper operationPower options, such as windows or door locks, to ensure work correctlyFrame and vehicle underbody checked for collision damage, rust, rot, improper repairs or other defectsBody panels, chrome and trim for fit and alignment, as well as damage, rust, dents or dingsCondition of replaceable items such as tires and shock absorbersGlass, lenses and emblems checked for cracks, chips and scratchesInterior, including seats, headliner, door cards and dashboard, for tears, cracks, wear and/or fading
"Almost anybody can see how a car looks and what works, but my expertise is that my eye is trained to look for things that are incorrect," Linden says. "It can be something as small as noticing a generic hardware bolt where a cadmium-plated should be – but if that’s incorrect, it’s likely there are some other things to look out for."
What do you do with the information?
If the inspection reveals defects, but not enough to warrant breaking the deal, use that information to negotiate the price in good faith with the seller. "Most sellers are honest about their vehicle, but they don't know there's an issue," Linden says. But, he adds, there are sellers who blatantly misrepresent vehicles for profit.
"There are sellers out there just trying to make a buck," Foust says. "They might have screwed up and bought a bad vehicle, so they try to slap a paint job on it and sell it."
If something's not adding up, or if a seller is willing to significantly discount the price in lieu of an inspection, walk away, Atwood says. "If you’re capable of walking away from something that doesn’t feel right, it will make the difference between a happy relationship with your car and a bad one," he says. "If you don't walk away, it’s an investment, it’s your money – you’re the one who's going to have to explain why something isn’t working."
What to look for in an inspector
"Inspections for classic cars are a different game than what a newer car will be," Atwood says. "Avoid the 100-point inspections offered for used cars." He adds that consulting with your dream car's local club may help direct you to a local mechanic with experience in the brand.
Even if you can't find an experienced inspector to evaluate your potential buy, Linden says seeing the vehicle in person should never be omitted from the purchase process. "Even if you’re not going to hire someone, take a friend who knows about cars or go see it for yourself," he says. "It’s really important to see what you’re buying before you send the money – it will alleviate 99 percent of your headaches down the road."
Ready to embark on your classic car purchase? Check Angie's List Classic Cars for consumer feedback, reviews and listings of classic car inspectors and appraisers near you.