Everyone has a story of how they bought a classic car. Some are of them are entertaining, "So I met a one-eye shifty guy behind an abandoned steel mill in the middle of Indiana…" Other stories are mundane, "I went to the dealer, paid him, and drove it home." Most people like a good story, but everyone wants an excellent deal.

People buy classic cars typically through one of three avenues: Private parties, dealers and auctions. We are going look at the pluses and minuses of each type of seller in this 3-part series. Today's article is focusing on the private party transaction.

Here are the other two articles on buying from a dealer and buying from auction:

Private parties - These sellers are individuals selling on their own behalf. They are both the principal and agent of the sell side.

Are private party deals for you?

Thanks to the internet, you do not need to canvas newspaper ads like yesteryear. Now you can search online from the comfort of your own home without getting covered in newspaper ink.

Here is a link to a bunch of classic car sites I use when looking for old cars, but feel free to suggest any other ones in the comments.

Most of the ads on these sites are from dealers, but many sites allow you to filter out the dealers showing only the private parties selling cars so you can focus your search.

How To Find Your Car

Reaching out to private sellers takes time. You are contacting each seller individually. You must follow up and work with each owner. These guys can get flighty and decide to not sell the car. Do not take it personally. Be patient. You will find your car.

You can get a great deal with a private seller. Dealers and auction houses tack on 10-25% in fees over the sale price. If you’re buying a $30k car from a private party, that same car sold through a dealer could cost you $3,000-$7,500 more through a dealer or auction house. $3,000 can buy your wife a nice vacation and pacify here as you park that T-Bucket with an open exhaust in the driveway.

As you scroll through these car sites, create a spreadsheet with the following information:

  • Brief description of the car (e.g. "1981 DeLorean", good condition, but needs new interior)
  • Link to ad
  • Seller's information including: Name, email, phone number, and website. Often ads expire, the seller decides he doesn't want to actively sell the car (even though he is still interested in selling it), or websites go down. Create your own database of sellers so you don’t depend on a bookmark or retracing your internet search to find your classic car.

After creating your list of cars for sale, write up a form letter with some basic questions applicable to any seller and send it to each seller. Don't worry about asking about something mentioned in the ad (e.g. the ad states: "this car has rust", but your form letter asks "Does your car have rust?"). The seller will just reiterate what the ad says or will suggest you read the ad again to answer your question. By creating a form letter, it allows you to do several things:

  • Reach out to many sellers very fast.
  • Find out if the car is still available. Many times these ad sites leave up old ads as a way to populate the site or the seller forgot to remove the ad after selling the car.
  • Get basic questions answered to allow you to eliminate cars that don’t match your search criteria.

Here is an example of a recent mass sale email I sent out:

I saw your ad for your Viper for sale. I am a cash buyer/private party. I have several questions about your car:

  • Has it ever been raced on a track?
  • Has it ever been in an accident?
  • Do you have all the service records?
  • Have you modified the car? (I want it as stock as possible)
XXX-XXX-XXX (cell)

Notice I'm not talking price or commenting on the ad content. This is just a fishing expedition to gauge if the car is still available along with asking some deal breaker questions for me. Your deal breaker questions might include:

  • Has the engine ever been rebuilt?
  • Is this a numbers matching car?
  • Are you the original owner?
  • Is this the original paint color?
  • Was it professional or garage mechanic restoration?
  • Make sure you include your phone number. This adds validity to your inquiry.

When your responses come in, update your spreadsheet. If seller responded with a deal-breaker answer, make a note of the deal-breaker comment in your spreadsheet and move on to the next one. You do not want to be tempted later to settle for a car that does not meet your criteria. At some point you will get frustrated with the search process and want to lower your standards just to get a car. Stick to your criteria. Remember, you are only buying one car and you want the best.

How To Narrow Down Your Search Results

After you've accumulated your list of cars that pass the first test, it's time to dig in. Respond to the remaining sellers with specific questions about their car. Reread their ads and dive into the details. Schedule a call with seller if they are out of state or go see the car in person if they are local. There is a lot of information that the seller will accidentally give up when talking on the phone or meeting in person. The seller is never going to tell you "my wife hates this car and wants it out of the driveway yesterday" in an email, but if you look at the car in person, his wife might come out and say "get this P.O.S. out of here now! We need the money for the kids' college tuition."

Pay attention to the condition of the owner's house, the way he dresses, and how his other cars appear. If he doesn't take care of these things, he did not take good care of the classic car you’re about to buy.

Check the driver's license of the seller to make sure it matches the title before test driving the car. You don’t want to waste your time trying to buy a car from a guy who can't legally sell it to you. Ask this question over the phone to save a trip to look at a car that some guy is selling "for his neighbor".

Private sellers tend to have a deep emotional connection to their car leading to extreme pride in their car along with an asking inflated price. Listen to the seller's emotional rant about how his car is the best. Maybe he is selling it because he just lost his job, his wife left him, or he is just tired of the car. It is better to listen to his story and befriend the guy than to come off as a pompous jerk. The seller doesn’t want to see comparables or hear negative things about his "mint" condition car that really needs $10k in repairs to get to average condition. When it comes to naming your price, just state your price and remain calm. Do not talk after dictating your price. Maintain eye contact and do not smile. Wait for him to speak. You might be nervous, but by remaining statuesque, you allow the seller to break form first.

Update Your Listings Often

There are new sellers entering the market every day, so once a week sit down and scan through the sites to see if there are any new listings. This will not take as long as the first time when every listing was a new listing to you. By doing this weekly, it allows you to get a better feel for the pricing of your car and gives you confidence to pull the trigger when you find your car. It also allows you to be one of the first people to respond to a new ad.

Warning, the buyer should be aware. Dealing with private sellers is like Louis and Clark traversing through virgin North America. It is no-man's land and it is up to you to look out for yourself. Do your research on the make, model and year of the classic car, know everything you can about the specific car through car reports and any pedigree reports you can find. Be prepared to walk away if the negatives outweigh the positives.

Get An Inspector

Once you agree on a price, I strongly suggest you bring in an inspector to look over the car. Inspectors do not have the emotional attachment to the car and a good inspector sees thousands of cars a year. The couple hundred bucks you spend on him will give you peace of mind as well as a solid second opinion that you are making the right purchase.

Prior to purchasing the car, your insurance company may require you get an appraisal. This must be done before you sign the title. Even if you are not required to get an appraisal, it is a qualified second opinion for you to ensure that you are getting a fair deal on your classic car.

Make sure you get a bill of sale and transfer the title immediately at a currency exchange or DMV. You should also have insurance in place prior to completing your purchase. By transferring title immediately with the seller present, you know that there are no issues with title.

Congrats, you just bought your classic car. More important than buying it, you bought it with confidence that you purchased a well running one at a fair to great price.

BOTTOM LINE: Buying a classic car is easy. Buying the RIGHT classic car for a fair price takes time.