You found a great classic car for sale online. Before you drive out for a test drive, or worse, get in a plane and fly across the country to kick the tires, do an in-depth phone call with the seller to figure out if it is worth your time for an in-person visit.

Plan at least thirty minutes for this call. This sounds like a lot of time, but a half hour spent on the phone rejecting a car is a big saver over traveling a couple hours to find out the car didn't have a clear title or some other major situation that would have been discovered in a brief phone call. This list may be tempting to send over email, but there are a couple of issues with email: Most sellers do not want to respond with a multiple page email in response to a cold email from buyer who may not be a serious buyer. Furthermore, a phone call personalizes the buying experience and the seller is more likely to slip in relevant information off the cuff than by email.

Take your time and have a conversation. Show the seller you are interested in him as a person and not just drilling through the questions like an interrogation in a spy movie. Rushing through these questions as if it were race to the finish puts the seller on edge and he may leave important information out of the conversation.

These questions are organized from most important to least important, so you can get main picture early in the conversation. There are so many cars for sale that it is not worth making major sacrifices in terms of price and quality unless you are compensated by buying at a deep discount to market values AND you fully understand the work needed on the car. If at any point you get a deal breaker answer, thank the seller for his time and end the conversation. Keep in mind that these are questions for the average collector, so some of these questions may not pertain to you if you are looking for a project, parts, or investment grade car. Grab a pen and paper and get ready to dig in to your investigation.

  • Is it a clean title?

    Cars with branded titles (i.e. salvage, junk, flood, etc.) are prone to lingering issues from their repairs and may never run as good as they did before the event that left them without a clean title. This answer should be simple and to the point. If the seller starts with an explanation and does not give a clear, "Yes, it's a clean title", then this phone call is over.

  • Is the title in your name?

    The last thing you want to do is invest hours of time in a car only to find out the guy you were dealing with cannot legally sell you the car. Be wary of people who are selling cars for "their cousin", "a friend", or someone else of close relation to the seller. If they still insist that are acting as an agent for the seller, request a copy of the title and the seller's driver's license to be sent to you, or ask for the seller's number and speak directly with him.

  • Is the car currently registered?

    This is a sign that the car is being driven on a somewhat regular basis. Cars need to turnover several times a month just to stay active. If a car is not registered, you can pretty much count on it to have been sitting for an extended period.

  • How many miles did you drive the car last and this year?

    This is a secondary question to the registration question. More proof that the car has been driven. A car that puts on at least a 500 miles a year is one that is probably going to be in at least driver, if not better, condition.

  • How long have you owned car?

    This is a great question to weed out car flippers and owners who bought a car that had more problems than they expected. How long is the right length to own? Generally, the longer the better. Of course, there are exceptions for a shorter holding period, such as life events (i.e. divorce, new baby, moving, job change), but usually these do not happen with months after buying a classic car.

  • Why are you selling?
    • "I've had it for ‘X' years and I don't drive it"

    • "My kids have no interest in it"

    • "I'm too old to deal with it anymore"

    • "My wife told me either it goes or I go" are all good reasons to sell a car.

    Dumb things sellers say to try unload their junk on you include:

    • "It needs more work than I want to do to it" (this probably means more work than YOU want to do to it too)

    • "It just needs [one] part and I don't have the time to fix it" (if it needed one part, the seller would have done it himself and asked more for the car),

    • "This car in mint condition would sell for ten times what I'm asking" (in this case, the guy just avoided the question entirely).

    This question is not always about the answer, but the way the seller says it. If he blurts out some vague answer that does not sound convincing, there is probably a lot more lie than truth. If you are dealing with a seller who goes into all the memories he is made with the car, you are on the path to buying a car that was loved.

  • Is there any rust on the car?

    Rust is bad and usually a deal breaker. Sometimes an honest seller will say there is no rust on his car, because he is only looking at the car as it is parked in the garage. However, rust usually starts on the bottom of the car; this means the frame, wheel wells, exhaust, suspension, and floor. Unfortunately, this usually requires throwing the car on a lift to look underneath the car.

  • Is it ok to take this car to a local inspector or have an inspector join me on my visit?

    The seller should respond with an "Absolutely" immediately. This is one of those deal breaker questions in the event the seller says "No."

  • If you were selling this car to your mother, what three things would you tell her to fix immediately?

    This is a different way of phrasing, "What's wrong with your car?" Most classic cars have issues. These can be big or small issues, but there will be problems. A seller will usually disclose what known things have been problematic with the car when asked, because they figure an inspection will reveal these issues to the buyer. One thing to keep in mind is that a seller may not have knowledge of a problem with the car. This is why any car you buy should undergo a thorough inspection by a knowledgeable mechanic.

  • Has the car undergone a restoration, engine rebuild or any other major repair work?

    This type of work is usually mentioned in the ad, but it is worth asking more about it. Find out how many miles have been put on the car since leaving the shop. Which leads to the next question:

  • Do you have receipts for work done?

    Many detailed oriented sellers will keep extensive records of every bolt turned on their car.

    These are great sellers to deal with because they truly care about their cars. Do not be afraid to ask them to send over copies of the receipts and any mileage logs they may have on their car. If the seller is a home mechanic, they should be able to provide receipts for parts purchased.

  • Did you do the repair work yourself or send it to a shop?

    Many classic car collectors are DIY types. Ask questions about their experience with working on classics. You can put a lot more faith in a seller who restores or repairs classic cars as a serious hobby compared to the guy who considers an oil change a major repair.

  • Do the following items work?
    • Lights-headlight, turn signals, brake, and dashboard

    • Window wipers

    • Gauges-tach, speedometer, odometer, fuel, etc.

    • Heater and/or AC

    • Horn

    These seem like easy fixes, but some of them can be quite expensive. If you have more than one, the cost starts to escalate quickly. Another reason for asking about these items is that it's another way to find out if the car has been well cared of by the current owner.

  • Would you feel comfortable driving this car on a three-day road trip?

    Many classic cars start and do great around town, but venturing past city limits can be a daunting ordeal. Any seller who pauses before answering might not be so confident in his car. Feel free to follow up with questions on how the car would perform on a road trip.

  • Have you owned a lot of classic cars?

    Are you dealing with a collector with an extensive collection, a long-time owner with one car, or a classic car flipper? That is what you are really asking here. Generally, you want to stay away from the flippers because the long-term interest of the car is not in the forefront of their mind.

  • Is the car numbers-matching, stock, or modified?

    For some buyers numbers-matching is extremely important. If it is to you, ask for pictures of the numbers off the car so you can verify that the car is numbers matching prior to trekking out to see the car in person. This includes numbers off the engine block, VIN, fender tag, frame, and transmission. Different manufactures used various ways to code their cars, so make sure you do your research on what numbers need to match to be a numbers-matching car. If you are one of those guys that could care less about original build components, skip this question.

  • Can you send over additional pictures or video?

    Additional pictures include any shots that you would like to see that were not in the original ad or if the car you are looking at has known problem areas. For example, asking for a picture of the inside of the trunk without the carpet on it is a great way to identify hidden rust. Although there is no substitute for seeing a car in person, watching the owner do a cold start on a video is a great way to get a decent opinion on how it drives (to prove it is a cold start, have the owner put his hand on the engine prior to starting the car).

  • Was the car ever in an accident?

    With Carfax today, you know that five-year old Toyota was in an accident, but many classic cars have been around long before the internet took off. The seller may not know the answer to this question given the car's history of owners, but it is worth asking.

  • Ask about questionable items or concerns you from the ad's description.
  • See if the seller has anything else to add.

    Yes, the seller is probably exhausted by now. This open-ended question can yield great nuggets of information. Maybe he tells you how he needs to sell the car because he is moving next week, or that he needs money for his kid's college fund. Let the seller talk and see what information you can pick up.

Some other things to consider:

Dealers know less about car for sale than private sellers do, because they are in the business of turning over inventory. Often times, the car's owner will leave detailed repair and ownership records with the dealer, but you may not get the emotional story of the car's history.

Ask for any supporting documents such as repair work done, copy of the title, or previous bill of sale. Some day you will sell this car and the buyer might be ready to grill you with questions just like you did to this seller, so have your documentation in place.

Do not talk price on the phone. The seller has just invested a significant amount of time into and you have not seen it in person—before you start talking price, go out and see it. You know what he is asking, because it is listed in the ad, so no need to start negotiating before seeing the car in person.

Thank the seller for their time. Both of you have invested a significant amount of time in this process and you are developing a level of trust now. You are no longer a black and white email, but a person that the seller connects to and wants to work with in selling his classic car.

Final thoughts:

Interviewing a car seller is a time consuming process and many buyers do not want to put the time in because they want that car in their garage now. After a couple of these phone interviews, you will be much more comfortable with the process. Even though this seems like a lot of work for something that may or may not pan out, just think about how much time, and money, you will be spending on a car that turns out to be a basket case because you did not do your due diligence.

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