About to adopt a family pet? You’ve got questions. Deciding on a house? You’ve got LOTS of questions. Think you’ve found the classic car of your dreams? Maybe. It all depends on the questions you ask.
If you are searching for a very specific car, you will have myriad questions—factory options, documentation, repair receipts, matching numbers, and so on. Whatever these important bits and pieces are, write them all down in a shopping journal. In the passion of the moment, even seasoned buyers forget to ask about something that was once deemed important. Not all of the following questions to ask a seller about a classic car will apply to every situation. These are conversation-starting questions you can ask over the phone as a preliminary screen. At a minimum, they can save you time and money by avoiding needless inspection trips. More importantly, they can help reduce the chances of purchasing a nightmare.
To get started, you might as well get the paperwork questions out of the way. Depending on the responses, you may not have to ask another question.
The older the vehicle, the greater likelihood the seller won’t have a title. For many, this would be the aforementioned nightmare, especially if the intention is to turn around and title/register/license the car. However, the matter of titles varies by state. As an example, New York does not issue titles for cars built before 1973. Be familiar with your state’s titling and registration requirements for vehicles of the type and year you’re considering.
A clear title indicates there is no lien or other legal encumbrance on the vehicle that might prevent or complicate the sale of the vehicle. A clean title is one without a designation indicating the vehicle was severely damaged at some point in its life. As with paperwork regulations, terms and definitions vary by state, and even within states over time. Be aware that title and registration histories for very old vehicles may be inaccurate, lost, destroyed, or may have never existed at all. Records for a 1987 Buick GNX might not be a problem, but records for a 1927 Ford Model A might very well be. Even with the GNX, however, it’s possible the clean title really isn’t. Read on.
If the title in not in the seller’s name, you could run into the same problems as not having a title at all. If the title lists more than one seller, will they all be available (and willing) to sign over the title to you? Some states require notarized signatures, so availability is critical to a smooth transaction.
Speaking to a representative is fine, but they may not know as much about the car as the actual seller. If the transaction will be completed through a representative, the process to sell the car could be more drawn out than if you were dealing directly with the seller. If the representative is in another state, look up and understand all the paperwork requirements for the seller’s state and your state.
Another important piece of paper is the car’s registration. If it’s current, good. If it’s not registered, ask why, and then listen carefully. The car could be anything from a trailer queen (trailered from car show to car show) to something that has been sitting next to the house for years. Follow up accordingly.
On the topic of documentation, here’s one last word of advice. It’s possible for a seller to honestly present a clean and clear title that isn’t really clean and/or clear. A safety net is having a signed bill of sale. You can read more about bills of sale in our Help Center article about buying a classic car from a private seller. Consider including wording specifically indicating that the seller pays all legal expenses for any lawsuit relating to the seller’s actions and/or representations in the transaction.
Now, onto the car itself. The objective here is to identify any mechanical, structural or cosmetic deal-breakers.
Unless there’s a pretty good reason for short-term ownership, such as a baby on the way, a quick turnaround in ownership often points to someone trying to make a quick profit. They will have very little real knowledge of the car. Or perhaps the quick turnaround is because the seller didn’t know to ask the right questions before buying, and now they’re just trying to dump their nightmare. Assuming you’ve made it this far into the conversation, be sure to verify the length-of-ownership response when you see the title.
A “yes” would be a deal-breaker for many people. With anything other than an unhesitating and unqualified “no” as a response, it’s time to follow up and take good notes. Is it structural, or only surface rust? Is any rust visible through the paint, or causing the paint to bubble up? If you visit the seller to inspect the car, bring a few refrigerator-type magnets—the one with your dentist’s phone number is just fine—along to test all the body panels for body filler. Think it doesn’t matter because you’re interested in a sweet fiberglass-body street rod? Think again. Floor pans, gas tank, frame and many other parts are still critical to the vehicle’s value.
There are many reasons for a classic to be driven infrequently or for very few miles. Your job is to ask enough follow-up questions to determine if one of those reasons is related to mechanical issues or overall unreliability. If you do take an inspection trip, a seldom-driven car is your cue to scrutinize engine oil for signs of water condensation or similar warnings—not a good thing.
A one-to-six condition code is often used in determining the value of vintage cars and can be helpful here if your seller is knowledgeable enough. The condition code provides clear definition to terms the seller can use in describing the car’s overall condition to you:
You can find a full description of each condition code by reading this article.
This by itself should give you a pretty clear idea as to whether an inspection visit is worth undertaking. This leads us to the last of our questions:
The answer to both questions should be a very responsive “yes.” If the seller hesitates…so should you. By this point the seller should have communicated (either in the car’s ClassicCars.com listing or over the phone) the vehicle’s shortcomings, so why not allow it?
With the basics out of the way—and with some confidence that you’ve found your dream classic—it’s time for a visit. Gather your notes, think of additional questions to ask during your visit, and scrutinize the seller’s photos. Don’t hesitate to ask for more photos. Out of respect to the seller, be very specific about what you want to see. If the vehicle is far away, consider hiring a professional classic car inspector to be your eyes and ears.