5 Easy Steps to Owning a Classic Car

We hear it time and time again, “when I retire I am going to buy a really cool classic car”. To which we reply - “why wait?” With the amount of classic cars out on the market today for reasonable prices, there’s something for everyone’s taste and budget.

Sure, you may not be able to run out this weekend and pick up that Ferrari F50 you’ve been drooling over - but with a little patience and some savvy shopping tips, you are sure to drive away in something you’re going to enjoy for years to come. So with that in mind we have compiled 5 easy steps that will help you make that dream of owning a classic car a reality.

Step 1. Set a Budget for Your Car and Stick to It

Ugh, yes we know - you love to fantasize about what you would buy if you had the moolah (we do too) but the fact of the matter is, spending all your time searching for and reading ads on cars that are way out of your price range is an exercise in futility. If your goal is to own a classic car, then we suggest you figure out how much of that savings account balance you’re willing to part with and then give yourself a solid figure to work with. And stick to it. That classic car slush fund you’ve been contributing to will keep growing as long as you keep tossing money in there long enough. But if you don’t set your budget you’ll always be shopping for what’s just out of reach. Your goal is to be an owner, not a shopper!

Remember to factor in the following additional costs that may or may not be part of your initial purchase price - but they will be something you’re going to have to face eventually so you might as well deal with them now. 1) Ongoing maintenance and repair cost - foreign cars are always going to be more expensive to repair and replace parts for than domestic cars. 2) Registration and transfer fees - set aside about 10% of your total budget to cover these cost, you’ll be glad you did when they finally do call your number at the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles). 3) Insurance - if you are going with classic car insurance (don’t worry, we’ll get to that) then a couple hundred bucks per annum should be fine (depending on the value of your new classic).

Step 2. Figure Out What You Want in a Classic Car

So now that you have set your budget, it’s time to figure out what you want in a car. For some, an automatic transmission is a deal-breaker, for others it may be anything after 1975 (CA smog requirements kick-in) - but everybody’s different and what may be a must-have to one buyer may not be so important to the next.

Ask yourself what you intend to use this car for primarily. Is this car going to be a daily driver or a weekend cruiser? Do you want to fly down winding roads with the wind in your hair on vintage car rallies or are you perfectly happy going 0 - 60 in a blazing 12 seconds on your way to your favorite picnic spot? Are potential maintenance and repair cost going to keep you up at night? There are no right or wrong answers here - just what you can live with and can’t live without. Regardless of what you decide, there is a car out there that will meet all your needs (or at least most of them) . It may not be the color, year, or have the options you dreamed of when you initially set about your search but if it puts a smile on your face - then you did good.

Step 3. Do Your Homework: Research the Car You Want to Buy

You found it - it’s checked all the boxes, it’s within your budget (sort-of) and on your way home from work! Time to go to the bank, right? Whoa, slow down there cowboy - take a breath! How much do you really know about this car? If this is the exact, make, model and year that you have been searching for then hopefully you have also taken the time to do a little research on some of the known issues that come with the car (i.e. rust, electrical, fuel injection systems, water pumps, etc., etc.). A great way to familiarize yourself, is to get on a forum devoted to your particular make and model and chat up the locals - post a question and ask them what to look out for.

Now let’s go back to that posting. Read it again, but this time let’s see if we can pick out any keywords that might help us determine the condition of the car, and how well it’s been maintained. “Salvage” - never good. Especially if the owner does not go into detail as to why. Usually salvage cars have had extensive frame damage. This can also cause potential issues when insuring the vehicle. “Small problem here, small problem there”- if they are so small and relatively inexpensive, then why didn’t they get fixed? This may be an indication that the car has been neglected over the years. “1972 BMW V6”- uh, what? Unless this is a one-of-a-kind project car, the owner has no idea what they are selling and is likely unaware of any issues. “Back on the market”- we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on this one. But if it’s back on the market for the 3rd time our recommendation is to pass- there’s probably something the owner is not divulging in the post. If you run across any of these potential problems, it’s best to call before you head out to look at it. A quick five minute conversation with the seller might be the deciding factor on whether or not to pursue.

And let’s talk about the seller. They are an important factor to a happy transaction. If the ad is vague and gives little more info than year, make and model with a few 20ft pictures, be wary. This doesn’t read like an individual who knows or cares a whole lot about the car of your dreams. You want a seller who’s providing full disclosure. They will freely share information on how they came to own it and how long; maintenance done and the shop that performed the work; what needs attention mechanically and cosmetically; any quirky characteristics of driving and operation... You get the point right? If the ad only provides superficial information that may be okay. But call the seller and figure out of they have any stock in what their selling. Ask the right questions, listen to their answers and if you’re picking up what they’re dropping you might be on your way to three-car garage.

Step 4: How to Inspect and Negotiate for a Classic Car

When you do go out to look at a car, remember there is nothing wrong with doing a meticulous inspection and asking a ton of questions. The more information you can get the better. If the seller is genuinely interested in finding a good home for their car, they won’t be offended by your thoroughness. Schedule a time to look at the car that will provide ample daylight to inspect and drive.

Do a walk around and look for any visible issues like rust, faded paint, missing pieces (now step 3 is starting to making sense). Pop open the hood and look for any red flags like cracked hoses, discolored engine oil and transmission fluid, coolant and oil leaks, fluid splatter, frayed wiring, as well as any low fluid levels. Turn the engine on and check warning lights and smoke coming from the exhaust, no smoke is good but blue smoke means the car has an oil leak and black smoke means the car is consuming too much fuel. Also try to keep an eye on this during the test drive under load (acceleration). Listen for any strange noises coming from the engine bay - pinging, knocking, rattling are all clear indications something could be seriously wrong and will need attention. Take note of how well the car turns on, warms up and idles - once warmed up, shut it off and restart it. It should fire right up. Take it for a test drive and look for the usual things; steering should feel good and will most likely have some play (this is a classic not a Lotus Exige), brakes should be responsive and have no slack to them, suspension should make the ride enjoyable and transmission should shift smoothly. If you can, find a hill and see how well the car performs under some distress.

Call a local mechanic (particularly one that specializes in the type of car you are buying) and find out what it would cost to have a Pre-Purchase Inspection (PPI) done on your future dream machine. Ask them what the PPI includes and what their availability for completing one is. Having a pre-purchase inspection done on the car before buying it will bring any unknown issues to light and validate the maintenance records the seller provides. And let’s not forget, the few hundred bucks the PPI costs also buys some peace of mind after your purchase.

Okay, now that you have a good idea of what you are buying into- it’s time to talk price. Hopefully both you and the seller are in the same ballpark. Remember two things when negotiating; 1) Cash is King, and 2) Everything is Negotiable. Having cash on hand is sometimes not the best option especially if the seller is located in a part of town known more for it’s cock-fighting rings than manicured lawns. But if you do bring cash - it will give you a little more bargaining power.

Start the negotiations off lower than what your total budget is and take into account any issues you noticed or were disclosed in your PPI. Mention what those issues are to the seller and what you think it might cost to repair- this should put you in a better bargaining position. Be sure to make a fair offer, it’s fine to go low but if you offer something that is just completely ridiculous (a quarter of the asking price for example), it will devalue you as a serious buyer. What it says is either you know nothing about the car, you are just looking to flip it for a quick buck, or you think the seller is simply a complete idiot. It may take a little back and forth haggling and some quick wit on your part but eventually if you really want to buy it, and they really want to sell it - then you will come to a fair compromise. 

Step 5. Wrap it Up: Exchange Funds and Make a Classic Car Your Own

Whoo hoo! Congratulations you now own a classic car- well, almost. After the handshake there are still a couple housekeeping items we need to get through; like paying for it. If you brought cash, don’t be insulted if they count it and re-count it in front of you. In some cases they might even break out the counterfeit detector pen and mark each of the hundred dollar bills (yeah, we’ve been guilty of this). If you are paying with a personal or cashier’s check, the seller might ask you to accompany them to the bank to make sure it clears before handing over the keys and title- it all depends on your relationship with the seller, and what makes them (and you) feel most comfortable. Finally, there comes the paperwork- you didn't think it would be that easy did you? Every State has it’s own requirements for titling (transfer of ownership) and registering a car under your name so check with the DMV in your area to make sure you are aware of everything that is required in your area. Once you have the car registered in your name, shop around for insurance. Companies like Hagerty and Chubb specialize in insuring classic autos and will cover your car based on a guaranteed or stated worth not just blue book values- but do have limitations such as the number of miles the car can be driven per year, or a second primary vehicle as a requirement. If you are making this your daily driver, you might be better off going through a regular auto insurance company like State Farm or Allstate. Either way, get it insured as soon as possible! Another driver mesmerized by the impeccable chrome on your rear bumper might decide to get a really, really close look.

There you have it, 5 easy steps to owning a classic car- so what are you waiting for? Go get that ride!

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