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April 15, 2021

Collector cars: Buying sight unseen

Buying collector vehicles online can be a daunting process. Learn these car buying pointers to make your transaction worry-free and easy.

Brian Rabold

In September 2020, six Mercedes-Benz fans on submitted seven-figure bids for a 1957 300SL Mercedes Gullwing. The winning bid was $1,152,000 plus fees — for a car the winner had never seen in the metal and from a seller the winner didn’t even know. This was one of 22 online-only car sales since the start of 2020 to exceed the million-dollar mark, and it wasn’t even the highest (that honor goes to RM Sotheby’s sale of a 2001 Ferrari 550 GT1 Prodrive race car in August 2020 at $4.29 million).

Clearly, online sales have become a viable way to buy these prized vehicles for even the uppermost reaches of the collector car market.

While there are no guarantees when it comes to buying cranky old cars via online transactions, there are plenty of best practices that can minimize your risk. This obviously becomes more important as the price tag expands. Here are a few pointers to help keep you and your money safe as you navigate online car sales.

Every picture tells a story

When it comes to distance buying, there’s no such thing as too many vehicle pictures. The standard has been elevated over the past year, and owners should now have no objection to providing a thorough, high-resolution gallery of current images. Pictures should show every angle and aspect of the car — both cosmetic and mechanical — as well as pictures of service and maintenance records. This is now a standard requirement, so regard any owner who is hesitant to provide detailed car photos with caution.

Take advantage of all those pixels by inspecting pictures closely on a large monitor. Small screens can transform rust bubbles into shadows. Images sent via text or messaging apps can make scratches on glass look like reflections. Your phone is good for a first impression, but take more time to scrutinize the details from your desk.

Lastly, as much as you pay attention to what’s in the frame, take note of anything that might be just out of view. Sellers often strategically pose shots to obscure wear or flaws this way. See a funny angle or an overly artistic shot? Take note.

Get those (VIN) digits

Regardless of whether you plan to buy a car sight unseen or not, do your research on the vehicle identification number (VIN) early in the process. Ask the seller for the full VIN, preferably by getting a picture of the VIN tag itself, then let the internet go to work. Google the VIN to see what surfaces. Do the same for the engine number. Searches can turn up previous for-sale listings, appearances at shows or events, and even stints in salvage yards. Each finding can reveal how the car’s condition and story may have changed. In some instances, the VIN indicates what engine the car originated with, which can have a tremendous impact on the price it should command.

If the car was built after 1980, run your own CarFax report. While this service doesn’t necessarily reveal all the skeletons that may be hiding in a car’s file, it can absolutely surface issues that may impact value. Don’t rely on a CarFax provided by the owner, as those can run the range from being out-of-date to falsified.

Phone a friend

If you’re spending more money than you can afford to lose, seek out an expert on the model you’re looking to buy, and be willing to pay for their time. This is money well spent. Marque experts can tell you where common problem areas are, and they may even know the actual car you are looking at.

Ask if you can contact the buyer’s mechanic or restoration shop. Both of your goals should be to establish a firm understanding of the car’s condition so expectations and price are fairly set. If an owner refuses to refer you to someone, treat that as a red flag.

Also consider contacting the local chapter of the associated owner’s car club where the vehicle is located or has previously resided. A quick email to a few car club presidents can uncover stories that the current owner may not even be aware of, including accident histories and more.

About the title? Indeed.

As your research progresses, ask questions about the title. Assuming the seller is a private party, is their name on the title? Confirm this through a photograph or scan. Never buy a car that isn’t titled in the seller’s name (or in the seller’s company name, LLC, or trust). If they are unwilling to title the car in their name, say goodbye. Failure to do so can cause many problems, including exposing you to past-due taxes and fees or ownership disputes. The risks simply aren’t worth the reward.

Missing face time? Use FaceTime.

Still interested? Request the seller send videos of the car: walkarounds, both inside and out; cold and hot starts; a test drive. Take note of areas on which you’d like more details, then ask for a live video chat to dig deeper. Videos provide extra assurance as they are much harder to manipulate and they allow you to hear the car in operation and under strain. Video chats provide you an opportunity to assess the owner as much as the car.

The exchange

The next steps are the most important because they involve transferring money. Once the vehicle purchase price is established, negotiate the deposit amount and create a sales agreement that confirms all the terms discussed. These terms should include the right to have a pre-purchase inspection conducted prior to final payment. Other terms include what additional items are included in the car sale, such as documents, parts, or tools and brochures. If something isn’t spelled out in the agreement, don’t assume it will break your way.

Get specific

Formally agree on the timing and method of car payments. Cashier’s checks and bank wire transfers work, but for higher-priced cars, escrow services are even better. Once you provide full payment, the seller should overnight you the title (emphasis on “overnight”). Agree on this up front, not after the fact.

Discuss and document how long the seller is willing to store the vehicle after the sale, and state how you plan to transport it. As the seller will still be in possession of the car, it’s important to talk through these points so there’s no misunderstanding.

Almost every old vehicle is sold as-is, but that doesn’t apply to fraud. Be sure to include a venue provision in your written sales agreement, and a discussion of who pays legal costs should a dispute occur.

Collector cars aren’t a trivial expense. These tips may take time to work through, but they will reduce the risk of buying online, and ultimately open up the number of cars available to you. Use them as a guide, and you should have an easier time navigating the digital unknown.

And once you make a purchase, be sure to contact your insurance broker to get coverage in place for your collector car. 

For more information, please request an auto quote.

About the author
Brian Rabold is the Vice President of Automotive Intelligence for Hagerty and has been reporting on the collector car market since 2000.