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Buying a classic car can be an enjoyable and exhilarating experience but you don’t want all that positive energy to end up costing you big bucks at the end of the day.  There are lots of venues to purchase classic cars, from live and online auctions, classified ads, swap meets, or maybe even your neighbor.  A few key steps in your process could save you a lot of time and money. 

  1. Know Who Actually Owns The Car – If you are buying a car at a dealership or auction, they will do the required title research before offering the classic for sale, but its a good practice to get a copy of the title when you purchase the vehicle.  Should you find the classic car you want at a car corral, swap meet or the like its imperative that you review the vehicles title before getting money involved.  With the exception of buying from a dealer at his licensed location, you should never purchase a car from someone who’s name is not on the front of the title (Some states such as AL & NY, use state registrations instead of titles for antique vehicles).  If the individual purchased the car from someone else and did not register it before trying to sell it, this is an illegal act called jumping the chain of title.  Each owner must register and pay the sales tax on a vehicle before selling it to another party. If the title is correct, make sure to take a picture or get a copy of the sellers driver’s license and confirm his or her contact information before finalizing payment. If more than one party is listed on the title, law requires signatures from all parties with legal rights to the automobile to complete the sale. 
  2. Double Check The Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) Matches The Title – Once you have the title in hand, confirm that the VIN on the title matches the car being offered for sale.  If there is a discrepancy in the VIN, even by one digit, do not pay for the vehicle until the seller has resolved the issue within the state the vehicle is currently registered.  VIN discrepancies are often simple mistakes, but taking a vehicle out of state and trying register it with a vin discrepancy can become a daunting task.
  3. Look For Signs of VIN Tampering – VIN tampering is defined as someone whom knowingly removes, obliterates, tampers with or alters an identification number for a motor vehicle.  VIN’s can be a little tricky, especially when it comes to classic cars because there were little or no standards for years.  If you are not very knowledgeable about classic car VIN’s we suggest you consider having a professional inspect the vehicle for you. VIN tags are generally attached by rivets, so if you see screws holding the tag in be weary but keep in mind its not necessarily incorrect either. If the VIN tag is located on a easily removable object like a door, understand that it is not legally identifiable VIN.  You will need to find the “Hidden VIN” which may be a little tricky to find depending on the year, make and model.  A quick search online for the vehicle you are looking at can give you a lot of information.  If in doubt, contact a professional. 
  4. Confirm If The Vehicle is Matching Numbers & Other Claims By The Seller – A matching numbers vehicle means that the vehicle you are considering has maintained at least the original engine, and possibly other original parts.  If you are paying a premium for a matching numbers vehicle or based on other seller claims, make sure to get all claims in writing and confirm the numbers yourself.  Classic car enthusiast often have differing views on what constitutes matching numbers, so make sure you understand what the seller means when its claimed.  Auctions often consider just the engine to take precedent, while others believe a true matching numbers car should include the transmission and or other parts.  Generally the VIN or partial VIN will match the engine number stamp on the block, but some manufacturers such as Pontiac used engine code stamps as late as 1967 which makes it very difficult to know for certain that the engine in the engine bay was born in that particular car.  Our best advice is do your research ahead of time, or hire a professional.
  5. Understanding Restoration Levels – Car sellers often throw around words like full restoration, frame off or rotisserie restoration and these terms have very different meanings.  We won’t go into all the definitions in this article, but we will tell you to simply make sure you have a very clear view of what has actually been restored.  A ground up restoration, at its best will not give you a #1 Car, and should not be valued that way.  Classic car values can vary widely due to vehicle condition, so understanding the quality and condition of your car is of the utmost importance before signing the purchase agreement.    

Don’t let buying a classic scare you, most transactions are completed with no trouble at all, but do finish your homework.  There are literally classic car online forums for every year, make and model out there and they can be a great resource.  When in doubt hire a professional, their nominal fee could save you big down the road and give you more assurance in your purchase.

-Will Loomis