The Fixer

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It’s said – and it’s absolutely true – that one can save a great deal of money by avoiding new cars and buying used ones instead. Thirty-plus percent (sometimes more) off MSRP “sticker price” after just two or three years on the road. Much lower property taxes (where applicable). Usually much-reduced insurance costs – especially if you can buy the vehicle outright and buy a basic, liability-only policy.fixer 1

But the real bargain hunters out there don’t just buy used cars. They buy fixers. Cars (and trucks) that need something. Often, something like a new transmission – or even a new engine. Because these kinds of used vehicles can be had for next-to-nothing. Because anything that isn’t running – or capable of moving under its own steam – is all-but-unsaleable.

But that doesn’t mean it’s unfixable – or more to the point, that it’s economically unwise to do so. Especially if you’re handy and can do mechanical work on your own. But, you don’t have to be – and that’s the thing to know.

Let me give you some True Story examples:

There’s a lady I know who was ready to throw  away an otherwise sound ’90s-vintage Buick station wagon because one day it began to lose power while she was driving and eventually, it conked out by the side of the road. Of course, she didn’t realize it was otherwise sound – else she probably would not have almost thrown the car away. But, her mechanic told her “the engine was shot.” In fact, the only thing that was “shot” was the car’s fuel pump. She was about to sell her car to this mechanic for “scrap” – and a few hundred bucks. Luckily – for her – she didn’t.

I don’t know whether the mechanic was merely incompetent (let’s hope) or an outright fraudster, but either way, that $500 “scrap” car was transformed back into a daily driver worth several times that via the magic of a $75 fuel pump and a couple hours’ wrench-turning.fixer 2

Such scenarios are pretty common. Often, it’s just fear and exasperation that results in an owner deciding to dump a car with a seemingly catastrophic but frequently very fixable issue.

Transmission failure, for example.

In late model cars, this can mean a lot of money – as much as two or even three thousand bucks. Some people – understandably – just aren’t interested in putting that kind of money into a car. Especially if it’s an older car that’s got a fairly low “book value.” It puts them in a Catch-22 situation. The car’s effectively worthless with a dead transmission. Many dealers won’t even take a not-operable vehicle in trade. If they do, they’ll give the owner a few hundred bucks, typically – if they’re feeling generous. But if, on the other hand, the owner puts a new $2-$3k transmission in it, the car’s only going to be worth about what it was worth before the transmission crapped out on them. It certainly won’t be worth $2-$3k more on account of the new transmission.

So, not infrequently, they cut bait – and chuck the car. And that’s your opportunity. Because, after all, you’ve got nothing invested in the car. It’s a very different thing for you to buy it for a few hundred bucks, say – and then spend another $2-$3k on a fresh transmission. Because now you’ve got a car for maybe $3,500 all told that would have cost you $6,000 (or more) in ready-to-drive condition.

Same thing goes for engines, too.

An enterprising cheapster should have no difficulty finding otherwise solid (and often, very nice) late-model cars that are being sold for next-to-nothing because they’ve got major engine problems. Sometimes, these problems aren’t even so major.  For example, people will sometimes near give-away a vehicle because its engine tossed its timing belt – and they haven’t got the $800 or so it will take to do the repair. Scan the CraigsList used car ads – and so on – and you’ll see what I mean. Some people just don’t have the money.

Others just don’t want the bother.fixer 3

What they do want is cash – and to get rid of the vehicle ASAP.

The cash part especially is key. When you find a prospect – an otherwise sound vehicle in need of something – get the cash before you contact the owner. Then, with cash in hand, go see the owner. He will be very pleased to see cash – even if it’s not much cash. Because, to him, the not-running car is a money pit. An annoyance. Something he’d like to be out of his hair as soon as possible.

That – plus your cash in his hand – can lead to a a sweet deal for you.

Throw it in the Woods?


  1. I want to make this a hobby in the future; when I have more money and knowledge. Getting great deals on used cars by doing this seems real fun.

    Which reminds me… Eric… Can you do a write-up on how to replace piston rings…? heh.

  2. Reg; Dealer licensing requirements. Oregon states that even one sale of a vehicle that is not owned by you requires a License. Registering a car, intended for resale, in your name helps to relieve you of that, but a lot of sales will raise a red flag.

    Another way is to use a licensed dealer for purchase and consigned sale. A lot of small dealers, especially those who don’t use a store front, are amenable to that for a modest fee, usually 5%. I use an old friend who I used to race with and who used to own the local BMW dealership.

  3. The trick is to determine the highly desirable cars, learn what usually afflicts them and how to fix it, then look for those afflicted cars and buy them cheap.

    For example, BMW E-36’s are very desirable and have a variable valve timing system that has a piston seal that goes bad on a regular basis, the seal kit is cheap, after market seal kits run around $30-$60.00. OEM rebuilt vanos units $500-$650.00. Cam cover gaskets will also be needed and some specialized tools on the order of about $200.00 worth. All in, parts and tools, your still way under the rebuilt unit cost and you still need most of the specialized/dedicated tools to replace the rebuilt unit.

    All BMW six cylinder cars from 1993-2006 have either a single Vanos or dbl. Vanos system, they all have the problem, and all afflicted models are desirable, whether three, five, or seven series or Zed-3’s.
    Single Vanos systems are found in the 3-series E36 93-97, 5-series E34 93-95 / E39 96-98, 7-series E38 95-98, Z3 Roadster 2.8 E36 96-98, EU Z3 Coupe 2.8 E36 96-98, US M3 E36 94-99, US Z3 M E36 98-99.

    Double Vanos
    BMW 6-cylinder engines M52TU, M54, M56, 1998-2006
    3-series E46 98-05, 5-series E39 99-03 / E60 & E61 02-05, 7-series E38 98-01 / E65 & E66 02-05, Z3 E36 98-02, Z4 E85 02-05, X3 E83 03-06, X5 E53 00-06

    Repair time_ Experienced/Pro_ 4 hours(single) to 6+ hours for DIY’ers.

    Info here…>

    Parts here…>

    Procedure here..>

    Another problem for all alloy head cars, is stripped spark plug holes/loose plug(s)that are often thought too be a rod or main bearing problem. Buy cheap and fix cheap. I recommend the TIME-SERT coil install kits, though, Heli-Coil is often used.

    Another problem is Catalytic converters, very common on deferred maintenance vehicles, and often diagnosed as something else. Converters aren’t cheap, but are easy to replace. In non DEQ areas, a straight pipe can be installed. I don’t recommend it, but then I’m a ‘Clover’..col!

    What caused the converter to fail should be sourced too. Usually an Oxygen sensor, but anything that controls fuel or oxygen delivery could be at fault, and all are suspect.

    All you ever wanted to know about converters here…>

    Last month I picked up a super clean 99′ SLK 2.3 Kompressor, one owner with 78,000 miles and always garaged, with Black paint, Red & Black leather and the ‘Sports’ option for $3,500. Fixed the cat and replaced a leaking retractable top seal, all up for around $600.00. Sold it for $10,000. A $1,000 over top book, because of its condition and low miles. Owner sold it cuzz it wouldn’t get up the hills without a struggle and couldn’t keep up on the freeway. A nearly sure sign of converter failure. Dealer offered her $3,000 for a trade-in on a new car. I sweetened the pot and she is $500 happier, and I have travel funds for a Caribbean sailing adventure.

    So if your handy and or a bit adventurous, you can make some money to support your car habit or …..

      • Yes,Brent, as stated above, usually that is the case. In this case it was just a failure of the Cat. Like BMW VAnos seals, it is something again that is typical of some models of Merc’s, so look for those cars, especially the SLK’s.

      • You don’t switch’ the insurance like moving the license plate.You have to call your insurance company and cancel the policy of the first car and get a new policy on the new car. Chances are you are going to get a new bill, higher rates, not full credit on the unused portion of the old policy anything the insurance company can do to keep some of that money they will! It usually is not a big deal. You need the registration and/or title, bill of sale, mileage and VIN number, etc. Most times you can do it right over the phone and then they would mail you the new insurance card and policy or if a local office you just pick it up.

  4. Buying cars, fixing them, and selling them would be a great to make a living independent of the system. So of course the system knows how to stop that. The government only allows a private individual to sell some small number of cars per year without needing a dealer license, an auto repair license, a business license, a business premises, and so forth and so on.

    Back when I was in grad school and looking for a late 60s early 70s car I stopped went to see a 1970 Maverick from Texas. It was cheap and being from texas meant no rust, well not what I call rust anyway. So I go to the guy’s house, no maverick. Nice freshly painted dark green 1968 mustang in the driveway. Damn if I had the money… guy was a body man. He fixed cars for resale. The county government was after him so he had to dispose of his inventory. Which wasn’t really that many cars. With his long driveway and garage I wouldn’t have an issue with it. Anyway he had the maverick stashed at neighbor’s place around the block. So I go over there, but it needed too much for me to deal with at the time. It needed body work, paint, new interior, tires, and the engine wouldn’t even start as I recall. I didn’t look any further than that, but the car didn’t have rust. So I pass. But that probably was one of my formative experiences wrt government.

    Here’s this seemingly decent guy just trying to make a few bucks and government was harassing him. He even lived in an unincorporated area to avoid most government hassles, which is why it was the county and not some town. There aren’t many unincorporated areas around chicago any more. They are few and far in between usually with older homes that weren’t too great when they were new. Not enough tax base for some town to grab and hook them up to the town’s sewers etc.

    • Brent, it just makes me furious to think of an honest, enterprising guy like that being hounded by pencil-necked mealy-mouthed shrivel-dicked little government parasites. Dear god it’s sickening! The guy’s providing a wonderful service; and for the “green” idiots, he’s saving immense amounts of energy by keeping cars on the road instead of in the crusher.

      But it’s not good enough, he has to be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered.*

      * from “The Prisoner”

    • No Rust in Texas!

      What part of Texas would that be? It sure isn’t East Texas, where almost every older vehicle I have looked at is a sieve. East Texas rust rivals the West coast seashore rust. And it has the additional problem of rat damage.

      I looked for over two months before I finally found a non-perforated 69′ Ford F-100 for my custom utility vehicle when I’m down there.

      So,I must be looking in the wrong part of the grand state, where should I be looking, Brent? I will be down there in three weeks and I love to look for old cars/trucks.

      • A lot of Texas isn’t on the ocean. And none of the state uses road salt to my knowledge. I also understand a good hunk of the state is pretty dry. The cars that make it up here certainly look good to me compared to what I see.

        A little body perf is nothing here. My 2000 has had that. So has my ’97 (thankfully in hidden areas where my crude welding could fix it so it looked fine). It happens to anything driven in the salt long enough.

        Somewhere I have photos of a studebaker I found for sale years ago. It’s a chicago car. Entire hunks of structure underneath weren’t just rusty… they were -gone-. Thing is up here people fix what can be seen. It’s what is underneath they don’t fix. Here’s the pics:

        This sort of thing is very common I’ve seen it countless times. I have never seen rust on Texas car up here or on TV that even got close to a Chicago car. The worst one I saw on TV on that gas monkey show. Some rambler wagon that was sunken into a field, into the dirt for who knows how many decades.

        I have, as a decoration, a early 1930s car bumper I found in a field with what was left of the rest of it. paper thin bits of the frame and some of the sheet metal that went around the rear window.

        Cadillac ranch would rust away here.

        I don’t know what to tell you, but I don’t see what I call serious rust coming from there.

        • Hi! Brent, East Texas is has a very high humidity and water table. The rain sits on top and runs across the topography to the low spots. The reason for this is the solidified clay top strata(very little of what is called top soil is present), that is also high in iron oxides. This a good thing for the brick industry and contributes to the low cost of brick construction in the area. I often joke that even car washes and hot dog stands are built of brick in East Texas.

          East Texas, because of the icy roads in the Winter months, does use salt. It will surface freeze over nite and then be 65′ during the day.

          I have looked all across Texas, along and off of I-10 & I-20, and around the Austin area. And a considerable chunk of deep East and NE Texas and have found a lot of terminally rusted vehicles. But I guess it is relative to your area and experience. The Northwest Has its share of rust, but rarely as bad as the North Central and Eastern states, mostly because of unsalted roads.

          Regards… Tre

          • I hear west texas is pretty dry, and big.

            It’s been a long time, but I’ve been through east texas and I seem to recall seeing many quality re-builders, they were off the beaten path though.

            Do you suppose Cash for Clunkers sucked the supply up off the landscape a considerable bit? More-so than other areas due to cheaper labor costs?

            I used to see All kinds of scrap trucks full of stuff being hauled to the smelting plants,… that’s a rare sight these days now that I think about it.

            Just from looking at what is offered on Craigslist in texas and states such as arkansans and louisiana the rust is much less down there. Especially when you compare prices to what’s offered in northern states.

            What really rusts out a car in the north is sitting under or on top of a pile of snow for weeks at a time. Or a week(s) long ice and road salt coating. They simply don’t have all that in the warmer states.

    • “Buying cars, fixing them, and selling them would be a great to make a living independent of the system. So of course the system knows how to stop that. The government only allows a private individual to sell some small number of cars per year without needing a dealer license, an auto repair license, a business license, a business premises, and so forth and so on. ”

      Yup. I have entertained doing this (fixing old cars or old bikes) as a sideline business for years. Never actually done it for exactly these reasons.

      Sure, you could probably get away with it for awhile. But I don’t want to live with the perpetual anxiety of having a thug scrum show up one day to arrest me, or slap with a “cease and desist” order – perhaps even seize my property (as has happened to many people based on “violations” of zoning ordinances)… not to mention the potential tax hassles.

      Government stifles everything worthwhile.

      • Eric, I realize that things are worse there in the Communist-wealth of Virginia (that’s why I moved to Missourah), but I still think you can engage in a “hobby” and there’s nothing they can really do about it. My “hobby” was making and repairing fine jewelry when I was getting socked with major child support back in the day. Between that and shooting a lot of deer on kill permits for local farmers, I was able to feed and provide for my family very well without the tax man being able to intervene or even be aware of it. Where there’s a will there’s a way.

        I was just talking to my son about buying old bikes and restoring them as a “hobby” last weekend. Motorcycles are my passion and thanks in no small part to you, I’m joyfully riding and wrenching them again! Life’s too short to worry about the bureaucRats. I strongly suspect that if you keep your yard clear of too much debris and are discreet in your dealings, they’ll never know. When it comes to thwarting “the man” and making an end run around “the system” and doing something you love, as the saying goes “Just do it!”

      • Of course you can insure a new[er] car. People do it every single day! What you CAN’T do, however, is transfer coverage from one vehicle to another. The vehicles have different values, safety features, etc. that cause the policy to be different.You need to contact your insurance agent or company, tell them that you plan on getting a new car. Tell them the year, make, model of the new car, and they will give you a new quote. It will most likely be higher than your previous policy, unless you are downgrading vehicles. I suggest shopping around. Contact more than one insurance company and get quotes for the new vehicle. Once you get rid of the old car or whatever, then cancel the policy for that vehicle.

    • Hate to break it to you, but insurance rates are based on your personal information, meaning you will have to provide name, birthday, address, driver’s license number and probably social security number. Virtually all insurance companies use this information and base the rates on your credit history as well, so if you do find a website that gives instant quotes with minimal personal information required, the rate will be inaccurate and will change once you start the policy. As far as giving out your contact information, all companies ask for that as well so you may want to check the privacy policies to see if they sell that information if you are worried about that.

  5. ALso helps if you stick to the same make and model of car, say, toyota pickups, or chevy pickups or whatever,

    cause after a few vehicles, you learn how to fix em and have spare parts from the last one.

    • Good advice, Justin!

      I know second gen GM F-cars so well I could probably work on them blindfolded. That really helps when you’re evaluating a contender you’re thinking about maybe buying.

  6. This plan may not work so well if all of the cars major components are near the end. Spend a chunk to “fix” the engine. Then a month later the transmission blows. Then the air conditioner….

    A few makes of cars and trucks may be popular enough to financially justify even this “ongoing” fixing. But they are in the minority.

      • All you need to do is call your insurance company to tell them to discontinue insurance on the old car and start insuring the new car. You’ll need to provide the VIN # to the insurance company so they can give you a new rate on that car. The rate you’re charged for the old car may not be the same for the new car depending on the condition, year, type of car. Depending on the state you’re from, you may need to provide proof to your insurance company that the old car’s plates have been returned to the DMV. It’s illegal to drive a registered car without insurance.

  7. Offhand I cannot recall the number of VW Beetles with blown engines that I bought for as little as a hundred bucks. I rebuilt the engines for practically nothing and made a good profit by selling the vehicle.

  8. This is exactly what I have been doing the past 5 years and here are some of the deals I have gotten:

    1.) 2000 Porsche Boxster w/110k miles – Owner suspected bad engine because it smoked like a mosquito truck when running. Purchased for $5k as is. Replaced the AOS unit which cost me $130 and an afternoon of work. And the skin on one hand. Blue book value is still over 10k.

    2.) 1997 Nissan Quest w/185k miles – Owner was quoted $600 to replace the starter and decided to sell it and buy a new vehicle. Purchased for $700 as is. Replaced the starter which cost me $100 and 1 hr of work. No skin lost on this repair. Blue book value is $2000.

    3.) 1997 BMW Z3 w/175k miles – Busted ignition lock prevented car from being able to even start. Owner was quoted $1800 to put new ignition lock system in. Purchased for $3500 as is. Replaced ignition lock housing/key cylinder which cost me around $300. Fixed other cosmetic issues (replace/paint front bumper cover) and upgraded to projector headlights and installed DVD/Nav system. Total investment with new bumper, paint supplies, stereo, speakers, etc… $5200. Blue book value is between 9-11k, and I think mine qualifies for the high end of that with all the upgrades that have been done.

    1978 Porsche 928 – Complete and in very good cosmetic condition, but engine removed and disassembled. Paid $1000 for it and it probably cost me $300 in gas to drive up there and haul it back home. Came with 2 extra engines and a crapload of new parts that had never been opened( 2 timing belts, HTD cam gear upgrades, valve caps, custom headers, books, manuals, etc…) I found receipts for all the extra parts totalling close to $5k, not to mention the car itself. I fixed my 79 928 with a lot of the parts and almost have the 78 put back together…just have to put the intake back on and connect the wiring harness. I figure each of these cars worth about $5-6k each.

    1990 Miata – Purchased for $1600. Promptly rear-ended and got an insurance check for $900 to replace the back bumper/trim panel. Plastic welding on the broken parts and with new paint and it looks brand new. Also put on a new top for $150. Total investment $900 and it runs perfect.

    I’m not a trained mechanic either. I’m just good with my hands, purchase proper tools, and adhere to the practices of RTFM. And I also know when to reference youtube videos and forums if I’m not 100% sure of my skills or something isn’t clear to me.

    Hope this inspires someone to step out of their comfort zone.

    • That’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always lived in apartments though, so i really don’t have a place to store or work on cars after I got them. That’s changing soon for me. Nice to see it’s possible without any kind of formal training!

      • Hi Trocki,

        An option to consider – if you haven’t got a place to store or work on cars – is to rent a storage unit for that purpose. In my area, car-sized storage units can be rented for about $75 per month. Most repairs can be done within 30 days, even if it’s a major drivetrain rebuild, done on weekends and part-time.

    • A-frikkin-men, Turd!

      The best car experience I ever had was the ’80 Corolla my dad and I rebuilt ground-up. Second best was my ’92 Miata; simple, beautifully engineered, SO easy to take care of.

      My favorite car, but not necessarily favorite to work on, is the M5 bought used with 60K miles. It had a fair amount of “deferred” maintenance–and repairs on BMW “M” cars are not cheap. But doing a lot of it myself, and I get to drive this absolute beast for not very much–certainly less than I would have spent on a new non-M BMW.

      A friend of mine has rebuilt a 928 like yours; I turned a wrench on it with him one weekend, and the car really impressed me. Very easy to work on, surprisingly!

      That deal you got on the Boxster is delicious. I have the red-hot hots for a Cayman…wonder if I can find some spoiled Yuppie idiot who’s roasted something on his and wants to trade for something more trendy?


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