Reader Question: Buying Without Seeing?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Zane asks: Hope you don’t mind the asinine question, but I figured next year, wanna replace my Audi with an ’80s/’90s car. Curious if you have any advice on buying something without a chance to inspect it in person –  or how to get it inspected. Thanks in advance!

My reply: You may have to buy it without inspecting it in person!

Cars from the ’80s – and even the ’90s – are getting harder to find; or rather, it’s getting harder to find the car from the ’80s or ’90s that you want. I had the same issue with my ’83 Honda. I wanted a GL650 Silverwing Interstate. They were made – or rather sold here – for just one year.

Not an easy bike to find.

When I finally found one, it was 2,000 miles away. I could have driven or even flown out to inspect it in person, but that would have taken at least a couple of days and the bike might have been sold before I could get there. So I prayed to the Motor Gods and bought it based on the pictures and some convo with the owner.

This sort of transaction is common with older stuff. It’s more risky, obviously, than physically going over a local car (or bike) or taking it to your trusted mechanic to have him do the same. But sometimes, you’ve just gotta take a chance.

I was – and have been – lucky. But luck is a function of what they call in financial circles due diligence.

While you may not be able to physically inspect the car yourself, you can still inspect it – via pictures – and you can question the seller. Careful use of both techniques can save you a lot of trouble.

While pictures can hide things, they can also show things – if you’re familiar with how the car/bike you’re looking at should look. I don’t mean fading paint or dimples. I mean things that shouldn’t be there, such as incorrect equipment or other evidence of modifications. You can also infer a hard life by looking – via close-up pics – very closely at wear items such as the steering wheel hub and pedals and arm rests, etc. Their overall appearance ought to jibe with the advertised mileage and year.

Ask the seller questions about the vehicle’s history; how long he has owned it, why he is selling it – and so on. Unless you’re dealing with an expert sociopath, it’s usually pretty easy to suss out cheesiness.

Once you have made arrangements about the vehicle, you’ll need to deal with getting title to the vehicle – ideally via some escrow arrangement – and then either schlepping out to get it or having it shipped.

This latter has been the greatest source of aggravation in my experience. Not so much damage to the vehicle but the wait for the vehicle. I once waited more than three months for a vehicle to show up. Be very careful about the shipper you select. Unless you aren’t in a hurry, be sure to select one that will agree in writing to a delivery date (plus or minus a couple of days).

Otherwise, you might be in for a long wait!

. . .

Got a question about cars, Libertarian politics – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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  1. I had a friend recently find a vehicle for me. What’s it like I asked. It’s a piece of shit but the body is good enough to put on Blackie…..and it’s black. What does he want for it? $1500 but I think he’ll take less.

    Ok, buy it if he’ll take less. So it shows up and it is a piece of shit but it was only $800 and it does run but hasn’t been tagged in years. Just what I wanted, a half-ass decent body with a huge piece of rusting iron mounted in the bed for a gooseneck. Faded and dented and lights not good but WTH, it’s a body. I can sand it. Big words, I can barely go out to look at it now it’s so damned cold.

    • That reminds me 8,

      Over the last 20 years, most of the vehicles I’ve had I bought sight-unseen from a guy I’ve known for about 25 years….and it’s been about 50/50 with them! (At least the price was always right- so even the ones that weren’t good enough to keep, I could sell and not lose anything, even after shipping).

      50/50 with a long-time friend who knows more about cars than I do…imagine with an anonymous stranger over the interwebz?!

      (I thought you had a donor truck that you were putting Blackie’s parts into?)

    • I only paid $800 for my K1500 and it was and is still running. The body was/is a bit rough, the 4wd didn’t work, and the rear brakes were wrecked. It took me a couple days just to clean all the dog hair out of the cab, and the bed floor was covered with some sort of greasy crap. I think I used solvent and detergent and scraping and pressure nozzle on that for a day or two. I’ve put a lot of parts into it but the engine is good, though I discovered that one of the long motor mount bolts was missing!

  2. As a former long-time participant on the Ebay Motors community board; and as someone who works for a client who has sold hundreds of vehicles on Ebay, I can tell you that chances are that you will get royally screwed buying a vehicle without seeing it and inspecting it and driving it and inspecting the paperwork first.

    It’s hard with vehicles <19 years old. With older vehicles? Fuhgettaboudit!

    It's hard to get a third-party inspection done within the time-frame you often have to work with- and even if it can be arranged, unless you're personally familiar with the person doing it, the inspection may well be worthless. Most of the businesses which advertise themselves as "inspection services" are pure crap who hire people who aren't even mechanics.

    If the paperwork you receive with the car is a "jumped title" that has not been notarized (if the seller's state requires it) or not been signed by the previous owner…or already has someone else's info filled in as the "buyer", or has been dated by the original seller too long ago… are SOL and may NEVER be able to get the car titled.

    Read the fine print of Ebay's "Vehicle Protection Program"- it is virtually worthless.

    Heck, even in-person, there are so many old cars out there that look good…and even may pass muster with a look-see and test-drive, but often have major structural issues that you will not see unless you know where to look specifically.

    Then there's the premium you'll pay for shipping, which makes even a "good deal" not as good…and a bad deal downright disastrous!

    It's tempting to buy from afar- even to me- because with older cars, pretty much the only viable ones are the ones from the West Coast and the desert, as everything else has rust issues….but the gamble just isn't worth it. It's only worth it if you can get something for scrap price- and obviously, no one is going to sell anything good for scrap price. Quite the opposite- people know what stuff is worth these days…and usually assume that their stuff is worth double that!

    I mean, think about it: How many times have you gone to look at a used vehicle locally- even after talking to the seller on the phone and everything- and you get there, and it turns out to be a pile of crap- or at least nowhere near what you had hoped it would be? It’s even worse online, because a lot of people just dump their junk which may look good in pictures, but which has serious flaws- figuring this way they’ll get top dollar, ’cause the buyer will never see those flaws until it’s too late; and plus he’ll be 1000 or 2000 miles away, so no worries about harassment or retaliation.

    As in Eric’s case, it is possible to get a good vehicle online…but it’s purely a crap-shoot. The money you may lose one bad deal, could have been spent just paying a little more for a known quantity locally- or could have been put into making something you bought locally better; or just spending some of that money to take a trip to NM, AZ or CA….where you will find a much better deal on the street, anyway- and at least know what you are getting.

    Funny story: Friend O’mine, when he still lived in NY, bought an old Goldwing on Ebay, in Minnesota o: -While he didn’t get screwed on it…it wasn’t anything he couldn’t have gotten much closer for the same price. So he drives to MN to get it (He had to go to western MI anyway…so he figured what-the-hell)….as he’s leaving MN, his truck dies. Noiw this guy’s a veritable expert on 7.3 PSD’s…but despite staying a few extra days in a motel and working out in the freezing cold, he couldn’t figure out what was wrong with his truck- so he had to rent a Ryder truck; put the ‘cicle in the box, and tow his 7.3 back to NY! That old Goldwing, which was no steal to begin with…after all the fuel, motel, Ryder rental, truck parts to attempt to get his truck going, etc. ended up costing him so much that he could have paid three times as much for much nicer bike locally, and still have been ahead of the game- not to mention all of the lost time, and aggravation.
    And of course (It should go without saying, but just in case…) the world is currently overrun with outright scams on Craigslist and Facebook and many other venues of people offering mint-looking cars for ridiculously low prices, with “free shipping” and requiring payment via “gift cards”- These are outright scams in which people send off their money and never receive anything. If it sounds too good to be true…it is!

  3. Wow. Article is *exactly* how I bought my 2000 Dyna Glide on eBay. The listing had excellent pictures, and being a Harley enthusiast, I knew what I was looking at in the pictures themselves. I wanted a bone stock bike, and focused on the air cleaner, pipes, etc., and determined that this was so. I then talked to the owner (he told me he was selling to raise funds for a boat) Googled his address and business, so it was all legit. When I showed up after winning the auction, I told him straight up, “If I don’t like this, and I think something’s funky, I’m walking away with my money”. He was okay with that statement b/c I also offered to reimburse his eBay costs should I bail. (eBay charges you a listing fee, and a percentage of the final selling price.) Turns out none of that was necessary, b/c the bike was great.

    That was 15 yrs and 55,000 miles ago!


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