So, You Want to Buy a Collector Car?

Sports Car Market's Rob Sass details the precautionary steps to take before -- and after -- purchasing your first vintage car

If you've made the decision to purchase a collector car this year, you're not alone. The old-car hobby is exploding, fueled by baby boomers with lots of disposable income and access to the Internet. Keeping your emotions in check and remembering a few basic rules will ensure that your first purchase doesn't get written off as a "learning experience."

The advent of the Net has turned the collector car market into a national one. Instead of poring through your local classifieds for months, waiting (often in vain) for what you want to find you, the Web allows you to take charge and find what you want almost immediately. Long-distance transactions, however, can fraught with peril for first-timers.

There'is no substitute for due diligence. You can turn the odds in your favor by resisting an impulse buy. Take your time. No matter what car it is, it's almost never the last one on the planet.

Doing Your Due Diligence: Research

Absent dumb luck, a successful long-distance -- or, for that matter, any -- transaction can be broken down into several essential parts: research, interviewing the seller, and inspection. The Web can greatly facilitate your research. Classic car profiles found online can be an excellent place to start. Learn about the inherent weak points of each car, from mechanical to rust issues.

Ask yourself, "Can I afford to maintain this car? Can I fit in it?" As you're reading, think about what questions to ask the seller. When you've learned what you can about the make and model that interests you, it's time to give the seller a call.

Interviewing the Seller

Take at least 15 to 20 minutes to interview the seller. Use the questions that you came up with during your research. If things sound good, ask him to send you some high-quality digital photos. Also, have the seller fax you a copy of the front and back of the title. You always want to make sure that the seller owns the car, free and clear of any liens. If everything still looks good, it's time to get serious. Never buy a car sight unseen. If flying or driving to look at the car isn't possible, you'll need to hire someone competent to inspect it.

Inspecting Your Prospective Purchase

Almost every vehicle has a club for owners. Find the contact person on the Web, and see whom the club recommends. They might even know the car you're interested in. If you're unsuccessful on this front, find a classic car inspection service online. They generally charge around $300 plus expenses.

In fact, even if you can look at the car in person, it's a good idea to have a second opinion from an expert, who isn't emotionally invested in the idea of owning the car. Money spent on a pre-purchase inspection is always money well spent. A few hundred dollars can save you thousands in agony. Walk away from any seller who balks at having the car inspected.

Bringing Home Baby

If the car gets the thumbs-up from your hired expert, and you decide to go through with the purchase, your next challenge is getting it home. If it's more than several hundred miles away, have the vehicle shipped. I'm always amazed when people ask me whether I think a car that I'm selling would make it from my house to Peoria or Paonia. The truth is, I'm not the Amazing Kreskin of Corvettes or the Nostradamus of Lotus. And neither is any other seller.

While the car may be running just fine in the here and now, neither I nor anyone else without the gift of precognition can tell whether, five miles from my house, the generator will stop generating or the fuel pump will stop pumping.

Shipping the car home will allow you to sort things out and gain some confidence in the driver's seat while on your home turf. Auto transporters can be found on the Web. Ask how long they've been in the business and whether they specialize in collector cars.

Proper Insurance

Finally, since accidents do happen, you should properly insure your collector car. Specialized collector car insurance is the way to go here. Mainstream insurers may look at your collector car as just an "old model," and in the case of a total loss, you may be faced with a settlement offer that's a fraction of the vehicle's true worth.

With an agreed-value collector car policy, you and the insurer agree up front what your car would be worth in the event of such a loss. If the unthinkable happens, that's what you get. Hagerty Insurance ( specializes in this type of coverage.

Although it sounds like a cliché, a vintage car really is the closest thing to a time machine. The looks, sounds, and even smells cannot be duplicated in the marketplace today. Buy a good example of a desirable car, and you can expect years of enjoyment -- with the added bonus of some appreciation when you sell it to move on to the next one.

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