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Moving metal

Buying or selling a classic car is easier than you may think

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Every week my inbox is loaded with emails from readers just like you.

The messages often include questions or invitations to upcoming events in the classic and special-interest car community. There are also folks looking for advice on what new car is best for them. And who could forget the guy who hates everything Ford and reminds me regularly that I'm an idiot when I sing the praises of the new Ford F150 trucks.

Believe it or not there's even the occasional compliment, (thanks mom). Two questions, however, seem to be asked more often than most, particularly when spring arrives. They typically go something like this:

Dear Willy: My father passed away a few years ago and mom is thinking about selling his classic (insert car name here). We aren't sure what it's worth or even how to go about selling it.

Or the flip side:

Dear Willy: I'm looking at buying a (insert car name here) and the seller wants $10,000 for it. Is that a good price? What should I be watching out for in a car like this? I don't know much about cars but I really want to get into the hobby.

First off, let's focus on how to sell a classic car. The key thing to remember when selling your cherished ride is that, in the end, it really is just a car. Sure, to you it's a rolling time machine filled with memories, but to a potential buyer it's simply a used car. Adding a huge amount of sentimental value on the asking price of your classic is a sure-fire way to never sell it.

Don't be too discouraged, though -- your car is an asset and its value can easily be determined. NADA, (the North American Dealers Association), may be based in the United States but they offer an excellent source for determining the value of a classic vehicle. You simply click on their website ( and a menu under the heading 'classic cars' appears. In just a few minutes you'll be able to determine fairly closely what your vehicle is worth. Values may be slightly lower in America but, with the current strength of the Canuck buck, prices are fairly close.

NADA suggests both sellers and buyers grade vehicle prices in three categories: low retail value, average retail value and high retail value.

A low-value vehicle is defined as one in mechanically functional condition and requires only minor reconditioning. The exterior paint, trim and interior show normal wear and these vehicles only need minor reconditioning.

Sometimes referred to as "daily drivers", or simply a vehicle that you can climb in and drive, these cars are an excellent way to get into the hobby, but you likely won't be winning any trophies at the local show-and-shine.

Average retail value describes a car that is in good condition overall. It may be an older restoration or a well-maintained original vehicle. The exterior paint, trim and mechanics are presentable and serviceable inside and out.

Cars in this category are often referred to as a "20-footer", meaning it looks good from 20 feet away but slight imperfections become more apparent the closer you get.

High retail value vehicles are in excellent condition overall and can be either completely restored or an extremely well maintained original vehicle that shows very minimal wear. The exterior paint, trim and mechanics are not in need of any repairs and the interior is in excellent condition. These cars are the cream of the crop.

Provided you're honest in the assessment of your vehicle's condition, the information available from NADA provides a fairly accurate idea of your classic car or truck's value in minutes.

However, if you're selling a special-interest vehicle or a modified ride like a street rod, hot rod or tuner car, the water gets a little murky. Just because you poured your life savings into a Honda Civic doesn't mean you're going to get that money back when it comes time to sell. In fact, considerable modifications often actually decrease the value of a vehicle.

A number of years ago I owned a highly modified Chevrolet S10 truck. It was lowered, had nice wheels, a shiny red paint job and all the trappings of the mini-truck craze of the 1990s including a roll pan, a tonneau cover, shaved door handles with remote openers and a killer stereo system.

While I enjoyed the heck out of that truck, when it finally came time to sell it I discovered that a similar-year Chevy S10 in stock condition was actually worth more than my customized beauty. It was a tough pill to swallow when it was finally sold for a pittance, but it reminded me that unless Chip Foose is building your vehicle it's highly unlikely you will ever get the money back on a custom creation.

The lesson learned here is that, when it comes to custom vehicles, there is no hard rule for value. They are like art-- worth whatever a perspective buyer is willing to pay.

When selling a vehicle, you should clean it really well, remove all of your personal effects. Above all, if your car is even remotely close to passing a government safety inspection, you owe it to yourself to do the repairs required to pass that test. Most buyers want a car that they can simply hop in and drive away. Although you may have to do a bit of work to get your car to that point, the reward will be a more lucrative and faster sale.

The Internet has become the main venue for selling and buying classic cars. If you have a really special vehicle for sale, you may want to put it on eBay and offer it to a much wider market. But locally, the website Kijiji is very popular, and our own Free Press AUTOS site also offers free listings for private sellers.

If you're in the market for a classic, an affordable way to get into the hobby is with a four-door car. They're almost always cheaper than similar two-door or convertible models, and sedans are typically more likely to have been driven by that proverbial little old lady.

Although your best bet is to get the car into a shop and have a certified technician put it up on a hoist and do a complete inspection, the reality is that isn't always practical. An easier method is to have your local mechanic, or at the very least a friend who is knowledgeable about cars, come along to look at the vehicle.

Although classic-car sellers are typically an honest bunch, there are always a few bad apples who will go to great lengths to mask problems. In the past, I've removed newspapers and even a diaper from beneath mounds of Bondo body filler that were discovered when restoring a car.

Sellers will often minimize the amount of work required to get a car back on the road. All too often I see folks who have spent their hard-earned cash on a vehicle that looked great on the surface and seemed like a great deal but turned out to need thousands of dollars in repairs to make it safe and sound. Unless you're a gearhead, you'd be best off buying a car with a recent Manitoba safety inspection.

When buying an old car I'm always looking for the bad. There's no need to point out these imperfections to the seller -- he already knows about them -- but these issues should be a factor in your negotiation on price.

Things I always look for are blisters in the paint that indicate rust is lurking beneath, signs of past damage, runs in the paint that indicate it may have been an amateur job, cracked glass and rust underneath the car. Vehicles that have sat around for a long time in an improper storage facility may look great up top, but you'd be surprised at the rot you can discover when you crawl underneath.

So, wear your old clothes when inspecting a vehicle and don't be afraid to get dirty. Bringing along a small fridge magnet and make sure it magnetizes to the car's metal. If it doesn't, there's likely Bondo body filler under the paint. Under the hood, you're looking for fluid leaks, and the engine should start up easily and run smoothly. The transmission should engage quickly with no hesitation. Excessive smoke from the tail pipe is a sure sign of future repairs.

And don't be afraid to ask all the questions you want -- those are free. To make sure my advice is accurate, I recently researched my 1985 Chevrolet Corvette. The car has 90,000 kms, is free from any scratches or body damage and, although it runs and drives well and has never been winter-driven, it could probably use new tires and a really good interior cleaning.

According to NADA, low retail value on this car is $5,925, average is $9,900 and high is $16,600. I also looked at a few other Corvettes of similar vintage on eBay and, as much as I'd like this car to be worth a million, the reality is that if I cleaned it up and installed fresh rubber it's worth the 'high' side of low retail value -- or roughly the $8,500 it cost me to buy it a couple of summers ago.

Ultimately, the process of buying a classic car doesn't need to be all that daunting. With a bit of research and some sage advice from a few folks in the know, you will be cruising before you know it.

As for your questions and comments, please keep them coming, I'm not ashamed to admit that I've made more than a few mistakes in the car game over the years, and I'm more than willing to help you avoid following in my oil-stained footprints.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2012 F3

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