The Smart Way To Buy a Dumb Car

I must confess: I don’t always make the smartest car buys. I spend time I don’t have on eBay and Craigslist then buy quirky old cars and trucks that need far too much work. And I love every minute of it. But there is a smart way and a…less smart way to buy a “dumb” car and get it home.

Don’t get scammed

White Plymouth Valiant sedan parked in a lot with its headlights on at dusk.
Plymouth Valiant | Tim Bernhard via Unsplash

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“I found it!” my wife yelled up to my office. She’d been looking for the perfect Jeep Cherokee for months; I wasn’t surprised when she came running in, phone in hand, to show me a Craigslist ad.

She was looking at a red Cherokee with a manual transmission, a sunroof, leather interior, and less than 30,000 miles on the odometer. The asking price was $1400–a steal. The advertisement had two sentences: “My grandad died, I want to get rid of his old 4×4 ASAP. Not sure what it is or what it’s worth, just need it gone.”

She fired off a message through the Craigslist email relay and the response was quick–too quick. “I hate Craigslist, can you send me your personal email or a cell number so we can talk?”

I copied the ad’s pictures and ran a reverse image search. Sure enough, the same photos had been used for similar ads all over the country, for years. Someone, somewhere, was running a Craigslist scam to collect and sell contact information. I was lucky I knew the right questions to ask.

Having your contact info stolen is far from the worst scam you can run into. I am always especially careful about sending a deposit, especially without the security of a known website such as eBay. If you are worried someone else will buy a car before you can get to it, you can always ask the seller to FaceTime you and show you that the vehicle exists. Or you can hire a nearby mechanic to go look over the used car and verify its VIN–and existence.

Get home safely

A mechanic's hand holding a wrench above an engine bay.
Mechanic | Christian Buehner via Unsplash

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I first started hunting for less popular cars to fix up when I was in high school. Whenever I wanted to buy something and drive it home my mom asked, “Seat belts, steering, and brakes?” If any of these systems were suspect, I had to get it towed.

The lesson was this: trying to drive a project car home with a poorly-tuned carburetor or a clogging fuel filter might lead to an embarrassing stall or two. I might even have to throw in the towel and call a tow. But having my brakes fail en route would have been a true disaster. It’s unsafe and unethical to take such a car out on the road.

Another lesson I learned was that if the vehicle’s seller has been driving it daily, or even weekly, they have a good idea of which systems might malfunction on my way home. But if it’s been parked in a field for years, even if the engine does fire up, you have no clue what will break a couple of miles down the road.

It’s always a safer bet to have a project car towed home. Even if you do manage to limp it home, a few emergency parts store visits en route can add up fast–perhaps costing you more than a tow.

Do your paperwork

A pile of tools and a spare tire on the floor of a garage behind a Triumph sports car.
Triumph sports car | Tory Bishop via Unsplash

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You may think paying cash for an old car or truck, then outlawing it home, sounds like an adventure. But Johnny Law probably won’t agree. If you get pulled over in an unregistered, uninsured, and uninspected vehicle, you may not be allowed to take your ticket and continue on your merry way.

Firstly, see if your state has temporary registration before you go to look at the vehicle. You may be able to print a transport plate to tape into the back window. Double-check the length of the grace period you have before you need to pass inspection.

Secondly, call your insurance company and ask about putting your newly purchased car on your policy before you set one tire on the roadway. If the worst were to happen, and you were to get injured in a wreck, it would be a double whammy to be unprotected.

In the era of the smartphone, there’s no excuse not to register and insure your new car after you’ve purchased it but before you’ve driven away.

The adventure of buying a ‘dumb’ car

Finding and buying the perfect quirky project car can be a wonderful adventure. Just make sure to be safe and smart about the next “dumb” old car you decide to buy.

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