Ask An Appraiser

Is seeing a car in person before you buy it really that important?

by Dave Kinney
13 October 2023 3 min read
Nick Berard

In addition to benefitting from a trove of data, Hagerty Insider also relies heavily on the expertise of veteran market watchers, including Dave Kinney, appraiser and publisher of Hagerty Price Guide. In this column, he will answer often-asked questions about collector car values and buying and selling. Though Dave can’t put a value on an individual car in this column (that’s what people pay him to do in his appraisal business, after all), he can field questions about the appraisal process, how to go about buying and selling classics, and the industry as a whole. Have a question of your own for a future article? Ask in the comments section.

In-person assessment: I was looking at ads online and I got in contact with a seller. After a long series of questions and answers, he insisted that I come and look at, and drive the car myself or send a representative. Is this a Boomer thing, or is he trying to head off what he thinks might be a scam on my part?

DK: I have no idea what his motives are, but I congratulate him on his resolve for finding a correct new owner for his car. I’m sorry, but he has a point. I think what he is trying to head off is not a scam but your possible disappointment. There is nothing like taking a look, and a drive, and a walkaround before buying a new-to-you car. And there is a twist to this tale: the cheaper the car, the more important this might be.

Hear me out on this. If you are buying a $300,000 car and the interior is moldy, a thorough cleaning with seat removal and hand cleaning of all soft-touch surfaces might take three hours for removal and replacement of the seats, and eight hours for a thorough cleaning. For sake of argument, let’s call it a $1,500 job. The cost on a $30,000 car? About the same. As a percentage of the value of the car, it’s a big difference. Can you do this job yourself? Probably. Do you want to or have time to? That’s a question only you can answer.

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I don’t do what are known as pre-purchase Inspections (PPIs) and I haven’t for over fifteen years. Why? Simple. Without knowing the customer, I can’t possibly know their likes and dislikes, expectations, personal taste or which way they might fall on a judgement call. Is he 6’6 and won’t fit into that 1956 Thunderbird he so wants? Is she not used to the feel of non-power brakes? Do they realize that a slight oil leak on a 50-year-old, $14,000 British car is acceptable to most?

No one can know your complete and total list of likes and dislikes except you. There are thousands of components to every automobile. Are you okay with slightly pitted chrome around the dials of the gauges, but would consider the same amount of pitting surrounding the vent windows a deal breaker?

If you were thinking of purchasing a 1965 Mustang (or ’66 Corvette, or ’67 Ferrari GTC) and it is to be your first collector car, unless you have a friend who has one, you might be in for a tremendous shock. Cars from fifty and sixty years ago are different. On the plus side, they are generally easier to fix, are more straightforward in their level of complications, and, I would argue, more fun to own and drive. A well-maintained (or well-restored) car from “back in the day” can be a time machine, a new hobby, a family treasure, and a point of pride.

One thing a fifty-year-old car can’t do is drive like today’s cars. (This helps explain the restomod movement—cars for people who want the old school look with many of the comfort and power features found on newer cars). Only you can determine whether this particular car will light your fire.

With that in mind, who should go look at a prospective purchase? The answer is you, or a trusted friend who knows cars of the era, or ideally both. Can you send a mechanic? Sure, but what about the cosmetics? I could go on, but it’s your money and your decision. This is a judgement call. Talk to members of the car club associated with your desired model, learn the ups and downs of the car you are thinking of buying. Explore, shop and buy wisely, and you’ll know you got exactly what you were looking for.

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  • PS Car Guy says:

    Excellent article. A few years ago I was selling my 1965 Thunderbird. I got a call from a friend of a friend and he came over to see it, driving his brand new Acura. He told me he admired the car because it looked good and he liked the way he looked in it. However, after taking it for a drive, he told me how shocked he was that it did not drive anything like his new Acura. We had a talk about old versus new, and he finally agreed that an older car wasn’t for him. Worked out well for both of us.

  • Woodrow says:

    I don’t know many enthusiasts that, given the choice, would pass on a personal inspection. Unfortunately, the nature of today’s nationwide/worldwide on-line auctions, preclude that option. Not everyone can afford to jet back and forth across the country looking at multiple examples of the model they’re interested in buying. That’s why I’ve always bought the seller as much as the car. Sure, even in the best cases conflicts can arise, but I’ve purchased four cars on-line, sight-unseen, and have had a good experience each time. In addition, managing one’s expectations is important too. Really study the pictures and videos; have a knowledgeable friend study the pics and vids, and check your fantasies/emotions at the door. It’s so much better to be pleasantly surprised than bitterly disappointed when your new pride and joy rolls off the transporter.

  • Brakeservo says:

    Along with the need for a personal inspection is the absolute need that buyers and sellers actually TALK to each other yet eBay, Bring-A-Trailer and even Facebook Marketplace actively dissuade people from exchanging telephone numbers. I absolutely will not buy a car online without at least talking to the seller, yes I know an inspection is so much better, but if I’m buying something overseas that simply isn’t possible. For a while I was imporating 3 -4 cars a month and the only times I got “ripped off” was when I let my enthusiasm get the better of me and I bought without actuall speaking with the seller. No more. Personally I think eBay and Bring-A-Trailer et al should make disclosure of the seller’s phone number mandatory but of course, they are much more worried about the possibility of a deal being made that would cut their commission out, than they care about the integrity of the transaction.

    • wdb says:

      I’ve bought 3 cars, and sold 1, on Bring a Trailer. Using the “Contact Seller” button put bidder and seller in direct email contact every single time. Exchanging phone numbers was simplicity itself. No attempted blocks, edits or anything else from the BaT people.

  • Zmega says:

    I completely disagree on the value to an expert PPI. The mechanic should notify the potential purchaser of all defects that the PPI identifies. Let the potential purchaser decide on whether the identified defects are deal-breakers, negotiating points, or irrelevant. A PPI should not be about personal preferences.

  • Terry Lessmann says:

    I resurrected an 87 Porsche 928 S4 a few yrs ago that had 1.5 feet in the grave. Got it running and fixed quite a few items. There were however a few electrical items that baffled me (surprise!), so I decided to sell it on with those needs. In my ad I stated that it drove well but needed a timing belt / water pump. PPL seemed to hone in on the former and ignored the latter. I got an email from someone in Columbus, OH (I’m in Omaha) asking if I thought it could be driven to OH safely. This was Feb 2021 and we were in the midst of an extreme cold snap. No way you’d want to chance a 2 day drive in winter with an iffy TB. I responded that I wouldn’t drive it to Columbus, NE (90 mi from OMA) let alone Columbus, OH. Oddly enough, I never heard back from him.

  • Rob Siegel says:

    Oh, I’d be much more strident than that. Anyone who buys a vintage car sight-unseen is taking on a mound of risk. Just the risk of getting the rust assessment alone correct is huge. I don’t know that I’d trust a generic PPI to get it right either, as cars often rust in very specific places known only to people well-versed in that make and model.

    The sad fact is that many sellers lie, and they do it three different ways. They can bare-faced lie, stating things as fact (e.g., “it has no rust”) that they know to be untrue. They can lie by omission (e.g., “it has no structural rust”). Or they can lie unintentionally (e.g., “I’ve knelt down and looked at the floor and the outside and bottom edge of the frame rails, and I don’t see any rust-through, therefore there’s no rust-through on the undercarriage”). On a car worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, if you misrepresent a car in this way, it’s fraud and you get sued. But on inexpensive cars that working schmoes like us buy, usually neither us has the money to hire a lawyer, and so it’s the buyer who gets stuck with the car that’s far worse than advertised.

    Unless the car is being sold by someone whose reputation is for hyper-honesty is beyond reproach, yes you should look at the car or have a trusted friend who’s a marque specialist be your eyes.

  • Scotty D says:

    I had an interest in two cars on the Eastern seaboard but I live as far west as you can go and still be in Canada. The travel cost, lodging and time it would take were imposing so I engaged the services of an individual who did inspections. I’ve done top end restorations and been a gear head
    my whole life. I have never seen such a comprehensive inspection with photos and text that were better than I would have done in person. I ended up not buying either car and saved a bundle of costs that I would have incurred had I tried to do it myself. It took a bit of due diligence to find my inspector but I won’t hesitate to do it again.

  • Jim Rosenthal says:

    I’ve bought cars sight unseen, and regretted it keenly. I’ve also gotten away with it (meaning they turned out to be fine) a few times. But overall, I think the safest way to buy a car is to not only see it in person, but to have the PPI done WHILE YOU ARE THERE. This, to me, covers all the bases. I think that’s the safest method of all, and the one least likely to lead to disappointment.

  • Jim Rosenthal says:

    The problem with doing a PPI yourself and not bringing a professional along is that you can’t be objective, and we are all prone to falling in love with cars and somehow not seeing all the warts. Having someone along who doesn’t have a dog in the hunt is much safer for the prospective buyer.

  • hyperv6 says:

    Buying sight unseen is a big risk most can’t afford.

    Even wen sending a representative it needs to be someone that knows that type of car and you know is capable of giving you a fair and honest assessment.

    I buy only cars I can see. Even now I not only go my self but
    Often take one or two of my car buddies with me.

    Even being rational it is easy to overlook things Buying a car is an emotional event and when emotional you can make mistakes.

    The worst sin is too many people never do the home work to know anything about a car. There is enough info out there to know the problem areas the best years to buy and what you should look for on a model.

    We also put cars on the rack before buying, take a good long drive to see how it runs.

    It scares me how someone will plop $50k or more on a car and just drive it 5 miles.

  • Gary Bechtold says:

    I have to see any car in person. Without it I would be afraid to buy it.

  • don cox says:

    My (late) wife & I have had bad luck buying just about Anything online–Clothing comes to mind– Friends who bought furniture on line regretted it pretty Quickly– (Walmart Quality)– Talking to folks who bought newer (daily driver) car online & had problems is quite common– Unless your willing & have the means to start from scratch it just seems like a Dumb ideal to Gamble the money you spend on a Classic car–

  • Rick Fontana says:

    So, are you saying to stay away from the Hagerty online auctions?

    • Eddy Eckart says:

      Hi Rick,
      By all means, bid away on the auction site of your choosing! But Dave’s point stands–eyes on the car is the most sure way to know what you’re getting and if it’s the right fit for you.

  • George Chamarro says:

    I just sold a vintage car on bring-a-trailer. 250 plus photos and 14 videos. My version of a PPI. Talked to buyer who peppered me with questions. He did not bother to look at videos/photos. He saw the car and bought on a whim.

  • paul s murray says:

    My rule of thumb is to never buy a car, old or new, until after you’ve walked away from it and thought it over for a day or two.

    • Verdigris says:

      That might have worked in 1965, not so much anymore. I’ve literally bought cars that had people waiting in line to test drive them. I also recently lost out on a car that I made an appointment to see, got there early, and someone else beat me to it. Depends strictly on actual cash in the pocket, desirability and supply/demand.

  • Verdigris says:

    I’ve bought several cars on eBay, and every single one had flaws and faults that the owner didn’t disclose both on the listing and in conversation. The worst was a 1982 Alfa Romeo Spider restomod that was a beautiful yellow in the listing. It had red paint underneath. Not disclosed. Drove the “fully restored” car from Dallas to Asheville, NC and discovered the clutch was shot driving up the Appalachian mountains on I-40. That was fun.

    Bought a 1969 Firebird and discovered on my first drive that the entire suspension needed a rebuild. Also fun.

    Caveat emptor.

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