3 April 2013

Buying a Car Long-Distance: 10 rules for a stress-free purchase

eBay may have made the collector world smaller, but you can still be a long way away from your dream car. Here’s one case which answered many of the questions that can arise.


The advent of eBay enabled people across the country to buy cars they’d never actually seen in person. When the truck arrived, it was a bit like tearing the Christmas paper off a present from Aunt Marjorie as a child – almost certain to be disappointing.

It seems it doesn’t matter how much people are prepared to pay for a dream car, they can’t bring themselves to spend 1/100 of that much on an inspection. If you don’t have friends at a distant location, track down the local club for the make and model you are investigating, and arrange an inspection by an expert. It’s the best money you can spend.

Recently, I was involved with what I’d consider a very good example of how to buy a long-distance car successfuly. There may be more pitfalls, but the case of Mike Kearney’s 1969 Mini Woody Traveler has gone about as well as one could hope.

My first contact with Mike was an email, in which he introduced himself as a business neighbor in Great Falls, Va., of my old friend Dave Kinney. Mike runs an Irish pub “The Old Brogue” and his wife a little café next door. The café has started doing Cars and Coffee on Saturdays and recently attracted 400 vehicles one morning. As Mike Kearney put it, he was feeling left out.

Rule #1: Involve a very knowledgeable friend.

Dave Kinney is one of the deans of classic car auction reporting, an appraiser who put together his own Cars That Matter price guide (now the Hagerty Price Guide) and has written for numerous publications for more than 20 years. He suggested Mike check out eBay, and Mike found himself a 1969 Mini Woody Wagon, out in Oregon, on the other side of the United States.

Rule #2: Try to find a personal connection with somebody at the location.

The next puzzle was how could Mike check it out? The ad was very short on details, no photos had been posted, but the car was said to have been restored. Mike contacted the seller and asked for photos. They looked good. Mike asked Dave what to do next. When Dave learned it was in Portland, Ore., he sent Mike to me. I’ve lived here for 30 years, and been an auto journalist for 40.

Rule #3: Make sure you have local knowledge of the address.

I was able to Google the address, and confirm that the car was located in a prosperous area of gentleman farmers, in the hills south of town. The address was real, with big houses and barns and paved roads. I could view it, it wasn’t in felony flats, or a warehouse district down by the port, or the parking lot of an apartment building where the car sat out in the rain.

Rule #4: Take an expert with you.

I’m pretty savvy about cars, having owned a couple of hundred over 50 years. I’ve owned Minis too, starting in England. But I’m not a Mini guru. That’s Jeff Doan, who’s been working on Minis for 30 years and is the kind of guy who makes his own special tools, if necessary. I also figured Jeff would either know the car, which would speed the plow, or he wouldn’t, which meant he couldn’t resist tagging along. It turned out he didn’t know the car and he was hooked. The additional bonus was that if the Mini wasn’t any good, he’d warn Mike off it right away.

Rule #5: Experts immediately get involved.

The minute we saw the Mini, we were intrigued. It was in a modern barn which had clearly been a car showroom, with black and white tile, extensive neon light and framed posters on the wall. It was stored in a two-car garage space, which appeared to be heated. The wood on the wagon was very good, the interior was new and the paint was excellent. It was also clear that the 20-year-old repaint was a glass-out, frame-off job, done to a high quality, and the tires appeared new. It turned out the car had been left behind after a divorce “for the grandkids to play in” and the restorer had owned a chain of body shops. It had been a “boss’s car” restoration. However it hadn’t run in five years and the handbrake was stuck. We delivered our report to Mike, and waited for the eBay auction to expire. Because of the lack of information or photos, the car didn’t reach reserve, but thanks to our on-the-spot inspection we were able to advise Mike what a fair price would be, and he and the seller made a deal.

Rule #6: Make it a turn-key operation.

In order to ship a car, it needs to be driveable. The next task was to get it to  Jeff’s shop. After the bank transfer of money and the car’s papers had been handled between buyer and seller, Jeff and I returned on a Saturday to see if we could start the car or would have to tow it. In the meantime, Jeff had made time and space in his schedule to go through it, and make sure it was in running condition. We were able to back off the brakes to roll it outside, prime it and charge the battery. After some initial fiddling, we were able to keep it running well enough to test drive it and determine it could make it back the five or six miles to Jeff’s shop.

Rule #7: It’s always something.

Once Jeff began working on the Mini, it was clear that the restoration – though generally good – was such as a body shop might do. What they knew, they did fine, when they got to mechanical issues – not so good. The reason the gas gauge didn’t work was because somebody had installed the sending unit upside-down in the tank and failed to seal the screws. The reason the car didn’t want to idle was because somebody had glued the S.U. carburetor jet in place to stop it from leaking. The starter motor bell housing had one stripped bolt, which Jeff heli-coiled. Most difficult was the top motor mount, which stops the Mini engine from rocking back and forth on acceleration or deceleration.

It had been sheared off in the cylinder head ¼ of an inch from the surface, and a shorn-off bolt barely threaded in. So Jeff set out to remove the sheared bolt, but the extractor broke off IN the bolt. He ended up using a diamond-tipped cutter around the extractor and ultimately saved the entire thread in the block. Having solved that, Jeff converted the Mini to negative ground, replaced the regulator and went to get more gas. At the gas station, the coil decided it had completed its tour of duty, so Jeff got to walk home to fetch another.

Rule #8: “And now the shipping news …”

The basic rule of auctions is NEVER drive a new purchase home. That applies to any car bought more than 100 miles away, at auction or not. If it breaks down in the middle of nowhere, at night in the rain, you’ll be furious with everything and especially yourself. Even if you have roadside assistance, such as Hagerty offers, and your cell phone actually has service, you BROKE it and you won’t even know how badly until later. Spend the money on a big reliable shipping company, and then when the car’s unloaded at home, you can check it out in detail. I added up the mileage on my 1977 Daimler Vanden Plas when it quit about 6 months after I bought it, and I calculated that had I driven it home from Scottsdale, Ariz., in 2009, it would have failed about 100 miles the other side of Reno, Nev. Don’t bother to check the map, there’s nothing there. Even if it costs you $2,000 to ship your new car across country in an enclosed truck, do it. I don’t care if Boris and Natasha are your relatives; there’s no upside to a cheap ride on an open truck across the US of A, with the suspension completely collapsed by anchor chains and your car exposed to the elements.

Rule #9: Get to know your car.

So Mike now has a nice, well-sorted Mini. He backs it off the truck and everything seems fine. Now he needs to get to know his car, starting with reading the manual. If you don’t have one, get one. Wash the car and polish it. You’ll learn where the dings and scrapes are, if any. Get the car up in the air and check out the underneath. Any old brake lines? Any dodgy wiring, or any place the undercoating is coming off? Any rust? Any leaks that will need attention? How about service details? Where are the drain plugs? What are the capacities? As we’re talking about a woody, should the wood trim be refinished? Anywhere the wood needs to be reattached? Check it all out. Go and see a boat builder and get his opinion. What kind of varnish should you use? Drive your new car about, and figure out how well the brakes work. Any clonks from underneath, any noises that need attention? Then you’ll be ready for a Sunday drive. You did locate the jack and check the pressure in the spare, right? 

Rule #10 Beware The Long Distance Runaround

There’s an old adage that “If you want something in the worst way, that’s usually how you get it.” The Red Mist is dangerous at auction, when you just decide you’re going to have something and to hell with the consequences. But at least you’re looking at a real car. Imagine if all you can see are fuzzy pictures from half a world away?

As a final note, I once chased down a complete, original Jaguar XK 120 OTS in Australia. Purely by chance, I had a friend who lived close to the enclosed yard, where it sat outside in the dust, and another friend a couple of hundred miles away who specializes in shipping cars between Australia and the U.S. John went and checked out the address, which was real, but he couldn’t see any sign of the car, and nobody answered the door. Puzzled, he went back to the photos and enlarged them, then sent me a an e-mail. “I don’t know where this car is, Mate, but it’s not in Oz. That kind of barbed wire on the fence is illegal here.”

22 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Ian F Croydon PA April 3, 2013 at 16:39
    Interesting coincidence - I just bought a '64 Mini from California and had it shipped to PA. I was fortunate to find a Mini specialist garage near the seller who was able to inspect the car for a nominal fee, which was easily saved through negotiating with the seller using the new info. I also had the same shop do some additional repairs after the sale and they were kind enough to handle the shipping on the CA end (arranged by me). Where I differ from the article is with shipping. Maybe if I was shipping a $20K+ car, I could see spending 10% of that on enclosed shipping. However, spending over $2000 to ship my $10,000 car just didn't seem logical, so I went with open shipping for less than half the cost. I did consider driving it the 2400 miles home, but the inspection garage talked me out of it. Fortunately, the shipping truck used wheel-straps which clamp around opposing tires, rather than strapping to the chassis. From what I've seen, this is becoming standard practice and it seems the drivers like it since it doesn't require them crawling under the car (often in the dark) looking for a tie-down point. I'm currently in the process of doing some additional repairs on my new toy, but so far it's pretty much been as I'd expected.
  • 2
    jon b maine April 3, 2013 at 17:01
    Interesting article, with ebay very important to check sellers feedback, especially on items sold. It would be very hard to manufacture false feedback, so closely scrutinizing how past buyers have rated the sellers honesty is priceless. Perhaps I've just gotten lucky, but l have purchased several cars on ebay, and nearly all were in better condition than I was expecting. I usually just pick up cars in person with a trailer which gives final chance to catch undisclosed problems. The one very unique car I bought on ebay was a renault fuego turbo and it was in wasington state, needless to say I had that one shipped and it was exactly as seller described. Been driving it couple thousand miles a year for about 5 years now and haven't had to do anything but oil changes and a new fuel pump (likely ruined by ethanol) but that's another topic. I think this author is a little on the overly cautious side, that being said I would NEVER buy a car sight unseen if the seller has little or no feedback
  • 3
    bill vandeweghe Marion N.Y. April 3, 2013 at 19:39
    well written article,if you can't afford a professional inspection,you can't afford the car,I have been stuck by a very dis-honest person off e-bay, its no fun and e-bay is very little help, I have learned you need to qualify the car and the seller to make a good purchase, I have had several good transactions long distance but the bad one leaves unpleasant memories the collector car hobby is no different than anything else, deal with quality people like Hagerty and you will be better off
  • 4
    Tommy Lebanon TN April 3, 2013 at 19:58
    I sure wish I would have read this ten ago I've been waiting ten that's right 10 days for a truck to come from right outside L.A. Can't get intouch with the driver of the truck, every now and then I speak with a dispatching person. I just want my Truck I purchased 10 days ago. Great Car Buying Tips. Thank you
  • 5
    Jim Liberty Costa Mesa, CA April 3, 2013 at 21:14
    I know everything you stated above. Mostly from not following these rules.Thank you so much for putting them out there for me to see again. Even in my 70s, I still get caught up with a pretty face. ...............................Jim.
  • 6
    Jim Verhey Colorado Springs, Colorado April 3, 2013 at 21:33
    I've been in the restoration business since 1980. One thing remains constant..... It's amazing how much people will spend to save money. On second thought, one more constant, we've NEVER seen a good deal come off E-bay! At this point, when someone calls the shop to inquire about fixing a car they just bought off E-bay, we simply tell them how busy we are and furnish them with a competitor's phone number.
  • 7
    Jose C Gonzalez Jr Bronx, NY April 3, 2013 at 21:40
    Great advice! I have purchased 3 cars and sold 1 on Ebay. Ask for many detailed clear pictures and lots of questions about the car on Ebay Messenger. Then ask same questions later before purchase or final bid and confirm he/she told you the same on messages. Speak to seller over phone and realize the authenticity of his car. Read FEEDBACKS on seller! Good luck! So far, I have had good purchases with Ebay sellers. They are mostly honest sellers. Thank you all: J.C.Gonzalez Jr. -jcgjr61@AOL.com - Bx, NY.
  • 8
    Rick Washburn United States April 3, 2013 at 22:07
    Great Article but week to late for this guy! Wish I had seen this before, I would be 20K richer. I bought a car from a place in Lakeland Florida called Lash Auto sales, Man did I get played, I called and asked a local mechanic to check it out he called said go for it! I spoke to the seller, I emailed seller, he assured me (trust me he said) pictures looked great, He also said mint condition. Long story short. Car gets here runs BAD, blowing oil out the side pipes,no heat,no A/C,no radio, cruise linkage is missing, and we believe the mileage isn't correct speedo is broke, just to name a few. Sad in Michigan ;( But Great Info and I recommend your info for anybody buying!!! Thanks Again even if it's a little late for me.
  • 9
    Alan D. Reed Fort Wayne, IN April 3, 2013 at 23:06
    Hope soon to purchase a 53 Studebaker Starliner located in Santa Maria, CA 93455. deliver to Fort Wayne, IN 46814. Please help by furnishing contacts (2) inspector/ appraisers, and (2) transport carriers. As this will be a very long distance purchase if you have copies of suggested purchase agreements that you could share, you assistance is much appreciated. Have been a Hagerty customer for several years now. Thanks. Alan.
  • 10
    Ian @ Jewel or Jalopy Portland, ORE April 4, 2013 at 01:58
    Great article, Paul! I wish all long distance purchases went that smoothly. If you're not as lucky as Mike to have an experienced friend or friend-of-a-friend near your dream car, it can be a challenge to find someone with the right experience. We ran into this issue trying to buy our last car and created Jewel or Jalopy (www.jewelorjalopy.com) to help others with the same issue. Now if you've found your dream car on the other side of the country you can find and hire a car enthusiast to check out the car for you in your absence and report back. Car enthusiasts can also earn money from their car knowledge by signing up to be an inspector. Check it out! Thanks ~ Ian
  • 11
    Douglas Brown Canada April 4, 2013 at 14:27
    Good article. I did pretty much everything you list when I bought my 1971 VW Super Beetle from California last May. The only rule I broke was #8 - I DID drive it back to Canada - all across the US on Route 66. Only casualty was one flat tire. So I would not say NEVER drive it home - but if you do, make sure you have had a complete inspection and got everything up to snuff first. Of course those Bugs were always dependable!
  • 12
    elizabeth burleigh Shelton, Connecticut April 4, 2013 at 05:33
    oh, how I loved this story. My first car was a '69 Woody Traveler - gray, not cream....but I loved that car. My dad bought it for me, locally, and I drove it for years - until it rotted and I couldn't afford to repair it. Now I own a Morris Civilian Van, right-handdrive that was abandoned in a parking lot after a divorce (or whatever - we never really knew). A local body shop towed it in. My husband saw it (he drives for a nation wide crash parts company) and laid claim to it. It is such fun to drive! ...a little tempermental, and definitely not fast...but fun. It either makes people smile, or swear - depending upon how big a hurry they are in. Thanks for the story.
  • 13
    John Fitzgerald United States April 4, 2013 at 18:43
    Absolutely indispensable advice. I wish I had read #8 in 2007 when my new-to-me Alfa Spider blew up 250 miles from home.
  • 14
    Heidi Martin NC April 4, 2013 at 07:36
    We also bought a '78 Trans Am off of Ebay back in 2010, and the car was located in PA. As I read through this article, I too could relate to the "issues" of not seeing the car before we bought it. We relied on the seller to send us as many pictures as possible, and even spoke to the gentleman on the phone. He is a collector of Trans Ams, and knew his cars. We also have owned many Trans Am's, so my husband was very knowledgeable with them. We won the auction and the very next day we went to PA, and had a Uhaul trailer waiting there for us. We arrived at the car, and it was exactly as described to us over the phone and with the pictures. The car fired up, and ran like a champ. We looked over the car well, and knew there were going to be some repairs along the way, but nothing major at that time. When we got the car home, new brake lines had to be installed, and other minor things needed attention. Now this is the kicker! We had plans on repainting the car, because there were some rust issues, and a dent in the quarter panel. We brought the car to a body shop, and work started, and come to find out, that the car was hit in the rear at one time, and whoever did the body work then, did a botched up job. The used wood paneling grain looking material that seem to have went to the old station wagons back in the 70's, to cover up the effected areas. Not repairing or replacing the rusted area, they just patched it. Well, one thing led to another and we ending up replacing all new panels in the rear. It took almost 2yrs to get the car done right. Now, I have basically a brand new car, with new a interior!! While restoring this car, we did find some interesting items throughout the car. A gold cross was used to make a connection by the cigarette lighter, and other interesting things! We knew buying this car unseen, that we were going to find something wrong, but at the price that we bought it, it was ok. I take this car to many car shows and cruise in's and we have won many trophies and awards. It sure is a proud moment when you get these knowing how much work went into this car, and it sure is a beauty!!
  • 15
    jim Carlisle PA April 4, 2013 at 09:44
    Watch out for the "Immaculate must sees," "immaculately kepts," etc. when they are coupled to a surprisingly low price.............. I saw a Corvette for sale on Ebay and just happened to run across the "must see" piece of junk in Massachusetts when on a trip........... the ad for it suddenly disappeared from Ebay when that hyped up "must see" was seen by me and reported to Ebay! I also bought a Chevy Suburban Diesel from a character by the name of Ben Dye in Portland OR......... what a piece of junk that had been advertised at below 100,000 miles when it had to have had 200K plus on it -- lucked out to have fixed it up a bit and sold it for what I had in it (including the air fare from Denver to Portland to get it). The nice part about Ebay is that they do not put up with false/misleading advertising. In this case, however, I found that the state of Oregon could care less about what it's licensed dealers do!!!! I have also learned there are MANY states that complaints to attorney generals offices are an insulting WASTE of time and another good reason to object to paying taxes -- PA, CO, and Kentucky are examples!!! Caveat Emptor!!!!
  • 16
    Bob Keck Sherwood Oregon April 4, 2013 at 12:24
    If you are a novice at buying used cars, be aware of the huge difference between a third party appraisal and a pre-puchase inspection. An appraisal may tell you what the car is worth in todays market place, but it WON'T tell you what is right or wrong with the vehicle....especially mechanically. It is worth the money to get both inspections by different inspectors.
  • 17
    Bob NY April 5, 2013 at 11:33
    Nowhere do you mention payment. You need to establish a means of payment that is secure and acceptable to both parties. An escrow service is one way of doing this. There are several available, and some banks will function as such. I had a buyer who wanted me to sign the title over and send it to him so he could register the car and fly from Minnesota to upstate NY in January then pay for the car with a personal check and drive it home. This scenario is fraught with potential problems such as 1.Title transfer without payment; 2. secure payment; and 3. driving a high performance car with max performance summer tires 1500 miles through northern sections of NY, Ill, Ind, Wi, Mn in the dead of winter. The buyer seemed somewhat naive, and the sale fell through.
  • 18
    Mike Liebert Tucson, AZ April 6, 2013 at 19:51
    Great article. I picked up several gems that I am sure will be very useful in the future. THANKS
  • 19
    Tom Kentucky April 8, 2013 at 09:41
    This article is spot on. A friend got fired up to purchase a Volvo 164 on Ebay. The car looked great in the photos. When it arrived, he discovered that the dodgy paint had been completely wiped down with vegetable oil to make it shine. The interior was unfit for animals and it ran terrible. He immediately sold the money pit at a terrible loss. I got caught up in TR8 fever and bought a 1980 convertible sight unseen from a salvage operation in MO as a "rebuilder." When a car comes in and the receiving salvage yard guys start laughing...well, you get the picture. Through pure stubborness and 18 years of work, the car looks great and is almost roadworthy. :-(
  • 20
    GInger Washington DC April 18, 2013 at 14:35
    Beware of deals on what could be a restored "flood" car! It often takes a sensitive nose to detect the telltale but faint presence of hidden mold.
  • 21
    JD Detroit January 9, 2014 at 15:59
    A word of caution on having a car shipped: get in writing the estimated delivery date, and if not delivered, the shipping contract is void. I paid up front for shipping (required) from a dealer down south, and his shipper promised 2-3 days delivery. It took 3 and a half weeks and a lot of phone calls. Very frustrating.
  • 22
    Gary Seattle, WA January 9, 2014 at 23:17
    Extremely helpful article and well written. Over the past 10 years, I have purchased 4 cars on-line, three through e-Bay. Two of the four were spectacular, one was so so and the last one a complete fraud. Car was advertised as a "one owner", "elderly owner's cherished and babied vehicle", "completely restored in 2004", "gorgeous chrome", "no rust issues", "we were told one owner that recently passed away and wife no longer drives". As this article advises, an auto inspector is advised. I Googled auto inspectors in the same area as Ft. Lauderdale, FL. I contacted two companies. One was too busy and the second one, Smart Inspections was hired and paid for. Either Smart inspection's is blind, dumb or in collaboration with the seller. I received a glowing report with only noted problems is a little fish eyes in the paint (if you look close). Also the Vin number on the report was inaccurate showing a Z code. (Read on toward the end to see the Vin discrepancy) Also thicker paint in the wheel well area, possibly a run. When I asked the seller to see a copy of the title, he refused saying there is so much title fraud about. Getting to the point of this experience, first I was shocked to see the car when it arrived. The paint was awful, very cheap back yard paint job with overspray all over bright work. Fiberglass over the rusted areas. Body gaps were awful. As for the "gorgeous chrome", rear bumper was not straight, large rusted out gouge on right end, front bumper was so shot the copper was showing. Right side rocker stainless trim gouged out as well. Horn and wipers were in op, windshield had severe wiper scratches, all interior bright work was in bad shape as well. This is only the immediate problems that were noticed. Let me jump ahead, we wired the funds as requested to: DIRECTBUY MOTORSPORTS c/o/ Nick Anagnostopoulos 1661 N.W. 114th AVE. Pembroke Pines, Fl. 333026 Title: Never received the title. We had to involve Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to obtain the title after 16 months. Then we discovered the Vin did not match the title. Then we found two different Vin's on the vehicle. Also to note, it was NOT a one owner elderly owner that passed away. It was from a different state and sold to a buyer in Florida who sold it to a dealer. By the way, Direct Buy Motorsports did not own the car. Mr. Nick Anagnostopoulos was not a dealer but represented one, Cars, Boats & More. We ran a background report on Mr. Anagnostopoulos and what a shock on his morale history. The Vin as sold was a Z code Galaxie, (390 Cu inch), but was actually a C code (298 cu inch) but has a 352 engine in it. The difference in NADA value from a C code to a Z code is $6,000.00. The car is in a restoration shop for the past 17 months and the body is now as it should be with no rust, proper body alignment and a multi coat of PPG base coat and clear coat. Car was stripped and fine work completed. All chrome is triple plated, all stainless is perfect as is all aluminum pieces. Anyway we did what we thought was right and now we are doing what is right to properly restore this car. As a follow up, DMV in Florida does an excellent job with their licensed dealers are involved in fraud, misrepresentation and deceptive trade practices. They are now on the job again regarding the fraudulent advertising and Vin problem. Buyer beware.

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