Tactics for buying and selling in a brave new digital world

Charlie Layton

Although this summer buying season promises to be more conducive to traditional, in-person buying than the last one—particularly if you’re fortunate enough to have received a COVID-19 vaccination already—online buying and selling are definitely here to stay. This past year, when online sales dominated, many of us peered into our socially isolated computer screens examining digitized photos and thumbing virtual bid buttons for cars we had never seen, being sold by people we will never meet in person. Despite the crazy year, Americans bought a lot of classic cars. Hagerty’s policyholder data shows that in calendar year 2020, some 188,000 cars were sold privately, up 17 percent from 2019—even as sales at auctions, which were hit hard by the suspension of public events, dropped 12.5 percent, from 24,225 vehicles to 21,186. Thus, total overall car sales were up about 13 percent against the headwinds of the pandemic and recession.

We’re here to help you enter a little more safely into the purchase of a car that you can’t inspect in person or even can’t have inspected by someone else. For sellers, a few of these tips will help you market your car for an optimal online offering, including some of the pros and cons of the most well-known online destinations for both buyers and sellers. Additionally, we’ll look at some options for shipping the ride after the sale. This is not an exhaustive guide, nor is it any guarantee that a creative con artist won’t still get you. Rather, these are some tools that can help prepare buyers and sellers in an era when large sums of cash are passing between complete strangers.

Knowing where to look online

Back in the old days, if you wanted to sell a car, you pushed it out on the lawn with a for-sale sign or put an ad in the classified section of the local newspaper. The market was local—and so were your buyers. Nationally distributed classified publications like Hemmings Motor News were the first to expand the classic car market, and the internet has now made buying and selling the act of drinking from a global fire hose. That has come with pros and cons for both sellers and buyers. If you list a car in Poughkeepsie, New York, your buyer could be in Lausanne, Switzerland, who might be in a bidding war with somebody in Prescott, Arizona. If you’re looking for a specific car, your daily ad perusal can now stretch for hours as you check every possible corner of the constantly updated global flea market that is the internet. We live in a time of abundance, with all the hazards that come with it. Here’s a rundown of today’s various sales channels and some comments on what to expect.

Going local

Almost as a backlash agains the ever-expanding universe of the internet, sites such as Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, OfferUp, and the intensely local NextDoor have become places where people don’t have to compete against the global swarm. The ads are free or extremely cheap, so sites aren’t usually well organized or very searchable. Scams are rife—even on Facebook, where the profiles are supposed to guarantee the seller is more authentic—so you need to have your guard up.

craigslist landing page of car listings

If the price seems too low or the deal can only be done remotely using Google Pay or some other online money exchange, don’t fall for it. The quality of the cars as well as the people showing up for them can vary greatly. If your car is missing an engine and three fenders, these are probably your go-to sales channels because somebody will have to come for it with a trailer and a couple of friends. For those who like to shop local, these modern versions of the old newspaper classifieds.

Online-only auctions

Online-only auctions provide a platform that introduces your car to thousands of potential buyers for a low fee relative to a traditional consignment dealer or traditional auction houses. They also provide a degree of confidence that your car will sell quickly. For buyers, they offer a cornucopia of interesting cars whose listings are usually well provisioned with photos and details. The online discussion that accompanies each listing can be helpful as people chime in with information or, sometimes, firsthand knowledge of the particular car on sale.

Rob Siegel - Risk and reward - DSC_0363
Columnist Rob Siegel’s 49K-mile survivor ’73 BMW 2002 that he sold on Bring a Trailer. Rob Siegel

For sellers, the community aspect of online auctions is a double-edged sword. The sites leave it to the sellers themselves to police the conversation and beat back trolls, so you’re essentially signing up for a full-time job as used-car salesman for the auction’s duration, lest unanswered negative critiques scare buyers away. Another disadvantage is that you’re on your own to complete the sale after the auction, as no money has changed hands except for the seller’s and buyer’s fees to the auction site.

Traditional collector car dealerships

Classic car dealers had shifted their business online even before the pandemic. For example, some remain brick-and-mortar enterprises yet offer cars almost exclusively on Bring a Trailer. Why? Because even if the cars don’t sell on the BaT platform, its $99 basic listing package fee is the most effective ad out there if one computes eyeballs for dollars. But even the dealers who are still retail stores that welcome in-person tire-kickers need to get inventory.

Depending on your car (and their business model), dealers will either buy the car from you—presumably at a price that allows room for profit—or sell it for a fee. Aside from the fact that frequent flyers seem to have higher chances of getting on BaT than casual users, not having to worry about collecting the money and dealing with shipping is the biggest reason to consider going through a dealer.

Traditional auction houses

RM Sotheby's Fall Elkhart Vehicles Row Bugatti
RM Sotheby’s Fall 2020 Elkhart Auction. Cameron Neveu

Most of the land-based auction houses have shifted their online efforts into overdrive over the past year. Advantages to selling through a traditional auction house such as Mecum or Gooding include a hands-off, full-service sale for your car, wherein they vet the buyers, rep the cars to wide audiences, and—if all goes well—get you a check. The disadvantages can include cost for transport if it is a live, brick-and-mortar event, and the fees the auction companies charge the seller.

For buyers, traditional auctions are sometimes the only way to buy some types of cars, but you’re less likely to score a major deal. The selection is verified and well-presented, and in this age of rampant fakes and “tribute” cars, the buyers have some security provided by the auction house that they are actually getting what is being advertised. Different auction houses specialize in different strata of the market, so be sure to do your research.

Shopping smarter

Get to know your VINs

The first step of your due diligence for an online or sight-unseen car purchase begins with the numbers: either the chassis or engine serial numbers, or, on later cars, the VIN, or vehicle identification number. Either way, buyers should make sure to get the complete VIN—preferably from a photo of the VIN tag on the car. Then Google it to see where the car has been before, and, if it is new enough, purchase a CarFax report. You can buy individual CarFax reports for $40 or, if your search will be lengthy, a package of reports at a discount.

If the car you want is older than 1981, use the Hagerty VIN decoder. Don’t trust a copy provided by the seller as those can be doctored up. We’ve seen it all: a VIN of a bad car cut and pasted into a good CarFax; the mileage changed; the accident history conveniently missing. All it takes is a printer, a pair of scissors, and question-able creativity. Remember the obscured fax pages in Fargo? Same idea. Sellers need to be ready to cheerfully provide the VIN tag, and if your car has issues with its numbers, be upfront about it.

car inspection illustration
Charlie Layton

Ask the experts

As the saying goes: Act in haste, repent in leisure. It has always amazed us that people will spend hours reading restaurant reviews before they’ll spend $75 on dinner but leap into a car purchase costing thousands (or millions) without seeking any advice. However, online it isn’t always easy to meet a seller and put your hands on a potential acquisition. If you can’t have a trusted third-party or prepurchase-inspection service check out the car in person, you can still benefit from the knowledge of a model- or marque-specific expert. This may cost a fee, but it’s money well spent. Not only will they tell you what to look for and where the common problem areas are, they’ll likely know the current market—they may even know the actual car you’re looking at and be able to vouch for it (or tell you to walk away).

Also consider checking in with the local chapter of the associated owners club and ask if anyone knows the specific car. Many years ago, I did this during a background check on a vintage V-12 Ferrari and was told, “Oh yeah, that was Bob’s car. Man, I never thought they’d fix that one after he rolled it, but that shop did a really nice job!” Sure enough, the car had been rolled and essentially re-bodied—a crucial tidbit the seller forgot to mention.

Hired experts often pay for themselves by finding issues that can then be used as leverage in the negotiating. Try to stick with marque-specific experts, who are usually found by asking club members or by hanging out in the marque-specific forums. Avoid the one-size-fits-all car “experts;” often, they are non-classic-car insurance adjusters who are moonlighting as advisers and may not know the particulars of that vehicle. I know of one case where such an expert tried to warn off a buyer of a car because there was overspray on the chassis, not knowing that was absolutely correct and the vehicle was properly restored to concours condition.

Sellers should be ready to facilitate a third-party inspection. Screw this up, and don’t be surprised if a smart buyer tells you to take a hike. The right thing to do as a seller is to be completely transparent. Whatever you know, you should disclose because it builds trust—and the buyer will eventually find out what you’re hiding. Disclose the good and the bad to allow a buyer to make an educated decision. Treat the buyer the way you would want to be treated. Either they’ll find out before they do the deal and walk away, or they’ll find out after and sue you. The best phone call or email a seller can get is from a buyer who says that the car showed up and was better than described. That should be what we all strive for.

car photoshoot illustration
Charlie Layton

A picture is worth a thousand words

Sellers should provide a complete set of good, clear, current photographs showing every aspect of the car, from the exterior to the chassis, particularly of key areas known to be important on this make and model.

Not all pictures are created equal. Sellers should not provide, and buyers should not settle for, images sent via Facebook Messenger or text message; they will be so compressed and low-resolution as to potentially hide flaws. Photos should be emailed in a minimum file size of 800 KB each so that potential buyers can properly zoom in on them on a computer or tablet. Buyers, do not examine the photos on your phone, please! In no world should one base a purchase decision on photographs viewed on a 3-inch screen. That email should include photos or scans of any service records, as well as a full ownership history according to the seller. Make sure it matches what you found in your Google search.

Sellers should also readily allow buyers to contact their mechanic or restoration shop. If they aren’t willing to do that? Red flag.

Online auctions have taught us that there’s no such thing as too many photos. Sellers, prep your car for photography. Pull it out of the garage, clean it, and take the junk out of the trunk. Shoot your car against a neutral background with good lighting (see more photo tips here and below). Sellers should take lots of detail shots of areas that are known to be problematic to make sure the buyers feel comfortable about the car. If you neglect to take pictures of a known trouble spot, people will think you’re hiding something. Take pictures of the engine and underside, as well. Do a compression check and post photos of the gauge on each cylinder. Videos of the walk-around, start-up, and driving, even if it means buying a $9 suction-cup iPhone mount, are well worth the small amount of time and money invested.

Photography tips

1. Camera phones work well. Make sure the lens is clean and resist the urge to zoom, as it will hurt resolution. Physically move your phone to get close-up shots.

2. Unless you’re selling a barn find, it’s best to clean your car prior to any photos.

3. Take horizontal photos, in the daytime, with the sun at your back.

4. You’re not using film, so the more photos, the better. Interior, exterior—every side, dent, scrape, and rust hole. Solid rockers? Clean jambs? Include photos of the good stuff to help establish your car’s value.

5. There’s a lot for sale out there. Pick an enticing lead image to get people to click. A three-quarter shot showing the front and entire side profile of the car is usually your best bet.

Rolling bones coupe front three quarter driver side
Brandan Gillogly

What should (and shouldn’t) be in a title

Assuming the seller is a private party, how long have they owned the car? Is the title in their name? A short ownership period is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can indicate an underlying issue, and a failure to title a car—a so-called “skip title” (illegal in most states)—of-ten points to an undisclosed flipper or “curbstoner,” i.e., an unlicensed used car dealer. Never buy a car not titled in the seller’s name or in the seller’s company name, LLC, or trust. If they refuse to have the car titled in their name, walk away. Not only are you not supposed to accept a skip title, but you could be on the hook for sales tax or past-due DMV fees in some states, or even find that there is an ownership issue. Which, not to point out the obvious, can be a real problem.

In the absence of face time, there’s still FaceTime. If all of the above checks out, ask the seller to send video of the car: inside and out, cold and hot starting, and, ideally, a ride-along. If there is any particular area you want to see—for example, the inner fender aprons or door posts on an early Ford Bronco—request that the seller take good, well-lit footage of them, or have them walk you through it using a live video chat. This is a good idea whether the car is $7000 or $700,000; it doesn’t really matter what price point you’re selling, all car sales represent a not-insignificant amount of cash to a purchaser. It doesn’t cost anything extra to post more photos and videos, and it shows that you are an engaged and thoughtful seller who isn’t trying to hide anything.

The reason we like video, as opposed to photos alone, is that video is incredibly hard to doctor or edit. And on a video call through FaceTime, Zoom, Google Duo, etc., you can get a feel for the car and for the seller, as well. Remember, throughout this whole process, you’re playing detective. Does what the seller tells you match up with what they’ve told you in emails? Is there a license plate on the car? Is it current? Are they filming in a nondescript location or parking lot, or in front of a stately mansion where they don’t use the driveway or garage? Or are they filming from what is clearly their home, showing signs of a real person in their real environment? Remember, you’re buying the seller as much as the car.

car shipping illustration
Charlie Layton

The exchange

The next steps are even more critical, as they involve actually sending money. After you agree on a price, negotiate a deposit amount and create a sales agreement that confirms any terms discussed. One of these terms should be the right to have a pre-purchase inspection conducted prior to final payment. Also to be included in the written agreement: What paperwork, literature, spare parts, etc., are included in the sale? It is amazing how often that spare set of wheels and tires, or the hardtop, or other valuable parts shown in photos or described on the phone somehow don’t make it on the transport truck. If you haven’t already done so, and before you send anything beyond a refundable deposit, verify that the seller’s name appears on a photograph or scan of the title.

Details matter

Agree on the timing and method for all payments. A cashier’s check might be a hassle, given the need to go into a bank branch to get one. Instead, perhaps look into a bank wire transfer or, better yet, using an escrow service (especially on a higher-priced vehicle).

Once you tender full payment, the seller should overnight you the title. Note I didn’t say mail. I’ve had many sellers agree to this but then send titles and paperwork via snail mail or FedEx Ground. Sometimes that works; other times I’ve had titles and valuable documents get lost because a seller tried to save $20. Discuss and put into writing how long the seller is willing to store the vehicle for you after the sale, and how you plan to transport it.

Although it is understood that almost every old vehicle is sold as is, that doesn’t apply when it comes to fraud. So be sure to list in your written sales agreement a venue provision and discussion of who pays legal costs should a legal dispute occur from the purchase.

Once the car is paid for and you have the title in your possession, be sure to insure the vehicle immediately.

With these tips, along with a healthy dose of common sense, you can confidently purchase a collector car remotely. Getting it home, of course, is the next step. Click here for how (and why) to make the right shipping choice for any acquisition.

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