6 essential tips for buying a barn find

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Jordan Lewis

Unless you’ve been living under a project car on jackstands for the last 15 years, you should be familiar with the barn find phenomenon. The stories are charming, and for many difficult to resist. The long-forgotten car or motorcycle! The project that spiraled out of control! The owner who died and whose relatives just part with their car!

These dusty relics appear everywhere from the big auctions to your local Penny Saver classifieds. We’ve certainly done our share of spreading the gospel about barn finds, and maybe you might want in on the hype. Forge on, by all means, but do so carefully and with information. Before you fall too deeply in love with the romance of automotive rescue and start writing your withdrawal slip for cold hard cash, brush up on these six critical pointers.

Ask yourself: Does the story add up?

The oral history of a car or motorcycle is easily misremembered, twisted, or, uh, selectively presented. Be sure to take a moment to at least ask a few questions about the why and how a car got put away for so long. Getting as much information as you can about who did what and when is critical background that will paint a picture of what you’d be getting into. If things don’t add up, it might be a red flag. Some sellers, of course, don’t have much knowledge of a vehicle for a variety of reasons; that alone isn’t a reason to walk away, but a skeptical approach goes a long way in protecting yourself.

Bring a friend

barn find hoods open
Jordan Lewis

A second set of eyes is a great asset when inspecting a car, especially when said friend don’t have the new purchase excitement you do. The more honest the friend, the better. I’ve even entrusted buddies wads of cash to hold for me, to prevent me from buying the wrong car. They can ask questions you don’t want to know the answer to, and they have the advantage of a clear head uncoupled from the excitement of ownership. Reality checks matter.

Shine some light

Model A outside barn find
Jordan Lewis

An LED flashlight is bright and will force you to mentally focus on specific sections of the car as you scan it. Bring along one for yourself and one for your honest friend, too. Of course, as nice as it is to poke around with a bright flashlight, artificial light can reveal only so much. If possible, take the time to work with the seller to move the car into some natural light to show you the full picture of what’s in store. I know—this might mean doing three hours of labor to help the seller move clutter surrounding the car or pushing a car through a 120-point turn in a short garage, but it’s always best to see what you are buying before the deal is done.

Do your research (and ask questions)

Mustang interior barn find
Everything looks to be in pretty good shape here. But is the automatic transmission a value-add or a deduction? Jordan Lewis

Before you arrive on site, you should know what options are desirable for the model you are considering. Where are the common problem areas? What parts are unobtanium, and thus, should be inspected more rigorously? Know in advance how to confirm any one component is indeed what the seller says it is.

A lot of model-specific clubs have pre-written inspection checklists that can be easily downlaoded to a phone or printed out. (You did join the club or forum for the car you are looking at, right?) Those members are the perfect starting point to field questions and fact check. Bonus points if you convince a club member to play the role of Honest, Skeptical Friend. Write down option codes or inspection points on a cheat sheet for yourself, so you can make notes and reference them when it comes to time to make the decision. Or negotiate, naturally.

Leave no stone unturned

It’s very easy to look under the hood and say “yep, everything is there” when in fact it’s a mess. While it’s more than likely a lot of mechanical parts are going to come apart for service anyway, you can glean a lot just by looking at hardware. Is some of it missing? Mangled? Mismatched? Any of this can point to what kind of work might be hiding out of sight. The previous mechanic who worked on that car didn’t care to use the proper hardware to hold down the intake manifold? Might tell you the engine is going to need some extra attention.

Be realistic with yourself

barn find wide shot
Jordan Lewis

Do you love the idea of that car fixed up, or the reality of doing all that work? Sometimes the find is the end of your journey with a car; it’s true for many people and it is just fine. Not everyone is equipped to bring a car out of barn-find condition, and doing it properly is often the only manner worth doing it. Much worse would be an intact barn find getting put in your shop to eventually become a half-assembled car that someone like me finds in 5 to 20 more years. And then runs away.

For me, this idea for this list of advice stems from my recent adventure to pick up a Yamaha AT125 that fell into the “barn find” category. Next week I’ll be diving into where to start with a new-to-you barn find bike to get it running again.

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