The dark side of window shopping

Kyle Smith

I have never bookmarked Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace in my web browser, but if I type certain letters into the search bar, the first things that populate are those two sites. Every time. I click, and begin the scroll—subconsciously, at this point. After a minute or two, my brain latches onto a listing: A Corvair missing its engine, or a Honda Goldwing that needs carb work, or another Honda XR250R—this one, with a good cylinder head.

Oxford Languages defines a habit as a “settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.” According to a study in 2009, a habit can develop in as little as 18 days. My thrice-daily scrolling of online marketplaces—when drinking my morning coffee, eating lunch, and “about to leave the office,” for maximum efficiency—was locked in. It was the equivalent of endless main-street walks, a gearhead’s version of window shopping.

Scrolling these listings sparks deep inside the brain’s “fear of missing out” cylinder. In my case, that cylinder is supercharged by Facebook Marketplace knowing my penchant for Corvairs and Honda XR motorcycles. The next killer deal on the perfect project is always waiting to be found, and the price will surely be lower than ever. If I’m not the first one to message the seller, it’ll surely sell before I can get to it, so I have to constantly be looking.

I am not the only one who sells myself this terrible and flawed logic.

Heck, window shopping is not even a recent phenomenon. It can be traced back to 17th-century Europe, when the emerging middle class first had time to look at the luxury goods of the bourgeoisie in the windows of shops. Occasionally, they were able to buy the goods, but mainly, window shopping was a chance to pretend that they were part of another lifestyle. 

Now, anyone can window shop at any time. Thanks, internet. Its proliferation doesn’t mean window shopping is bad, but if we are not careful, we get carried away with could be and neglect what is.

My addiction started with the slightly-bent white wire rack that held Deals on Wheels, stationed in the little breezeway of Stacy’s Restaurant right off exit 299 on I-70 near my hometown of Milford, Kansas. That little stapled-spine book of classified opened my mind to all the interesting cars I could own if I was prepared to do the work no one else wanted to.

During the years leading up to my getting my driver’s license, if I was lucky, my dad I would go to Sunday lunch at Stacy’s. Dad would flip through the pages of classifieds, and we would talk about whatever interesting stuff appeared. Based solely on grainy photos and pay-by-the-letter descriptions, we would mull over whether the subject of a given ad was something to buy or not. We never had the intention of putting money down, but we loved talking about what each dilapidated hulk would need, and if that would be a difficult project, and if the investment would make sense in the end.

“Did you see that Honda MB5 for sale over in Leland?”

“Yeah, but you know it’s got problems that aren’t listed, because that bike looks awful crunchy for a description that just says ‘runs good, could use a tuneup, missing a few bits.’ We aren’t even in the same ballpark price-wise, so I’m not even calling.”

“Of course, but that could be a fun little get-around-town bike. Way cooler than a scooter, and not nearly as annoying as taking the big bike out.”

“You’re right. Repaint a few things and recover the seat. Get an expansion chamber and tune it in. Would be a really cool project.”

“For sure. Wouldn’t take long either.”

“Maybe it is worth calling.”

This eventually blossomed into my well-documented tendency to become enamored with the potential of a project.

(For the record, if I have ever bought something from you, credit my friends, not the ad you wrote or the pictures you posted, for my happily overpaying you. You aren’t a great salesmen. My friends are, and what they sell me is not your car, but the adventure.)

Seeing a forlorn and rotting vehicle in the ad is only the start. The hours of research, wrenching, and tuning—that’s the intoxicating part. I see a 1991 Honda XR250R that “just needs carb work,” and I think about how awesome it would be to transfer a lot of the parts currently on my 1986 XR250R over to that model; it has a disc brake rear, yet my nicely built motor would bolt right in. Nothing looks worse than dark and grainy photos, either, so every listing holds near infinite-possibility. Just think of what that could look like after I rework or replace 90 percent of it!

It’s not just some motorcycle or engine I am hankering to buy. I’m addicted to potential. And that’s where the fear of missing out comes back in.

Marketing firms spend hundreds if not thousands of hours developing algorithms to leverage this fear. For a lot of us, that fear centers on missing a deal—the perfect project car, one city over, for an insanely low price. But, unless you are stacking a decent amount of cash on hand and a lot of storage space, you are likely window-shopping like the rest of us.

Having to pass on a great deal because I don’t have the $500 or the space still hurts. Maybe it stings because, at the end of the day, I want to stop dreaming and actually get on with doing stuff.

In that vein, I decided to stop wasting time.

I cut out the classifieds. The first week without scrolling online listings was rough, but then I figured out better ways to use that time, ways that allowed for daydreaming but didn’t leave me with the feeling that I don’t have what it takes to do the things I want to do. Mainly, I turned to machining forums and videos. No, I don’t own a lathe or Bridgeport or any other machine tools. Heck, I’ve probably got more time invested in troubleshooting idle air-control issues on my last pickup than in running a lathe. Still, it’s fun to learn and to think about. Materials science is also super cool.

You never find what you aren’t looking for, but when the hunt for the perfect deal makes you blind to the projects and plans you have, it’s time to stop scrolling. I’m lucky enough to have a couple really fun projects right now that deserve some positive attention—most of which requires little spending. Certainly less than bringing another project into the garage would. Given my personal desires to trim in some hobby-related spending this year, I am proud to say I have not visited any classifieds ads in search of projects for three weeks. Not a long time, but a start.

Now I am stuck with something even more confusing:

How did I just buy another motorcycle if I haven’t looked at Marketplace or Craigslist for weeks?


Check out the Hagerty Media homepage so you don’t miss a single story, or better yet, bookmark it. To get our best stories delivered right to your inbox, subscribe to our newsletters.

Click below for more about
Read next Up next: 10 oddball vehicles keeping 2023’s Amelia Island auctions wacky


    Ouch. This one hits close to home. I have realized not that long ago that I do really enjoy the hunt and acquisition. But I have a few cool projects that I’ve had a long time and are always on the back burner. I keep telling myself that I should work on them rather than bring something else home to flip. Maybe this will be the motivation to actually follow through with that plan.

    Considering I can’t bring myself to sell, or have way too much invested to sell for any meaningful amount, it gets real dangerous real fast. Do I attempt to sell and lose my butt and gain room, or just stay the course and never admit failure? I don’t think there is a right answer…

    I used to suffer from the same afflictions. I bought things for two main reasons – great deals and/or potential. I finally created my own 12-step program to break the habit (Step 1: marry Mrs. DUB6, who helped discourage indiscriminate buying of stuff; Step 2: lose my job – learn how to survive on retirement income; Step 3: have my pension fund go belly-up; etc., etc., etc.)
    No I only go window shopping for specific stuff I really need, and I gotta say, both myself AND Mrs. DUB6 are happier for it! 😃

    True, there are a lot of factors that go into it all this and more than a few are things we rarely get to control.

    Your comment made me laugh, because my story is similar. Luckily, Mrs 61Rampy has allowed me to buy one last car that only needs a steering box, and possibly new piston rings. Steering box is easy, rings- well, I’m retired and if it takes a month to fix it, it doesn’t matter.

    I started with 2 and got a place with a 2 car garage. Then I went up to 3 with one out in the elements. Then I hit 4 and put up a 2 car carport. Then I hit 5 and one (the truck) ended up back out in the elements… and quit window shopping. Step 1 is admitting you have a problem

    I used to have room. Now 2 spots inside and three spots outside are filled with my sons cars and truck. But it all works out.

    One of Murphy’s many laws: “the number of vehicles you own always expands to exceed garage space.”

    I like how you throw in the bit about machine shop stuff at the end. As if the machine tool classifieds aren’t just as deadly as the CL motorcycle section. Hey look- that Bridgeport comes with a rotary phase converter! I might have enough power to run it once I clear the space from rebuilding the forks on my ratty Goldwing!

    The only thing that keeps me from bringing how a Bridgeport or lathe is space and ability to move it. Surely I could figure out a solution to both, but then I would bleed myself dry buying tooling!

    There’s truth in the article and the comments so far.

    If you enjoy something and it isn’t harming other important aspects of your life than it is fine.

    Being wealthy and/or having lots of free time makes things more possible for some.

    I am very busy for the present few years and the budget is limited. My regular window-shopping is for a specific thing in a reasonable proximity that I could muster the funds to do without causing pain elsewhere. I also spend less than 15 minutes a day doing this the every few days I check. I accept the fact that if the deal is so good I will miss it if I don’t reply in the first hour that I will miss it as I am not checking often enough.

    It wouldn’t surprise me to moderate myself to your routine there. Seems pretty rational and reasonable.

    I started watching some basic videos on lathes and milling machines. Remembered working on them back when I was studying just out of high school. Now I tend to search the auction houses for lathes and mills though. Is this better or worse than looking for things that definitely won’t be left to rot inside my shed while things get in the way of my plans to turn it into a dominating track monster?

    My cure was starting to watch videos put out by the Australian Museum of Armor. Nothing quite like watching someone restore something that has wheels that need a forklift to move.

    Windows shopping is fine. Just don’t buy the window. LoL. Congrats on your latest purchase?

    Just finished setting up a mini-shop in a spare basement room that I’ve been meaning to do for years. Small vertical mill w/ DRO, mini lathe w/ DRO, drill press, band saw & belt sander. Now all I need is some projects but with 4 cars a MC, an ATV and never ending home improvement work there will always be something to fab parts for!

    I can relate to this article. I’m retired, have more disposable income than at any time in my life and a mostly empty 3 car garage. Just can’t seem to pull the trigger on any four wheeled fun machines. Perhaps it’s the ridiculous prices, perhaps my age, who knows? Keep wasting time window shopping, it’s cheap entertainment.

    Sorry to be 7 months late. My solution to looking for project cars is very similar to DUB6’s. I just turned 70, and cars that have “potential” are off of my list, thanks to my body that doesn’t like to do lots of work. So, I just sold my 15 Mustang (the last car I was ever going to buy) and bought a 65 Corvair 4 door Monza. Yes, it needs a little work, but nothing major. I promised Mrs Rampy that this is the last car I’ll ever buy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *