Buying A Classic Car: Common Mistakes and Rules To Follow

Whether you are buying a classic car for personal use or to turn it into a cherry ride and sell it at a higher price for profit, it takes a bit of know-how in the purchasing of a vintage vehicle. There are several important rules to follow before you finalize the purchase to make sure you get a worthwhile investment and will enjoy the ownership and renovation of a vintage vehicle.  

Rules To Follow & Mistakes To Avoid When Buying A Classic Car

But before we start, what is a classic car? A “classic” car is defined as an automobile of 10 years old or more that is rare because of limited production, or particularly desirable because of special design that is no longer made, or of exceptionally fine workmanship, or has some historical significance. A classic automobile that is 25 years old or older is referred to as an “antique”.

Classics and antiques have been increasingly sought after. Depending on the make and model you are looking at, they might serve as an affordable, tuner-friendly and gorgeous project car that would turn heads and start conversations. And there is something fulfilling about restoring these vintage beasts to their past glory. But there are a few things to keep in mind during your search and before you finalize the purchase:


Do Not Count On Making A Profit

Many veteran vintage car restorers and collectors recommend that you treat buying and restoring a vintage car to its former glory as a hobby instead of a way to make profit. Surely, if you end up getting more for the tuned classic than you paid for it, it would be a pleasant surprise, but do not count on it.

Some classic cars do appreciate in value if they are restored artfully, and if they suit the taste of potential buyers who are into this type of vehicle. However, you can’t know the market value of a vehicle until you sell it. The value of a collector car at a given time is unpredictable, and subjected to changing tastes and emotions of buyers.

rules buy a classic car
Buying a classic car is trickier than buying a brand new vehicle, so there are a few rules to look out for. Photo credit: Courtwood Inn

And as you treat classic car collection not as an investment a hobby but a hobby or passion, don’t ever buy a car that you’re not deeply passionate about, that you aren’t aching to drive and be proud to show off to other onlookers. Don’t buy a car just because it seems like a great deal, because you can never be sure you would be able to make a profit out of it, after deducting all the cost for parts, accessories and upkeep, which would add up to be quite substantial for classic and antique cars.

But Decide Early On Whether and How Much You Would Drive It

It’s pretty common for classic car collectors to own a few vintage rides at the same time, and/or tune a vintage car, enjoy it for some time then resell it (hopefully not at a loss) to get on to the next project. You’ll have to decide if your classic car is too precious to drive too often. Driving it too often means more wear, so you risk depreciating its value. But what’s the point of hunting for a classic car and tuning it just to look at it? Don’t sacrifice the joy of ownership. Take it out for a ride every now and then and turn heads.

If you are planning to pay a hefty investment for a classic car, slow down, do your research and be aware of common mistakes and rules to follow. This will better make sure you get your money’s worth and won’t feel bitter about your decision later on.


Run a VIN Check

When you’re buying a classic car, you should learn everything that happened to the vehicle that might affect its condition, cost for renovation and resale value. Getting a vehicle history report is a must. 

You will need the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) of the car. Each vehicle has a unique VIN. You can get a VIN check online from a number of third-party vendors such as AutoCheck and Carfax. The rule of thumb is you should try to get the VIN from the seller first hand so that you can do a VIN check before you meet up to see the car.

A vehicle history report will tell you important things about the vehicle, including ownership history, vehicle maintenance history, if it has been in any accident, airbag deployments, flood damage. Other crucial information are:

  • History of odometer rollback fraud or title fraud: A common fraud with used cars is disconnecting, resetting, or altering a vehicle’s odometer with intent to change the number of miles indicated. The first way to detect odometer rollback fraud is to compare the mileage on the odometer with the mileage number on the vehicle maintenance or inspection records and CARFAX vehicle history report.
  • Title blemishes: Every new vehicle starts with a clean title, and major damages can change or “dirty” the title. It’s ideal to get a used vehicle with a clean title, however even in this case, it’s still crucial to perform thorough inspection to make sure you’re getting what you pay for, because a “clean” vehicle doesn’t equate to one without problems. 
  • “Lemon” status: A lemon vehicle is one that turns out to have several manufacturing defects affecting its safety, value or utility. Any vehicle with such severe issues may be termed “a lemon”. 
  • Existing liens on the vehicle: When a lien is in place on a car title, there is an outstanding loan on the vehicle. That means the seller has not paid off the loan in full and thus does not wholly own the vehicle; there are creditors and third parties who could claim ownership of the vehicle. This prevents the car from being sold. 

How to find the VIN? The VIN can easily be found:

  • On the driver’s side of the dashboard
  • Inside the driver’s door jamb
  • Under the spare tire
  • In a rear wheel well
  • Under the hood in front of the engine

Alternatively, you can ask the seller to provide a VIN check. In this case, you’ll want to get it directly from the VIN check vendor’s website instead of having the seller send it to you. This prevents the seller from altering the information on the report or deleting pages.

In addition, also check that numbers on the engine, transmission and rear axle all correspond to the car’s VIN:

  • Engine: Most engines are stamped in the factory with the last six numbers of the vehicle’s VIN.
  • Transmission and rear axle: These parts have date codes stamped on them that should correspond to the VIN’s date.

Ask For Service Records

Regardless of how old a classic or an antique is and how many miles it has, the best way to get a reliable ride that will stay strong for many years to come is to check whether the previous owner took proper and regular care of that vehicle.

Just like us, cars need regular health checkups and repairs or maintenance to stay in good working condition, both inside and out. And you need the records for service history as proof for that. The best deal you can get is a second-hand car that has been serviced at important milestones throughout its life, that is approximately at 3,000 miles, 6,000 miles, 12,000 miles, 15,000 miles, 30,000 miles, 45,000 miles, 60,000 miles and 100,000 miles. 

One important note is that in general, if a car has been owned by only one previous owner, then you can get the service records for it. But if a car has been passed on by several owners, it’s very hard or impossible to find maintenance records for it. 

It’s not uncommon to sell a car when the owner realizes that it costs too much time and money to repair a car now, after neglecting it for so long, and these are troublesome vehicles that you should steer clear from. So a ten-year-old car that has only 80,000 miles (that is three quarters of our benchmark), but has four previous owners might actually be ready for scrap.

Additional Expenses: Add On The Maintenance Cost

If you are thinking of buying a classic vehicle to drive or for profit, just remember that you will need to spend, on top of the purchase price, one-off and regular expenses on renovation and upkeep, including rebuilding the engine, repainting, repairing rust and dents, refreshing the interior, a thorough inspection to fix whatever else needs fixing, insurance, and regular maintenance. So while certain highly sought after classics can be had for less than $5,000, you might spend double that amount in the next few years to get it up and running.

Additional Expenses: Add On The Cost For Parts & Availability

There are many iconic vintage cars that were produced in large numbers, so there are quite a healthy pool of used models around. Therefore, you would find abundant aftermarket support for these vehicles, including knowledge sharing, parts and accessories availability, and professionals who can work on these old beauties to modify and upgrade them. 

If you love “gas hogs”, the good news is today, vintage American big-block gas jugglers are easy to find at reasonable price points and ample aftermarket support, including Ford Mustangs, Eagle Talon, Chevrolet Camaros, Pontiac Firebird, Chevelles, and Corvettes.

Meanwhile, certain limited edition models are so rare that not only do they command a hefty sum to purchase, parts are also rare and expensive too. Plus, you might have difficulty finding a tuner who can do work on them. All these might just take away the enjoyment of hunting for and restoring a vintage beauty to its former glory. Be prepared and decide whether you are ready to take on this headache during the ownership.

Pre-Purchase: Secure A Mechanic Who Can Work on The Car

If you can do the renovations and maintenance yourself, good for you. But buying a classic car, especially rare, limited models, might mean that you could be at the mercy of a limited number of technicians who can work on the car and thus will command high rates. Before you decide on a particular vintage, research the availability of these mechanics in your area, and learn about their rates. Secure yourself a good one before you commit to the purchase.

Pre-Purchase: Get a Professional Inspection 

When you want to buy a vintage car, or any pre-own car, never buy without having an experienced mechanic, whose credentials you know and trust, perform a thorough inspection of the vehicle to assess its condition and estimate the cost of the renovation and maintenance. Many auto repair shops provide a vehicle inspection service for around $100 to $200. 

Have your trusted mechanic inspect or test each of the following items:

  • Frame, body condition and exterior surface: First, walk around the car and check the exterior of the car and review for wear and tear.
  • Tires: See if there is an uneven tread on the tires. Remember that you can check the manufacturing date of the tires to check their age. Old enough tires should be replaced even if the vehicle doesn’t have a lot of miles on it.
  • Brakes: Check for wear and tear on the gas and brake pedals, floor matting, brake pads and tires. If you’re buying a relatively low-mileage vehicle, they should not show much wear. If they do, this could be a sign of odometer rollback fraud – the seller illegally manipulating the odometer to show a lower mileage.
  • Others: Battery; signals, brake lights, reverse lights and headlights; cruise control, suspension, radiator, hoses.

And note that major rust on a vehicle’s body is a big no no, since severe rust damage makes it impossible to restore a vehicle to its pristine condition. However, a bubble or two on a quarter panel would be a manageable makeover job.


Although mileage will vary between vehicles, a rule of thumb to serve as a general guideline for your evaluation is that on average, a vehicle is driven around 12,000 miles a year. That means you can expect a 10-year-old used car to have something around 120,000 miles on the odometer. 

That is the average number, thus a somewhat good mileage for a used car as prospective buyers would phrase. Something significantly more wouldn’t necessarily make the vehicle scrap. It’s just that anything that’s a lot higher or lower than this level would require closer attention, that is you must enquire about other important factors to accurately judge whether such a car would be worthwhile to purchase.

Check Insurance Cost

With vintage cars, there are a lot of different options based on how the car is valued and driven, so shop to compare policies. You might be surprised to learn that insurance can be cheaper for classic and antique cars. But you only qualify for low rates if you don’t drive your vintage that much. Antiques often have specialized policies with lower premiums since a vehicle of over 25 years old is typically driven less and appreciated in the garage more. Double check so that you are not paying too much with a traditional policy.