The Hemmings Nation’s collective wisdom is a powerful thing if you comb through it and distill it down. Back in March, Dan Strohl asked, “Have you ever bought a car sight unseen?” and a number of you chimed in with experiences and advice.
The broad consensus was that it’s okay… under certain circumstances. The main advice is to adjust your expectations (and potential offer) to accommodate for the reality that most things look better in a carefully composed photo than in person. Take the words and images of an ad at face value and, more often than not, you’ll end up overpaying.
Responses essentially boiled down to No, Yes, and Yes But, with only one or two commenters offering unqualified yesses, often illustrated with stories that demonstrated extenuating circumstances. The no answers often stemmed from hard-won experience in having purchased one vehicle sight-unseen followed by the gut-wrenching disappointment of having a vehicle delivered that was far worse than expected.
The yes-but answers are probably the most indicative of the realities of the car-buying landscape as a whole. Temporal exigency is one, extreme rarity (Robert Wingerter talked about buying a 1-of-15 Cal-Ace and Joe Essid mentioned that his Project Apollo Buick was an exception for him because they’re so hard to find) is another, as is the hiring of a qualified inspector. There were also a few comments indicating that if the price is right, it’s worth rolling the dice and, in fact, the gamble is part of the fun.
“Sight unseen” is almost no longer a thing, and that is, perhaps, the biggest reality of all. With quality digital photography available virtually everywhere, long-distance transactions happen successfully every day—but it was universally noted that it’s the buyer’s task to demand the correct photos, know what to look for, and know what questions to ask. On top of that, one has to also somehow evaluate the character of the seller to determine if they are being evasive or untruthful in their responses.
Hans1965, from overseas, noted that for foreign buyers there is really no alternative. He’s been burned in the past, he says, but advises, “Be prepared for disappointment, but if you love the car, you get over this and enjoy it…. This is part of the hobby. I have accepted that. The joy to bring an old car back on the road outweighs the pain many times.”
“Even seeing one in person is not a guarantee if you are a bone-head like me,” Joe Essid remarks. Joe purchased a Miata that ticked all the boxes and passed his visual inspection, but found out later via Carfax that he’d purchased a rebuilt wreck—tanking its resale value. Nielen Stander chimes in that Carfax Reports for late models are becoming a standard offering from large-volume dealers and auction houses—though Mark Axen notes that he purchased a late-model pickup with a clean report that still displayed evidence of repairs. “Guess it was minor damage and not reported,” was his surmise.
In that vein, commenter Frog points out that such services are “not a reveal-all.” He prefers to trust his “six senses,” the sixth being common sense, in light of his own experiences. That’s important advice whether looking at a car directly or contemplating one from a distance. It’s probably closest to how I evaluated my own sight-unseen purchase last spring, which turned out to be a great car. Since experience can’t be taught, if you’re looking at your first oldie, it’s good to have the assistance of a knowledgeable friend or club member when evaluating a seller’s representations and photos.
As norm1200 says, “Generally, I don’t advise buying without personally inspecting (or hiring a professional third party), [but] that’s assuming the buyer knows how to reasonably inspect a vehicle.”