5 steps to a seamless transaction | How to sell a car: Part 1

Photography by Tim Suddard and David S. Wallens; Ilustrations by Sarah Young

It seems to be easier than ever to sell your stuff, thanks to a plethora of options that make the yard signs and local classified ads of old look positively primitive.

Today’s venues for turning a classic car into cash–from traditional auction houses to aggregate sites like Bring a Trailer–allow sellers to get their vehicles in front of more people than ever before. However, they can also cut down the amount of time people have to exhibit and ponder these purchases. This means it’s easy to make mistakes. And these mistakes are costing people money. 

The problems can be found on both sides of the sale. Sellers offer weak descriptions and even weaker photos; buyers make snap decisions, sometimes late at night or after a few drinks. Misinformation is bandied about. 

In the end, these snafus almost always cost someone: Sellers aren’t always getting a fair price, while buyers are sometimes paying way too much. 

We recently had some experience with these problems when someone offered us a poorly presented 1965 Sunbeam Tiger.

We were on vacation far from home when we heard about this car. In the seller’s defense, he wasn’t really prepared to sell the Tiger; and in our defense, we weren’t out to steal it. However, it was offered for what we saw as half its value. (Once we get into the details of that deal, you’ll better understand why the Tiger was priced the way it was.) So although we already had a Tiger in the fleet, we’re not exactly the kind of folks who pass up a super deal. Of course we bought it.

That transaction offered some great observations on how to–and how not to–sell a classic car. We’ll break them down here.


1. Research Sale Prices

Few home sellers would put their property on the market without a market analysis, but we see this happen all the time with classic cars. Just recently, in fact, we saw a 1965 Shelby Mustang advertised on Barn Finds with an asking price that was half of what it should have been. 

We called on the car–as did many others. The seller was so overwhelmed by the response, in fact, that he did some overdue homework and realized his pricing mistake.

Selling a cool classic? Understanding today’s world can help you get top dollar or find a great deal. 

If you’re selling your classic, start with a trusted price guide. The Hagerty Classic Car Valuation Tool is a great starting point; you can access it online for free, even if you don’t have Hagerty insurance.

2. Correctly Evaluate the Condition

Since values range according to condition, it is just as important to understand where the specific car you are selling fits along this spectrum. It’s hard to be impartial about your own vehicle, and since you want to get the best opinion possible in order to price your car right, we recommend bringing in an impartial expert for this evaluation. 

Don’t know any experts? There are services for this. Every marque has recognized experts, and marque club members are often willing to help as well. Some appraisers charge for their opinion, but do realize that they’re offering you their experience and reputation, two things that carry real value.

Have your car appraised in a well-lit place and, ideally, up on a lift. A proper look beneath the coachwork will reveal the true story about accident damage, rust repair and worn-out components. Telling yourself you don’t want to know about any defects is false economy, because the truth will come out if you’ve oversold your car’s condition. Better to go into a sale with clear knowledge of what you do and do not have. Buyers respond positively to positive knowledge.

Speaking of buyers, if you’re considering a car at auction, get yourself underneath it to gain a similar advantage. If you are truly interested, you’ll find a way to get there early enough. 

3. Be Realistic

Most people often don’t understand what it costs to put a car right. The seller of our Tiger, for example, seemed to genuinely believe that just $5000 would get the car back on the road. Truth be told, that sum wouldn’t even have restored the chassis, never mind paid for the $15,000 to $20,000 worth of bodywork that needed to be done. 

Again, the appraiser is your friend here. You are looking for much more than a number from the expert who evaluates your prize; ideally you will also come away with a 10,000-foot overview of what needs to be done to put the car right, along with ballpark estimates of what it’ll cost.

As a buyer, dealing with sellers who don’t understand the restoration process can be frustrating, but be patient and never insult them. Keep moving the discussion to middle ground. Bring along a parts catalog or bills from restoration shops showing the costs involved; this should help explain what the car needs in terms of dollars.

Both buyers and sellers should beware being unduly influenced by today’s TV auction coverage. A new auction record for a car that was restored by one of the top shops in the country doesn’t mean that a bent, non-running example is worth something similar. Restoring a car to top standards takes money–lots of it. 

4. Describe it Accurately

The modern sales environment can get your car in front of more buyers than ever thanks to internet sales sites, dedicated auction houses, and marque club forums (a vital, and often-overlooked resource). It’s important to understand, however, that most of these venues allow you to get only the idea of your car in front of those buyers. The days of putting a sign on a vehicle and letting prospective owners literally kick the tires are rapidly fading. Nowadays people often buy photos and a description, then pick up a car later. So make those pictures and words count.

This is where you earn back the time and money you spent learning all about your car and prices for similar ones. Write a clear description detailing everything you know. Include well-lit, sharp photos that back up your description, including close-ups of any defects you’ve mentioned. 

Buyers can handle the fact that classic cars are not new, but unseen problems almost always loom larger than those that can be seen. So let them see. Sure, it may affect the price, but it will also save the sale.

We didn’t pay top dollar for our Tiger, but in reality it needed work–and lots of it. 

Make sure you list your car with its proper year and spelling (you’d be surprised) and include the full name of the model (“Edsel Villager station wagon” versus “Edsel Wagon” or just “Edsel”). Companies spend thousands analyzing the keywords they use in their website descriptions to optimize their rankings in online searches, so don’t overlook the opportunity to help your sale in a similar manner.

5. Make the Deal

Whether buying or selling, once you arrive at a price, finish the deal. Any introductory course in business law will tell you that a binding contract needs offer, acceptance and consideration. So once you settle on that price, write up a bill of sale and make sure the seller has a deposit. 

A proper bill of sale lists the names and addresses of both the buyer and seller. It will include the date of the sale, the selling price and the car’s serial number–and, ideally, the engine number as well. 

The bill of sale will also include when the balance is due, any warranties offered, and anything else that could impact the sale. For example, does the car come with any spare parts? Besides the parties involved, obtain a signature from a witness, too. 

Pay any balance and get the car out of the seller’s possession as soon as possible. This eliminates the chances of missing hardware, seller’s remorse or a broken contract because the seller got a better offer from another party. If you cannot collect the car yourself, either find a safe haven or have a shipping company move it. In case of our Tiger, we had friends at nearby MFD Classics hold the car until we could arrange shipping.

Now you know the basics for selling any classic car. Next, we’ll delve deeper into our Tiger transaction, including why it sold for what it did, and what it needed to get it back on the road. Spoiler alert: It needed a lot.

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haringmp New Reader
2/20/24 11:30 a.m.

Regarding sales tranactions in buying & selling around 70 vehicles as a hobbyist:

1) Rarely gave/received a deposit

2) Got a signed Bill of Sale (rarely witness or Notary signed) before ANY money changed hands

        All inclusions with the vehicle got listed in an appendix/addendum to the Bill of Sale

3) Rarely used cash, used paper trail of bank draft or wire transfer (fees small)

4) Received/sent all money, then received/sent title, then took/sent delivery of vehicle ASAP

Only had 3 bad transactions: one from a prima donna owner who misrepresented his vehicle & 2 where the title transfer was too loose on my part - (fooled me once, fooled me twice...not lol)

thank you for a great article on due diligence!

Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher Emeritus
2/23/24 7:23 a.m.

In reply to haringmp :

Our pleasure!

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