Tips on Buying an Old Car

Woman looking at a vintage car

Whether you're hoping to purchase an antique vehicle for restoration or simply want budget transportation you can count on, there are plenty of reasons to consider buying an old car. However, purchasing an older vehicle means doing a little extra homework and taking your time during the shopping process. Keep these tips in mind as you consider the options.

Ten Tips for Buying an Old Car

1. Establish Your Priorities

There are lots of reasons to buy a car that's been around for a couple of decades, but before you check out the classified listings or visit a car lot, it's important to know your priorities. This will help you make sure you buy a car that meets your needs and wants, rather than a car that's right for someone else.

Ask yourself the following questions about your upcoming purchase:

  • Are you looking for something specific? If there's a classic model out there that really speaks to you, you'll want to limit your search to that car.
  • Are you planning to drive this vehicle as your primary means of transportation? If so, you'll need a car that has great reliability despite its age.
  • Are you searching for an investment? You'll need to limit yourself to cars that will appreciate in value.

2. Do Your Research

No matter what priorities you have, it's essential that you do your research before you buy an old car. Different makes, models, and years have very different advantages and disadvantages. It pays to know about the reliability history, the investment potential, and any safety considerations for the specific vehicle you're considering.

Try some of these resources for finding out more information:

  • Research Library - This site has a wealth of information about many domestic cars going back several decades. It's a good resource for learning about the specs and options for many models.
  • Consumer Reports - Although the current models reviewed by Consumer Reports only go back a few years, you can find out about older cars by looking at back issues of the magazine at your local library. You can also order back issues of Consumer Reports by calling 1-855-824-3506.
  • Antique Automobile Club of America - Read the forums at the Antique Automobile Club of America to learn about the specific model you're thinking of buying.

3. Check for Rust

In past decades, car makers didn't have the rust-preventing technology they do today. This means that you'll encounter plenty of old cars with rust. Serious rust is a major problem for any vehicle, since it can affect the integrity of the body panels. However, more minor or moderate rust damage may or may not be a deal-breaker, depending on your priorities.

  • If you're looking for reliable transportation, some rust is okay. You can take the car to a body shop and have them stop the rust progression and repair the damage. This won't keep you from counting on the car. Depending on the extend of the damage, however, the repair can be expensive. If you're interested in a vehicle with some rust, talk to a body shop to get a sense of how much you'll need to pay to fix it.
  • If you're a fan of a specific classic car, you may want to buy it even with some rust damage. The car won't look perfect after the damage is repaired, but if the repair is done by a professional, it may look good enough for you.
  • If you're looking for an investment vehicle, stay away from moderate and severe rust. The repairs will change the car's look, and they can also make the car worth less.

4. Verify the Odometer Reading

Odometer fraud, or the practice of turning the odometer back to indicate that the car has been driven less than it actually has, is something to watch for when buying an old car. In older vehicles, the odometer is almost always a mechanical gauge, rather than the digital display you'll see in most modern cars. These mechanical gauges are more vulnerable to tampering. No matter why you're buying an old car, odometer fraud is something you'll need to avoid. Here's how to detect it:

  • Look at the way the numbers line up on the gauge. Are they all even, with the possible exception of the last one? Or are they slightly misaligned? Misaligned numbers can indicate that someone has tried to "roll back" the odometer.
  • Examine the pedals. If the gas, brake, and clutch show significant wear but the odometer reads low miles, this may indicate tampering.
  • Be especially skeptical of old cars with low miles. They exist, but they're rare. If the car has low miles, make sure you do everything you can to verify the mileage.
  • Look for maintenance stickers and maintenance records. You can find stickers on many components of the car that have received service. These stickers may include an odometer reading at the time the part was replaced. Similarly, the past owner's maintenance records can provide a clue about mileage.

5. Know the Value of the Car

Before you buy any type of car, new or used, it's essential that you know how much the vehicle is worth. With old cars, this information can be a little harder to find, but you'll see some older models on used car valuation sites. It can help to learn about the value of collector cars, since classic car sites limit themselves to older vehicles.

Another good source for old car values is the National Automobile Dealer's Association, or NADA. Although the price you see is the dealer price, you can use it as a guideline when negotiating for your car.

6. Consider How the Value Will Change

In most cases, the value of a vehicle decreases over time. This is called "depreciation," and it's simply part of car ownership. However, certain old cars can actually increase in value. Before you buy, give some thought to your expectation for the car's value and decide whether your expectation is realistic.

  • If you're buying an old car as an investment, it's important to choose a vehicle with a value that can increase. Desirable vehicles, such as old muscle cars or classic trucks, may have great potential. Cars from the 1980s, which are generally affordable, can also increase in value. However, make sure the vehicle is one other owners will want to buy someday.
  • If you're buying a car for transportation purposes, don't expect the car to increase in value. This can happen, but in most cases, driving the car will put wear and tear on its body and components and lead to depreciation.

7. Consider Cost of Ownership

The price you pay for your car is only part of what the vehicle will cost over the time you own it. Cost of ownership can encompass a number of other factors, all of which may steer you toward certain old vehicles and away from others. As you're shopping consider the following:

  • How often are you likely to need to repair your car? If the model has a spotty reliability history, even for an old car, you'll need to figure repairs into your budget.
  • What kind of gas mileage does the car get? Many older cars are considered "gas guzzlers," and this can add to the ownership costs. However, if you do your homework, you can find fuel efficient older models.
  • Will you need to restore the car? If so, don't forget to add those restoration expenses into the overall cost of the vehicle.
  • How much will it cost to insure and register the car? Typically, these costs are lower for old cars, but this isn't always the case. Check with your insurance agent and your state motor vehicles department.
  • Will the car need special care? If it's a classic car, you may need to figure in the expense of storing it in the off season.

8. Don't Forget About Safety

Safety requirements have changed over the years, and modern cars are generally safer than older models. However, some old cars are safer than others. If you're considering a specific old car, look at the year, make, and model up on You can find out about recalls and safety concerns on vehicles dating back to 1949.

It helps to know a bit about when safety standards changed:

  • In 1972 the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard came into being, increasing the safety of vehicles built after that time.
  • Keep in mind that a car built before 1998 was not required to have airbags, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
  • According to the Federation of American Scientists, seat belts became a required safety feature in all vehicles built after 1968.

If you have doubts about the safety of an old car, it's a good idea to have your trusted auto repair technician go over the vehicle before you buy it.

9. Check Parts Availability

As cars get older, manufacturers sometimes stop making replacement parts for them. Depending on the age of the vehicle you're considering, this could greatly increase the cost of any repairs you may need. The best way to find out about whether parts are available and if those parts are especially costly is to talk to your local auto repair shop. The shop can give you an idea about how hard or easy it will be to find the parts and if repairing the vehicle will be cost-prohibitive.

10. Follow Your Instincts

With any kind of used car transaction, following your gut is important. This is even more true when it comes to older vehicles. If something just feels wrong about the car, no matter how perfect it looks on paper, simply walk away. You can keep looking. There are thousands of old cars on the market, and the perfect one is bound to come along.

An Old Car Can Be Great

If you do your homework and take the time to really consider your priorities and the condition of the vehicle you're considering, buying an old car is a great way to go. You can get the classic you've always wanted or find reliable transportation at a budget-friendly price. What's more, there are many great old cars to choose from. Your new, old vehicle is out there waiting for you.

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