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Buying a Used Car As a Fixer-Upper

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Fixer-upper cars are usually purchased as-is, off the street, with little or no expectation or knowledge of the vehicle’s true breadth of problems. These cars can be a great bargain to the home mechanic or a huge headache. Purchasing a vehicle with the intent of fixing it to become roadworthy and (mostly) reliable is a great way to save money in both the short term and, sometimes, over the long run. It can also become a costly mistake.

If you’re purchasing a fixer-upper for the first time, the following information may help you make the right choice. Like any used car purchase, it’s all about the caveat emptor, so doing your due diligence can go a long way towards saving you some serious problems. The best part about buying “junkers” and “beaters” off the street is that sellers are usually fairly motivated and more than willing to haggle on price. The downside is that logistics and costs can pile up quickly if the car has to be moved quickly and isn’t mobile on its own. Be prepared to have a tow ready or be willing to include the cost of a tow truck in your purchase decision.

You’ll need to know the usual array of things from the seller. Things like the mileage on the vehicle and whether the odometer is accurate, what condition the car is really in, and what options are included with the car that weren’t part of the base package it was sold with. These can help get a rough value for the vehicle. In general, fixer-uppers are priced at the lowest end of the blue book valuation.

Then make a few quick phone calls and ask your favorite local car parts supplier how readily available parts are for the engine and details on your intended purchase. If they’re readily available, price a few common items such as alternators, door handles, fuel pumps, etc to get an idea of what part of the price spectrum parts for your purchase tend to run. Check online if you can as well. Most older vehicle of common make have readily-available, easy-to-access parts both online and at local stores and at reasonable prices.

Find out from the seller as much as you can about the vehicle in question. Who’s was it, how long did it work before being left in the condition it’s in now, and how long has it sat as-is? Has it primarily been stored outside or under cover? Look around the area for signs of mice or rodents, cats, and the like. If you see any, look carefully at the wiring and other parts of the car under the hood and in its interior for signs of varmints having taken up residence or chewing on its components. Check closely for smells that can tell the tale of what’s been in the car before.

Finally, if you have a trusted friend who is knowledgeable about car repair, have them come along to check out the vehicle as well. They might have a different viewpoint that can prove valuable later on. It also gives your buddies a chance to make fun of you later if the deal goes sour.

Once you’ve decided to purchase the car, see what the price is and whether it can be changed. If the seller is motivated to get rid of the vehicle quickly, then perhaps you can get them to negotiate based on the cost of towing and other requirements to get the car mobile (tires or the like). Sometimes the seller might have extras to be thrown in, such as parts or accessories that were purchased for the car and never used. It’s not uncommon to get a set of brake pads, new windshield wipers, and so forth from a seller who purchased them with the intent of using them before the car really broke down.

Before you begin work on the car, assess as much as you can what it requires before you begin purchasing parts. Some parts may be cheaper in common sets that include several things you’ll need to replace anyway, such as a belt tensioner with a timing belt kit. Begin a budget and timeline for repair on the vehicle and get to work.