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Car buyers who are willing to think outside the box can find rare and bargain-priced cars by doing a nationwide search and turning the buying process into an exciting road trip.
For example, Mark Holthoff located a rare 1979 Mercedes-Benz 280E in Santa Rosa, California. He flew there with his teenage daughter, and they drove the 400 miles back home to Los Angeles along the rugged Pacific Coast.
“Not only did I bond with my daughter, but I bonded with the car,” says Holthoff, editor at Klipnik.com, a community website for used-car enthusiasts.
Regional pricing differences
The cost of cars in different areas can vary sharply, says Julie Blackley, communications manager at iSeeCars, which aggregates used-car listings.
Case in point: iSeeCars data shows that a buyer in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, could save $4,000 on the price of a year-old Honda Accord in Miami and drive it back home. Used-car prices are low in Miami, Blackley says, and it’s a great vacation destination.
Buying a car sight-unseen can be tricky. And when you figure in airfare and hotels, it doesn’t always save you money. “A thousand dollars ships a car a long way,” Holthoff observes.
But if you treat it as a “car-cation,” it can provide lasting memories and a car you love. Here’s how to buy that diamond in the rough and get it home safely.
10 steps to a fly-and-drive vacation
Cast a wide net. Use car finder tools on Craigslist, car club sites and AutoTrader to search for rare, bargain or hard-to-find new cars with an unusual combination of options or a rare color. If you’re searching for an older vehicle, target areas where ice and snow won’t rust cars.
Run a vehicle history report. Holthoff recommends buying a plan from a service like Carfax or AutoCheck that allows multiple vehicle history reports. The reports will help you quickly rule out cars that have problems such as damage from an accident or significant mechanical issues.
Visit an online community. People who already own the model of car you want are the best source of information around potential problem areas. Many are willing to share their purchase prices as well. Google “owner forum” and the car make and model name.
Check the price. Some sellers ask unreasonably high prices that would require too much negotiating to make the purchase worthwhile. Use pricing guides and look at ads for comparable vehicles to get an idea of the right price range to expect. Blackley says iSeeCars offers a free tool with a market report showing pricing in the area.
Contact the seller. “You’re not just looking for a good car, but also a good seller,” Holthoff says. Find a seller who is informed, transparent and communicates well. Review all the specs with the seller and find out if they have the car’s title in hand. (A loan adds a few extra steps to the process.)
Have the car inspected. Using Yelp, locate a mechanic that specializes in the make of car you’re buying. Ask if the seller would take the car to a mechanic to have it inspected at your expense. In Holthoff’s experience, most sellers are willing to provide this extra service as long as you are a serious buyer. Use the mechanic’s inspection report to negotiate the right price. Remember that, if you plan to drive the car home, you will want to have any critical work — such as installing a new set of tires — completed before you leave.
Book your flight. Arrange a convenient time to arrive so you can conclude the deal that day. Some sellers might even be willing to pick you up at the airport.
Arrange financing and insurance. Your current insurance policy will temporarily cover your new car, but you should compare insurance rates in advance. If you need to finance your car, a preapproved car loan gives you flexibility at a dealership. If you are buying from a private party, you’ll need to agree ahead of time on a preferred way to pay.
Get your paperwork in order. Visit the DMV website. Every state is different. You may need temporary license plates or a trip permit. On the drive home, have proof of insurance, a signed bill of sale and title applications handy in case you’re pulled over.
Re-inspect the car. Before you hand over the money, make sure the car lives up to the seller’s description. If you find an undisclosed problem, “It's far better to book that flight back for a few hundred dollars rather than end up with a car that's not what you really wanted,” Holthoff says. But if you’ve done your due diligence up to now, there shouldn’t be any surprises.
That’s it. The drive home is your vacation, and while you may want to explore, you don’t want to tempt fate.
“Stick to the beaten path and don’t do a lot of hot-rodding,” Holthoff advises.
That way, if something does go wrong with your new purchase, you can more easily get help. And keep a pen and pad at hand — by the time you get home, you’ll probably have a list of little squeaks and rattles to repair.