How to Buy a Project Car

You’ve been scrolling through and someone finally has the car of your dreams, except that it isn’t running; it’s a project car. How should you approach getting into another project? Here’s a list of ten tips to guide you along the way.

1. Why is it a project car? Projects start from bad head gaskets, blown engines, or slipping transmissions. At one point in the car’s history, the owner decided to stop driving it. Find out why, if it’s not posted in the ad. Some project cars are bought and sold as projects without ever returning to the road.

2. Set a budget for your project. This can be difficult because of all the little add-ons and tiny pieces that make the car complete. Research the costs of anything extra (outside the main issue) and decide if the car is worth it. What are you willing to spend, in total, on the car?

How to Buy a Project Car
Upper dash pads crack on the 93-02 F-Body cars. Cost of replacement ranges from $100 to $600 (Dealership/OEM replacement). Is $600 for interior parts in your budget? This is the author’s previous 2000 Pontiac Trans Am with a vinyl wrapped dash pad. The cost of a camshaft for an interior was not of value to the author.

3. How long has it been sitting? This question is really important, because the longer a car sits, the more it needs. Anything longer than a couple of months usually entails a new battery, replacing dry rotted tires, an oil change, new brake rotors and possibly changing out a lot of the other fluids. Not everything needs to be done immediately, but it can be frustrating once the car is yours and the list of repairs becomes endless. Rust is an issue that needs to be found, and its extent determined, immediately.

How to Buy a Project Car
Underlying rust discovered on the author’s 3000GT VR-4 project car. Some issues are not discovered until later. (It sat for five years in New England winters).


How to Buy a Project Car
Although deep into the “part out” stage of its life, the rust on the rotors indicate sitting for an extended period of time.

4. What was the owner trying to accomplish? It’s good to know what the owner had in mind before deciding to sell the car under consideration. Figure out the owner’s purpose and see if it aligns with your needs. If the owner was trying to add a turbo to the car and relocated the battery and wiring harnesses, it’s good to know how and to where they were relocated. Any work completed should be inspected to ensure it was performed properly.

5. If the battery is dead, try to put jumper cables on the car and check the electrical system. Bring an OBD-II scan tool (if applicable) and check for any codes (if possible). Just because the owner states the transmission is “fine” doesn’t mean it didn’t have issues before the engine threw a connecting rod. Don’t get in over your head. Check the operation of the convertible top, wipers, power windows, locks, etc. It might seem “small” if it doesn’t work, but sometimes parts are rare and expensive. Check wiring harnesses for rodent damage.

6. What is unfinished and where do the parts from? A lot of owners exiting a platform will sell a project car with all the parts they have accumulated. Just because a used transmission was good enough for the current owner doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you. Getting all the parts to fix the car is always a bonus, but you need to take into consideration where the parts came from.

7. Try to determine the fault of the major component. If the engine blew because of high mileage, that’s ok. If the engine was still in factory form and the owner added a turbo with 25psi of boost, suspect that there are more problems than simply “a connecting rod.” If the owner reports they don’t know the extent of the damage, assume the worst.

8. Check for any signs of previous bodywork if the owner doesn’t disclose it or does not know. Engine bays, fuel doors and filler necks and inside the fenders are a great place to look for bad workmanship by a body shop. “Fresh paint” can’t add a premium if the job performed was terrible.

How to Buy a Project Car
Not simply “beat up,” the front bumper on this car had been painted multiple times by previous owners. Did it originate with the car, or was it from a parts car? Bodywork should lead to questions.

9. Permanent alterations or modifications should be disclosed by the seller, but remember to ask. Did the seller plan on an automatic to manual conversion, but stopped after cutting holes in the floor board/transmission tunnel? What parts of the conversion need to be completed? Don’t buy a project that’s going to create more headaches and problems.

How to Buy a Project Car
This car originally had a huge aftermarket spoiler. The previous owner over-torqued the nuts and bolts, and did not use fender washers, which created the “bump-like” shape of the holes. Something so simple takes hours of prep work to repair, or a new hatch is in order.

10. Lastly, don’t be afraid to walk away. The worst-case scenario is buying a project car, discovering another major repair is needed, and not being able to afford it, whether with money, time or both. Try to research as much as possible before seeing the car and contacting the seller with any questions that you may have. If you’ve traveled far with a trailer, don’t use that as an excuse to buy. It’s better to be out gas money, than to be out gas money and buying a car that isn’t worth it.

3 Comments on How to Buy a Project Car

  1. I use a basic rule for buying projects that look to be in fair condition with no major body rot or damage.

    Most vehicles cost about the same to redo the upholstery, have minor bodywork and a complete repaint after stripping off all trim and old paint.

    Last is mechanical repairs. Provided you can drive it to make sure that everything seems to be decent and only needs things like plugs & wires, cap and rotor, oil and filter plus misc. odds and ends

    Depending on it being a popular car that has lots of parts suppliers, I figure $5,000 for each of the 3 or if it’s very rare and hard to find parts for, bump that up to $10,000 each.

    Unless it runs and you can drive it, always count on investing at least $5000 for each. In reality if you can handle upholstery work, which is very easy you can reupholster a car like a 66 GTO for about $1,000 to $1,500 including carpets and mats. if you do it yourself.

    If the dash needs painting remove the radio, chrome trim, gauges , directional levey. all buttons and switches and seats and
    carpet and anything in the way of the painter. You’ll pay him a lot less for a lot better job.

    Order parts from a company who has displays at swap meets. Order by phone or online to pick up at a local swap need.

    That will save a lot of money especially if ordering body parts or heavy parts like heads or complete motors.

    So far I’ve put in a complete new interior for under $1000 that includes a new vinyl top, new upholstery for all seats, all new carpets door and side panels, new killer stereo I took out of a car I bought for scrap that the owner just put in before the trans went. I only put$350 in it for new air filters for the trip owner, cap rotor, points and condenser. Plug wires and a reman water pump for a total investment of under$7000 that includes the new mags and tires I got off Craigslist for only $100

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