Buying a project car is something that a lot of people want to do.  Maybe they want to restore a car that someone in their family once had.  Perhaps they always loved a particular vehicle with a unique design and want to own one for themselves.  Or maybe you just want to buy a car that needs work because it's cheap.  Money is tight and vehicles can be an extremely expensive, consistently depreciating asset, so buying one that is in need of some repair work can be a great way to save some money.

However, it can also be an awesome to lose out, big time.  These are extremely complicated machines, and unexpected costs can quickly pop up and cost you a large amount of money.  For these reasons, you have to be very careful about buying a fixer upper.  These tips are meant to help you from mistaking a few of the mistakes I've made in the past when making a purchase like this.

Understand Your Mechanical Ability

There are a lot of skills that go into repairing cars, and very few people possess all of them.  There is the ability to diagnose problems, something generally reserved to master mechanics with tons of first hand experience.  There is actually being able to fix problems you are aware of.  There's being able to do body work--not just sanding and painting, but lining up bumpers, fenders, and hoods.  And there's electrical wiring and interior work that often needs to be done.

I'm a firm believer that anyone can learn to repair anything.  However, it's also important to keep in mind that you are going to feel extremely overwhelmed if you buy a car that needs a ton of work you have never done before.  

Project Car

Just keep this in mind when you are shopping.  If you've never welded before, don't buy a vehicle with a frame rust.  If you have only every worked on mechanical machines from the 1960s, don't buy a modern Mercedes that has a dozen different electrical gremlins to track down.  Always be honest with yourself, and think about what you know how to do, and what you are capable of learning to do.

Make a Budget, Then Double it and Add Some

If you go into this juncture thinking "It'll cost what it costs" you are going to have a very bad time.  It really doesn't matter whether the previous owner is being honest or not when it comes to what the car needs to get road worthy again.  Regardless of what they think or tell you, there are always going to be unexpected costs that come out of nowhere, and you need to be prepared for them.  If you can't account for these unexpected costs, you know that the vehicle is out of your price range.

It's for these reasons that I have devised a very un-scientific formula of doubling whatever your budget is, and then adding a couple hundred.  If you think a car will take $650 to repair, when it's all said and done you are probably looking at more like $1500.  That doesn't mean you should immediately go out and drop $1500.  Still try to repair the vehicle with $650, but plan to spend $1500.  Maybe you'll get lucky and come out ahead!

List Out Everything the Car Needs


It can feel overwhelming when you first begin working on a project car.  Unlike repairing a daily driver, which usually consists of repairing a single issue that you are having, a fixer upper has a LOT of work that needs to be done.

It's the difference between trying to lose 10 pounds and 100 pounds.  The person losing 10 has the end in sight before they even begin.  The person trying for 100 has a lot of work to do before they can see the finish line.

To avoid this freak out feeling of "SO MUCH TO DO", look over the car and make out a list of everything you need to do.  And then stick to it, which brings us to the next tip...

Commit to Working On It

Allow me to explain how the life span of 90% of project cars works:

  1. Man buys vehicle and is very excited.
  2. Man gets vehicle into garage and looks at all of the necessary repairs.
  3. Man spends $1000 in necessary parts and equipment.
  4. Man fixes about 25% of the issues, using about $250 in parts.
  5. Man gets distracted by something.  This step occurs a few months after purchase.
  6. Car sits in garage (or worse, outside) for the next 2 years and accumulates more problems as rubber seals wear out, tires accumulate flat spots, doors get dinged when trying to get the snow blower around it, etc.
  7. Man sells car with boxes of new parts and the cycle either repeats itself, or someone in the 10% who actually finishes a vehicle gets a killer deal (try to be that guy.)

If you acquire a car that you really like, it can be very easily to be extremely motivated at the beginning.  You buy a ton of parts, you fix a small problem here or there, and you make consistent progress.  But eventually something will happen, maybe it's another unexpected expense, something else occupies your time, or life just gets in the way.  The project takes a back seat.

Here's a little insight- this happens to everyone.  However, some still manage to fix up their fixer upper.  This is because of a commitment to work on it.  Take that list you made in the previous step, and strive to strike one or two things off of it every weekend.  Any progress, even slow progress, is good progress.  The mindset of "eventually finding a weekend to knock all this stuff out" is what will result in you eventually passing off your expensive piece of metal to someone else.

Buy Something You'll Enjoy

Don't buy something you're going to hate.  It's impossible to dedicate all of your attention and focus onto a machine you really aren't that big on.  Project cars require more attention and care than any other machine, so make sure you're actually buying something that you know you will love rolling around in.  It's going to cut you and drain your wallet at times, so be sure you're doing it for a vehicle that is worth it for you.