BARN FIND ETIQUETTE —Bill Orth—
As discussed in last month’s article about my friend’s Dino, why do some people seem to have better luck finding and—more importantly—being able to buy interesting old cars languishing in garages? Let’s dissect that story and see where the important correct steps were made. First, somehow you have to find out where such a car is hiding. Diligent reading of the estate sales section in various newspapers is one way, and other old-fashioned ways of advertising, like grocery store bulletin boards. The people selling an old car are often not kids themselves and are less likely to use the internet. Making your own luck helps, too, by building a network of people likely to find out about such treasures—like real estate agents, since these people go in and out of dozens of homes every month. Cruising back streets in out-of-the-way places, small towns and rural areas will sometimes result in seeing a door left open revealing an interesting dusty derriere inside, but this takes patience, a lot of luck and a well-developed habit of such snooping.
Once you’ve found out about one you are interested in, how you contact and engage the owner or estate’s executor is very important. Often, folks chasing an exciting find can get self-centered and obtuse about winning the good will of a stranger; it takes some time and carefully worded statements to establish a productive relationship. Being too officious or businesslike will come across as only being interested in buying the old car and presents few social skills to soften the imposition. Such people will imperiously pronounce what the vehicle is worth and act as though they are doing the seller a favor by “hauling it off.” But someone who may have fond memories of riding in that car as a child, perhaps, doesn’t want to think of it being “hauled off” like a sick horse headed to the renderer. (I was told, after the fact, that the main reason I was given the opportunity to buy the Daytona Spyder that was written about, instead of the several other equally serious buyers, was because I was the only one who expressed condolences for the executor’s loss of her father.) Little things can mean a lot. As Tim’s illustration pointed out, he first made friends with the seller and gradually built up a trusting relationship before trying to talk business. Businesspeople, however, tend to be go-go-go and want to get their deal done today. Elderly people can be a little trying to deal with, so patience is very helpful. Realize that they are usually in no hurry to get the transaction over with, often love having company and actually want to prolong the diversion from a boring day-to-day regimen as long as they can!
Such folks can sometimes come up with unexpected requests, too. They might want some photos of the car after its shined up again, or like the gentleman in the story, will appreciate being driven around a bit if they don’t get out much any more. Once, a lady asked me to pick up her car at a specific time when she wouldn’t be home to see it taken away. Apparently, she felt she could deal with an empty garage better than seeing her memories leave in the hands of strangers. A potential buyer’s patience with such courtesies will pay off, because most of the other interested parties will be “too busy” and brusque to do such things. Proactively offering such photos or jaunts, and acting interested in the person’s life and times—based on clues you see around their home—will often make a valuable impression. I never lie to someone about what my plans for their car will be, but if I suspect they may be upsetting, I try to skirt the issue. If I only want a car for its engine, for example, I don’t candidly say I’m going to pull the motor out and take the rest to the shredder. I’ll talk instead about how this car will be a donor to help restore several others, perhaps. I sometimes think about a Ferrari I tried to buy locally many years ago, from someone I knew fairly well, from whom I didn’t hide that I was going to fix it up—which they were not inclined to do—and resell it. Instead, they sold it to someone else who told them he wanted it for his own personal use and would keep it forever. (He had it advertised within hours of buying it)
As in the case of the LaSalle, sometimes older folks have other stuff that has accumulated that they really don’t know how to dispose of it. Offering to help them with things they consider to be problems can be very beneficial, but easily done if you have access to a truck—even if it’s just to take the stuff to a dump or donation point. A big caveat is to ask early on if there are any other heirs or children who may feel they have some interest in the car. I have learned that some young people just assume they’re going to get grandpa’s Cobra and can get very loud when they don’t. Some years ago, an older gentleman came to me wanting to sell his Ferrari. I asked about his heirs and he related that he had two adult sons, both of which would love to have the car. One was responsible and could afford its maintenance, but the other was wild and would never be able to care for it. He couldn’t very well give it to one and not the other, so the best solution was to sell it and simply put the money into his estate, which he could divide between them. (I was later accused by the wilder son that I had “tricked” his elderly parent out of the car, so make sure you find out up front who thinks they have an interest and if there’s any doubt your seller is acting in his full capacity) A lawsuit awaits if you actually do bamboozle a vulnerable senior.
Once a relationship has been established, and a sale has been negotiated, it is a good idea to ask if there may be things related to the old car stored elsewhere—like a collection of Road & Track back to issue #1 or boxes of spare parts, etc. The individual may have forgotten all about those things and if you don’t ask, it’s all going to wind up in their eventual garage sale…or the dump. Offering to buy such items on top of what has been agreed upon for the car is good form and only fair, plus it’s appreciated by someone possibly on a limited income. One should not neglect the individual who provided the original tip about the car’s whereabouts if he expects to ever get another opportunity from him. Rather than a monetary gift, Tim took care of a problem for this man by cleaning out his building’s cache of trash. Lastly, it’s rude to pay for the car, haul it away and never acknowledge the seller again. Tim certainly didn’t want a permanent lunch partner, but a couple of contacts spread increasingly farther apart, maybe followed by a Christmas card, is gentler than just disappearing down the street with their memories. Come to think about it, the whole thing is a lot like dating, isn’t it? Maybe that’s why some people get lucky more often than others!
-- Bill Orth –