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Media Post: Finding a Fixer-Upper – 5 Essential Lessons Before Buying a Project Car

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It is never-endingly useful to know about cars: You can diagnose your own car troubles, save money by self-servicing, and make mods that make you happy. Unfortunately, before you can know about cars, you have to learn about them, and that means you have to practice. Perhaps the best experience you can get is by working on your very own project car — but not everyone has a broken-down clunker in their backyard.

1. Know Your Budget

As with anything you buy, you must know for certain that you can afford your project car before you put down any money. The most fun fixer-upper cars cost between $1,000 and $4,000; anything less and you might never get your vehicle running, and anything more and you will be paying too much for a good paintjob.

Of course, a project car is much more expensive than the initial wheels and chassis: ideally it will need engine work, interior renewal, some paint, and a handful of aftermarket mods to make it satisfying to drive. Every car will have different needs, so when you find a few options you like, you should do some rough calculations to understand what you are likely to spend on the project. Undoubtedly, you will spend more when you encounter unexpected obstacles, but the initial estimate will restrict you to projects that are truly within your price range.

I’d love to say that improving a car is a good investment that will give you not only joy but financial rewards — but the truth is that project cars usually don’t provide much of a return. No matter how beautiful your fixer-upper looks and sounds when you finish your project, you will likely be its final owner, so you should go wild with personal touches you will enjoy.

2. Know Your Needs

Because you will ultimately be driving this car, you should primarily consider your transportation needs when you select a make and model to work on. Just as you would hesitate to purchase a brand-new car if it were too similar to the vehicles you already own — buying a second SUV usually doesn’t make sense, as does having more than one hybrid crossover — you should think twice about adding a possibly redundant project vehicle to your fleet. When your project car will serve a purpose, like a pick-up truck or a sports car, you will have more motivation to complete it and drive it with pride.

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3. Know Your Wants

Then again, utility is rarely the true inspiration for working on a fixer-upper; more often, gearheads pick up a clunker to transform it into the car of their dreams. You can actually build the car you’ve always wanted, so you should take advantage of this opportunity to make your car as loud, fast, and fearsome as you please — within reason. While you are creating your budget, you should research the automobile features you’ve always envied to discover what parts you need for your fantasy ride. If you are totally new to car mechanics, you might be surprised to learn how simple parts affect the entire system, like this TBO Sports exhaust elbow. Any car can be transformed to fit your dreams, as long as you know what you want.

4. Know Your Limits

A project car is incredibly daunting when you are unexperienced, and nearly every repair will seem unfathomably complex. However, before you buy a car, you should consider what tasks are too far out of a beginner’s reach. There are plenty of jobs that even the most veteran mechanics cannot or will not do; most of them are aesthetic concerns like paint and upholstery, but some issues are simply too insidious to tackle, such as holes in the engine block. Before you start, you should understand what you can and cannot fix to prevent undue frustration and help you budget for outside aid.

5. Know Your Mentors

Even armed with wrench and ratchet, you will not be able to make any progress on your project car unless you have guidance from a time-tested expert. Whether you watch car videos online, troll forums for helpful advice, or foster a relationship with a knowledgeable neighbor, you must have a resource for step-by-step instructions. Fortunately, most gearheads are overwhelmingly supportive and caring, so finding mentors you trust should be the easiest step of all.

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