Last week I wrote about agreeing to help my friend Tom sell his 1989 635CSi. The car, one of 248 small-bumper 208-horsepower E24s with a factory five-speed, has a limited-slip differential and retrofitted sport seats, making it beyond unicorn-rare. It also wears a gorgeous set of BBS RC090 Style 5 basket-weave wheels with polished lips. I seriously considered swapping them with the not-quite-as-blingy RC090s on my own Euro ’79 635CSi and taking that as my fee, but snow rolled in, so this represented actual work.

Although the car had a lot going for it, it did have some caveats. The Carfax showed an accident sometime in its past, and also pointed to a very minor mileage discrepancy. Plus, the odometer wasn’t working, the clear instrument cluster cover was missing, there were three visible rust bubbles, the leather interior needed a thorough cleaning, the airbag and check-engine lights were on, the gearshift was incredibly stiff, there was a thunk in the front end over bumps, and the car exhibited an odd hesitation coming off the clutch and onto the gas.

I did what I do for my own eBay auctions: I describe the car honestly and accurately, photograph it completely, and put it all out there for the world to see.

The mid-rise lift in my garage was occupied, however, so I didn’t photograph the underbody. My thinking was that while these photos are crucial for a vintage car like a 2002, they’re not required on an E24. However, no sooner was the auction up than I got a request for undercarriage pics. Once the roads were dry, I drove the car to the corner service station, paid them twenty bucks to put it up, and snapped away. I saw no undercarriage rust.

Part of eBaying a car involves setting the initial price, and if you want them, a Buy It Now price and a reserve price. Low initial prices tend to generate excitement and an air of possibility. A well-engineered Buy It Now price can make the auction end quickly to the satisfaction of both the seller and the buyer. But one of the annoying aspects of eBay is that if there is no reserve price, as soon as a bid comes in, the Buy It Now option vanishes. Thus, a reserve price functions not only to make sure an insanely low bid doesn’t purchase the car, but also as something of a timer to ensure the Buy It Now option will stay up for a while.

Tom’s goal was, without question, to move the car along, so we wanted to set the reserve low enough that the car would unquestionably sell—but high enough that it should keep the Buy It Now up for a few days.

But I had an additional parameter. I was possibly interested in the car myself, even though it made no sense: I’m currently, as they say, between jobs, and I’m trying to sell cars, not buy them. But I thought that if I bought it and worked through the punch list of issues, I could probably move the value of the car enough to make it worth my while.

I asked myself, if I saw this car advertised locally, what would I pay for it? That number was five grand. Unfortunately, this created a conflict of interest, as Tom had contracted me to sell it for him for a fixed fee.

After thinking about it carefully, and talking with Tom, I set the starting price at the traditional eBay value of $0.99 to generate enthusiasm and motion. I set the reserve price at $5,000, and the Buy It Now at $8,500. The five-grand reserve price served three purposes: First, it was a reasonable lower bound for the car’s sale. Second, I hoped that it would act to keep the Buy It Now up as an option for a few days. And finally, if the car for some reason did not reach the reserve price, I could buy it from Tom for five grand without any conflict of interest. Clever, huh?

However, when I checked about two hours after the auction was up, a $5,000 bid had come in. Since this met the reserve price, it automatically took the BIN down. So much for my carefully engineered numbers. The gentleman who put in the bid texted me, explaining that he thought someone might punch the BIN, and he didn’t want to lose the possibility of getting the car. So he thought, “What would I pay for it if I saw it locally on Craigslist?” and came up with exactly the same $5,000 number that I did, and bid it. We both had a good laugh over that.

I did a little more work to try and pump up the auction value. In addition to paying the local service station $20 to put the car up on a lift so that I could photograph the undercarriage, I shot a few videos, one of a walk around and inside the car, and another of the car being driven. I also looked into the car’s odd hesitation when coming off the clutch and onto the gas; I did some reading on, where there was a post describing the same set of symptoms and diagnosing the cause as the throttle-position switch not properly informing the ECU that the throttle had transitioned from closed to open. The switch did seem to be working, but I rotated it slightly so that there was a clearer delineation between the closed and opened positions, and the hesitation seemed to go away. I amended the auction description to include all this new information.

The auction ran for a week, but despite the rapid initial meeting of the reserve price, it didn’t move much from there. It topped out at $5,800, which, in my opinion, was a total steal, considering how the car was configured and its rarity. The buyer, it turned out, was someone I knew from Facebook, a fellow who had a Bavaria I was interested in a few years ago. He was as surprised as I was that his $5,800 bid was enough to win the car, and he had to scramble to come up with both the money and the garage space (a happy problem to have).

I thought I had let my friend Tom down, but when we talked about it, I learned that I felt worse about it than he did. We joked that it’s a good thing I gave him a good price on a five-speed for his 2002 a few years ago, or our friendship might be over.

There are a few lessons in this. One is that winter is simply a bad time to sell an enthusiast car. Another is that either Tom should’ve paid me to work through the punch list, or I should’ve bought the car and done it myself. Tom does much of his own work, and the tasks on the punch list were all things he was entirely capable of doing, but a job change and lack of time and indoor space forced his hand, as it often does with so many of us. The goal was to move the car along, and we did. And with nearly 3,000 page views, it’s hard to argue that the eBay auction didn’t find the value of the car.

I think that the fundamental issue was that some of the car’s issues were ones that couldn’t be easily knocked off a punch list. The three areas of rust-bubbling were isolated and minor, but any rust is serious; unless you have a body shop, taking the car from that condition to rust-free ain’t cheap. And there’s no pretending that a former accident and a mileage discrepancy, both reported on Carfax, no matter how minor, don’t affect a car’s value. The same is true with the fact that the odometer wasn’t currently working. You can fix it, but you really need to disclose that that’s what you did, and make a good-faith effort to estimate the mileage while it was broken. Really, the only way to not have these things affect the car’s value is not to mention them—to lie by omission.

Not my style.

In response to my hawking yet another car on eBay and Facebook, my friend Eric King mocked this up using a still shot from the movie Used Cars. It’s funny, but not entirely accurate. Seriously, I must be the worst used-car salesman in the world.

More important, I own much-nicer-looking sport coats.—Rob Siegel

[Photoshop magic by Eric King]

Rob’s first book, Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic, and his new book, The Hack Mechanic Guide to European Automotive Electrical Systems, are available through Bentley Publishers, Amazon, ECS Tuning, and Bavarian Autosport—or you can get personally inscribed copies through Rob’s website: