Buying An Imported JDM Car? Here's What to Look For

Buyer beware: Not all Skylines are dream cars.

Purchasing an imported JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) car like the legendary Nissan Skyline GT-R has been a dream for many. Today, with many of these cars becoming legal to own in the U.S., enthusiasts are snatching them up left and right. If you're looking to buy an imported JDM car, there are a couple of important things to look out for. That "deal" of a Skyline might not be all it seems due to hidden rust (a common issue) or the shady way it was brought into the U.S. Any reputable importer or dealer will let you inspect the car you're interested in and provide all the proper paperwork. Be patient in searching for the right car and protecting your investment over the long term. Here are five things you should look for when buying an imported JDM car.

Make sure the car was legally imported and cleared through U.S. Customs

This might be the most important thing of all. U.S. law allows for the importation of cars that are 25 years or older, but just because a car meets that age requirement doesn't mean the importer followed all the processes that have been put in place by Customs. A car that's already registered is a good start, but it's not guaranteed to be legal based on that fact alone. Ask to see all the paperwork and documentation for the car you're looking to purchase. If the car isn't properly cleared, it will never be considered a legal motor vehicle.

Make sure the car is rust-free

Many sellers use black paint to conceal rust on the underside of a car. This is a common practice not just among the original Japanese car owners, but also among auctioneers, car brokers, importers, and even resellers here in the U.S. If you see the car has been painted underneath, ask to see pictures of the underside before it was painted to be sure it was done to preserve and not to conceal. If you find it to be a cover-up job, the best option is to walk away and find another car.

Beyond potentially compromising a vehicle's structural integrity, rust practically ruins the car's value. If you're unfortunate enough to end up with one of these rust-buckets, just about the only thing you can do with it is salvage it for parts. Rust can be a pervasive problem since you're dealing with older cars that might have had heavy exposure to rain or even flooding. Check under the car (especially the frame rails) and prepare to get a bit dirty. You'll have to slide underneath the car and thoroughly scrutinize its underside for hints of rust (it might be wise to bring a good flashlight with you).

Thoroughly inspect the car for previous damage

When dealing with imported JDM cars, there's no real VIN history. Even if the dealer helps you by trying to piece together the car's history, you're still dealing with a car that's at least 25 years old. It can be difficult to get the full picture, and that means it's up to you to check the car for previous damage.

You'll have to check the nooks and crannies to find evidence of damage. Look under the carpeting at the trunk floor, check the seams where the quarter panels are attached (you want to ensure they're factory panels and not aftermarket panels), and check the inner panels under the hood. You should also check the core/radiator support for dents, bends, twists, or other forms of damage. Be sure to inspect the undercarriage for damage, as well—the pinch welds and frame rails are where you want to look.

Look out for smaller issues that could be costly in the long run

Often overlooked are the smaller issues that could add up. Remember, a lot of interior parts that are damaged or worn could be difficult to find. Some of these parts can also be very costly to replace in the future. Pay special attention to the overall condition of the interior and then take a detailed look at individual sections like the door panels, center console, gauge cluster, pillars, dashboard, trim, and headliner.

If some of these areas are damaged or broken, there are several considerations you now need to factor into your purchasing decision. First, it may be costly to replace these parts, so you should weigh that against the cost of selecting a different car that's in better condition. Second, keep in mind you're dealing with a car that's at least 25 years old; most manufacturers don't produce these parts anymore, and it may be difficult to source the correct parts in good condition.

Do your due diligence on the dealer or importer

Before you take the plunge and spend your hard-earned money on a JDM dream car, you should confirm the dealer is legitimate. Start by checking the dealer's online presence (most legitimate dealers will have websites where they'll transparently share information about their operations). If the website seems shady, steer clear. You should also check customer reviews on Google, Facebook, and other third-party review sites (don't rely on reviews or testimonials on the dealer's own website because those can easily be faked).

Remember that imported JDM cars are 25 years old or older; it's expected they'll have some physical imperfections or small mechanical issues. A reputable import dealership will strive to make sure any issues are disclosed to the buyer. When you're engaged in dealership negotiations, trust your gut. If something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't. At that point, do yourself a favor and just walk away.

This content is provided by Driver Motorsports, a dealership that specializes in importing JDM cars to the U.S.

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