Where I live there are laws against leaving vehicles to rot in one's backyard or dumping them in the forest, mostly to prevent soil pollution and the junkyard appearance. I understand different countries have different sensitivities towards pollution and the environment.

But I'm really curious about the financial aspects of people buying cars and leaving them to rot for decades on their property. It seems to be quite frequent in the USA, see for example Hagerty's "Barn find hunter" show.

Among these cars are some that were wrecks when they were "stored", but there are also ones that were running and intact, but were simply abandoned. How come the owner decided to simply let a piece of property (some of them not cheap! exotic Italian cars and all) turn to dust?

I understand that buying cars, especially exotic or rare ones, and storing them for the long term is a form of investment. But their values are orders of magnitude higher if they are in good condition. Most of the carcasses seen on this show have zero residual value.

So, what are the financial motivations of people who buy cars and leave them to rot?

Edit: one thing I might be overlooking is that in the mid-20th century America, cars were crazy abundant and not very reliable so they had a pretty low second-hand value. As such they were effectively already worthless when they were parked and abandoned by their owners.

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    Not sure about the specific show you reference, but keep in mind that this type of 'low-level' reality show does attract a certain amount of fraud. The show 'storage wars', for example, had many claims of fraud leveled against it, with the accusation that lockers were filled up with valuables before being 'opened for the first time'. Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 13:45
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    I am voting to close this question as too broad. How can we address a persons intentions for a very small population? This is an impossible question to answer.
    – Pete B.
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 14:16
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    @CapeCode I presume you've driven past my parent's yard... Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 15:21
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    The premise of the question is off. The OP is assuming that many people intentionally leave cars abandoned in a barn to rot. I doubt that's the case ever. Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 13:43
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    One thing to keep in mind is the cash flow pattern of the behavior. The vehicle is already bought. It may take some significant fixes, registrations or upgrades to make it salable. Just parking it in the barn has no cash cost. So if you are unsure what you want to do, the minimum cash outlay is to put it in the barn until you are ready to deal with it, which may never come.
    – zeta-band
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 20:22

7 Answers 7


If land is cheap with low opportunity cost for an alternative use (maybe you could pull an extra half bushel of corn or soybeans per year off a parking spot, or maybe not), so what? At least you don't need to mow that patch.

If the vehicle starts to mechanically deteriorate (flat tires, dry rot on tires or hoses, condensation in the gas tank), you now have to incur some cost of time and/or money to get it off the property, in the form of fixing it up or hiring a tow truck.

If it doesn't drive, you don't have the time to fix it up and you don't need the space, the rational thing to do is not pay annual registration fees, adding an additional hump to overcome to get it moving again.

  • That’s a convincing argument. I guess since recycling is a relatively novel concept in the US, the price of the scrap metal was low enough that it wouldn’t cover the towing costs.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 18:13
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    If you were going to take the time to find a recycler, you certainly could have found a buyer/taker-off-my-hands with a flatbed. Also keep in mind, at lot of places where barn finds exist are also places where space isn't a premium.
    – Shawn
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 20:37
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    In this area, there are people who make a living from "scrapping". They put out signs, run newspaper ads and use social media to find sources. They will buy almost any vehicle, regardless of its condition. I have a friend who purchased a few acres of highway frontage that had an old garage and about 20 untitled vehicles on it. He made enough selling the vehicles to a scrapper to pay for the demolition of the buildings and having the lot cleared.
    – Jim Dallas
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 15:50
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    @Gramatik that doesn't even make sense -- the discounted rate on two cars (one of which isn't even functional and may or may not be registered) is surely still more than the non-discounted rate on a single vehicle. How is this supposed to work?
    – Doktor J
    Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 17:55
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    As a farm owner, these vehicles usually end up in a place that would only be suitable for farming with significant work.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Jan 19, 2018 at 19:26

So, what are the financial motivations of people who buy cars and let them to rot?

Not every decision in life is based on financial motivations.

Say, for example, it's 1968 and you're tooling around in a 1965 Mustang, then get married and start to have kids. The 'Stang is now highly impractical, but you love it and don't want to sell, so you stick it in the barn with the plan of having fun in the summer.

But... you never quite get around to it. Busy with work, the pregnant wife doesn't want to ride in it and you feel guilty riding without her so leave it covered until next year. Wash, Rinse, Repeat until "suddenly" it's 30 years later, covered in junk, and you've forgotten about it.

Another 30 years and your now-middle aged kids never knew it was there, and they sell the "farm" as part of splitting the estate now that you and your wife are dead.

The new owner cleans out the barn 10 years later and in 2030 finds a 1965 Mustang with only 15,000 miles on it.

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    @CapeCode people busy with life regularly forgot about 401(k) accounts from previous employers. I remember a question on this site from a few months ago where a guy put his paycheck in a suit jacket pocket and forgot about it for many years.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 14:51
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    @CapeCode It's only "worth" what someone will pay for it - either the owner didn't want to take the time and energy to sell it, or had a sentimental attachment.
    – D Stanley
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 15:07
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    It may be about convenience. When I moved into my house I inherited a bunch of "crap" (that's my term, not actual) in the basement. All I care about is getting the basement finished. Most of this stuff isn't in my expertise, taste, or era. There may be a priceless piece down there, but I would waste countless hours figuring this out, determining whether it's a reproduction or fake, etc; when I could pay someone a few hundred dollars to load it all up and see for themselves. Like @RonJohn said, "Not every decision in life is based on financial motivations." It always ain't about the money.
    – Shawn
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 20:33
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    "Not every decision in life is based on financial motivations." And very few automobile decisions are based on financial motivations! Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 22:58
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    I think is the main real explanation: people don't intend to let cars rust in a barn, it just happens.
    – BrenBarn
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 7:45

I'm not a psychologist, so I can't really speak as to the motivations, but I think it often boils down to "someday, but not today". Take for instance my neighbor: he's a now-retired professional auto mechanic who worked for years restoring antique & classic cars. So he has on his property a '60s Chevy that he's going to restore for his son* someday, a '70s Camaro that he he's going to restore for his wife someday, a motor home that he's going to restore so they can go camping someday... But today he's going to sit in front of the TV and drink beer :-(

*Now married with a couple of kids, and doing well enough to just buy whatever car he wants.

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    Everyone has dreams!
    – Shawn
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 20:39
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    A dream is something you never intend to really do. As described above. Otherwise, it's a goal :)
    – Cloud
    Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 15:09

I have two cars, two boats, four personal water craft, two tractors, several ATVs and a dune buggy stored in various buildings around my place. They all ran when then were stored, and they all have a different story.

One car is the first car I ever purchased myself, a 1982 Chevy Z28 pace car. It's been at least 15 years since I parked it in the barn and covered it. The other is a 1966 (the year I was born) Corvette convertible I bought it in the late 90s with the intention of restoring it. I drove it one day, then had it stored in the barn also (it was professionally prepped for storage and is stored off the ground). I just have never taken the time to do anything with either of them.

I bought a ski boat years ago and kept the bass boat for the kids to use. Then we bought a cruiser and kept the ski boat for the same reason. Kids are grown and have their own boats so these have sat under cover for years.

The first pair of PWCs were kept for the kids as well when we bought the new ones. We just haven't used the new ones in the last few years. Same thing with the rest of it all.

There was never a point where we made a decision on any of them, other than when we purchased them. We just stopped using them and moved on. They aren't in our way, and they're all stored in barns or other buildings around here, so they're not an eyesore. That means there isn't any reason to waste time dealing with them. They will likely remain where they are until this place and everything here is auctioned, either when we die or when we move to Colorado.

I almost forgot, at one point years ago I did decide to sell the Chevy so someone could drive it or restore it, but after wasting several hours with two different guys (one of them didn't have money and wanted me to let him make payments; the other complained about everything, the paint being faded, the carpet being worn, it only having lap belts and no shoulder belts, etc., until I ran him off) I realized it wasn't worth my time.

This was my personal experience. I can't say if this is a common reason for it, but I think it likely is.

  • Just curious, do you prefer owning these vehicles instead of renting them for the period you want to use them?
    – Cape Code
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 13:34
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    @CapeCode At that time, yes, we wouldn't have considered renting. It is too much of a hassle. Loading and unloading personal gear, having set times to pickup and return, and having to plan ahead and make reservations. Now we just keep a cruiser in a slip, which is the most convenient way to do it On the occasion when we want a smaller boat for a few days to ski or fish, all it takes is one call to the marina and they'll have one ready to go in our guest slip when we get there. We haven't rented anything else other than cars when we fly.
    – Jim Dallas
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 15:39

Americans are rich.

No not all of them, but enough of them. They can afford to buy a car worth 10s of 1000s of dollars (in todays money), and park it in a barn.

Maybe they intended to restore it or modify it. Or maybe they had kids and it wasn't a practical car, so they bought a more practical one and only drove it rarely. Maybe they took it out on special occasions, but those became rarer and rarer, and one day they had to change the oil or a tire or something and said "ok, not this time" and didn't get back to it.

Sure they could have sold it, but they didn't bother; they liked the car, they loved the image they had of working on it, they intended to work on it with their kids sometime (but their kids didn't want to mayhap).

The person is rich (compared to most of the world), land is cheap (relatively), and people get attached to cars. So they pack it up to preserve it for when they "get back to it".

Life is short, and you don't always get back to things.

  • As an American, +1. Land ownership, the prerequisite for this whole thing, almost always means some level of wealth in the US, even in the middle of the country where land is (relatively) cheap. Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 19:26
  • @Justin Lardinois: Not necessarily, unless you count the potential value of the land itself. There are a good number of people who inherit family land, like farms or other property, over several generations. The current owners can be land rich but cash poor, barely able to scrape enough to pay the taxes.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 2:51
  • It seems cheap land and lack of regulations to prevent pollution and blight are more likely explanations. The people keeping these carcasses aren't "rich" by Western standards.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 8:22

My grandpa's backup car broke down. It got shoved in the back of the garage. On cleaning up his estate and getting the house ready for rental we finally sold it. The needed repair was trivial. We guess he would have got it done had the primary ever failed. It was interesting to note the buyer repaired it on site and drove it out the day he bought it. As it was essentially worthless model it ended up in demolition derby.


This is not a decision but rather a lack of decision.

Recycling your old car would cost you your time. It can also cost you money, for transport and utilization fees. You might get some money back (spare parts, raw material) which might be more than the costs you have to pay, or might be less. In any case, you invest your time...

If you expect to pay more than you could get, letting the car rot in the backyard is the cheap option. If you expect to get more, but the sum is not very relevant to you and you are relatively lazy, you simply don't care.

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