Buying a car is only half the deal.
Shopping for and purchasing a new or used car that meets one’s needs at the lowest attainable price is a chore in its own right, but savvy consumers will put as much effort into selling their existing rides to get the best overall deal. Here’s how to ensure you get the most money out of your current car, whether you’re planning on selling it to a dealer, or are looking to strike a deal with a private party.
1. Prepare Your Car For Sale
It always pays to spruce up your current vehicle before putting it on the market. If it’s a bit banged up, you might want to have minor dents and scratches professionally repaired, but don’t run the risk of making it look worse by attempting to do this yourself unless you have expertise in bodywork. Give the vehicle a good washing and a fresh coat of wax, vacuum out the interior, use a plastic cleaner on the dashboard and other hard surfaces, clean the windows, and give the seats and carpeting a good once-over with upholstery or leather cleaner. Better yet, spend a few bucks to have the car professionally detailed to return as much of its original luster as possible.
Likewise, ensure the vehicle is as mechanically sound before offering it for sale. Have the oil and filters changed, top off all fluids, and address any obvious problems – or at least those that are within your budget.
Compile maintenance and repair receipts for potential buyers to examine. Check the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s recall database at www.safercar.gov to see if there’s any safety-related issues for your car that still need to be resolved. Have the car or truck’s title on hand and ensure that it’s fully transferable. You might want to have a title search performed via an online source like CarFax or Experian and print out the results to confirm the car’s present and past ownership, whether there’s a lien (car loan) against the vehicle, and whether it’s been an accident or has been flooded or totaled along the way.
2. Determine What Your Car Is Worth
Research what you can reasonably expect to get for your car via an online valuation site like Kelley Blue Book or NADAGuides. Estimates are based on a car’s mileage, condition, and how it’s equipped, and will vary by region. If you’re planning on selling it directly to a dealer, you’ll want to pay attention to the noted “trade-in” value; if you’ll be advertising it and selling it to an individual buyer, look for the “private party” value. Click here for full details on how to estimate your car’s current worth.
3. Shop The Car To Local Dealerships
You’ll probably make less money on your current car by selling it to dealer than to an individual buyer, but it can be a much quicker process and is one that inherently carries less risk. If it’s a newer model in top condition, shop it around to the used-car departments of new-car dealerships in your area and/or a nationwide used-vehicle retailer like CarMax. However, don’t expect much of an offer – if any – if it’s an older and high-mileage model and/or needs work; if that’s the case try selling it to a smaller independent used-car dealer that specializes in lower-cost vehicles or consider donating it to a charitable organization that takes cars in any shape. If your vehicle is in need of extensive – and expensive – repairs and/or isn’t running, your best and only shot at selling it may be to a local auto wrecker.
Some online car-shopping services can help facilitate cash offers for pre-owned models from participating local dealer, but this still requires a trip to the lot to verify condition, features, and value, and there’s a good chance you’ll be offered less on the spot than your online estimate initially indicated.
4. Consider Selling It Yourself
You can usually get more money by selling your current vehicle to an individual buyer, though the process involves more effort than simply trading it in or selling it to a dealer, not to mention a certain element of peril. How much more money? According to Kelley Blue Book, a base model 2014 Honda Accord sedan in good condition with 45,000 miles on the odometer and located in Chicago is valued at $11,006 as a trade-in, and $12,831 when sold to a private party. If you’re offering a 2014 BMW 528i with the same variables, expect to get $21,362 from a dealer or $23,622 from an individual buyer.
While some sellers might be able to attract buyers simply by parking the car in a prominent location and putting a “for sale” sign in the windshield, most will have to place a classified ad, typically in a local publication or online site, to facilitate a sale. Advertise via multiple sources for the widest exposure. Despite their diminished presence, newspapers still run classified used-car ads, often in both their print and online editions. Regional used-car “shoppers,” like those found on racks located near the entrances of auto-parts stores and supermarkets, often feature longer vehicle descriptions and publish pictures of listed models (some will even come out and shoot them for you), but their circulation tends to be limited.
Online classifieds, via sites like AutoTrader and CraigsList make it easy to screen and communicate with potential buyers via email, and they let a seller run multiple images of a car being sold, and more is better in this regard. Show front, side and three-quarter exterior views and several interior shots. Pay attention to lighting and focus and shoot during the daylight hours; taking pictures just after sunrise and before sunset affords the softest light with minimal glare.
When writing an ad, be sure to describe the vehicle as succinctly and accurately as possible, including the year, make and model, asking price, mileage and condition and your phone number. Use catchphrases like “clean,” “one owner,” “low mileage,” “good fuel economy” and such to attract attention. Ask for a bit more money than your valuation search turned up so there’s wiggle room for negotiation.
5. Show The Car Securely
This is the part of a used-car transaction that gives sellers the most fits. Many are uncomfortable – and rightly so in this day and age – with the prospect of strangers coming to their homes with perhaps more on their minds than test-driving a car. For the sake of personal security, show a car to purchasers only during the daylight hours. Better yet, arrange to meet at a public location, like a shopping mall or supermarket parking lot.
Be honest and fair when showing your car or truck to prospective buyers and point out key features; give the navigation and infotainment system (if so equipped) a demonstration. Be sure to bring along receipts for service and repairs and don’t be put off if a buyer wants to have his or her mechanic inspect it. Always ride along on a test drive (or a trip to the buyer's mechanic), and ask to see a buyer’s driver’s license beforehand.
6. Negotiate With Confidence
Whether you’re selling your car to a trusted neighbor or a used-car dealer, expect their first offer to be less than your asking price. Reject low-ball bids outright, as these often come from so-called “flippers” who will immediately turn around and sell it for more money. Base your lowest acceptable bid on what you know the vehicle to be worth and your urgency to unload it. If you’ve already shown the car to a few shoppers and haven’t been able to obtain what you think is a fair price (or worse, haven’t had any response to your car’s ads), you may want to consider accepting less money to facilitate a sale.
7. Seal The Deal
Once the terms of the deal are agreed upon, both parties should sign a sales contract. You can either handwrite or print off a simple bill of sale that identifies the car, the price, the parties to the sale, and that it is being purchased on an “as is” basis (which means it comes without a warranty of any kind). Or, to look more official and cover your legal bases more completely, you can pick up a standard bill of sale document at an office supply store, or can download one for free online.
Never accept a personal check as payment; being stuck with a bad check is the biggest used-car selling rip-off. Taking a cashier’s check can be a bit more secure, but scammers can still perpetrate fraud by creating counterfeit checks. If you prefer to accept a cashier’s check, make sure you conclude the transaction during business hours so you can verify its validity with the bank before signing over the title (and call the bank’s listed number, not one that might be printed on a fake check).
Still, it’s always best to insist on cash. If you’re worried about dealing with a big wad of bills, close the deal at your bank where both cash and title can change hands securely, and funds can be deposited immediately to your account.
Finally, remember to retrieve any personal property from the trunk, and any personal papers from the glove box (especially your registration and insurance information), remove the license plates, and scrape off your city or town’s vehicle sticker if there is one before handing over the keys.