How to Sell Your Old Car and Get the Most For It
Court Demone July 30, 2015

Figuring out what to do with your old vehicle can be one of the most difficult parts of buying a new one. This article gives you car selling tips that will help you weigh your options when getting rid of your old vehicle, be it trade-in or private sale, and walk you through each process so you can get the most for your old wheels no matter which option you choose.

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Price the Car

Before you even consider how you want to sell your vehicle, you’ll want to do some pricing research. Below are some resources that you can use to determine the approximate market value of your car, but a lot of the pricing process is based on you making a judgement call on its condition.

  • Check out what Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds have to say. These sites offer calculators that determine private sale and trade-in prices based on the make, model, and condition of your vehicle. They’re the industry standard for car pricing, and are the same tools that the dealers use to come up with their pricing information.
  • Compare listings in your local area. Since each local market is different, there’s no better reference than checking out used car listings in your area. Use the AutoTempest car search to find cars on Craigslist, eBay, AutoTrader, and many other used car listing sites and see what others in your area are asking for models similar to your own.

After doing some solid research, you’ll have a good idea of what to expect in return for your old ride. Remember to take into account the condition of your vehicle compared to the others you’ve found, as well as mileage, any modifications you’ve made since buying, and even things like rare coloring. Mods and non-standard options can make a car more valuable to the right buyer, but can also narrow down your market, making selling more difficult. (For unique rides, selling on eBay might be a good choice.)

Determine the Trade-In Value of Your Car

Regardless of how you will sell your car, take it in to your dealer to find out what they’ll offer as a trade-in value. Wait until after you’ve negotiated a price for the new vehicle though, or else the dealer may offer you what seems like a great deal on your trade-in, in exchange for jacking the price on the new car.

What they offer you will surely be lower than the prices you researched earlier, but that’s in exchange for the labor, time, and money the dealer puts into your vehicle getting it ready for sale (plus a cut for themselves, of course).

At best, the dealer could give you an offer near to what you get selling privately, making a trade-in a very appealing option.

At worst, this offer tells you the lowest amount you can get for your car if you must sell and can help you determine the amount of money you’d like to spend getting your vehicle ready for sale (preparing your car for sale will come later). Either way, feel free to make a counter-offer to try and increase the value.

Clean It Up

Another thing you’ll want to do is give your car a good clean. Even if you’re planning on just going with a trade-in, a good looking, good sounding, and even good smelling vehicle can help increase your offer. Here’s a quick checklist of things you’ll want to do to clean up your car:

  • Completely empty the vehicle. Remove all your personal possessions from the vehicle (including anything you’re not selling with it, like GPS, MP3 player, etc.) and get rid of anything under and between the seats and in the bottom of the cup holders. Clear out your glove box, leaving nothing but the necessities like owner’s manual, registration, and insurance information. Organize any repair and maintenance papers and keep them in the glove box as well. Take everything out of the trunk, properly securing the jack and spare tire back into place once you’ve finished your cleaning. Not only does reducing the amount of clutter in your vehicle make it more visually appealing, it can also make the car more aurally appealing, as the rattling of stuff in your trunk could easily be mistaken as a more serious mechanical problem.
  • Give the interior a good vac and wipe. Everything that has a cloth surface should be vacuumed. It’s a good idea to give any removable bits a good wash, like mats or seat covers, using vinegar to get out tough stains. Clean any vinyl surfaces with Armor All Interior or the like, and treat any leather.
  • Wash and polish your exterior. I’m sure you’ve washed your vehicle a million times, so you know the do’s and don’ts. I will say this though: don’t forget the details. The headlights, taillights, and hubs should sparkle, and the tires and mudflaps should look spotless. Take off your bumper stickers too, in case the prospective buyer doesn’t share your sense of humour or political affiliations. Give it a nice towel dry after rinsing and it’ll shine that much more.
  • Wash those windows! Don’t forget the rear views either.
  • Clean all the minor mechanical bits. Oil the hinges (doors, hood and trunk), get a good clean in the door jambs and seals, and make sure that all the seat belts pull easily. Having the little things work well enhances a prospective buyer’s experience of the car.
  • Check your tire pressure.
  • Finishing touches. Another thing you’ll want to do if you’re having someone test drive the vehicle is to leave the driver seat all the way back and at the lowest setting. No one’s going to remember having to adjust the seat when they get in the vehicle, but they’ll probably remember feeling cramped or having their knees knock up against the steering wheel. Now that your cleaning is done, drive the car like it’s going to sell tomorrow to save having to do this all again.
  • Too much work? If this all sounds like too much, you couldjust trade it in at the dealership and take whatever they give you. Or, you could always take the car to a professional detailing shop. It will be immaculate for under $200, and you stand to make far more than that by selling your car privately.

Trade-In vs. Private Sale

Deciding between doing a trade-in and selling your car yourself really comes down to what your priorities are: saving money or saving time and effort.

Doing a Trade-In

  • Saves a lot of time and effort. A trade-in can be as easy as driving your vehicle to the dealer, signing a couple papers, and handing over the keys.
  • Likely results in less money in hand for you.
  • That being said, you do save on taxes, as the trade-in and new purchase are combined into one transaction, making it so you only pay taxes on the difference. This could be a savings of over a thousand dollars.

I mentioned this earlier, but it bears mention again – unless you are buying a brand new car and know you will be trading in your old one, don’t let the topic of trade-in come up between you and your dealer until after you’ve negotiated a final buying price for your new vehicle. Letting these negotiations meld together makes it more difficult to ensure you get a fair deal for either one. If the dealer tries to bring up the trade-in before you’ve agreed on a price for the new vehicle, just tell them that you’ve yet to decide whether you want to do a trade-in or to sell your car privately.

Selling Privately

  • It’s a fair amount of work and pretty time consuming. You have to spend time and effort getting the vehicle ready for sale, advertising it, and meeting with potential buyers.
  • It has the potential to make you thousands more off your old car than a trade-in.

So, at this time you should have a good idea of how much you can sell your vehicle for, based on the pricing research you did earlier, and you know how much you could get for the vehicle in a trade-in.

Now you have to come up with three figures: what you want to set the asking price at, the lowest you’re willing to go in negotiations, and how much you’re willing to spend on repairs and extras.

The asking price is an obvious consideration, but determining the other two early on in the sale process will help you as you continue through it. Your asking price should be around that of other vehicles similar to yours on the market, taking into account the mileage and condition that yours is in, and the suggested private sale prices from sites like Edmunds.com, KBB.com, and NADAGuides.com. Be aware that you will probably be bargained down from your asking price, so leave some room for that.

Your lowest price should take into account any repairs or maintenance you’ll have to do to get the car ready for sale. Obviously, once those costs are deducted, you want to be making at least as much as you would’ve got trading it in! Your lowest price isn’t something you want to let potential buyers know, it’s just for personal reference.

Prepping Your Vehicle for Sale

Here’s a list of things you’ll want to consider spending money on when prepping the car for sale. Remember to keep all the paperwork and receipts for this stuff, and put it in a folder in your glove box with any previous paperwork or receipts you may have. Keep photocopies to give to prospective buyers.

How much you want to spend on repairs and prep is really up to you. The better the shape your car is in, the easier it’ll be to find a buyer, and the more you’ll be able to ask for it. Dealers usually budget between $800-$1200 to prep a used vehicle for sale.

Depending on the state of your car, you’ll have to come up with a number that seems appropriate to you. Basically you want to put yourself in the buyer’s shoes and decide whether a given improvement will increase the vehicle’s value by more than it costs you to do.

Of course, the asking price of your car is a consideration too. Spending $500 to fix up a $20,000 car could make sense, whereas doing the same work on a $2000 car is unlikely to pay off. Here are some things to consider doing:

  • First thing to consider is a safety inspection. If you’re planning to ask more than, say, $5000 for your car, this is a must. It will cost around $100, and even if you don’t do all the repairs they suggest, you’ll at least be able to give the buyer an honest account of the vehicle’s state. Depending on your budget and the severity of the issues, you’ll probably want to go through with at least some, if not all, of the repairs the mechanics suggest. It may happen that the buyer will want to get another inspection of the car before buying it, but if you do an inspection prior to putting it on the market, you’ll be able to tell the buyer what to expect from the second inspection.
  • New tires. If your tread is shallower than 1/8th of an inch, you may want to invest in replacement tires. You can even get used ones, just make sure that you mount them in matching pairs, on the same axle, so that handling isn’t compromised. Tires are expensive though, so you’ll have to weight how much value they add.
  • Body repair. Dents or deep scratches probably won’t affect how the vehicle rides, but they’ll definitely have an impact on the buyer’s perception of the car. If it’s in your budget to do so, get ‘em fixed. If you’re the DIY type, small dents can be fixed really easily with a hair dryer and a CO2 air duster.
  • Change your oil and replace some easy things. An oil change is quick and cheap, and a prospective buyer will be much happier to see nice golden oil than black sludge. Top up the washer fluid while you’re at it. Also replace the wipers if they’re no longer working well, and check for dead light bulbs. Clean your battery terminals if they have built-up corrosion.
  • Replace broken or missing trim pieces. Glove box lids, door panels, and other odds and ends can be found at your local salvage yard for cheap. You can get them from the dealer’s parts counter too, but you could be paying a lot for them there.
  • Refrain from doing shoddy repairs. Cheap and quick fixes often do more damage than good. If your vehicle’s got some rust on the body that you don’t want to spend the money to get fixed, just leave it as it is. A little rust looks much better to a potential buyer than a quick and dirty putty job.
  • If you don’t have your owner’s manual, get a new one.You should be able to find one for relatively cheap off eBay.
  • VIN Look Ups and History Reports. In our vehicle buying guides, we suggest that anyone interested in buying a vehicle should do a VIN look-up and get a history report so they can have a detailed account of the vehicle’s specifications, how many times the vehicle has switched hands, what has been repaired on it, and if it’s been in any accidents. Having a current VIN check or history report for the buyer to check out can only help the sale. You can get complete history reports from InstaVIN.com for $6.99; it makes you seem much more reliable and professional for very cheap.

If you’re on a really tight budget, there’s no shame in selling a car “as is.” It may be more difficult to sell this way, and you probably won’t be able to fetch as much as you’d like, but you will save some time and effort and still have a chance to beat your trade-in offer. Just make sure to advertise the car “as is” so there aren’t any unexpected surprises that come up for the buyer.

Spreading the Word

Now that your car is ready for sale, it’s time to get the word out! First thing you’ll want to do is take pictures of it, all cleaned and fixed up. You don’t need to be a professional photographer, just go out in the morning or the evening so there isn’t too much glare and the colors don’t come out faded, and take a lot of pictures from a lot of different angles. The bigger selection you have to choose from, the better chance you’ll have some really great ones in there. Resist the temptation to touch them up in Photoshop. Like with everything in the sale process, honesty is the best policy.

You don’t need to spend a ton of money on advertising your car; it should be one of the cheapest parts of the whole process. Start with the cheap and easy:

  • Make a Craigslist ad and post it to your Facebook and/or Twitter accounts.
  • Post some good ol’ paper ads on bulletin boards at your local coffee shops and garages.

You could post an ad in newspaper classifieds, but it’s probably best to save your money. The newspaper is a dying breed, and if you are going to spend money on advertising, you’re better off posting on listing sites specific to used vehicles, like AutoTrader.com or eBay Motors. They open you up to a significantly larger base of buyers, but they can promote a buyer’s market. That said, if your Craigslist ad isn’t getting enough of a response for you, it might be worth it.

Here are a few pointers to write a car ad that sells:

  • Mention the key specs. Year, make, model, mileage, average miles per gallon, and color are all standards and are expected in an ad. If there is anything that makes this particular vehicle unique, or any key modifications you’ve made to it since buying, mention those too. Use your judgement as to what you think should be put into the ad, and remember that too much information is always better than too little.
  • Explain what you’ve enjoyed about the car, and why you’re selling. Chances are, what drew you to the vehicle in the first place is what is going to draw others to it too. If you like it because it’s a sweet and sexy ride, say that; if you like it because it’s reliable and good on gas, say that. Likewise, explaining why you’re selling your car can reassure a potential buyer that you’re not just dumping your problem on them.
  • Be explicit about its obvious downfalls. If there are things that could turn a buyer off during a test drive or upon a safety inspection, be explicit about them in your ad. It saves the buyer from wasting their time checking out a vehicle they won’t be interested in, and saves you from having to show the car to uninterested buyers. Plus, it shows buyers that you will deal with them honestly.
  • Think about what people will search for. Particularly if you’re posting an ad on Craigslist, think about what words people will enter to search for a car like yours, and make sure they appear in your ad. For example, say you’re selling a BMW 335xi. You’ll want the words 335, 335i, 335xi, 3-series and 3 series in there. That way whatever words people use to search, they’ll find your ad. Include common misspellings too. ie: If you’re selling an Infiniti, you’ll want to add ‘(aka Infinity)’.
  • Use the title! Many people browsing ads on Craigslist and other sites will just skim over the ad titles. Which do you think they would be more likely to click on?
    • Ford Mustang
    • 2005 Ford Mustang GT – loaded, leather, premium pkg – one owner, low miles, immaculate!

Obviously you want all that info in the body of the ad too, but detailed titles grab attention and set your car ad apart.

Selling Your Car on eBay

eBay can be an especially good option for somewhat rare or unique vehicles and is worth considering for any car – particularly if you live in a smaller city or town, where the local market isn’t as large. Note that selling on eBay doesn’t mean you have to use their auction format. If you make your ad a “Buy it Now”, it works the same as a regular for-sale ad where you set the price. There’s also “Buy it Now or Best Offer”, which lets you set the price, but gives buyers the option to make lower offers – which you can choose to accept or not.

Here are some of the pros of selling on eBay:

  • Relatively cheap way to sell. eBay takes $60 from a sale under $2000, $125 from a sale over $2000.
  • If your car doesn’t sell, you don’t have to pay.

Selling a vehicle on eBay is becoming more and more common and, if the effort is put in, can be a great way to get good value for your vehicle. As with the other methods of selling that we’ve covered so far, it’s key to give a detailed and honest report of your vehicle through a great looking listing. Since there’s less of a chance of the bidder coming to see the car personally, it’s important that you give them as much information as possible.

Tips for Writing Your eBay Car Listing:

  • Run through eBay’s “Sell your Vehicle Checklist”.
  • Use the subtitle wisely. eBay automatically creates your listing title out of your vehicle’s make, model, and year. The subtitle is customizable and is weighted heavily in eBay’s search, so this is a great place to put keywords, like the alternate spellings mentioned on above. Keywords related to any unique or desirable features are also good to use. Try to use up the full amount of characters they allow.
  • Take a lot more pictures. Since it’s less likely that a bidder will come check out the car in person, getting as many quality photos as possible is necessary. You can put up to 24 photos on your eBay listing and you should try to put at least 12 up there. Make sure to have photos of all four sides of the vehicle, photos of the interior, a photo of the engine, a close up of the odometer, and photos of any dings, scratches, and significant damage.
  • Get a little more detailed. On top of the general specs mentioned above, give the car’s history (history reports from InstaVIN or AutoCheck are great for this), mention any maintenance records you may have and any recent service done to the vehicle, and the details of any transferable warranty.
  • Give a “virtual test drive.” Since they won’t be able to come test drive the car themselves, try to describe the feel of the vehicle to the bidder. Go over what you like about the ride of the car, but be honest about the overall feel.
  • Let the bidder know they can come check out the vehicle first hand. If a bidder lives near to you, there’s a chance they’ll take you up on it, but even if they don’t it looks good that you’re willing to do showings of the car.
  • Set the conditions of your sale. Be explicit about not handing over the keys until you’ve received the whole payment, how the vehicle will be delivered (drive away or shipping), how the vehicle will be inspected, and what payment methods you’ll accept. A lot of this is handled when you create the eBay listing, but it’s worth making note of again. If you will be assisting with shipping the car, make sure to relieve yourself of liability by stating that any damage incurred during shipping is not your responsibility and should be taken up with the shipper. Check out our article on shipping for more info.
  • Check out the eBay Motors guide on selling your vehicle for even more ideas.

Showing the Car

It’s a good idea to begin advertising your car a few days before you have a period of time free to show the vehicle. Make sure to always have your phone handy once you start advertising. Some people might hit voice mail and intend to call back to set up a showing, but find something else in the meantime. Keep a copy of your car’s specs with you so you can best answer any of the caller’s questions.

When you do book showings, give yourself at least a half hour between each. That way, you’ll have time to clean the vehicle if it got dirtied during a test drive, or if you get an amazing offer for your car and sell it right then and there, you have time to cancel.

  • Before a showing, make sure to do a quick once-over the vehicle again. Remove any items inside, giving it a quick clean, lower and move back the driver’s seat, and ensure all your paperwork is neatly collected in the glove box.
  • Meet on your turf. Be it at home or at your work, meeting a potential buyer somewhere familiar to you makes the process less stressful and doesn’t put you in a predicament should they not show.
  • Give them an honest showing. Again, point out any issues the car may have, but really drawing attention back to what it is you love about the vehicle.
  • Insist on going with them for the test drive. This isn’t just for your safety (it doesn’t take that long to cut a key) but also so you can comment on the handling and ride.
  • If they want to do a test drive, ensure that they have a valid driver’s license. If they don’t and they get into an accident, your insurance will be of little help.
  • Make yourself available after the showing. How often have you left someplace, only to have a thousand questions come up on the way home? Let the potential buyer know that if they have any questions come up, they can always give you a shout.
  • Don’t entertain low-ball offers. If someone makes an offer lower than what you’ve established as the lowest you’re willing to go, tell them that you’re sorry, but you’ll have to decline. Trying to bargain at that point is a waste of time, and at best can land you at your lowest price. If someone makes an offer near to or above your lowest price, then make a counter offer and see how high you can get them to go. Our article on negotiating tips for buyers should help there, since you’ll have a better idea where the buyer is coming from.
  • Even if you get a good offer, think it over. This not only gives you time to consider, but it gives time for better offers to come in.
  • The buyer will probably want the vehicle inspected before purchase. Either carpool there with the prospective buyer, or drive it there yourself and meet them.

Finalizing the Deal

Once you’ve settled on a deal with a buyer, there’s just a bit of work left to do.

  • First off, get your money. As a rule of thumb, don’t accept any form of payment other than cash. Personal checks can be for accounts with no money in them and cashier’s checks can be faked. If you or the buyer are (rightfully) nervous about carrying around several thousand dollars in cash, agree to meet at one of your banks. If you meet at their bank, they can get a cashier’s check there in front of you. If you meet at your bank, they can get the money from a teller or an ATM, and you can deposit it right then and there. (This might not work for some people, as they may have daily withdrawal limits on their accounts.) If you must take a method of payment other than cash, don’t hand over the keys until you’ve received all the funds into your account, and your bank has verified the funds have cleared.
  • Pay off your loans. If you have an outstanding loan on your car, you will have to go to your lender and pay off your debt so you can sign over the title.
  • Sign it over. Since the laws are different state to state, you’ll have to contact your local DMV to find out exactly what is needed to sign a vehicle over; this may include smog certification and dealing with lemon laws. You’ll most definitely want to fill out a bill of sale and make copies for each of you. You’ll also have to provide the buyer with the car’s title certification and an odometer statement. If you have a transferable warranty, you can hand that over as well.It is unlikely that you could be held liable for anything that goes wrong with the car after you sell it, but just in case, write the buyer a receipt that specifies the vehicle as being sold “as is” to give yourself an added layer of protection.
  • A few last steps. Once that’s all done, you’ll want to remove your license plates and registration stickers if you have them, and cancel your insurance. Then hand over the keys and, congratulations, your car sale is complete!

Avoiding Scams

Most people out there are honest, and I wouldn’t let fear of scams stop you from selling your car privately. That said, it’s always good to be cautious. Your intuition is probably your biggest help, but here are a couple guidelines to follow.

  • If you’re doing a transfer online, research all the services involved. If you’re receiving money by email transfer or escrow, ensure that the service is legitimate and well established. Do not send money back to the buyer under any circumstances. Buyers who ask to overpay and have you return some of the cash are almost certainly scammers.
  • Never sign over the title until you’ve received all your money. If you’re waiting on a check to clear, don’t finalize the deal by transferring the title until after you’ve received all the funds.
  • If you’re selling your car on eBay or another auction site, look at your buyer’s history. If the buyer has bad reviews or a short history, be especially cautious, and again, don’t transfer the title or ship the vehicle until the payment has been cleared by your bank.
  • If you feel you’ve been scammed, file a report. Contact your local police department and the consumer protection division of your state’s Attorney General office. If you were selling your vehicle online and were scammed, get a hold of the FBI’s Internet Fraud Complaint Center or the National Fraud Information Center. If selling through eBay and the buyer doesn’t pay, see their process for dealing with unpaid items.

A Few Last Words

I hope you’ve found this guide helpful no matter what method you chose to sell your vehicle. If you’d like more info on strategies to use when negotiating the price of your trade-in, I recommend the How to Negotiate a Trade-in guide from our partner, Find the Best Car Price.com. You could also check out our negotiating tips for car buyers, since knowing the techniques a savvy buyer might employ will help you be ready for them.

Finally, below you can find links to more used car sales guides that may help you with the sale process.

Good luck with getting a great deal on your old car, and enjoy your new one!

Header image courtesy of Pixabay.

Court Demone Design & Marketing Lead