How to sell a car

If it’s time to sell your car, there are proven steps you can take to maximize its value and ensure a happy outcome for both sides of the transaction. Getty Images

Congratulations! You’ve decided to sell your car, truck, or SUV, and like most of us, you’d like to get top dollar for your vehicle. With used vehicle prices at an all-time high thanks to Covid-19 and chip shortages, you have an advantage. But there are some simple, time-proven steps that can help you really maximize the sale price of your car.

Before you sell, there are a few questions to consider:

  • Selling to buy a new or used car?
  • Selling because you no longer want a vehicle?
  • Are you willing to put stocks to maximize your profit?
  • Do you still owe money on the vehicle you are trying to sell?

Let’s start with the last item on the list, as if you owe money, you will need to contact your lender and notify them of the potential sale in order to prepare the vehicle title for transfer. Many car dealers will handle this step for you, and the dealers’ efforts may include transferring your existing payment to the loan you’re taking out for any new vehicle you’re buying.

If you owe more money than the car is worth using popular vehicle valuation guides, you are “upside down” on your loan. For example, you bought your car for $30,000 and still owe $18,000. Your vehicle was appraised by the dealer at $14,000, which means you are $4,000 behind.

You will need to write a check for this amount or transfer it to a new loan if you want to part with the car. Being upside down rarely works in your favor, especially if you have a low credit score.

If you are not upside down, read how to maximize your profit.

Sweat Equity

I have bought and sold quite a few cars over the years and one thing I always appreciate is the “like new” overall condition of my vehicles. Dealers have professional detailers to make even battered cars look as clean as the day they left the factory. Since that’s where you’re competing for potential buyers, there’s no reason your car shouldn’t look just as good.

Car details
Be prepared to do some work or pay someone to do it for you. Car dealerships have staff to make their cars present to potential buyers, but if you do these tasks yourself, you’ll get more money for your car. Getty Images

Clean it up!

If your vehicle looks better and runs well, you are responsible for buying from a seller. Follow these steps for maximum dollar amount:

Clean, clean, clean, and clean some more—start with the exterior and give your vehicle a good wash and wax. Be sure to run the garden hose under your car to remove dirt from the underbody and fender wells. Although you want a clean engine bay, don’t use water to clean under the hood, as water can damage the underhood electronics.

Use clean towels and a good cleaning spray like Simple Green under the hood to wipe years of grime off engine covers, fluid reservoirs, and anything else you can safely reach and clean. Do not clean under the hood with the vehicle running or if the engine is still warm.

After cleaning the exterior and underside of the hood, apply your skills to the interior. Use a quality vacuum cleaner to pick up dirt, coins, old French fries and gravel on the floor or seats. Pay particular attention to the gaps between the seats and the center or rear consoles. Use a carpet or interior cleaning spray for tough stains. Use the appropriate cleaner for fabric, vinyl or leather seats.

Carvana distribution tower
Online used vehicle dealers like Carvana, Vroom and Shift have been willing to buy used vehicles for several years. They can make your sale easy and painless, but it’s well worth reading all the fine print. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A thorough cleaning and detailing will cost you approximately 2 to 7 hours of cleaning depending on the condition of your car. Inside and out, it’s important to take the time to use the right cleaning sprays and waxes, as using the wrong cleaners can damage your vehicle, reducing its resale or trade-in value.

Don’t want to roll up your sleeves? Most good retailers will charge between $150 and $600 to bring your vehicle back to life, although some high-end detailing jobs can run up to $2,000. Professional retailers can remove door dents and dings, repair scratches, polish or “touch up” your paint finish to a new condition, and do interior detailing.

Even if you’re just taking your vehicle through a car wash and vacuuming, you’ll save money by appraising your vehicle at a higher value.

Sell ​​it!

Now that your ride looks great, how should you sell it? Let’s look at several ways:

Online Used Vehicle Retailers: Online businesses like Carvana and Vroom will ask you for photos and mileage of your vehicle and, based on a successful field inspection, will give you an inspection when they come to collect your vehicle with a flatbed truck.

The upside is that selling this way makes for a quick and easy transaction. Some offers may be higher than I would get at retailers, too. On the other hand, be sure to read all the fine print. These are still new companies and some have experienced issues with titles and payments.

Used BMWs in a dealership
Dealers are really looking for quality used cars, but because they have access to many different sources and trades come in daily, they don’t necessarily have to pay you top dollar. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Sales at a dealership: Usually, dealers underestimate your estimate. Many pay more for in-demand models or, during the recent spike in fuel prices, vehicles that get great fuel economy, but generally will pay as little as they can.

It may be to your advantage to get reviews from multiple dealers if you choose to go this route. Note that you can sell your car to any dealer, even if you intend to buy a car from another dealer. Look for the best price you can get! Don’t be afraid to negotiate with a dealer for a higher valuation or walk away if it’s not in your area.

Sell ​​it yourself: This option usually produces the best performance. By selling yourself, you cut out the middle man, but you also have to do all of said middle man’s work. Make sure your vehicle looks its best!

Datsun 210 Wagon
Dealers are also generally not interested in vehicles over a certain age. But there are actually a lot of people who will spend money on this 1981 Datsun 210 wagon. Facebook is the best place for such a car, as there are a lot of enthusiast groups that share such listings, but vintage car auction sites also work. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Here’s a template for how to sell your car to a private buyer:

Advertise. Neighbors and friends can be good places to start letting people know that your car, truck, or SUV is for sale, but you’ll also want to cast a wider net. Craigslist isn’t as well trafficked as it used to be, but it’s still a good place to list a vehicle.

Many people now advertise on Facebook Marketplace, where you can post to multiple groups or a general “Vehicles for Sale” page. I have had great success using this portal to buy and sell my cars. If you have a valuable or classic car, consider sites like Bring a Trailer, Hemmings and Cars & Bids. What some 1990s cars are worth today might surprise you.

List it on an online sales portal. CarGurus, Autotrader and TrueCar are designed for dealers, but individuals can also list cars there and this gets you national exposure with free or very low listing costs.

In some cases, these sites will also work with local dealers to offer you a cash offer. You simply fill in your car’s details and schedule a check-up with a local dealer. Once your car is valued, you receive a check. If you decide to sell it yourself, enter the vehicle details and upload your photos.

eBay. Selling cars for over 25 years now, eBay’s listing fees are low and you can either put your vehicle up for sale as an auction (with or without reserve) or a fixed price. You can also set the sale for local or national level. I live in Maryland and once bought a car online and had it shipped from San Diego, CA for $1,800 sealed, insured shipping. The vehicle arrived in seven days in excellent condition.

Bad Car listing photos
Once you’ve cleaned your car and decided to list it, posting terrible photos will undermine your hard work. If buyers can’t see the vehicle or the listing looks terrible, you’re less likely to attract buyers. Craigslist
Good car listing photos
Give your audience as good a picture of your vehicle as possible. You don’t need to hire a professional photographer, but lots of clean, descriptive images will attract more potential buyers. Alex Kwanten

Get creative with your listing

Whatever website you choose to sell your vehicle on, be descriptive. Which listing would you call first?

  • Lexus LX570 2015. Good condition, 95k miles. $44,000.
  • 2015 Lexus LX570, well maintained by original owner with all service records. Clean body with no dents or paint. Like new interior! Amazing Stereo with Bluetooth! New tires! Garage kept and always baby. Only 95k miles. Please see the 12 photos attached and contact me (via email or phone) with any questions. Don’t miss out on this gem of a Lexus! $44,000. Come see it and drive it!

I’m sure we agree that the second description is better. Be sure to include clean photos from all exterior angles, under-the-hood shots to show how clean you made it, photos of the trunk or hatchback, and photos of all the rows of your like-new interior. Terrible photos or ones that take out most of the car will definitely discourage potential buyers. Great photos will beckon them.

As a general matter of safety, it’s probably wise to arrange for a potential buyer to meet you at the local police station or other well-lit, safe area, such as a grocery store or shopping mall. Take a friend with you when you meet a potential buyer.

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