If you’re selling your car yourself, there’s a good reason to learn how to do the job right: money. No matter what sort of vehicle you’ll be buying next, following a few simple steps will set you up to get the most money for your car.
The process may initially seem daunting and confusing, but if you take an organized approach, you’ll increase your chances of having a sale that’s smooth, quick, and rewarding. Working through the following steps will remove uncertainty and give you a clear road map to follow. Here are the things you need to do in order to get the most money when you sell your car.
Don’t Sell to a Dealer
If you are considering trading-in your current car on a new one purchased at a dealer, think twice. It’s a well-established fact that you can get more money for your used vehicle by selling it privately. Car dealers need to make money on the used cars they take in trade; they buy low and sell high. They’ll give you as little money as they can for your used vehicle, and since they negotiate every day, they’re probably better at it than you are. There may be exceptions—especially if you have a relatively new car that’s coming off-lease. But the biggest thing a dealer has to offer is convenience—one-stop shopping that enables you to trade-in your old vehicle on the spot and avoid the work of selling it yourself. But that extra effort will be worth it.
When selling your car, you’ll need to exchange certain documents with the buyer. Gather the paperwork listed below ahead of time to ensure things go smoothly.
Title: The title establishes that you’re the legal owner of the car. You’ll need to sign it over to the new owner once the sale takes place. If you still owe money on your car loan, the lender will have possession of the title. Your loan balance will have to be paid in full before the title can be transferred to the car’s new owner.
Bill of sale: Your state’s department of motor vehicles may require you to complete a bill of sale when selling your vehicle. This form can likely be downloaded from the department’s website. Be sure to check the website to see if there’s any other paperwork required by your state.
Maintenance and repair records: Some buyers may want to take a look at the car’s maintenance and repair records to make sure it’s been well taken care of over the years. If you have these records on hand, get them organized so you can share them with prospective buyers.
Private or Dealer Sale?
As described earlier, you can sell your car to a private party or you can choose to sell it to a dealer. While we recommend the former, selling to a dealer is simpler and easier: You contact the dealership, have them inspect your vehicle, and agree on a price. The range of dealers that would be interested in buying a used car includes brand-name car dealerships that sell new cars, independent used-car dealers (there are still a few of them), and companies that sell used cars online (such as CarMax and Carvana). But most dealers want relatively new cars; they’re not interested in older, high-mileage vehicles. So even if you would rather follow this low-effort path to sell your vehicle, it might not be possible.
Establish an Asking Price
To set a reasonable price for your vehicle, you’ll need to get a valuation estimate. You can obtain this information by using tools offered by sites such as Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds, or here on caranddriver.com. To get an accurate valuation, you’ll need to provide information on the car including make and model, mileage, optional equipment, and its condition. Depending on the site, you will be given its approximate trade-in value (based on zip code), its value for a private-party sale, or both numbers—usually in a range.
What you’ll see immediately is the disparity in price between a private-party sale and a dealer trade-in. We input a sample six-year-old compact sedan into one of these estimators and saw a roughly $2000 advantage to selling privately. Use these estimates as your guide when setting an asking price for your vehicle. Figure a price of about 15 to 20 percent higher than what you’re willing to take based on the vehicle valuation.
Now it’s time to get your car spruced up and ready for prospective buyers. Start by cleaning and vacuuming the car’s interior and getting rid of any junk and clutter. Give the exterior a thorough wash—it may be a good idea to go as far as getting the car detailed.
Also, think about purchasing a vehicle-history report. This report offers background information on the vehicle that’s useful to buyers. For example, it indicates whether the vehicle has been in any serious accidents, and it can confirm that the car’s odometer reading is accurate. Assuming that the information shown is favorable, having one of these reports on hand can make your car more attractive to potential buyers and ease any concerns they may have.
The next step involves letting prospective buyers know your vehicle is available to buy. If you’re selling to a dealership, this involves contacting more than one dealer so you can compare prices and get the best deal. You’ll be expected to provide basic information about your car, such as its mileage and overall condition. Expect to visit their used-car lots so their sales people can look over your car.
If you’re selling your car to a private party, you’ll need to place an ad. You can post an ad on sites like Craigslist, Autotrader, eBay Motors, Cars.com, and Bring a Trailer. You can even try brand-specific forums, if there are any for your vehicle.
Be honest when describing your car in an ad. Include as much information as you’d want to see if you were a prospective buyer.
Most important, support your ad with lots of photos. Take shots of the car’s cabin and exterior from multiple angles. Avoid taking pictures at noon or thereabouts, since the overhead light of the sun can be harsh; you’ll get the most flattering lighting in the hour or so right after sunrise or in the time just before sunset. Try to take the photos in an isolated location so there won’t be any objects in the background to draw attention from your car.
When posting an ad, consider setting up a dedicated email address and phone line via Google. This will allow you to field offers easily, and it will protect your privacy. Also, don’t discount the power of social media. Get the word out to friends and family via Facebook and Twitter.
Contact Prospective Buyers
If you’re selling your car to a dealership, you may have gotten a few offers from the various dealers you’ve contacted. Go through your offers and pick the best one. Get in touch with the buyer to finalize the sale.
For private-party sales, this step involves screening calls and meeting with prospective buyers. Respond to calls and emails in a timely fashion. Make sure to get full contact information, including name, email address, and phone number. If something seems suspicious or if you get the sense that a buyer isn’t serious, don’t be afraid to move on to the next candidate.