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How to Sell Your Used Car (and Get Top Value)

How to Sell Your Used Car header

By Rachel Vanni on November 10, 2020 in life hacks

Selling a car sounds easy enough, right? But navigating through the twists and turns of selling a vehicle can make your head spin. How do you get the most value out of your used car? Keep reading for some best practices.

Empower Yourself with Information

Do your research before walking into any negotiation. Various resources can help you evaluate your car's value.

Websites such as Kelley Blue Book and AutoTrader provide three values.

  • Trade-in

The trade-in price is often the lowest value. Don’t use this value unless you’re trading your car in to a dealer for a new car.

  • Dealer retail

The dealer retail price is typically the highest, but you’ll be hard-pressed to score this price. You’re not a dealer, your vehicle may not be in perfect condition, and your buying and selling power is limited.

  • Private party

This option is the most relevant value. It reflects the price you can expect for your used car in a private sale based on your car’s condition. Know this value, and you’ll be able to spot if someone makes a good offer or is trying to pull a fast one on you.

Private Sale or Trade-In?

Selling privately usually brings the higher return. And a clean vehicle with less than 100,000 miles sold by a single owner will provide top dollar. But trading in a car comes with benefits, too. For one, you’ll spend less time arranging to meet with potential buyers. Should you sell your used vehicle or trade it for a new one? Take a moment to explore both options.

The biggest downside to selling privately is that a sale can take a few weeks. Finding potential buyers takes effort. You must clean the car, take pictures, write a description, identify damage or wear, and screen responses. After the sale, you’ll need to complete some paperwork, including the title transfer. However, you'll generally wind up with more money in the bank for a week or two of work. Don’t forget to review tax considerations if you sell your car for more than it’s worth. If you happen to make a profit off of the sale of your car (which is unlikely since cars depreciate), you must pay capital gains tax on that transaction.

Alternatively, trading in a used vehicle to a dealership in exchange for a new car is a simple process that requires minimal work. You'll receive a small percentage off your new car or truck. But there's a catch. The dealer will sell your car for two or three times what you received for trade-in value. Is it worth it to trade in a vehicle? It depends. If you’re willing to put in the effort to sell your car privately, you’ll likely come out ahead.

Do You Want Top Dollar for Your Used Car?

When selling any used vehicle, the goal is to get the most money you can for your car's condition. If you've maintained your used vehicle over the years and kept it clean, you'll have an easier time selling. Here are some tips to get the highest return.

  • Shift Your Focus to Selling

Now that your goal is to sell, treat the vehicle like it’s the buyer's car. Don't drive off road, dump fast-food wrappers in the backseat, or leave the window cracked in the rain.

  • Detail the Car

Detailing the interior and exterior of a car is crucial when selling it privately. Most auto parts stores sell car detailing kits for under $10. Your other option is to pay for professional detailing, which may run anywhere from $60 to $200. An immaculate car sells more quickly for more money.

  • Get Vehicle History Reports

It's usually worthwhile to purchase the vehicle history report to pass on to prospective buyers. It shows a willingness to be open and honest, thereby building trust with your buyer. To get a report, go to a reputable website such as vehiclehistory.gov and input your VIN number. The report will show the car’s registrations by state, the type of title, and insurance claims. Depending on where you get the report, it may also include the car’s accident and repair history.

  • Visit a Mechanic

Schedule maintenance and arrange for a tune up if it’s been a while. You want your engine to purr when a prospective buyer turns the ignition. If the mechanic finds problems with your vehicle, you’ll have to determine whether it’s worth it to fix or disclose them. Buyers don’t expect used cars to be perfect so it’s usually not worth fixing minor imperfections.

  • Gather the Vehicle Paperwork

Collect the title, maintenance history, and vehicle history report. Be ready to create a bill of sale. You'll hand it all off to the buyer once the purchase is complete.

How to Create an Effective Used Car Ad

Once you decide to sell your car privately, it is time to write an enticing and eye-catching used car ad.

When done right, this ad can get more eyes on your car and increase the pool of prospective buyers. You can post an ad on eBay, Craigslist, local Facebook groups, or Autotrader. If you want to get creative, create a video tour of your used car.

More traditional methods may still make the cut, though. For example, you can post a picture and "For Sale" sign on the bulletin board at work or spread the word by posting a sign in the window and telling your family and friends you’re selling your vehicle. Odds are, someone in your network is in the market for a used car. But it will help to write an ad anyway, which will help you come up with talking points about your car.

Ready to get started? Here are the basics for how to create a compelling used car ad.

  • Take Photos

You don't need to be a master photographer, but you need a few eye-catching photographs of your used car's interior and exterior. Keep reading for more information on how to flatter your car. Some ads allow for multiple pictures; use that space wisely.

  • Say a Few Words

Your ad should include:

  • Selling points
  • The reason you're selling
  • Forms of payment you’ll accept
  • Maintenance disclosures
  • Outstanding issues the buyer should know
  • Warranty information
  • Your negotiation terms (Is your price firm or will you take the best offer?)

On the other hand, here are a few things you shouldn’t do in a used car ad.

  • Don’t list your vehicle for different prices on different websites. If a buyer discovers both listings, you'll lose their trust.
  • Don’t use stock photos of your make and model. Your vehicle should be on display.
  • Don’t lower the price after a day or two of inactivity. Savvy buyers actively wait and watch interesting listings hoping for price reductions.
  • Don’t ignore unique features, such as built-in GPS or advanced safety features, that may sway a buyer.

Simple Tips for Taking Better Car Photos

While you don't need to arrange glamour shots for your vehicle, taking quality pictures of the exterior and interior is essential. Because a buyer may perceive the value of the car as higher based on excellent photos, the quality of car ad images could correlate with the amount of money over market value you can get. Here are a few tips for taking better car pics to post on your ad.

  • Fill the frame

Too many sellers post pictures with half the car in the frame. Don’t make this mistake. Show the entire vehicle in the images.

  • Wait for romantic lighting

Sunset or sunrise: Take your pick. At high noon, most vehicles look worn and lousy. Snap a picture of your vehicle first thing in the morning or in the evening, and the lighting will highlight your car's key features and minimize scratches or scuffs.

  • Rotate your phone

Turn your phone 90 degrees to capture a landscape shot of your vehicle.

  • Skip the flash

Flashes wash out colors and make imperfections look worse than they are. Turn off the flash and hold the phone or camera steady while you snap your photographs.

If you're unsure of your skills as an amateur photographer, ask a tech-savvy friend to take the photos. If you don't know anyone with photography skills, reach out to a few reasonably priced photographers in your area for quotes. Good pictures are key to a profitable sale.

How to Navigate the Test Drive

Once you find a prospective buyer, they’ll want to take a test drive. While you need to provide drivers with an opportunity to test your car, you also need to be safe.

Meet prospective owners in a public parking lot, and ask if you can tag along on the drive. If the driver prefers to drive alone, ask to take a picture of their drivers’ license. If they won’t provide a license, consider it a red flag. While the vast majority of private car sales are completed safely, it’s a good idea to take precautions.

Ready, Set, Sell!

Congratulations! You’re tapping into a pool of more than 39.4 million Americans who buy used vehicles each year. Follow the steps above to get top dollar for your used car or truck. And don’t forget to update your insurance or acquire a new policy when you purchase your new vehicle. Happy driving!


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Rachel Vanni is a consultant for Say Insurance. She's a California attorney, founder of Local Content, and freelance writer based in San Diego, CA. The combination of her legal experience with her passion for writing provides a unique and practical perspective on all things family, civil, and business.

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