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How to Sell a Used Car

Written by Nickel - 14 Comments

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How to Sell a Used Car

As I noted a week ago, we recently bought a new car. That meant it was time to sell our old car. In general terms, I avoid trade-ins because: (1) they make the deal significantly more complex, making it harder to get a good deal, and (2) you can generally get considerably more selling your car to a private party.

Well, I’m pleased to report that we’ve now sold our old car. Today, I want to share some tips for doing this yourself. While there’s a bit of work involved, you’ll typically come out way ahead relative to a doing a trade-in.

Save the original paperwork

For starters, it’s a good idea to save all of your paperwork from the original purchase and make it available to the prospective buyer. This includes the window sticker, as well as the glossy showroom brochure describing your car. If you care enough to keep this stuff, you’ll give the buyer confidence that you cared enough to maintain your car over its lifetime. Yes, it might be too late for you now, but next time you buy a car, you’ll know better.

Take good care of it

For starters, if you want to maximize resale value, take good care of your car. Do the preventative maintenance on schedule, fix problems as they crop up, clean up spills and stains when they happen, and so forth. Nobody wants to pay top dollar for a hunk of junk, so do your best to keep your ride in primo condition. And save your maintenance records!

Clean it up

My next tip is, to the extent possible, restore that “new car” look. Spend a few bucks getting your car detailed. The closer to showroom quality, the closer you’ll get to your desired price. One thing to be aware of: A squeaky clean engine is impressive, but if you get it steam cleaned, potential buyers might worry that you’re trying to hide evidence of leaks.

Figure out the value

While you want to get top dollar for your ride, potential buyers may ignore your ad if you ask for too much. It’s thus important to figure out how much your car is really worth before deciding on a price.

Both Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book offer free online tools for estimating a reasonable private party resale price depending on mileage, condition, etc. While you should use those services, you should also skim through Craigslist and the classified ads for your area to get a feel for the local market.

When setting the price, keep in mind that most buyers will want to haggle, so you’ll need to pick a number somewhat higher than you’re willing to accept. But don’t go too high, or your phone will never ring.

Assemble your records

Before you list your car, get your paperwork in order. This should include not only your maintenance records (you’ve been saving them, right?) to re-assure the buyer that you took good care of the car but also you car title, which you’ll need before you can transfer ownership. This latter point gave us a bit of a scare, as we couldn’t find the title at first. We knew it was in one of three places, and it wound up being in the third (and least likely).

Advertise it

In order to drum up interest, you’ll need to do more than just stick a “For Sale” sign in the window and drive it around town. Yes, Craigslist can be a good source of buyers, but it’s also full of scammers, and not all that effective (in my experience). Thus, I highly recommend placing a newspaper ad. Be sure to hit the high points (mileage, non-smoker, garage kept, new tires, etc.) and be sure to list a phone number (Google Voice is great for this) to make it easier for buyers to get in touch.

Another tip: Take good pictures and use them. Craigslist lets you upload up to four photos, and many newspapers allow at least one picture to go along with your ad. People are far more likely to followup if they can see how awesome your car is.

Show it off

Once you start hearing from buyers, it’s time to show it off. It’s up to you where you meet them — either at home or at a public place. We’ve always done this at home, but I can certainly understand not wanting strangers at your house. Be prepared to let them take a test drive. You’ll need to get their license and insurance info before handing over the keys.

They should leave their car behind (get the keys) to help ensure they’ll come back. Hopefully it’s not a beater! You may or may not want to go along with them. I’ve done both. Most recently, the buyers (and older couple) asked me to come along, so I joined them and answered questions about the car as they drove. You’ll have to follow your gut on this one — don’t do anything stupid.

If the buyers ask to take the car to a mechanic… This is understandable, but can be problematic. You’re trying to sell your car, and you can’t be without it for long stretches. If it’s a buyers market and you feel like you need to do this to close the deal, offer to meet them at a local mechanic for a quick checkup – but the buyer should pay.

In our case, we took it to the dealer for an oil change and a “51 point maintenance check” before putting it on the market. We were thus able to show this report to the buyers (along with all of our other paperwork) and they were appeased.

Settle on a price

Okay, you’ve hooked a potential buyer. It’s now time to close the deal. In all likelihood, they’ll ask you for your bottom dollar price. Here’s the thing… You’ve already named a price. It’s their turn to go. Don’t fall into the trap of negotiating against yourself. Politely tell them that you’ve already set a price, and ask them to make an offer if they think it’s too high. If they repeat their question, point out some of the positives and let them know that you think it’s fairly priced, but that you’ll consider any reasonable offer.

Here again, use your judgment. You want to get them talking, so if you absolutely have to open the negotiations, shave a small amount off the asking price and go from there. Just keep your bottom line number in mind when negotiating and don’t be afraid to walk away if they insist on lowballing you.

Close the deal

At long last… It’s time to close the deal. As much as you want to avoid getting ripped off, your buyer feels the same way. Thus, I suggest that you arrange to meet them at their bank to seal the deal. You don’t want to take a bad check or a handful of counterfeit bills. They can either pay you with a cashier’s check or cash. You can then sign over the title. Either way, you’ll see the teller hand it over so you’ll know it’s legit.

I would also recommend writing up a bill of sale (your state’s website probably has a template) to be signed by both of you. Be sure to keep a copy for yourself.

If you have any tips of your own, please don’t hesitate to share them in the comments.

Published on March 21st, 2012 - 14 Comments
Filed under: Automotive

About the author: is the founder and editor-in-chief of this site. He's a thirty-something family man who has been writing about personal finance since 2005, and guess what? He's on Twitter!

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Comments (scroll down to add your own):

  1. The effectiveness of craigslist probably depends on the type of car. I would think it would be mostly younger people browsing an online classifieds site. So a car that suits young people would probably sell better on there. If the price is still fairly high, a newspaper ad might be the better option. What I’ve seen some people do is park the car in a high traffic area with a for sale sign. I don’t know how effective it was, but different vehicles tend to show up in those spots.

    Comment by Anonymous — Mar 21st 2012 @ 4:36 pm
  2. Good list!

    One more tip we found works for selling anything privately is to put a solid time limit on how long you can hold an offer for. A day or two, etc.

    This helps you know if the buyer is committed or just trying to hold you up while they flip the car to a different buyer 🙂

    Comment by Anonymous — Mar 21st 2012 @ 5:33 pm
  3. I recently sold an S10 private party. The truck was 10 years old so I didn’t need to ask all that much for it. I had a friend help me write a craigslist ad as I’m not much of a sales-speak type. I ended up getting about 10 calls on it within 24 hours and sold it to the first people to call at asking price. That made me think I priced it a bit too low.

    Comment by Anonymous — Mar 21st 2012 @ 7:27 pm
  4. Don’t forget to report the sale to your state’s DMV or Dept of Transportation. This way you are no longer attached to the vehicle for registration/tax or other reasons you could be liable for otherwise.

    Comment by Anonymous — Mar 22nd 2012 @ 7:45 am
  5. These are great points. It definitely is worth it to take care of your car. Not only with the scheduled maintenance, but also with cleaning and waxing it. This way, when you do decide to sell it, it won’t take you an entire weekend to get it ‘pretty’. I take good care of my cars and am always able to get more than the Blue Book value for them. I always get the comment from potential buyers about my car being in such great condition.

    Comment by Anonymous — Mar 22nd 2012 @ 10:09 am
  6. These are all good points. In addition, park your car defensively to avoid the small dents and paint chips that happen when someone opens their car door. Not all cars have guards and other things happen when when cars are close together. Try to hand wash the car, rather than taking to a car wash to avoid dulling the paint and paint swirls. Invest in new car mats. Don’t allow smoking or eating in the car.

    Comment by Anonymous — Mar 22nd 2012 @ 10:19 am
  7. Craiglist worked well for me. But when buying a car, I don’t even bother if there aren’t pictures, so that’s a good point. Not that pictures tell the whole story, but I’m not going to drive around without seeing the car first, especially since it is so easy.

    Comment by Anonymous — Mar 22nd 2012 @ 10:44 am
  8. Just like buying a home, look at comparables before listing. If you have a few listings of the car with similar mileage, you definitely have the upper hand when it comes to price. You don’t have to go too low because you have other examples of the price you are willing to accept on the same car. Same goes for purchasing.

    Comment by Anonymous — Mar 22nd 2012 @ 1:01 pm
  9. I tried to sell a 95 lexus in good condition on craigslist. Got a lot of interest, but there were quite a few minor problems with the car. I knew the car ran fine and would probably last for a while, but the buyers didn’t. Ended up selling it to a family member for a couple hundred less than what I was asking.

    Comment by Anonymous — Mar 22nd 2012 @ 2:59 pm
  10. I agree that part of the buying process involves allowing the buyer to get their hands on the product. Personally I would never invite someone to my home for a test drive. I’d rather meet them at an agreed place.

    Comment by Anonymous — Mar 22nd 2012 @ 3:00 pm
  11. I’m 2 for 2 with successful used car sales via Craigslist within the past year, but yeah – everyone’s experience will be different. I scored both times by:

    * Setting my used car prices a little lower than everyone else. I used other prices on CL, eBay, and AutoTrader to determine how to set my prices
    * I cleaned up both vehicles (as you point out) THOROUGHLY
    * I fixed the small stuff (replaced dying batteries, handled oil changes) and was very up front about big stuff (stated in the ad: this car will need new tires because two of them are almost bald, for example). No surprises means your potential buyer is more comfortable dealing with you

    Also, I met potential buyers at well-lit busy shopping center parking lots. Easy for them to find, less chance of “funny business”. Thanks for the post!

    Comment by Anonymous — Mar 22nd 2012 @ 6:52 pm
  12. My question has always been how to deal with the test drive. If you sell the car on your own, of course, the potential buyer will want to drive the car. Many prefer driving without your presence. That seems so risky, but I’ve lost sales in the past because I insisted on accompanying them.


    Comment by Anonymous — Mar 22nd 2012 @ 6:52 pm
  13. one thing I would also mention about placing a newspaper ad. Make sure there are plenty of other ads for cars. We have a large paper in my area, and I assumed the paper would be a good place to put an ad in. The ad was very expensive, $150 for a week, and I got 0 calls from it. When I looked in the paper for my ad, it turned out there were only 2 or 3 ads in that category.
    The online ad I placed via another service worked like a charm and was half the price of the paper.
    So don’t assume the newspaper is the best place to sell something.

    Comment by Anonymous — Mar 28th 2012 @ 11:29 am
  14. Hi there, simply turned into alert to your blog through Google, and located that it is truly informative.

    Comment by Anonymous — Apr 8th 2012 @ 10:19 am

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