How to Sell Your Car (Without All the Headaches You Experienced Buying It)

how to sell a car

The beloved truck I drove to high school and parked on campus in college was now being driven away from my house.

But I took solace in the fact that I now had $10,000 in $20 bills stacked on my dresser.

I had sold my first car, and I got a great price on it, too.

How to sell a car in 9 steps

If you’re wondering how to sell a car yourself, keep in mind it requires about as much work as buying a car.

Maybe you’re selling your car to help pay off your student loans faster — or just moving to a city that doesn’t require four wheels.

No matter your motivation, here are nine steps to selling the car you no longer want or need.

1. Organize your records

First things first: Track down the paperwork from when you first bought your car (like the title). Also, look for any records relating to the car’s accident history and maintenance. They might be underneath the manual in your glove box.

Although your prospective buyers would be impressed by a meticulously kept logbook of receipts for oil and tire changes, you can document your car’s age in other ways.

For one, you could purchase a vehicle history report from a company like Carfax, which will set you back $39.99. For another, you could pay your mechanic about $100 for an inspection. Typically, the buyer would foot the bill for the inspection, but you might opt to handle it yourself if you’re unsure about your car’s condition.

Arming yourself with both reports could gain you leverage in negotiations down the line.

2. Assess the value

There are many car value calculators online, but your buyer will likely be most familiar with Kelley Blue Book (KBB). Use the automotive research company’s tool to put a dollar figure on your car’s potential resale price.

As you’re using the tool, select your car’s “options” or features — alloy wheels, for example — to ensure you receive an accurate estimate.

KBB will pump out values for a trade-in, at the dealer, and in a private-party sale. You might want to increase these numbers to account for extras you bought separately, such as a camper shell for your truck or a rain cover for your coupe.

In its estimation, KBB considers what your car model has sold for in other sales. But be sure to do additional research on car-selling websites like Autotrader to see what the market says about the value of your car. Be careful when comparing prices with a dealership, though. Their prices account for fees, warranties, and return or exchange policies.

3. Consider making upgrades

Now that you have a ballpark estimate of your car’s worth, you might consider ways to increase it. This is the same consideration homeowners give to renovating just before listing their homes on the market.

As a car owner, anticipate the average person’s complaints. If fabric stains might repel a potential buyer, do some DIY cleaning to bring back that new-car scent.

The same goes for your car’s parts. I learned this lesson when I was trying to sell my car in 2014. The buyer complained that my windshield wipers were falling apart and asked for a significant discount as a result.

This occurs more often with tires. Buyers often expect a $300 to $700 discount on tires with low tread, according to KBB. You could easily throw on a $30 to $40 used tire to avoid the haggling.

4. Set your sticker price

When you first look into how to sell a car, knowing how to set your price is probably the most important step.

Before blindly picking a number that sounds good, keep your KBB value and your car’s extras in mind. If you’re in a rush to sell, for example, you might price your car below what others are asking for on the market. You could include “OBO” — short for “or best offer” — or “must go” next to your sale price.

If you’re willing to wait for the right buyer, you can set a firm price above KBB value. That gives you some wiggle room for the inevitable haggling you’ll do. Plus, you’ll want to leave open the possibility that someone might surprise you by offering your full asking price.

Keep in mind that you might have to alter your price depending on seasonal variables. I was forced to drop the asking price for my family’s gas-guzzling Chevrolet Suburban when oil prices increased locally in 2009. Similarly, your old convertible might not be in high demand in December.

5. Post it online and off

Truth is, selling a car can be tedious. But you might make the process easier by listing your car in multiple places, online and off. Aside from working with a dealer, here are some ways to sell your car:

  • Put a for-sale sign on your passenger-side window and park it near foot traffic
  • Post it on websites like Autotrader or peer-to-peer sites like Zipflip
  • List it on secondhand websites like Craigslist and eBay
  • Share news of the sale on social media platforms like Facebook
  • Request an estimate from a company that offers cash for cars
  • Purchase a classified in a specialty magazine or your local newspaper

When posting your car online, include high-quality pictures of it in natural light. As with selling unwanted stuff on Craigslist, you’ll want to include images from different angles and perspectives. Good car photos show details of the interior, exterior, and even under the hood.

Besides imagery, include the right information to help you answer potential questions from buyers. Including the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), for example, allows interested parties to buy a vehicle history report. Also, include details about:

  • Why you’re selling the car
  • Other features it has to offer
  • Its overall condition and maintenance history
  • Reasoning behind the price

6. Contact dealers, too

Even if you have your mind set on selling the car yourself, see what dealerships are willing to offer. You can do this by calling up local dealers or using tools like KBB’s that connect you with dealers directly.

By selling to a dealer, you’ll generally earn 15 to 25 percent less than you would by handling the transaction yourself, according to KBB. Still, it’s wise to exhaust your options in case you have trouble getting interest from private parties.

7. Be a salesperson

To sell a car, you’ll need to be a little bit of a salesperson. Just make sure you do it safely.

Unless you’re selling on a platform that offers secure messaging, you might consider creating a separate email address to field inquiries about your car. This offers you a little more protection, plus an easy way to stay organized. But if your inbox suddenly is flooded with emails from interested parties, you might want to rethink your price.

When fielding inquiries, be prepared to answer questions about your car’s transmission, fuel efficiency, and tire tread (to name a few). Even if you’re not a car person, you should have these answers ready.

Also, be prepared for potential drivers wanting a test drive. Reserve this privilege for serious buyers, and put yourself in safe situations. You might have a friend with you or meet potential buyers in the parking lot of your local DMV.

When you’re face to face with a potential buyer, don’t simply rattle off the features of your car. Ask them about what they’re looking for and then explain how the car meets those needs.

8. Negotiate, if necessary

If you set a fair price for your car based on its value, negotiating should be the easy part. You already know how much you’re willing to bend to make a sale.

When your buyer asks to knock down the list price, put the onus on them. See if they can explain why they think your car isn’t so valuable. For example, the buyer of my truck initially offered $9,000 — or $1,500 less than my asking price. When I asked why, he pointed to the shabby wiper blades (which could be fixed cheaply) and the life of the tires (which I had accounted for in my valuation).

If you receive an offer like this, ask for time to think it over. In my case, I told my buyer I’d consider his $9,000 offer. But the next day, I rejected it because I didn’t agree with his reasoning for the lower price. A week later, he came back with $10,000 in cash.

Besides agreeing on numbers, ensure you’re comfortable with the form of payment. Don’t hand over the keys before cash has either hit your bank account or left theirs. Cashier’s checks, which are guaranteed by banks, are your safest bet.

9. Prepare the paperwork

Once the negotiations are complete, you’ll need to transfer ownership of your car. Every state has different rules for this process, and you can find yours via the DMV’s helpful map.

You’ll likely be required to:

  • Complete a bill of sale
  • Sign the title over to the new owner
  • Fill out a liability release form, if your state DMV requires it
  • Hand over your warranty documents (if applicable) and maintenance records

The DMV also recommends redacting any personal information on your documents to avoid identity theft.

Be prepared when it’s time to sell a car

Selling a car is a lot of work. It’s a big financial decision that could help you close out a debt, jump into investing, or even upgrade your mode of transportation.

Don’t just rush off to the junkyard advertising cash for cars. Follow these steps to turn the largest possible profit — and take it all the way to the bank.

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