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How to Sell Your Car

for-sale-by-owner.jpg Car for sale by owner | Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry

Whether you want to sell your car or trade it in, it’s important to understand the process. Below is a primer for first-time sellers seeking guidance on prepping and selling their vehicle. For a deeper dive into any of the steps, check out the latest selling advice from our experts.

Related: How Do I Sell an Older Car?

1. Clean the Car

No matter if you’re trading the car in or selling it yourself, a clean car will be much more appealing than a dirty one. If a $100-$200 professional detailing job is too much to stomach, a few hours and some elbow grease should do the trick.

2. Consider Fixing It Up

First, take care of minor maintenance tasks: Top off all fluids and replace burnt-out fuses or lightbulbs. If your car has major cosmetic or mechanical problems (bald tires, for example), consider fixing them, especially if they affect the car’s drivability. For any expensive repairs, you’ll want to weigh their cost against the value they would add. A trusted mechanic should be able to help, but a general rule of thumb is that the older the car, the less likely you’ll come out ahead on an expensive repair. A relatively cheap fix on a newer or more valuable car, by contrast, could be worth it.

3. Decide How to Sell

Trading your car in at a dealership is simple, but it adds another variable to the negotiation process and typically gets you less money than if you were to sell it yourself. The potential benefit of more money in your pocket from a private sale should be weighed against the convenience of selling it to a dealer. Regardless of how you choose to sell the car, it’s important to understand its market value so you can set the price and negotiate effectively.

for-sale-by-owner-digital.jpg For sale by owner | Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry

4. Organize the Paperwork

Make a copy of your vehicle title in preparation for selling it. If you don’t have the title, read I Want to Sell My Car But I Still Owe Money for more info. If you plan to sell the car, itemize any maintenance and repair records with receipts to present to shoppers. Consider purchasing a vehicle history report, which is available on Cars.com, to give to prospective buyers. Print a bill of sale, which should list the car’s vehicle identification number, a description of the car, the date of the sale, the purchase price, and the names and signatures of the buyer and seller. The bill of sale, which may be required in some states, is downloadable on most Department of Motor Vehicles websites; it serves as a receipt for the buyer and a waiver of liability for the seller.

5. If You’re Trading in, Get Multiple Offers

Many dealerships will make you an offer on your old car even if you aren’t buying one from them. As used-car prices skyrocket, your vehicle could be worth more than you think. To get the most money when you sell or trade it in, secure a couple of other offers in writing. This provides a backup if the dealership where you’re negotiating on a newer car gives a lowball offer on the trade.

6. If You’re Selling, Price and List It Right

Estimate your car’s value with a fair assessment of its condition, and factor in any repairs, if necessary. According to CarFax, in addition to a vehicle’s make, model and age, many other variables can impact its value. Sellers should consider the vehicle’s accident and maintenance history, the number of previous owners and any open recalls when setting the price. Searching used-car listings in your area to see how other sellers have priced your model can be a good place to start, however. List your car with lots of photos, and start the text with a phrase written to generate interest. Highlight the vehicle’s best features, include any aftermarket additions and active warranties that can increase the value, and avoid generalities like “loaded” or “like new.”

7. Find a Buyer

Depending on the contact information you provided, expect to get voicemails or emails once you list the car. Respond within 48 hours, and get the buyer’s full name, email address and phone number. Highlight the car’s selling points, without exaggeration, in your initial exchange, and encourage the shopper to meet you for a test drive. Follow up via email to confirm their identity, and beware of any warning signs.

8. Meet in Public

Never agree to meet the shopper at your home, or drive to their home, for a test drive. Arrange to meet during daylight hours at a public place, like a large parking lot at a shopping mall or grocery store. Whenever possible, bring a friend or family member.

9. Go on the Test Drive

Ride along with the shopper during the test drive, if possible. If they insist on going alone, take a photo of their driver’s license, or at minimum take down their name, address and driver’s license number before handing over the keys. Most liability insurance covers anyone who drives your car as long as they have a valid driver’s license, but check with your insurer for specifics.

Orange 2020 Honda Fit driving on a road 2020 Honda Fit | Manufacturer image

10. Agree on a Price and Collect Payment

Once you negotiate the selling price with the buyer, taking payment securely should be your top priority. Collect a cash payment, if possible. A cashier’s check is also acceptable, as long as you can verify its authenticity with the buyer’s bank. Don’t accept a personal check. Once you’ve verified payment, you’ll need to sign the title over to the buyer and complete the bill of sale. Make copies of both, and notify your state’s DMV that you sold your car. The legalities of transferring ownership can vary by state, so check with your DMV for specifics. When you’re through, don’t forget to cancel your auto insurance policy or transfer it to your new car.

One final note: Watch out for fraud. Deal with shoppers face-to-face, and beware of anyone who wants to communicate only by email. If possible, avoid transferring the title to the buyer until the check has cleared or you’ve received full payment. If the buyer gives you a cashier’s check, go to the issuing bank to verify its authenticity. Never accept a check for more than the agreed-upon price, and never wire money to someone who asks you to refund the difference.

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Related Video: How to Prep Your Car to Sell It for the Best Price

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