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How to Sell Your Car

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Time to get rid of your car? Whether you’re hoping to maximize the sale price or make the process as painless as possible, the proper preparation will help you meet your goals. The following steps will help you figure out the best way to sell your car and ensure you don’t forget anything important.

Use Carfax’s Sell My Car tool to get cash offers from local dealers


No matter how you plan to sell your car – trading it in on your next car at a dealership, selling it to a dealer (whether online or in person) or third-party buying program, or selling it to another person (generally referred to as “private party”) – the preparation is the same.

It’s important to understand the key tradeoff when selling a car: You’re likely to get the most money by selling to a private party, but that’s the most time-consuming option. You’ll sacrifice some cash by selling to a dealership or by trading your car in at a dealership, but those processes are generally much faster and easier.

Educate Yourself

First, get a Vehicle History Report. Many buyers use these, of course, but for a seller, a report can alert you to potential issues that could raise a buyer’s eyebrows. In addition, having one for potential buyers is a good way to show how well you’ve maintained the car, and your confidence in it.

Next, figure out what you should be charging for the car. Check out the Carfax History Based Value tool for an objective look at what your car is worth. It uses information from the car’s specific vehicle history report to assess the impact of age, mileage, any damage, and more on the value of the car.

Some cars aren’t in the best shape, but even cars that qualify for junk status have some value. To learn more, check out our article on how to sell a junk car.

Have the Paperwork Ready

As you begin the process, make sure you have the paperwork from when you bought this car. Check with your state to see what other documentation you’ll need. This can include:

In some cases, the bill of sale and associated paperwork must be completed by both parties in person at the department of motor vehicles (DMV). If that’s the case where you live, plan accordingly once you find a buyer.

Signing contract of new car

Photo Credit: Getty / Ridofranz

Clean the Car

With the paperwork ready to go, you’ll want to get your car as clean as possible, not only for listing photos but also for in-person showings. Consider investing in a professional detailing job, which shouldn’t cost more than $200 or so, and puts the vehicle in its best light.

Trading In Your Car

Trading in your car may be a good option if you’re planning to buy a car from a dealership. In this scenario, you’re not walking away with cash for the value of your old car; rather, the amount you get (after any outstanding car loans are paid off) is applied toward the cost of your new car, reducing the amount you’ll have to pay. If you owe more on the car than it’s worth, however, the dealer may offer to add that leftover amount to your new loan.

Some experts suggest getting your trade-in evaluated at several dealerships. The advantage of this is that it can set a floor for how much you can expect to get for your car. You may want to target dealerships that sell the same brand of car that you’re selling.

Other experts suggest that approach could put you at a disadvantage in getting a good price on the next vehicle you’re buying. Typically, you’ll want to finish negotiations on the new purchase first, and then discuss the sale of your old car.

Since you’ll already have researched the fair market value of your old car, you’ll be ready, but keep in mind the dealer will need to make a profit selling your old car. That’s why you won’t get as much for a trade-in as you would by selling on your own, but you also won’t have to deal with the paperwork.

See our article on maximizing your car’s trade-in value.

Third-Party Buying Programs

If you want the convenience of a trade-in without having to buy a car from a dealership, consider a program like Carfax’s Sell My Car. Input your vehicle identification number (VIN) and other details, schedule a free appraisal, and Carfax’s network of dealers can then contact you with cash offers. Offers are good for three days, letting you consider your options. You may sacrifice your negotiating power, but the process will go much faster than finding a buyer all on your own, negotiating with them, and dealing with the paperwork. Learn more in our article about VIN decoding and where to find your VIN

While they aren’t technically buying programs, car donation services are a quick way to get rid of your car and contribute to a charitable cause. You may be able to deduct the gift from your taxes. Learn more about choosing whether to donate your car in this article.

Private Sale

If you’re going to list your car online, make sure you have great photos and a well-written description to help your car stand out. Use Carfax’s History-Based Value and listings for other cars like yours to get an idea of competitive pricing. You can ask more for your car selling it this way, but you’ll still need to be realistic.

Selling your car to a private party requires extra precautions. Talk to potential buyers on the phone before meeting them, and only meet in public. Get a copy of the person’s driver’s license before agreeing to a test drive, and keep your phone with you at all times. Bring along a friend or family member. Finally, to avoid becoming a victim of fraud, consider accepting only cash or using an escrow service; never accept a wire transfer.

If You Owe Money On Your Car

If you owe money on your car, the lienholder (the bank or other financing organization that loaned you the money) still legally owns the car. Find out how much you owe on the car by contacting the lienholder for a payoff quote. If you have enough cash on hand to comfortably pay off the car, that’s the easiest path.

Some lienholders might not allow you to sell the car until the loan has been paid off. Some will, but they’ll hold on to the title until they receive the payoff. If you’re in that situation, you’ll need to be upfront with the buyer that you won’t be able to sign over the title immediately. This is typically no big deal for a dealership or a buying program – they handle these situations all the time.

However, it might limit your options if you’d planned to sell to a private party, since individuals might not be comfortable with the idea of handing over money and waiting for the title. If your lender has an office nearby, you can meet the buyer there to complete the transaction. The buyer hands you cash or a check, you pay off the loan right there, and you both get the paperwork you need.

This article on how to sell a car with a loan or lien can help you learn more.

Selling and Buying Tools From Carfax

Use Carfax’s Sell My Car tool to get cash offers from local dealers.

Looking to buy after you sell? Carfax is your No. 1 source for used cars. Every car in our Used Car Listings comes with a free Carfax Vehicle History Report.

If you have questions about this story, please contact us at Editors@carfax.com