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Selling your car? Get the most money possible with these 5 easy steps!

Updated on December 30, 2013
A clean car with the top down? Who wouldn't call the seller?
A clean car with the top down? Who wouldn't call the seller?

It happens to every car owner.

The car that you only just bought a few years ago is tired, repair bills are coming in and every turn of the key is met with uncertainty. It's time for something new and reliable. Wouldn't it be nice to have the biggest down payment on your next car as possible?

Here are my top 5 tips for getting the most for your used car-- and the biggest down payment on your next car:

5. Skip the Trade-in

It's tempting. You drive in with an old car and drive out in a brand new one! How could there be a downside?

Rightly so, dealerships pay less than what a vehicle is worth on trade-in so they can pay the salesman's salary and dealership operating costs once they sell it. But by trading-in your vehicle, you're essentially robbing yourself of thousands of dollars.

To put it in perspective, a 2011 Ford F150 sold in excellent condition in a private party sale is worth $21,017. That same truck traded-in to a dealership? Thousands less: only $17,632, a $3,385 difference! To put it in perspective, if your next car payment is $280/month you'll be saving a year's worth of payments by selling it yourself.

4. Fix What's Worth Fixing

Give your car an objective, thorough inspection. Is the gear knob worn out? Is the taillight broken? Are the headlights hazy? Would you buy your own car in its current condition?

I didn't think so.

Check out eBay for used parts. The worn out gear knob and broken tail light can be replaced and on the car in minutes with a few simple hand tools, even for a novice mechanic. The $100 or less that you expend on these simple repairs will help your car sell faster and bring more money.

If you live in a particularly sunny climate or drive an older car, dull and yellowed headlights are not only a huge eyesore, but also a drain on your car's value. With nothing more than a drill, masking tape and a 3M Headlight Restoration System, your headlights will look brand new, giving your car value and appeal.

3. Clean Up Your Act

Those stale french fries under the seat aren't going to clean up after themselves. And leaving your car out in the rain for a "wash" isn't going to cut it.

You have two choices here: pay someone else to do it, or do it yourself. An average detail is around $175 for interior and exterior, depending on location, but you could clean up a car to be presentable for just the cost of supplies and some effort.

Here are a few simple things you can do to shine the value back into your vehicle:

• Wash using a quality car wash soap, wheel cleaner and plush wash mitt. A lambswool or microfiber mitt is ideal as it is less likely to scratch the paint.

•For a quick, superficial wax, try Meguiar's Cleaner Wax as it will clean the paint and temporarily fill in minor scratches and blemishes. Bonus points if you follow up with a great quality wax like Collinite Liquid Insulator Wax #845 for a layer of protection and gloss.

•On to the interior! Take everything out. Everything. The carpet mats, spare change, trash and personal items. Now get out the Shop Vac and make sure there isn't a speck of dirt left in the interior. Be sure to slide seats back and forth to make sure you get everything swept up!

•Now to tackle that spilled coffee from three years ago! Using a gentle cleaner like Tuff Stuff, spray the foam onto every square inch of the interior. Agitate it with a toothbrush or paint brush, wiping dry with a clean cotton cloth. It's like new, right?

•Finish up the mini-detail with some finishing touches. Clean the glass inside and out with a microfiber towel and a quick spray of Stoner's Invisible Glass. Spruce up the tires with a quality tire shine like Sonax Tire Gloss Gel. A light spray of Febreze can go a long way, too.

You've spent some cash on car cleaning products, but that just means you have the right stuff to protect and clean your new car.

2. Create a Quality Listing

I've sold most of my cars through Craiglist. It's a free, heavily-trafficked site where many people go first to find their next car-- and if your car is priced right, it should be gone within a few weeks or less.

What goes into a quality listing?

• Complete information - List the current mileage, exact specifications of the vehicle like trim package, engine size, transmission type and the status of the title. Not sure of exact specifications? It's on your vehicle's original window sticker.

• Anything that sets your car apart from similar ones in the area - Now is a good time to mention the fresh detail, the fact that it's been garage-kept or adult-driven or had a major service recently.

• Quality writing is important - Be sure that your writing is professional, spell-checked and informed. I'm not going to hollar at your boy Tony about his mad sick Miata, but I will give you a call if it's clear that you'll be a professional and pleasant person to work with.

• Pricing is key - Spend time looking at similar vehicles. Look at what Kelley Blue Book is listing your car at-- and be objective about its condition. If it's in poor condition, list it accordingly. This is also a time when discretion is key. I've bought and sold cars for far more and far less than Kelley Blue Book value, especially sought-after enthusiast cars, so do your research to ensure a quick sale with maximum returns.

• Pictures are important - Specifically clear, well-considered photos. The likelihood that I'll contact a buyer when the photos are of one wheel and an out of focus shot of half the hood is low. Spend time with a good camera (most newer smart phone cameras will be adequate), a clean car and some good lighting and you'll have great looking shots. Take a photo of the engine bay, bumpers, doors, each wheel, multiple interior shots and note any damage or imperfections with the car.

• The whole truth - There's nothing worse than showing up to a listing that claimed to feature a spotless garage queen and finding an abused and damaged vehicle on its last legs. If your car needs work, be honest. If the bumper has a massive gouge in it, show it in the pictures. It not only builds credibility but also prevents you and others wasting time on a car that they might not otherwise be interested in.

There are other sites other than Craigslist and, depending on your area, even newspaper classifieds and bulletin boards can be a good way to get the word out. When selling a car, I always made sure to keep it especially clean-- and always parked when out running errands or at work with several FOR SALE signs in the windows!

1. Know How to Sell

The phone is ringing, you have appointments scheduled to show the car, but now what?
As always the car should be clean before a showing. If necessary, take it and have it vacuumed or washed once more.

Bring a friend if you'd like and always meet in a very public area. I'm a big believer in letting the potential new owner take the car out for a test drive, assuming you have full-coverage insurance, on their own. It lets them feel at ease that you trust the car to speak for itself. From a safety and sales standpoint, this is a big one.

As they're on the test drive, have the lowest offer you'll accept decided upon because once they come back, it's not a time to decide where your line is.
They pull back in, they loved the car and they're ready to make an offer but want to negotiate.

Here are a few tricks I've learned:

•Bring a print out of the Kelley Blue Book values and show how your car is appropriately priced. It's tough to argue with facts!

•Mention nice features about the car. Isn't the leather in great shape? Isn't the engine quiet and smooth? Did you notice how cold the air is? Build value and allow them to recognize and acknowledge that, in fact, the car is a nice vehicle.

•I like to have something extra to throw in. If you're getting close to an agreement, offer an extra. Say it'll come with a full tank of gas, brand new floor mats or offer to have it serviced. What might only cost you $50 might mean hundreds or thousands in return.

•It's tough to know when to accept an offer or reject it. My most recent car negotiation came within $200 on a 1991 Miata I owned. I was being stubborn, wanting that extra $200 but the buyer wouldn't budge-- and then it hit me! If you're standing with a buyer who is enthusiastic about the vehicle and has the ability to buy it then and there, really consider if it's worth losing that buyer over a couple hundred dollars. In some cases and for some cars it may be. In general though, make the deal and get that car sold.

After working at a car dealership and buying and selling several cars myself, it's amazing what you can learn. By following these simple 5 steps, it's likely that not only will your car sell more quickly but also for more money.

And who doesn't like quick money?


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    • profile image

      Will Jenkins 

      4 years ago

      I have a 1988 Isuzu I-Mark that I've kept running. I never thought I could get anything out of it. Turns out a buyer liked it and became even more impressed with the cleanliness! "Clean up your act" couldn't be more true!

      Will Jenkins


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