Selling a car
If it’s time to sell your car, there are time-proven steps you can take to maximize its value and provide both sides of the transaction with a happy outcome. Getty Images

Congratulations! You’ve decided to sell your car, truck or sport-utility vehicle, and like most of us, you’d love to get top dollar for your vehicle. As used vehicle values are at all-time highs thanks to Covid-19 and chip shortages, you’ve got an advantage. But there are some simple, time-proven steps that can help you truly maximize your car’s sale price.

Before you sell, there are a few questions you should consider:

  • Are you selling to buy a new car or used? 
  • Are you selling because you no longer want a vehicle?
  • Are you willing to put in sweat equity to maximize your profit?
  • Do you still owe any money on the vehicle you’re trying to sell?

Let’s start with the last item on the list, as if you owe money, you’ll need to contact your lender and alert them to the potential sale to prepare the vehicle title for transfer. Many car dealers will handle this step for you, and dealer efforts may include you rolling your existing payment into the loan you’re taking out on whatever new vehicle you’re buying. 

If you owe more money than the car is presently worth using popular vehicle valuation guides, you’re “upside down” on your loan. For example—you bought your car for $30,000, and you still owe $18,000. Your vehicle was assessed by the dealer at $14,000, meaning you are upside down by $4,000. 

You’ll need to write a check for that amount or have it rolled into a new loan if you want to part with the car. Rarely does being upside down work in your favor, particularly if you have a low credit score.

If you’re not upside down, read on for how to maximize your profit.

Sweat Equity

I’ve bought and sold quite a few cars over the years, and one thing I always get complimented on is the “like new” overall condition of my vehicles. Dealers have professional detailers on hand to get even abused cars looking as clean as the day they left the factory. Since that’s who you’re competing against for potential buyers, there’s no reason your car shouldn’t look just as good.

Car detailing
Be ready to do some work, or to pay somebody to do it for you. Car dealerships have staff on hand to make their cars present beautifully to prospective buyers, but doing these jobs yourself will get you more money for you car. Getty Images

Clean it! 

If your vehicle looks its best and runs well, you are in charge in a seller’s market. Follow these steps for max dollars:

Clean, clean, clean, and clean some more—start with the exterior and thoroughly wash and wax your vehicle. Be sure to get the garden hose under your car to wash away dirt from the underbody and fender wells. While you do want a clean engine compartment, do not use water to clean up under the hood, as water can wreak havoc on underhood electronics. 

Use clean towels and a good cleaning spray like Simple Green under the hood to wipe away years of grime from engine covers, fluid reservoirs and anything you can reach and safely clean. Do not clean under the hood with the vehicle running, or if the engine is still hot.

After you clean the exterior and underhood areas, apply your skills to the interior. Use a quality vacuum to get up the dirt, coins, old french fries and gravel on the floor or seats. Pay special attention to the gaps between the seats and center or rear consoles. Use a carpet or interior cleaning spray for tough stains. Use the appropriate cleaner for cloth, vinyl or leather seats.  

Carvana Dispensing Tower
Online used-vehicle retailers like Carvana, Vroom and Shift have been eager to buy used vehicles for several years now. They can make your sale easy and painless, but it very much pays to read all the fine print. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A thorough cleaning and detailing will cost you about 2 to 7 hours of sweat equity depending on your car’s condition. Inside and out, it’s important to take your time and use the correct cleaning sprays and waxes, as using the wrong cleaners can damage your vehicle, lowering your sale or trade-in value.

Don’t want to roll up your sleeves? Most good detailers will charge between $150 and $600 to bring your vehicle back to life, although some high-end detail jobs can range up to $2,000. Pro detailers can remove door dents and dings, repair scratches, polish or “correct” your paint finish to like-new status and detail the interior.

Even if you simply run your vehicle through a car wash and vacuum it out, you will save money by having your vehicle appraised at a higher value.

Sell it!

Now that your ride looks superb, how should you sell it? Let’s look at several ways:

Online Used-Vehicle Retailers: Online operations like Carvana and Vroom will ask you for photos and the mileage of your vehicle, and based on a successful on-site inspection, cut you a check when they come to pick up your vehicle with a flatbed truck. 

On the plus side, selling this way makes for fast and easy transaction. Some offers may be higher than you’d get at brick-and-mortar retail dealers, too. On the other hand, be sure to read all the fine print. These are still new companies and some have run into issues with titles and payments.

Used BMWs At a Dealership
Dealers really are looking for quality used cars, but because they have access to many different sources and trade-ins arrive every day, they don’t necessarily have to pay you top dollar. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Sell to a dealership: Typically, dealers will undervalue your appraisal. Many pay higher for in-demand models or, during the recent spike in fuel prices, vehicles that get great fuel economy, but generally they’re going to pay as little as they can.

It may be to your advantage to get appraisals from several dealers should you choose to go this route. Keep in mind that you can sell your car to any dealer, even if you plan to buy a car from another dealer. Look for the best price you can get! Don’t be afraid to negotiate with a dealer for a higher valuation, or to walk away if they’re not in your ballpark.

Sell it yourself: This option typically generates the best return. By selling yourself, you cut out the middle man, but you also have to do all the work of said middle man. Make sure your vehicle looks its best!

Datsun 210 Wagon
Dealers are also generally uninterested in vehicles beyond a certain age. But there are actually plenty of people who’ll shell out money for this 1981 Datsun 210 wagon. Facebook is the best place for such a car, as enthusiast groups abound who share such listings, but old-car auctions sites work too. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Here is a template for how to sell your car to a private buyer:

Advertise. Neighbors and friends may be good places to start letting folks know your car, truck or SUV is for sale, but you’ll want to cast a wider net, too. Craigslist isn’t as well-trafficked as it used to be, but it’s still a good place to list a vehicle.

Many folks now advertise on Facebook Marketplace, where you can post to multiple groups or to a general “Vehicles for Sale” page. I’ve had great success using this portal to buy and sell my cars. If you have a valuable or classic car, consider sites like Bring a Trailer, Hemmings and Cars & Bids. What some 1990s cars are worth today may surprise you.

List it on an online sales portal. CarGurus, Autotrader and TrueCar are designed for dealers, but individuals can also list cars there and this nets you nationwide exposure for free or very low listing costs. 

In some cases these sites will also work with local dealers to get you a cash offer. You simply fill in your car’s details and schedule an inspection with a local dealer. Once your car’s value is determined, you receive a check. If you decide to sell it on your own, you enter vehicle details and upload your photos.

eBay. Selling cars for more than 25 years now, eBay’s listing fees are low, and you can either set your vehicle for sale under an auction format (with or without a reserve) or with a fixed price. You can also set up the sale for local or nationwide. I live in Maryland and once bought a car online and had it shipped from San Diego, California for $1,800 for enclosed, insured shipping. The vehicle arrived in seven days in perfect condition. 

Bad Car listing Photos
Once you’ve cleaned your car and decide to list it, putting up terrible photos will undermine your hard work. If buyers can’t see the vehicle or the listing looks terrible, you’re less likely to draw buyers. Craigslist
Good Car listing Photos
Give your audience as high a quality picture of your vehicle as you can. You don’t have to hire a professional photographer, but lots of clear, descriptive images will draw more potential buyers. Alex Kwanten

Get Creative With Your Listing

Whatever site you choose to sell your vehicle, be descriptive. Which listing would you call first?

  • 2015 Lexus LX570. Good condition, 95K miles. $44,000. 
  • 2015 Lexus LX570, well maintained by original owner with all service records. Clean body with no dents or paintwork. Like new interior! Awesome stereo with Bluetooth! New tires! Garage kept and always babied. Only 95K miles. Check out the 12 photos attached and contact me (via email or phone) with any questions. Don’t miss out on this gem of a Lexus! $44,000. Come see and drive it!

I’m sure we agree the second description is better. Be sure to include clear photos of all outside angles, under-the-hood shots to show how clean you made it, trunk or hatchback shots and photos of all rows of your like-new interior. Terrible photos or ones that crop out most of the car will surely put off potential buyers. Great photos will have them calling.

As a general safety matter, it’s probably wise to arrange for a potential buyer to meet you at your local police station or other well-lit, secure area like a grocery store or mall. Take a friend with you when you meet a potential buyer.