How to Sell a Car

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There comes a time in many car owners’ lives when they must part with their trusted vehicle. Perhaps you’re looking to upgrade to a newer model, or maybe you’ve decided that owning a car no longer fits into your life. No matter why you’re looking to get a car off your hands, selling a car privately can feel like a daunting task—especially for those who have never done it before. You may find yourself wondering, “Where do I even begin?”

Fear not, because we’re here with this step-by-step guide to selling your car privately. Use the links below to skip ahead to the section that best answers your questions, or read on for everything you need to know about how to sell a car privately. 

Is a Private Car Sale Right for You?

When it comes to selling your car, there are two general ways to go about it: either by trading your car into a dealer, or by selling your car privately. Let’s talk about the pros and cons of each option, so that you can determine whether a private sale is the best option for your needs. 

Your first option when selling your car is to trade it in at a dealership. Trading your car in is widely considered the faster and simpler way to get a car off your hands. All you need to do is take your car to your dealership of choice. The dealer will inspect your vehicle and come up with an offer for purchasing the car from you.

Trading your car in is simple, indeed, but the simplicity comes at a cost. Dealerships are businesses, and are therefore looking to profit off the future resale of your car. They won’t offer you the sticker price (the price they will actually try to sell your car for) for your car. They may offer you the wholesale value of your car (the price they’d pay for the car from a car manufacturer), or they may offer you less. Plus, a trade-in leaves the dealership in prime position to rope you into a new car trap. If you’re wondering how to sell a car fast, or you’ve got a high car loan you need to get out of, a trade in may be right for you. 

A private car sale, on the other hand, is done between two individuals without the involvement of a dealership. It requires preparation and research and is a much more hands-on process, but you’ll almost always end up with significantly more money in your pocket when you sell a car privately. 

If you’re looking to sell your car for a fair price, a private sale is the best way to sell your car. Plus, we’re here with everything you need to know to make the process as painless as possible. 

Prepare to Sell Your Car Privately

So, you’ve opted for a private sale. We’re here with tons of tips for selling a car privately. The first step in selling your car privately is to prepare your car for sale. This is arguably the most important step in selling your car. Thorough preparation means less hassle and could even result in a higher selling price! 

Step One: Collect the necessary paperwork 

When you present your car for sale, it’s important that you provide your prospective buyer with all of the necessary paperwork. Not only will it give your buyer the information they need to take over ownership of the car, but comprehensive paperwork will also reassure your buyer that you are a trustworthy and responsible person, and a buyer who is experienced at car buying knows that trustworthiness is key. Collect as many of the following items as possible: 

  • Your car’s title, or pink slip. This slip shows that you have the legal right to sell your car. If your title is missing or damaged, contact the DMV to learn how to replace it. 
  • A vehicle history report. These tell the history of your car. They include the number of owners, any past accidents, odometer readings, information on liens, and more. A savvy buyer will want a history report prior to purchasing a used vehicle, so providing one upfront will make your sale faster and run more smoothly. 
  • Your car’s maintenance records. Maintenance records give even more color to your car’s history. They give your buyer an extremely detailed view of work done on the car in the past. Thorough maintenance records give your buyer peace of mind that you’ve taken care of your car, leaving them with more confidence in the purchase. They’ll also be able to refer to these records when performing maintenance on the car in the future. 
  • A bill of sale. This can be downloaded from the DMV’s website. Your car’s new owner will need the bill of sale to register the car under their name. 

Step Two: Prepare your car for sale 

Once your paperwork is together, it’s time to get your car looking and feeling its best. First, take your car to your local mechanic for a routine checkup. Make sure your engine, brakes, tires, and more are in good condition. If there are any repairs you’ve been putting off, this is a good time to do them. Remember to visit a trusted mechanic, so you won’t find yourself facing unnecessary car costs. Be sure to include the record from this maintenance check with the rest of your car’s maintenance records, like a clean bill of health! If your mechanic identifies necessary repairs that you don’t want to complete, it’s important to be upfront with your buyer about the issue and adjust your asking price accordingly. Your buyer will likely run a maintenance check prior to purchase, and undisclosed issues will not leave them feeling confident in the sale. 

Now that everything’s good under the hood, a thorough wash will get the outside looking its best! You’ll want to post pictures of your car when you advertise it for sale, so a good cleaning is imperative. If your car is particularly dirty, you may consider a good detailing to polish it right up. A little investment up front can really pay off in the sale price. As a finishing touch, consider a neutral air freshener that will appeal to scent-sensitive buyers. 

Step Three: Pick your price 

Determining an asking price can feel like a scary task, but there are many tools out there to simplify the process. The most known and trusted resource for pricing a car is Kelley Blue Book, kbb.com. Here, you can see a price range for your specific year, make, and model of your car, with adjustments for mileage and condition. 

Remember that your car’s price is an asking price, and you’ll rarely find a buyer willing to pay exactly that. It’s a good idea to set your asking price slightly above the price you’d actually like to sell it for, to leave wiggle room for haggling. If you’re wondering how to sell a car fast, consider lowering the asking price. A more competitively priced car is often quicker to sell. 

Step Four: Build your ad 

There are numerous trustworthy sites for privately selling a car, and it’s best to post your car for sale on more than one. Consider sites like Craigslist, Autotrader, and more to reach as many prospective buyers as possible. 

Once you’ve selected your sites, it’s time to build your ads. Building a good ad is key to selling your car quickly. A strong ad will include the following elements: 

  • Lots of pictures. Take well-lit, clear photos of your car from every angle. Include photos of the inside of the car, trunk, and even the engine. If your car has any obvious cosmetic damage, it’s a good idea to take a picture of this as well. It’s best to be upfront with your buyer. Unexpected cosmetic damage can automatically end a test drive, wasting your time as well as your buyers. 
  • The nitty-gritty on your car. In addition to providing the year, make, and model of your car, include things such as the mileage, a brief overview of your car’s history, and more. Did you recently put on new tires or replace the timing belt? Include it in your ad! This is a great way to show buyers that you’re a responsible car owner. It’s also a good place to be upfront with prospective buyers about significant issues. Again, honesty is key. 

Tips for Closing the Deal 

Once your ads are live, you should expect calls and emails to start coming in. Remember that selling a car is a two-way street. Not only is your buyer looking for the perfect seller, but you’re looking for the perfect buyer, too. Here are some tips for closing a deal that makes both parties happy. 

Tip One: Be a smart seller

Unfortunate as it is, scams are fairly prevalent on sites like Craigslist. Be sure to carefully screen prospective buyers. If a person reaches out to you with an obviously canned response, they may be trying to flip cars for profit. This won’t be a lucrative sale. If a person offers a purchase sight unseen at full asking price, they may be trying to take advantage of you. If a person requests to purchase the car through an exceptionally complex process, for instance one that involves you shipping the car somewhere far away, it may be a scam, too. Remember to trust your instincts. If it sounds fishy, it’s probably not the right sale for you. 

Tip Two: Arrange a safe test drive

Once you’ve found a prospective buyer who’d like to take a look at your vehicle, it’s best to meet the buyer in a public place. Pick a parking lot of a calm shopping center nearby, or perhaps a local school on a weekend. For your safety, never give a prospective buyer your address. 

Go along with your prospective buyer for the test drive. Never let a buyer drive away without you in your car. While you might feel an impulse to sell the buyer on your car, it’s best to simply answer questions as the buyer asks.

Tip Three: The car isn’t sold until money is exchanged

Prospective buyers may seem extremely enthusiastic about your car, but it’s important to remember that the car isn’t sold until money is in your hand (always request cash or a cashier’s check—never accept a personal check from a buyer). An excited buyer may leave the test drive to discover they can’t afford the car, or another car they were looking at won out over yours. Continue to field inquiries about your car from other buyers, or else you may feel put out when a deal falls through. 

Once the deal is closed and money is in hand, you’ll need to sign the title and provide your buyer with a bill of sale. Be sure to check your state’s specific requirements for transferring car ownerships. Some may require a release of liability along with the sale. When all your paperwork is in order, it’s time to celebrate! Congratulations! You just sold a car! 

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