Selling a car can be profitable — but it can also be stressful, time-consuming and even costly. Before you sell your car, take the time to find out what it's really worth, how to max out its value and even the best time to sell.
Whether you plan to sell your car online or unload it through a trade-in, check out these professional car-selling secrets to help you get the most money for your wheels.
1. Value Your Car Accurately
If you're going to sell your car, you have to know what people are willing to pay — and what you're willing to accept.
"The first step is to research similar vehicles," said Josh Baker, director of brand marketing services at Everything But the House, an online estate sale marketplace that hosts auctions for multiple items, including cars. "Look to sites that give overall valuations by inputting the details of your car and research what your car is retailing [for] locally. Check auction houses, online ads and dealerships."
You can also check Kelley Blue Book, which lets both sellers and buyers scout local prices.
2. Be Honest
When it comes to selling your car, follow the same rules you would with online dating and avoid false advertising.
"Be honest," Baker said. "If you drive a base model VW Golf, don't input that it's the Autobahn GTI."
Not only is it important to be honest with potential buyers, but you must also be honest with yourself about what your car's worth and what you can expect to net on the sale.
3. Be Realistic
Just because you love your car doesn't mean others will feel the same. Even if you take impeccable care of your vehicle, never skipping an oil change and getting it detailed regularly, it's going to lose value over time.
"Keep your expectations realistic," Baker said. "And don't anticipate selling for dealership prices, since you cannot offer dealership incentives like warranties, special financing and service agreements."
4. Put Yourself in the Buyer’s Shoes
When you value your car, you're trying to assess how much you can get for it. When sellers value the same vehicle, they're looking for flaws they can leverage to knock down the price.
You should adopt the latter mentality when selling, said Richard Reina, product training director at CARiD.
"When preparing to sell your car, it is important to perform an assessment of the car to evaluate it from the same perspective as a potential buyer," he said. "This will minimize surprises when the buyer views the car, as well as help you identify any problems you might need to address before putting the car on the market."
5. Keep Up With Maintenance
Maintaining a car doesn't just keep it running smoothly while you own it. Doing this also ensures you can sell your auto for a high price.
"The simplest and best thing an owner can do to maintain a used car's value is to maintain it 'by the book,'" Reina said. "Have all recommended service work done, preferably by an authorized dealer."
Your car's manual and the manufacturer's website are good sources of information on recommended services.
Also See: How to Save on Car Maintenance
6. Keep Meticulous Service Records
From oil changes and belt tightenings to fluid flushes and tire rotations, bringing your vehicle in for regular service is only half the battle. Savvy car owners also keep meticulous records of repairs.
"If you plan on selling your car one day, it is a good idea to retain all of your service records," Reina said. "This way, when you are speaking with a potential buyer, you'll have examples to illustrate how well you maintained the vehicle."
7. Get the Car Detailed — Within Reason
If you want your car to command the highest price, make sure it looks appealing both inside and out. While it's important to wash the car and get it detailed, don't waste money on unnecessary modifications.
"Spend $100 or so to have someone detail the car before putting it up for sale," said Robert Campbell, an automotive analyst and dealership consultant. "But don't do too much else. You will rarely get all your money back when doing maintenance or repairs of more than $500 when selling a car. Spend $600 on replacing the tires, and you likely are not going to get $600 more for the car."
8. Consider Investing in Targeted Ads
Sites like Craigslist allow people selling cars to post ads to the general car-buying public. But auto-specific sites can help you home in on buyers looking for the kind of vehicle you're trying to sell.
"Consider a paid ad on Autotrader or Cars.com," Campbell said. "Those sites have more search features for consumers to find your vehicle. You always will get more money from someone who wants your specific vehicle or type of vehicle than someone just needing transportation."
Cars.com even offers a free basic package to help you sell your car.
9. Put Your Best Foot Forward
While there's no one right way to write a car ad, Campbell suggested that buyers might be attracted to the same traits you were when you purchased the vehicle.
"When presenting your vehicle, always start with what you loved about it," he said.
He suggested using plain language like, "It really handles well in the snow" or "I can fit a lot of the kids' sports gear in the back."
10. Consider Cutting Out the Middleman
If you want to save time, avoid advertising and take your vehicle to a national chain. William Steinmetz, a former Cadillac and Chevrolet dealer, prefers CarMax.
"They offer fast, no-hassle appraisals with seven-day guaranteed funding," he said. "They will authenticate a real and fair offer with all current auction and market data available. You don't have to deal with any high-powered pressure tactics or unscrupulous individuals. You always get paid a fair market price."
11. Sell to a Dealer
Additionally, you can opt to sell directly to a dealer who specializes in your car brand. This is the preferred approach of Sam Fox, president and owner of City Buick GMC in Long Island City, N.Y.
"The best way to sell a car fast is to sell or trade in the vehicle you'd like to sell to a dealer," he said. "You don't have to do any advertising, nor do you have people coming around to visit your house. If time is of the essence, there's no route better than the dealer route."
An article on Cars.com confirms that selling to a dealer is probably your fastest option. The drawback, however, is that you're likely not going to get the best price. Unlike private parties, dealers make money by paying wholesale rates for the cars they buy.
12. Ask Friends or Family — but Beware
Although we live in the digital age, Fox encouraged owners to remember the value of selling cars the old-fashioned way — by asking around.
"If you're lucky enough to have a friend, family member or co-worker interested in your car, you'll probably get the highest price possible, because you will have zero marketing costs," he said.
He urged caution, however, as the relationship could be affected by the vehicle's future performance.
"If the car you sold to your aunt has a problem, guess who she's going to be calling for an explanation and possibly even a refund?" he said.
13. Channel Your Inner Photographer
If you want to provide prospective buyers with an accurate, appealing portrait of your vehicle, be sure to photograph it in good light.
"Photography is of course very important," Fox said. "You need to take lots of photos showing every aspect of the car. For example: the interior, the outside from multiple angles, tire treads, the engine, odometer and other features."
Also, make sure the background is as photogenic as the car itself.
"Try to select an attractive setting for your photo shoot," Fox said. "It's a subtle point, but details matter."
14. If You’re Selling a One-Owner Car, Prove It
Cars that have only had one owner usually fetch higher prices than vehicles that have bounced around. That's because a single owner probably gave the car a more consistent level of care and had a deeper investment in it, both emotionally and financially. Also, service and accident records are easier to trace with a single-owner vehicle.
"A well-maintained, one-owner car is something to brag about," Fox said. "So, if your paperwork can prove the same, you'll be in an excellent position as a seller."
15. Remember That Trade-Ins Mean Tax Breaks
If you're planning to buy a new car, consider trading in your existing vehicle and applying the value to the new purchase. Fox says this route can be easier from a time management standpoint and comes with lucrative tax incentives, since most states only tax the difference between the price of the new car and that of the trade-in.
"For example," he said, "if you're buying a new car for $30,000, and your dealer gives you $10,000 on your trade-in, you only pay sales tax on the $20,000 difference, not the $30,000 the car is actually worth."
16. Know That Mum’s the Word With Trades
If you're selling through a trade-in, what you say — and don't say — can have a big impact on the price you get.
"If you're going to buy at a new car dealer, never say you're selling or trading in a new car," said Cliff Wood, chief operating officer at nationwide used-car retailer CarMax. "Act like you're only going to buy a car and negotiate on the price first. Then mention you're trading in the car at the last possible minute."
Wood also cautioned against telling the dealer what you owe on the car. If they know what you owe beforehand, some dealers will factor that into the price of the car you're buying, reduce the amount they'll offer for your trade or use it as a justification for increasing your finance charge.
17. Wait Until Spring for Most Trades
Wood said you should wait until spring to get the most trade-in money for your old wheels.
"Our data indicates March and April are the best months to trade in your car for the best deal," he said. "Except for luxury and sports cars, most vehicles also tend to appreciate slightly at the beginning of the year when the miles per year are lowest."
18. Sell SUVs in Winter and Convertibles in Spring
Even if you aren't trading in, the time of year has a significant impact on car prices, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Fox recommended timing your car sale based on seasonal trends to get the most money.
"The best time to sell a convertible is just before spring arrives," Fox said. "Conversely, the best time to sell an SUV is just after the first snowfall in the fall."
19. Sell Before You Hit the Big 100,000
It's no secret that when it comes to mileage, less is more. But when valuing cars, there are tiers — and 100,000 miles is a major landmark, said Wood.
"The maximum number of miles that is considered 'ideal' for trade-ins is 100,000 miles," Wood said. "CarMax and industry data indicate that while lower mileage is typically better, after 100,000 miles, the value can drastically decrease depending on the make and model of the car and its condition."
If you hit the 90,000-mile mark and are considering selling, remember that having five digits on the odometer looks significantly better than having six.
20. Sell Before Your Car Turns 11
People like to deal with nice round numbers, but car valuations don't always follow suit. A 10-year-old car is likely to be seen as significantly younger than a car just one year older, said Wood.
"The cutoff between 10-year-old and 11-year-old vehicles can be substantial in affecting the offer you will receive when selling the car," he said.
21. Remove Bumper Stickers With Care
That political statement, radio station logo or homage to your favorite band could cost you when you stick it to the back of your car.
"A bumper sticker will likely not affect a vehicle's resale value if it is a removable material that won't damage paint," Wood said. "However, this can vary depending on the type and age of the car. For example, if a removed bumper sticker reveals a darker spot of paint due to being protected from fading, this won't affect the value of a 10-year-old vehicle as much as it would the value of a newer, more expensive car."
Carefully remove any bumper stickers before you list your car to avoid surprises.
22. Weed Out the Hustlers
If you place an ad selling a car, chances are good you'll get at least a few responses from unlicensed, unscrupulous individuals. Consumer car advocate and car-buying concierge Sarah Lee Marks of My Carlady said that careful wording can act as a repellent.
"In the ad, I put 'NO DEALERS or SERVICES PLEASE,'" she said. "This eliminates most of the nonsense calls, although the curbers — people who flip cars without changing the title — are aggressive if the car is priced too low."
23. Understand That Prices Aren’t What They Once Were
In 2017, used car prices dropped so low that it caused concern among major auto companies. As a private seller, you have to understand that you're operating in a buyer's market and adjust accordingly if you want to attract serious bidders.
"Used car prices have dropped dramatically this year," Marks said. "I use the Craigslist and KBB average condition private party sale price, then deduct another 10 percent to 15 percent to be competitive. If I get no calls in two days, I start dropping the price $250 a shot."
24. Be Smart When Receiving Payment
One thing the internet isn't short on is scams. Remember that the too-good-to-be-true rule applies to car sales, and the deal isn't truly done until the cash is in your bank account.
"Once the cash is deposited, then I have the buyer and seller sign the title," Marks said. "I do not take cashier's checks, as the banks hold them for up to 10 days. They can be stopped, if reported stolen or lost, which means your car and title are gone, and you now have a bad check claim but little recourse to get the car or money back."
25. Stay Safe
Finally, use common sense when selling a car — or any item — through an ad online or in the paper. If someone comes to your house to view a car, he or she will suddenly have your address, license plate number and vehicle identification number (VIN). That's a treasure trove of data for someone looking to steal your identity — or worse. Marks recommended taking steps to protect yourself.
"Remove all personal information from the glove box when taking a test drive," she said. "I like to take a picture of the potential buyer's driver's license before getting in the car with them. I meet at the bank parking lot and transact the title and cash swap in the bank."
Keep Reading: 30 Biggest Dos and Don'ts When Buying a Car