Buying a new vehicle is a whole lot easier when you come to the negotiating table with a high-value trade-in car. And the little things you do to maintain your car every day go a long way in determining its worth. You can take steps right now — including adjusting your personal and driving habits — to save yourself hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Here’s what to avoid if you want to be able to swap your old car for a new one.
Last updated: March 18, 2020
1. Smoking Cigarettes in Your Car
It’s no secret that smoke stinks up your car. The problem, however, goes beyond smell. The contaminants in cigarettes bond with the materials in the car, making the smell and discoloration almost impossible to erase. Kelley Blue Book confirms that smoking inside of your car can affect the overall value of it over time.
If you can’t give up the habit, you’re better off leaning on alternatives like patches, gum, lozenges or e-cigarettes when you drive — or you could always just pull over to smoke.
2. Neglecting Regular Service
One of the first things used-car buyers are cautioned to do is request a service history report for any vehicle they’re considering. Well-maintained vehicles are far more reliable and have much longer lifespans, making them more coveted by buyers who want the best deal.
Your car’s manufacturer dictates a suggested maintenance schedule, with recommended servicing at a specific mile or time intervals. If you’re not sure, use an app such as My Firestone to determine your vehicle’s recommended maintenance schedule.
3. Racking Up Too Many Miles
Each mileage milestone you pass can dramatically reduce the value of your car. The first one is 30,000 to 40,000 miles, which is when the first routine services are usually scheduled, according to Edmunds. The next milestone is 60,000 to 70,000 miles when more expensive car components tend to start failing. The final turning point is the 100,000-mile mark.
If you plan to sell your car, do it before you hit 30,000, 60,000 or 100,000 miles. Once you drive a single mile beyond those landmarks, you’re likely to receive an offer that’s the same as it would have been if you had driven all the way up to the doorstep of the following milestone. To reduce mileage, consider renting a car when you travel.
4. Holding Your Car Too Long
According to Autotrader, a car’s age matters a lot, too. If you work from home or otherwise don’t drive a lot, don’t expect a 7-year-old car with 34,000 miles to fetch the same price as a 3-year-old car with 34,000 miles.
Not only do cars deteriorate with age even when they’re driven lightly, but they can also fail without “exercise,” according to Autotrader. Don’t make the mistake of thinking low mileage means the trade-in value of your car is high.
5. Tinting Your Windows
Tinted windows can reduce glare and heat, but they can also reduce the value of your car. Tinting — specifically dark tints — can lower the value of your car and ward off some potential buyers. Another consideration is legality. Laws regarding tinting vary considerably by state, so what’s legal where you live might not be legal where a prospective buyer lives.
If you decide to tint your windows, have a professional do it. Tints often bubble and blister over time — which can affect your car’s value, too.
6. Choosing the Wrong Color
You should buy the car you love, but you should also keep in mind that the color you choose will play a large role in determining the vehicle’s trade-in value. The color of a vehicle can help boost or bust its selling price, according to a study by iSeeCars.com, which analyzed car sales that took place between September 2016 and August 2017.
The study of over 2.1 million used car sales found that vehicles in certain colors retain their value better than others. ISeeCars found that the average car depreciates by 33.1% in the first three years of ownership, but yellow cars only depreciate by about 27%. Gold cars depreciate the most — by 37.1%. Other colors that take a hard hit in used-car value are purple, beige, silver and black.
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7. Letting Your Car Get Dirty
When you let your vehicle go long periods between washes, you not only doom yourself to driving around in a dingy car, but your neglect can dramatically reduce your car’s value. Built-up dirt can diminish paint, encourage rust and allow pollutants to become embedded, which can enhance scratches and dings.
8. Making Aftermarket Modifications
You might love that new spoiler or glowing neon light bar around your license plate. In reality, however, each aftermarket modification you make personalizes your car a little bit more and therefore makes it less attractive to any used-car buyer. Even aftermarket modifications that are expensive and add short-term value, such as new alloy wheels or an upgraded sound system, can diminish what you’re offered when it’s trade-in time.
The personal preference associated with each upgrade makes modified vehicles hard to sell. Dealerships offer trim packages for a reason. So, try to stick with what you bought.
9. Getting Dents, Rust and Scratches
The condition of your car’s exterior can be a major factor in its value — the overall appearance and presence of your car matters. Scratches, a worn-out exterior, rust, cracked windows or dings will lower your car’s resale value, according to AutoGuide.com.
10. Ignoring Your Car's Interior
Letting your car’s interior go is another way to hurt its value. Before you consider selling it, be sure to inspect the interior panels, lights and upholstery for conditions that may negatively impact the resale value. Be sure to give the inside of your car a thorough detailing. The National Auto Auction Association has five grade levels for operable used cars, and in order to get an excellent rating, the interior of the car should have no signs of wear.
11. Buying an Unpopular Car To Start With
The manufacturer of the car you buy can have a huge impact on how well your vehicle will resell. A car’s brand “can have a tremendous effect on its resale value, regardless of the condition or quality of the vehicle in question,” according to The Car Connection. According to a report by ALG, mainstream brands like Subaru, Honda and Toyota have higher levels of pricing power and perform well in the used-car market. ALG also found that Porsche, Lexus and Acura performed best among luxury brands in the market.
12. Ignoring Necessary Repairs
Is your car rattling? Do you hear a grinding noise every time the ignition is on? Don’t ignore it; fix it. You can’t fix a noise in your car by hoping it goes away. Sounds from your car may be an indication of a problem, and you don’t want it to get worse. Any noises or underlying issues should be addressed immediately to save your wallet and your car’s value. Then you can decide if a costly car repair is worth the money.
13. Picking the Wrong Car for Where You Live
Your geographical location can affect your car’s resale value, according to AutoGuide. Different climates call for different types of vehicles, which means certain types of cars retain their value better in specific regions. For example, if you’re in Los Angeles, having a convertible may be more suitable than it would be in a rainy city like Seattle. If you are moving to an area with a different climate, consider selling your car before you move so that your new location doesn’t hurt its value.
14. Watching the Manufacturer Shut Down Production
“If you’re unlucky enough to own a vehicle made by a manufacturer who has gone out of business, your value will definitely take a dive,” Lexus master-certified salesman Alan Stern said in a 2018 LinkedIn article. Makes that have been discontinued over the years include Scion, Mercury, Saab, Hummer, Pontiac and Saturn. There is an upside for buyers, Stern said. Discontinued makes will be available at a discount.
15. Throwing Out Your Car's Service History
Not keeping your service history can decrease your car’s value because you won’t be able to prove to prospective buyers that your vehicle was regularly checked and maintained by professionals. If you keep the receipts from these services, interested buyers will have something to reference during the buying process.
16. Getting Duped by Incentives
Automakers sometimes offer special incentives and rebates to sell new vehicles. A discount might seem great when you purchase your new car, but it could come back to hurt you when you want to sell the car later on. According to AutoGuide.com, “If the dealership needed to discount the car when it was new, it will be worth less on the used-car market too.”
17. Covering It in Bumper Stickers
You’re super into politics or punk bands or witty sayings. But stickers can ruin more than the view of the driver behind you. “We call that sticker bombing in the automotive world,” said Shayrgo Barazi, an automotive engineer. “Kudos to you if that’s what you’re into, but know that when it comes time to sell your car that prospective buyers won’t appreciate them as much as you and will more than likely send a low offer your way.” And yes, stripping them off is way harder than you think.
18. Getting an Obnoxious Paint Job
Obnoxious paint jobs go hand-in-hand with obnoxious aftermarket modifications, said auto journalist Ryan McElroy of CarKeys, a car consumer information site. And in case you’re wondering, flame paint jobs count. “Yes, they look awesome on old-school hot rods, but on your dad’s old Camry, not so much,” McElroy said.
Barazi added that it will likely hurt resale value. “If you don’t ever plan on selling your car, then feel free to paint it hot pink or matte black. But if you do end up selling your car, expect to get much less than KBB [value],” Barazi said.
19. Choosing the Wrong Time To Sell
Market conditions can affect the price you get for your trade-in, so keep this in mind before bringing it to the dealer. For example, convertibles have a lower value in the fall and winter months, according to Cars.com. Gas prices can also be a factor — a gas-guzzling truck or SUV is worth less when gas prices are high.
20. Having a Random Mix of Tires
Your trade-in value will benefit from having matching tires in good condition. If you’ve replaced some tires and now have a mix of brands and ages, this can indicate to prospective buyers that you’ve taken haphazard care of your vehicle, according to How Stuff Works. The site recommends buying four new tires when they’re on sale to get the best trade-in value for your car.
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About the Author
Amen joined the content team in January 2019 and brings a diverse background of digital, broadcast and print journalism to the team. Before she joined the GBR family, Amen was a film writer at Bustle.com, where she explored the cinematic portrayals about people of color. She has also had her work featured on NPR’s/KCRW, Fox Entertainment News, Los Angeles Sentinel Newspaper, Blavity and PilatesStyle Magazine.