Sharon Pruitt/EyeEm/Getty Images

Buying a new car often means figuring out what to do with your current one. Assuming it’s in usable condition (no matter how broadly that term can be interpreted), it’s worth something. It’s in your best interest to get as much money for it as possible. Trading in your old car at the dealership is a tempting option because it seems like such a clean and easy process. At least that’s what the car dealers want you to believe. Let’s take a look at some common trade-in traps and how to beat them.

Make Sure It’s The Smartest Choice

If your priority is to get the most money possible for your used car, then going the trade-in route isn’t the best way to do it. You’ll get more money (potentially as much as 20 to 30 percent) selling it on your own because the dealership has to give themselves some wiggle room to make a profit, and they do that by deliberately undervaluing your car.

What’s more, when you add a trade-in to the equation of trying to buy your new car you’ll be negotiating on two separate deals, a complicated situation which gives the sales team a distinct advantage. However, if convenience is more important than money, trading in does offer that benefit. 

Find Out How Much You Need

If you’ve decided to go through with trading in your car, you first should figure out how much you owe on it. If the vehicle is owned free and clear, that’s great. If you have a loan on it though, contact the lienholder and ask for a payoff quote. That’s how much money you’ll need to get for your trade-in without having to pay out of pocket to settle the loan, or worse, rolling the shortfall into the loan for your new car. Your trade-in can be worth more or less than this amount, but it’s a good starting point.

Estimate How Much Your Car Is Worth

There are a number of online guides, such as Edmunds, Kelley Blue Book, and TrueCar that provide national and regional values for used cars. You can find out what your car is worth by visiting our website, but make sure to look at the trade-in value, not the retail value. Input your car, trim level, mileage, and options, and be sure to be honest about its condition.

You can bet the dealer’s appraiser will be ready to point out every little flaw in an effort to knock down its value. In other words, this isn’t the time to be optimistic or get emotional. Then, look at local classifieds and, if you can, local used car lots. This will give you a good idea of what a dealership will try to sell your car for.

Decide How Much You Want

You should be ready with a counter-offer when the dealership appraises your car. This number should be realistic though — you aren’t going to get anything close to what the dealership expects to sell your car for. Ideally this number will be at least the amount you need to pay off the car, and also around what the online guides say your car is worth as a trade-in.

Aleksej Sarifulin/Getty Images

You may or may not get the dealer to agree to a price that’s close to this number, but if you go in there without any goals in mind the sales team will know it, and you’ll end up taking whatever amount they feel like giving you. Keep in mind that dealerships typically make more money on used car sales than on new ones and it’ll give you a mental edge in your negotiations.

Take Off Aftermarket Accessories.

Customizing your car might have made it more fun to own and drive, but experts say it can hurt its market value. Dealers want a car that will appeal to a lot of customers and, with rare exceptions, a car in factory condition is most likely to accomplish that. Some modifications, like an aftermarket body kit or custom paint job, are irreversible, but if you’ve performed modifications that can be reversed reasonably easily, like replacing aftermarket seats or wheels with their original counterparts, it’ll be worth your time (assuming you still have them). You should remove custom decals or bumper stickers without damaging the finish, if you can, as well.

Bring Documentation

If you’ve kept maintenance records over your car’s life (which is always a good idea) they may help strengthen your case, especially if they show you’ve recently had major work done. That way, the dealership will spend less time and money getting your car ready for the lot. In short, if you claim the car has been well-maintained the salesperson might ask for proof, so be prepared.

Make Sure The Car Is Clean

Experts disagree here — some say a thorough detailing job will make your car irresistible, while others say it won’t matter to a dealership and it’s a waste of your time and money. You can probably skip the hassle and expense of treating your trade-in to a pricey day at the luxury auto spa. But it definitely won’t hurt to put in a little manual labor.

Remove your personal belongings, clean up spills or stains the best you can, and perhaps run a vacuum cleaner through the interior and trunk. If the exterior’s particularly dirty, a car wash isn’t a bad idea either. Even if a minor cleanup job doesn’t directly result in a higher offer, you’re at least reinforcing the narrative that your car has been well maintained over the years. 

Keep Your Negotiations Separate

We mentioned it earlier, but when you’re actually at the dealership it’s important to remember that you’re conducting two separate transactions that your salesperson will try desperately to roll into one. Some experts suggest negotiating the trade-in price first, while others believe you’re better off if you settle your new car purchase first. Either one of these strategies is better than the alternative, which is letting the salesperson jump back and forth.

Fuse/Getty Images

That’s a common and effective tactic to confuse the customer, but you should firmly and calmly interrupt and bring the conversation back on task. You’ve done so much work already, don’t let it go to waste by falling to a pushy salesperson’s well-known manipulation tactics. 

More Shopping Tools From U.S. News & World Report

No matter where you are in your car-buying process, the experts at U.S. News & World Report can help you find the right car at the right price. One of our guiding principles is that you’re not getting a great deal unless you’re getting a great car.

Our new car rankings and reviews are based on the consensus opinion of the country’s top automotive reviewers, blended with quantifiable data about safety and predicted reliability. Our used car rankings and reviews add cost of ownership to the research to help you find a vehicle that’s going to be affordable for the long-haul.

We’ll show you how to get a car loan and help you find a great financing deal with our article on how to finance a car. Our partner myAutoloan.com will get you as many as four financing offers with just one simple online application.

You can find the best incentives available from automakers by visiting our new car deals and used car deals pages. Buyers can save even more by using the U.S. News Best Price Program. By connecting consumers with local dealers offering guaranteed savings, the program saves buyers an average of more than $3,000 off MSRP.