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Selling Your Car Is a Pain, So Here’s How To Make It Easier

If you’re planning to buy a new car, a common part of the process is figuring out how to get rid of your current car. Some people want the most money possible, and some just want to hand over the keys quickly and with minimal hassle. Whatever your priority, you should consider selling your car to a dealership. True, you’ll typically make less on the sale, but it might be more than you expect, and it’s worth your time to find out. 

Since the conditions created by the COVD-19 pandemic mean that used cars are in short supply, sellers have a little more leverage than usual. More people are deciding to hang on to their cars longer because of economic uncertainty. For the same reasons, more people want to buy used cars instead of new cars. It makes sense to take advantage of the timing if you were planning to get rid of your car anyway, but you should keep your expectations realistic.

Ready to get moving on your sale? Here’s what you’ll need to do.

Figure Out The Value

There are a number of sites with used car valuation tools, such as Kelley Blue Book, the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), and Consumer Reports. These calculators are useful, but they do have some shortcomings, so they’re to be used only for guidance. First, these sites use information you provide and compare it to their data to estimate your car’s value, but the number they spit back isn’t an offer to buy your car for that amount. That’s an important difference, and one that dealers will certainly point out if you march into the showroom with printouts of these sites’ value estimates. 

Second, be honest. Are you estimating your car’s value as “Good” when it’s really an awful lot more like “Fair”? Your squeaky brakes and sagging seat cushions might not bother you, but that doesn’t mean a potential buyer will be thrilled, and any issues drag down the price someone is willing to pay. 

Third, online calculators don’t account for everything. Factors unique to your area, like climate, weather, gas prices, and demographics result in fluctuations in the used car market. You might happen to have a car that’s extra popular or extremely unpopular for the place that you live, and its value will probably be different than that of a similar car across the country. 

In other words, use these tools as a guide, but also consider what’s selling in your area. If you can show a dealer that cars similar to yours are fetching good prices, you’re in good shape.

Get Ahead Of Problems

Think you know your car pretty well? It’s best to make sure before you try to sell it. Car history reports are available from companies like Carfax and AutoCheck, and they’ll tell you if there are any shady times in your car’s past.

Car damage history report with green pencil on top
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Before you try to sell your car, run a history report, especially if you aren’t the car’s first owner. If there are problems with your car, such as an accident history or issues with the title, you don’t want to hear about them from the dealership you’re trying to sell to. You should expect anyone who might buy your car, whether it’s a dealer or a private party, to be armed with this information, so if you don’t have it yourself, you’ll look like you have no idea what you’re talking about.

Try Instant Cash Offers

If you’re interested in expediency, an instant cash offer (ICO) may be the way to go. Though you can get ICOs in person or over the phone, you can also do it from home, in your pajamas if you like, and with as many sources as you’d like. 

An instant cash offer is good for a specified amount of time, though the company issuing the offer reserves the right to adjust your actual payment if the car wasn’t described accurately. Since you can submit a bunch of ICO requests, it’s an easy way to compare offers quickly. Furthermore, since these companies actually want to buy your car for the amount offered, it’s a good way to see how much your car is actually worth. Options include used car dealerships and marketplaces like Carvana, AutoNation, and CarMax; local new car dealerships, often through Kelley Blue Book or a similar valuation platform; or directly through platforms like KBB or Edmunds, which aren’t the buying entity, but will make your car’s information available to their dealer networks. When you choose an offer, you simply bring your car to the agreed-upon location or dealership, and walk away with a check.

ICOs are a relatively new way to sell a car, and you have to keep in mind that since whoever ends up buying your car intends to resell it, they’re leaving themselves enough wiggle room to make a profit. You probably won’t walk away with as much cash as if you’d sold your car at a private party, but it’s a lot less hassle. And since it costs you nothing, it’s worth trying out, as it will likely give you a fairly accurate estimate of your car’s value.

If You Can Fix It Up, Do It

If you’re selling your car to a dealership, it makes sense to make some minor repairs. If anything major is wrong, like engine or transmission problems, it’s not worth the time or money you’ll spend to get those fixed. The problems will deduct value from your car, but spending money up front to fix them won’t add value to the car, and you’ll likely spend more than you’d lose. 

Car maintenance
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That said, it’s worth fixing cheap, minor, or easy flaws, like burned-out lightbulbs, small scratches, or small oil leaks. That is, assuming your fix actually makes the issue better rather than worse.

Spruce It Up

If you take your car to a dealership to sell and it’s filthy, the dealer will assume, perhaps rightfully, that you didn’t put much effort into maintaining your car, and your offer will probably be on the low end of the range as a result. Well-maintained cars are worth more, and it’s hard to argue that you stayed on top of regular oil changes if you didn’t notice or care that your car smells like a fast-food fryer, or worse, an ashtray.

You don’t need to invest in a professional detailing job unless you’re really trying to impress the dealer and get top dollar – or unless your car is truly disgusting and cleaning it yourself is beyond your skill set or level of motivation. However, at the very least, a basic wash and a once-over with a vacuum cleaner are a very good idea. Run a dust rag over the dashboard and controls, wipe sticky residue out of your cupholders, and get greasy dog nose smears off the glass. Completing these chores won’t increase your offer beyond your car’s actual value, but will give the dealer less reason to lowball you.

Get Multiple Offers

Just as you can compare multiple ICOs, you can also get multiple offers from competing dealerships. If you’re doing in-person evaluations, appraisals, and negotiations at multiple dealerships, the process will probably be time-consuming and potentially stressful, but it is an option if you want the most money for your car without selling it to a private party. 

Multiple hands giving cash to single hand
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If there are a lot of car dealerships in your area, you don’t need to visit them all. Focus on dealers that sell the brand of car you’re selling, especially if your car is only a few years old and is in good shape, because then it may be a candidate for the brand’s certified pre-owned (CPO) program, which will increase the dealer’s profit margin. Call each dealer’s used car department to ask if they’re interested, instead of just showing up. If you target the right dealers, you may get to choose from several offers, and if you’re selling a desirable car, the dealers may even increase their offers to outbid the competition.

Pros And Cons Of Trading In

If you’re selling your old car because you’re planning to buy or lease a new one, trading in is an option worth exploring. You’re unlikely to get the most money this way, because the dealer is building in a buffer to recondition the car and make a profit, but there are a few general tips that will help keep the process on the right track.

When you walk into a dealership to trade in your car and buy a new one, the most important thing to remember is that you need to consider it two separate transactions. Negotiate the trade-in value and negotiate the deal on your new car, but keep the two price quotes separate. Salespeople can play a lot of games with the numbers if you let them, so you’ll end up thinking you got great prices on both ends of the deal, when in reality, profit on the new car can be used to pad the offer of your trade in, or vice versa. Add in discussion of monthly payments and financing, and you can easily lose track of the conversation. Bring a notepad with you and keep track of the details.

When the deal is done, the price you accept on your trade in will be used to offset the price you agree to pay for your new car, but don’t think of it this way until you’re happy with both prices and you’re signing the paperwork. Otherwise, you might lose track of the fact that those numbers on the calculator represent real money, and you’ll be an easier target for the salesperson’s trickery.

That said, trading in is generally pretty fast and pretty easy, at least compared to shopping around at different dealerships or selling privately. For more detailed information about trading in a car, see our guide here.

Keep Your Expectations In Check

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Selling your car to a dealership means no texts or emails from Craigslist users, no lowballers on Facebook Marketplace, no strangers ringing your doorbell and wasting your time. Just remember that taking the path of less resistance means you’re sacrificing some money in favor of saving time.

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

To learn more about selling your car, check out our guide, which can help you make the process as smooth and stress-free as possible.

When it’s time to replace your old car, check out our new car rankings and reviews for the latest, or our used car rankings and reviews to see the best money-saving options in your budget.