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How to Sell a Car: 10 Steps for Success

If you plan to sell a car, find out how to get top dollar by using these steps for success.

Learn the different ways to sell a car, how to prepare your vehicle for sale, and get tips on pricing your vehicle, selling a car safely, creating car ads, negotiating a price, paperwork, and more.

Once equipped with these and other tools, you’ll be ready to sell your used car and get the most out of the deal you choose.

Steps for Selling a Car:

  1. Different Ways to Sell a Car
  2. Documents to Gather to Sell Your Car
  3. How to Prepare Your Car to Sell
  4. How to Choose the Right Sales Price
  5. Advertising Tips and Tricks
  6. Selling a Car Safety Tips
  7. What to Know about Pre-Sale Inspections
  8. Tips for Price Negotiations
  9. Paperwork Checklist
  10. Payment Options
Sell a car successfully with tips from the pros

1. Different Ways to Sell a Car

When putting your car on the market, you’ll want to decide whether to trade it in at a dealership, sell it yourself or get an instant cash offer, such as the Kelley Blue Book Instant Cash Offer. The value of your car will vary depending on which method you use. There are pros and cons to each option, such as the speed of sale, costs, and taxes.

Why Trade it in?

  • Fast and convenient
  • No costs for listing and selling
  • No texts, emails, or personal calls
  • Potential to pay less sales tax on your new car

Why Sell it Yourself?

  • Negotiate directly with buyers
  • Get paid more for your vehicle
  • Save money because no dealer overhead costs

Why Use Instant Cash Offer?

  • Quick and easy
  • Can be redeemed immediately at a participating local dealer
  • No obligations

To get a sense of what you can expect from any of these methods, compare the Kelley Blue Book Private Party Value and Trade-in Value. Then check out the Kelley Blue Book Instant Cash Offer. The difference could also be the deciding factor.

2. Documents to Gather to Sell Your Car

The selling process begins with collecting your car’s paperwork. Do not overlook this crucial step. It’s important to tackle this before you offer to sell your car. You’ll be glad you did. 

What Documents Do I Need?

  • Vehicle title. Be sure to keep the vehicle title handy though in a safe place for selling the vehicle.
  • Service records. These days, regular oil changes signal good upkeep to any potential buyer that the car comes well cared for. These will be great to show any interested buyer. No receipts? Check with your dealer, regular mechanic, or oil change center and ask for a statement that summarizes your visits. Having this information reassures a buyer that the car you’re selling is in good shape. These documents can help you obtain or negotiate a higher price whether selling it to an individual or a dealer.
  • Original sales paperwork. While you may already know the basics (year, make, model, and current mileage), you’ll need to know your car’s trim level, such as a 2018 Honda Accord may be an Accord EX-L, which may include optional high-selling features such as keyless entry, leather seats or a head’s up display. Options can bump up your car’s resale value, so be sure you have a complete list. If you want to see if you missed anything, check your original sales documents or the window sticker.
  • Vehicle history report. If your vehicle was in an accident, be prepared to answer any questions about it. It can be helpful to pull a vehicle history accident report and know what it says.

3. How to Prepare Your Car to Sell

A broken door lock lever, a cracked windshield, the clattering of a noisy exhaust pipe — it’s in your best interest to fix these things before putting your car or truck on the market.

You’ll want to address the bigger mechanical issues unless you plan on selling your vehicle “as is” at a reduced price.

Consider getting your car professionally detailed, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s just one more reassurance for potential buyers that they’re stepping into a clean car. Cleaning your car professionally also helps you increase the sales value when selling the car.

Basic detailing can cost in the hundreds of dollars, depending on the size and condition of your car and where you live. So be sure to shop around for a price and know what you’re getting.

If detailing costs are out of financial reach, you can always take it to a car wash and do the detailing yourself.

Interior Tips to Sell a Car

  • Remove all personal items and debris
  • Shampoo carpets
  • Clean dashboard, seats, mirrors and otherwise put a shine on all surface areas

Exterior Tips to Sell a Car

  • Remove all stickers and magnets 
  • Repair dents, dings, and scratches
  • Replace any burned out lights  
  • Fix windshield chips and cracks 
  • Check the brakes and consider replacing if they’re worn down  
  • Inspect your tires and determine if replacing is needed  

4. How to Choose the Right Sales Price

You may think your car drives and shines like new, but its value will depend on its actual condition. It’s important to be knowledgeable and realistic about the sales price when determining how to sell a car.

Some owners tend to overestimate the value of their car, which can lead to unrealistic expectations. If you ultimately set your asking price too high, you’ll probably have more trouble selling it.

Tools for setting the asking price

  1. Consider getting a mechanic’s assessment. The mechanic can identify problems with the engine, plus things you may overlook, like a broken taillight or features you don’t use. Not only will this help you when setting the price to sell your vehicle. (See section – What to Know about Pre-Sale Inspections).
  2. Use valuation tools. Kelley Blue Book’s web-based valuation tools will help you get a quick, easy, and accurate value for your car or truck.
  3. Peruse local listings. Check local listings, including Autotrader, to see what other similar vehicles – with similar equipment and options – are selling for in your area.
  4. Take the Kelley Blue Book Condition Quiz. This tool helps you determine your car’s true condition.

Keep in mind that a larger engine and a higher power rating will be worth more when gas prices are low but can result in a sale price reduction if the used car market favors fuel efficiency.

Options like leather seats (assuming they’re in good condition), navigation, and alloy wheels can be used as selling points to enhance a vehicle’s value. Kelly Blue Book has provisions to include those extras in calculating an accurate value.

More tips to consider:

When to Price Your Car Higher

  • Warranty. You’ll get more money for your vehicle if it’s under an extended warranty (bumper-to-bumper or powertrain), provided the warranty is transferable.
  • Regular maintenance. If you’ve kept up with regular maintenance, including if you recently completed major scheduled maintenance, such as a 60,000-mile service, it adds to the bottom line of the sales price.
  • New tires or brakes. You can add to the sales price if you’ve purchased a new set of tires or installed new brakes.

When to Price Your Car Lower

  • Quick sale. If you want to sell your car quickly, lowering the price helps you get there faster.
  • Needs maintenance. If the vehicle needs a major scheduled service, new tires or brakes, that will lower the price.
  • Accident(s). Whether a fender bender or major accident, these mishaps will lower your sales price.

5. Advertising Tips and Tricks

Once you’ve decided to sell your car privately, it’s time to get the word out to the largest audience possible and sell a car online.

Websites like Kelly Blue Book and Autotrader offer information on how to sell a car online and advertising classifieds services that put your car in front of thousands of active shoppers in your area in a matter of minutes. The car ads also run nationally for those hard-to-find vehicles. With a detailed description and several good photos, you can stand out to the buyers who are interested in your car.

Selling your car online also allows you to field questions first, which will help you weed out any unlikely buyers and limit your time showing the car in person.

What to Include in a Car Advertisement

  • Start with a brief description. Highlight your car’s most in-demand features, such as low mileage, high MPG, any remaining warranties, and special features.
  • Mention why you’re selling the car. Buyers want to know this most of all, so deal with it upfront.
  • List the vehicle’s condition. Be honest about the vehicle’s condition and list the vehicle’s VIN number to reassure buyers that you’re not hiding anything.
  • State your asking price and negotiating terms. Begin by posting your car’s Blue Book® Value followed by your asking price, then give an explanation why you’re asking more or less than the Blue Book® Value. State whether the price is “firm,” “negotiable” or “best offer” – as this will help you target buyers.
  • Define acceptable payment forms. Include information about the types of payment you can accept, including touchless online payments, certified checks, or money orders.
  • Include lots of photos. Buyers love to feel like they’re inside the car, so include several exterior angles and close-ups of the interior, dash, and engine.

6. Selling a Car Safety Tips

When you sell a car to a private party, you’ll want to keep these safety tips in mind to ensure a positive outcome for everyone involved. By following these tips you’ll be better prepared to make decisions along the way as you navigate the sales process to a private party.

Expert Strategies for Safe Transactions

  • Meet in a safe area. Meet potential buyers in safe areas, such as well-trafficked retail or restaurant parking lots with security cameras. Local police department “online safe zones” can also be an option.
  • Bring a friend. Always bring someone with you for a test drive or even the sale of your car.
  • Tap into a verifiable escrow service. For a fee, an escrow service takes a buyer’s payment until the deal is done. This type of third-party service protects both parties from fraud. If the buyer suggests one, check the source first before agreeing to anything and determine who pays the fees. Beware of fake escrow services that claim affiliation with KBB.com and TRUSTe. KBB.com does not endorse any escrow services and TRUSTe does not operate an escrow service.
  • Choose only legitimate forms of payment. Cash is king but not so much for large transactions. Stick to online forms of payment if possible or use cashier’s checks and money orders from reputable banks or credit unions.

Create a Paper Trail

When selling through a dealership, the paperwork is handled for you. When you sell to an individual, you need to keep a paper trail.

  • Title transfer: Each state has different requirements when transferring a vehicle title. However, most states do require that both the seller and the buyer fill out paperwork to ensure the transfer is legal. Typically, the seller signs and dates the back of the existing title, adds the sale price and the exact odometer reading before handing the keys to the vehicle over to the buyer. Do not round up on your odometer reading. Keep it exact. Once you let the buyer drive away, you do not want to be legally held responsible for anything.

Tip: Make a copy of both sides of the signed title for your records. Use a smart device to take the photo if you have one on hand.

  • Bill of Sale and Release of Liability: Whether or not the state where you live recommends that buyers and sellers complete a “bill of sale” and “release of liability” is an excellent way to protect yourself during and after the transaction. A “release of liability” form provides proof of the transfer and protects the seller from any future tickets, violations, or other problems with the vehicle after it’s sold. DMV.org, a clearinghouse of all state DMVs, provides a sample Bill of Sale as well as Release of Liability information. Send in the signed “release of liability” to your state DMV. This is important to ensure that the seller is not held responsible for anything that happens to the vehicle after the sale.
  • Remove license plates and turn them in: Let the buyer know ahead of time that you will be removing your license plates from the car at the time of sale. Let the buyer make their own license plate arrangements to drive off with the car. In many states, you will be required to turn in your license plates to the DMV and get a receipt, which cancels the registration of the vehicle in your name. Taking the plates removes your liability once the car is sold.

Ways to Protect Personal Information

Prior to handing over any service records to a potential buyer, be sure to block out any personal information, including your phone number, credit card numbers, or any other sensitive and personal information.

If you originally bought the car from a dealer, remove any contract or completed credit application from your glove compartment or owner’s manual. You wouldn’t want this information to fall into the wrong hands as it may contain your social security number and any previous addresses.

How to Create a Safe Test Drive for Both Parties

  • Plan ahead. Discuss with the potential buyer their plans and yours and be honest about your limitations and don’t be afraid to ask about theirs. When both parties are comfortable, it paves the way for a successful sale. It takes away the guesswork.
  • Test drive with others present. When a potential buyer wants to take a test drive, always accompany the person – regardless of what kind of collateral they offer. Ask a friend or family member to join you. The potential buyer may also want to bring someone else along. Only take the test drive if you’re comfortable. Plan a test-drive that’s short and sticks to populated areas. Most buyers don’t expect a long test-drive. If your buyer wants more time, let the person ask you for it. Tip: Due to Covid-19, discuss comfort levels and make arrangements for the process and procedures before the in-person test drive to ensure the health and safety of both parties.
  • Check your insurance for coverage of other drivers. Make sure your auto insurance covers any test drive and ask to see the potential buyer’s driver’s license before handing over your keys. Take a picture the license, just in case anything happens.
  • Refuse unusual requests. If you feel uncomfortable, just say no and come up with alternatives. For example, never drive the would-be buyer to another location. Often, such a request is framed in terms of getting the money or arranging a loan to finish the sale. Instead, tell the buyer to make their own arrangements, leave a deposit and get back in touch when they’re ready to take a test drive or complete the sale.

7. What to Know about Pre-Sale Inspections

Buyers often ask for pre-sale inspections. A pre-sale inspection is worth the investment because it’s just one more tool you can use to put buyers at ease. 

Inspection while selling an auto

Buyers often want their mechanic to take a look under the hood. Getting a pre-sale inspection of your vehicle before you put it up for sale will equip you with information that a buyer will find if they do their own inspection. It may also head off a buyer’s need to get their own inspection.

If the buyer still insists on using their own mechanic, meet the person only at reputable businesses, and drive separately.

8. Tips for Price Negotiations

The benefit of using the instant cash offer or selling your car to a dealer is that these methods can take price haggling out of the equation. When selling your vehicle to a private owner, let the buyer take the lead in any negotiations. Ideally, you’ve given yourself some padding on your asking price, so the buyer can either accept the price or counteroffer.

  • Determine your lowest acceptable offer. Know your lowest acceptable offer beforehand and take into consideration the number of possible buyers you have in hand. The art of negotiation involves feeling confident that other buyers may be out there if you can’t agree on a price.
  • Be realistic. If a buyer offers below your lowest acceptable sales price, be prepared to move on. Suggest that they contact you if they reconsider. But if the buyer makes a reasonable offer, be prepared to say yes.
  • Bring paperwork just in case. Be prepared to sell your car on the spot if the buyer wants to complete the sale. Remember to bring your car title and all the collected paperwork to the meeting but keep it in a safe place until decision time.

9. Paperwork Checklist

When selling the car yourself, you’ll need to gather the vehicle title for the sale to be completed. Check with your state’s rules regarding title transfer at a local DMV location and you can find your own state’s rules on title transfer here.In many states, the buyer needs to transfer the vehicle by doing the following:

  • Retitle the vehicle
  • Register the car in his or her name
  • Pay transfer fees, including state taxes

All three steps can be completed at a state DMV site in your local area.

Most states require the seller to provide the buyer with a current smog check or state inspection certificate showing the vehicle passed the test before transferring ownership. Be sure to have this available at the time of sale.

Sellers in some states must notify the county tax assessor’s office of the sale, which provides another layer of protection in the event the future owner fails to properly title the vehicle.

While the majority of private car sales complete without a hitch – delivering more money for the seller than a trade-in offer – it’s still important to stay smart and take preventive measures.

10. Payment Options

When the buyer decides that your car is the one for them, and you’ve agreed on a sales price, the smartest next step is to determine which payment option works best. For example, touchless online payments, such as Zelle or PayPal, or a money order or cashier’s check, are safe ways to collect payment. Cashier’s checks get drawn directly from a bank and not someone’s account.

All these payment options keep your bank information hidden and your personal information safe as the buyer pays you directly for the car.

Any of these methods will help protect a seller against fraud.

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