By on September 14, 2012

The time has come. After oh so many years of driving the same old beater, it’s finally time for you to pass the torch to the next owner.

God help them. Now what should you do?

Step 1: Clean the big things first. 

The first step in getting the most money out of your car is remembering that virtually no one wants your mementos. Big or small.  Even those who buy an oldie of a work truck want their battle scarred warrior to look as new as possible.

It comes down to this. If you clean it, they will pay. If not, they will gripe.

Start with the inside. You may have some work ahead of you!

And when we say the inside… we also mean the glovebox, trunk, door panels, and any other crevice where you may store your stuff. Even the ashtray if your ride still has one. Even the area under the carpet of the trunk.

All those papers, bags, leftover food wrappers, refuse from another era, and ‘personal stuff’ need to be out pronto. Nobody wants them. Not even your pet.

Start with the big things inside and work your way down to the smallest of crumbs.

Step 2: Clean the small things second, and look through everything twice. 

Once your hands fail, use a vacuum.  Remember to remove the floormats while you clean the interior of the car.

Now check those floormats for a quick second. Are they still intact with perhaps a few random stains? Or has your shoe or boot created a gaping hole? If you created a hole, or just wore it out after all these years, you’re in luck! A good looking set of floormats is usually only around $25 to $35. Buy em’.

Even the chintziest of professional car dealers will invest in floormats so that they can realize a retail price.

Once you finished vacuuming the car , use a stain remover and an interior detail cleaner. Make sure to read the instructions so that you avoid using anything that may stick or stain.

One big word of caution here. If it has bleach, don’t use it. Ever. Go to an automotive forum that specializes in your model if you want to read up before you buy.

Step 3: You don’t use bumper stickers on your car now… do you?


Nothing says ‘crappy old car’ quite like a large assortment of bumper stickers on the rear. If you have one or two, go forth and buy a can of Goof Off for all your past pearls of wisdom.

If the car is afflicted with the bumper sticker virus, then just let it be. Schmuck!

Step 4: Wash first. Wax later if needed.

Some folks want to invest in a cheap $5 car wash, and let that be that. Others consider an afternoon cleaning their motorized chariot as a great way to spend their free time. Figure out the type of person you are and go from there.

If the car has large dull patches where the wax has completely worn off, you need to wax it. You have two choices. Do it yourself. Or hire a professional.

Most owners are better off opting for the second choice if they haven’t done it themselves in a long, long time. Don’t rely on online reviews. Instead, go to the place yourself first and judge whether you would be satisfied with the finished product.

Some mobile detailers are good at what they do. However I would strongly encourage you to ask people you know before going that route.

Step 5: Gather the paperwork. 

A stack of records is not only worth a thousand words. It’s often worth a thousand dollars, and sometimes even more.

Go ahead and bring them all together. If you are missing a few, call the places where you had your work done and see if they can print you another copy.

Collect all your maintenance records and sort them in chronological order. You now have a good story to tell.

Step 6: Nutjobs get the most money

The people who get the most money for their ride are usually those who have been the most manic about maintenance, upkeep, and the car in general.

Become one. Consider the stark differences between the answer to the following question,

“When was the last time you got the oil changed?”

Seller 1: “Six months ago.”

Seller 2: “I always changed it every six months or 5,000 miles. It takes 3.6 quarts of Mobil 1 and an AC Delco filter. I use a 12mm to remove the oil drain plug and I never, ever go to those Quickie Lube places. This is my car and I do it myself.”

Now keep in mind seller two said quite a bit. The first two sentences are fine. But when it comes to selling any car, details offer more assurance than anything.

The more details you can provide. The more you will get.

Step 7: Common cars often sell better locally. Rare car + not old = Ebay

As a local car dealer, Craigslist and Autotrader have been my bread and butter for a long time.

This is in addition to several online communities that specialize in a particular brand, along with sites that focus squarely on the local community. Most of those sites have a ‘city’.com or ‘county’.com format.

However you may get surprising dividends by posting your car at a bulletin board at a school, your local community center, or your place of worship. Please make sure they know you before you just show up. Otherwise you may wind up chased, shot, asked to play racquetball, or proselytized.

One other thing. This may be a good time to use Facebook.  You may also want to also inform your older friends or relatives who haven’t quite yet embraced the latest social websites. You would be surpsied how many cars sell thanks to a ‘friend of a friend’.

Step 8: When advertising your car, close ups  and good stories are better than distance photos and cliches.

Craigslist allows 8 pictures. Ebay provides slots for 24 photos if you use their template.

Autotrader has a variety of offerings with their 9 picture / 4 week deal being the most common one.

My advice is to get at least five close-ups along with three distance shots if you plan on selling via Craigslist.

Three good distance shots:  Front , side view, and rear.

Three close-up interior shots: One dashboard view from behind the driver seat. One close-up of the driver seat. One well kept part of the car in sound cosmetic shape (dashboard wood, door panel, shifter, etc).

Two close-up exterior photos: Close up of front grille, tire/alloy wheel, driver door, emblem or similar item that is unique to that car.

As for words… tell them everything and make your ad genuine. Don’t read other ads because 90+% of them stink to high heaven with the same gibberish terms. Tell your story and sound like yourself.

Step 9: Meeting and greeting

Some folks are comfortable having a stranger on their driveway. Others only like to meet in popular places where video cameras are plentiful.

Figure out which scenario works best for you. Along with that, remember you are selling the vehicle AS/IS. This means that once they pay for it, done. You have no responsibility other than providing them with a clear title and the keys.

As for those keys, don’t have them out once you meet them. Figure out first if you may have a good reason NOT to give them the keys. Always ask for a Drivers License once they ask to drive your car, and make sure the key chain you give them only has keys to the car… not your home or business.

Step 10: Payment and paperwork

So they want to buy it? Congrats! Now cover your bases.

There are a LOT of scam artists out there. You want to use an AS/IS contract like this one and ask for the buyer’s drivers license so that you can fill out the information correctly on the bill of sale and title.

Sometimes addresses are not current. So you should ask if they still live at that address as well. When it comes time for you to fill the bill of sale out, make sure you are the only one filling it out. In fact, it’s usually best off to have everything done beforehand with the exception of the buyer’s information. You don’t want any unauthorized alteration to be done with the contract after the fact.

If you are not comfortable handling large sums of cash, or want to have a certified check verified, the bank is always the best place to do it. Sometimes the banks are closed though. If that happens, have someone with you and/or  go to a place that has a video camera to monitor activities. The local diner or chain restaurant will usually have a video camera up and running.

Payment NoteDon’t take personal checks. Don’t take money orders,  and don’t take certified checks from banks that either you have never heard of or those that are out of state. Cash and certified checks from familiar in-state institutions are usually fine.

Every certified check should have some type of watermark or unusual labeling to ward off counterfeiters. If you don’t see it or just feel uneasy, ask if they can meet you at the bank to verify the check, and offer them a refundable deposit to hold the car until that meeting.

Once the vehicle is paid for take care of the back of the title. Have them sign the title as the buyer in your presence, and make sure you sign off on the title as well.

Curbstoners will usually not sign the title as the buyer and then try to sell the car by pretending to be you. You don’t want that.

I hope you enjoy what will hopefully be a four figure return over the trade-in value.

But if all this sounds like a pain, that’s fine too. You now have extra incentive to keep that daily driver until it’s worth more dead than alive. All the best!

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

24 Comments on “How To Sell Your Car...”

  • avatar

    Make sure to see a driver’s license before you hand over the key.
    Motorcycle sellers frequently ask to see the full price in cash in
    the buyer’s hand before allowing a test drive. If you don’t want
    people driving your car around who have no money you might do well
    to do the same. Of course your ad must state this condition. SO many people are out driving with no intentions or means of buying.

    I recently sold a car locally that was due to close on Ebay an hour
    after the buyer arrived. The ebay auction provided great evidence that many people wanted this car, were “watching” it, and had sent emails asking questions and giving indications that they would bid. I closed the auction and sold the car to someone with a face.

    Keep up your insurance and plates so you can relax while the prospect is testdriving. Make sure to take the plates off after the sale;the buyer does NOT need them. I once had a female cop buy a car from me and asked if she could mail the plates back to me after her drive 70 mi. home. I agreed not knowing better. Nothing bad became of this, but you have no reason to plate the car for someone.
    You are selling the car, not a set of plates.

    Make sure to get the mileage right on the title. This will protect you should the buyer get into an accident immediately after the purchase. And I would imagine that it is easy to have a mishap in an unfamiliar car without plates while wondering if one has done the right thing in buying a used car.

    A good car at a good price will often sell in a day or two. But if
    it doesn’t, take heart. Often a week or three is needed to find the right person. It only takes one.

    • 0 avatar
      DC Bruce

      In many states, such as where I live, it is illegal to leave plates on the car after you have sold it to someone else, and you are REQUIRED to surrender your old plates at the DMV after you assign the title to someone else.

      Also, with the abundance of red light and speed cameras . . . all of which work by identifying the owner of the license plates, you have an added incentive to remove the plates in case your buyer goes hooning around . . . or even gets a fat parking ticket. The law makes you responsible for the fine regardless of who is driving the vehicle.

      Admittedly, this makes the transaction kind of awkward because your buyer can’t drive the car away once he’s paid for it. He has to take the paperwork to the DMV and get a temporary tag.

    • 0 avatar

      And conversely, in some states, the plates STAY WITH THE CAR and you can’t keep them (unless they are vanity plates).

      In this case, make sure you have a completed report of sale (usually done online now with an option to print out a copy).

      I sold a car to a curbstoner (as I found out a couple of days later when my car showed up on CL for 3X what I sold it for) and 45 minutes after he left my house, he ran a light and I got the ticket in the mail a month later!

    • 0 avatar

      I think showing up to check out a car with a large sum of cash on hand is nuts. Craigslist gets shadier by the day.

      Furthermore, how is a buyer supposed to have the full price before even driving the car? Typically you drive a car first, then if you like it you have your mechanic check it out. If it still looks good, then you negotiate.

      Is the idea just to demonstrate you have the means so it isn’t a blatant joyride? I assume a certified check is simply torn up and replaced if a lower price is negotiated (or just torn up if there is no deal)? Kinda a pain since those checks cost time and money.

      I understand a seller’s desire to avoid wasting time, but too many sellers act like any potential buyer with the nerve to even call need to hand over the full asking price in cash at the first meeting.

  • avatar

    Steve, great article. My wife and I are trying to sell her ’08 Pathfinder because she has grown tired of it and wants something smaller. Zero luck so far using craigslist, which we have used successfully in the past.

    One note – not all states allow as/is private sales. Massachusetts has a private sale lemon law. It has its limitations, and is less stringent than the dealer lemon law, but it is still a consideration for private sellers.

  • avatar

    If you’re selling on Craigslist, do take more photos than will fit on that site. Every person interested in my car asked me to email them more photos.

    In cleaning, pay extra attention to windows, inside and out. Even use a clay bar on the exteriors.

  • avatar

    Another place to finish the deal: AAA They have cameras and security aplenty, will witness the sale, at at least in some states, can handle the title transfer. Even better, they’re professionals and do it every day, so they know how to do it right, and instill confidence in both the buyer and seller.

    And so long as either the buyer or the seller is a member of AAA, it’s all free.

  • avatar

    All good advice.

    Fortunately, my cars have sold themselves due to my reputation of taking care of them – or maybe I just sell too cheap, who knows?

    Friends and neighbors have bought all my cars for the last 12 years.

    1999 Stratus in 2002: Friend.
    1996 Ranger in 2004: Same friend.
    1992 Wrangler in 2010: Work associate.
    2004 Impala July, 2012: Same work associate.
    1997 Cavalier in 2003: Neighbor across the street.
    2007 MX5 in July 2012: Another neighbor across the street, one house down.

    When we lived in Missouri, one neighbot bought two of our cars.

  • avatar

    When I have sold vehicles, I do it at the DMV, where we complete & file the legal paperwork at the time of sale. My father once sold a car, and the buyer never submitted the paperwork for the state to change the title. The car was towed, and my father was still listed as the owner, so he got all the letters/calls about it.

  • avatar

    Great article — thanks!

    My used car agreement is similar to yours, with one additional paragraph:

    “Any representations or statements that may have been made regarding the automobile have no bearing on the sale unless specifically included in writing in this Agreement.”

    This was inspired by an article about a collector selling a classic car advertised with “no rust.” The buyer found a few rust spots in obscure places, sued the seller and won his money back. Moral of the story — don’t say more about the car (especially in written ads) than necessary. Let the prospective buyer do a PPI to find issues for him/herself.

  • avatar

    Hey Steven, great article. Thank you. I am working on shuffling my stable and am looking to unload a vehicle that still has a balance due to the lender (Honda Financial). Can you please advise what steps I’d need to take to sell this? I’ve sold cars that I’ve owed on before, but have always done it through the bank with the lien. Not sure what to do when the financing is through the manufacturer. Thanks for your help!

  • avatar
    Polar Bear

    How about pricing the car you want to sell?

    Fixed price or a asking price with haggle room? It seems most people add a haggle room, meaning the asking price is not what they expect/will accept. Then the buyer can think he negotiated the price down. In reality he didn’t.

    A lower and fixed price looks more attractive, but do people still expect to haggle regardless of what the ad says?

  • avatar

    A bunch of years back, there was an article in one of the motorcycle magazines on how to execute a safe test ride. Basically, the seller writes a contract that sells the bike to the buyer (and collects the money) BEFORE the test ride. The contract has a 5 to 15-minute opt-out clause for the buyer. If the buyer doesn’t want the bike (and hasn’t damaged it on the ride), the contract is torn up, the seller returns the money and both go their separate ways. If the bike is damaged in any way, the seller can refuse to return the money and it’s the buyer’s problem.

    This always seemed like an interesting idea.

  • avatar
    Polar Bear

    A couple of other things about pricing. Many sellers ask too much. Then they wonder why nobody is calling. Maybe they reduce the price gradually over several months of advertising the car. Some stretch this for so long the car in the meantime has lost value because another year has gone by, or there is a new replacement model out making the used car look out of date.

    Some people think they should get $ 5000 more for a 10k car because it has a new transmission or whatever. They want their repair money back. But it doesn”t work like that.

    The worst are those who put 20k of ghetto modification on a 5k car and want 30k for it. Sorry, but now it is a 3k car with an oversized stereo and fugly wheels.

    • 0 avatar

      “The worst are those who put 20k of ghetto modification on a 5k car and want 30k for it.”

      Oh yeah? What’ll it cost me to put it back to stock? …talk about an ego deflater….

    • 0 avatar
      el scotto

      The ignorant ignore Auto Trader and Kelly Blue Book at their own peril. What’s worse is the private owner still owing on their car and their bank is in, essentially, Uzbekistan.

  • avatar

    I purchased my latest treasure…an $1800 1996 Subaru Legacy Wagon off craigslist, from a guy living in a hotel, trying to sell it to get enough money for a down payment to move into an apartment (he said)…at the time to exchange loot for the title, he couldn’t find his ID…I was about to walk, but the mrs. and the seller felt like we had too much time invested in the transaction, so they egged me on to our local AAA. Here in So Cal the AAA offices double as DMV offices…the girl informed me everything was kosher, and the sale was consummated. The moral of the story…never take a woman with a standing nail appointment when you are buying a beater.

  • avatar

    All good advice! Most of my cars, and I have gone through 20+ in the past 20 years, have gone to friends. Some of my friends are serial buyers of my cars.

    I will add – if you are selling anything REMOTELY interesting (which I know Steve generally doesn’t other than RWD Volvos) – owner’s forums are your best friend. The last car I sold was my ’86 Alfa GTV-6 – I posted it to one of the forums and it literally sold in 15 minutes. I had my phone ringing off the hook for days. In hindsight, of course, I should have asked more for it, but I wanted it GONE and it was GONE.

    The other interesting way I sold a car is that I have a friend who is a real estate agent, an IT guy, and buys and sells a few cars on the side. Usually he flips his winter beater every year, or something he comes across for stupid cheap that needs a little fixing. When the time came to sell my diesel Benz wagon, I had no time to deal with it due to work travel, so I made him an offer – sell it for me. I wanted at least $X dollars for the car. If it sold for less than $X he got 10% of the price. If it sold for $X+ he got 10% of X plus half of the over. He put it in Craigslist, showed it a few times, and ended up selling it to a guy from Oregon for half-again X. And to be honest, X was about double what I would have taken for it! And then the guy spent huge money to have it shipped from Maine to Oregon in a covered transport. It was a nice, low-mileage ’79 300TD, but hardly a museum piece. All I had to do was fill out a bill of sale and drop it off at the transporters. I was mighty happy. I made a nice profit on that car, even with the work I put into it and my friend’s commission.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    One thing that seems stupendously obvious but needs to be said anyway: be sure that you have legal authority to sell the car. Make sure those liens are taken are of, and make sure you have power of attorney or a signed contract if you’re trying to flog a car titled to somebody else.

  • avatar

    I didn’t know that about AAA. That’s a great idea.

    This is just nitpicky and I doubt anyone here does this…but take all pimp accessories off or out of the car before you sell it. Yes, I’m sure your Buick Century is lovely but I can’t see beyond the gigantic snowflake rims and ground effects.

    Same goes for political stickers and anything that declares your love for cats/dogs/fat chicks/Dave Matthews Band.

  • avatar

    Your article is very detailed and it helped me to understand the whole process. Last month i was in Dubai and had to sell my car on urgent bases. I Google it and found a website who purchased cars online. I send them my car details and guess what? they purchased my cars in just 30 minutes. They handeld all the documenations and send me the cash right away. But while transaction and car valuation i keep your tips in mind and it helped me alot to understand the important notes.

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • wjtinfwb: Not surprised by the Mav’s success at all. THe low base price will drive shoppers to the showroom and...
  • DenverMike: So it doesn’t help to go 80 to 90 MPH? Then my mileage is better than I thought. It’s...
  • mikey: I’m a Canadian…Back in 2015 I traded in my 2008 Mustang for a new 2015 … To finish the deal...
  • dukeisduke: Probably because I’ve been using Microsoft’s Chromium Edge, instead of Google Chrome.
  • golden2husky: ILO – you have worn out the woke bit…try something new.

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Jo Borras
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber