Hammer Time: Trading Cards, Tradin' Cars

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang

Rookies. All-stars. Hall of Famers.

Those were the only three types of baseball cards that I thought were worth the trade when I was a kid. I was eight years old, but that didn’t stop me from becoming diligently schooled by my three older brothers who knew the ropes of other similar hobbies such as comics, coins, and stamps.

The drill was simple. Every time someone wanted to trade cards with me, I would ask them one simple question.

“What’s your favorite team?” From there, I would bring out an album loaded with baseball cards. Every one in mint condition and encased in plastic sheets. “Pick your favorites!” They would gather their own, and I would go through their collection, find the fresher cards in mint condition, and gather mine.

Over 30 years later I do the exact same thing with cars. I sell based on interest and buy based on condition and long-term reliability. I’m still not loyal to any brand or model these days. For me, even after all these years, the opportunity to buy and sell any car comes down to three simple concepts I learned in my youth.

Condition, presentation, and price.

Every car has its price, and it’s the condition and presentation that determine the value.

Unpopular vehicles may be the cheapskate’s dream. But they’re a seller’s nightmare.

Three door minivans? Buy them low, sell them quick, and avoid them like a painful venereal disease. A cheap car with low demand always takes up space for too long. Base model non-sporty wagons from the Y2K era with 5-speeds? Same deal.

Low demand, low performance cars net low returns. Even if you are a stingy bastard. In baseball card terms, they are the common players that nobody wants. The Chicken Stanleys who are used as cardboard fodder for the Jeff Bagwells.

Camrys and Accords? You have to pay a premium for the good ones and unless you finance, you better get one without major accidents. What sells for cash at this “all-star” level is the mint condition version.

You can get away with selling a popular car with a rough history to those with bad credit. Whenever I see a person who is struggling with a fancy car, I think about the traders who could never keep their good cards for long. There was always something a bit more new and popular that would catch their eye, and it was my job to figure out what it would be.

Baseball cards and cars pretty much sell the same way.

1) Always offer a history.

Folks are always purchasing three things when they buy a used car. The model they want. The prior owner they prefer, and the maintenance history they desire. Even if you offer a piece of miscellaneous nothing such as, “I bought it two years ago from an older guy who lives in Pawtucket.”, the potential buyer will usually appreciate the fact that there is one less uncertainty in the history of your vehicle.

2) Sell yourself.

If you come across as an honest guy and an expert (or at least knowledgeable), you’ll have a big leg up on the 90+% who are either too scared or too corrupt to do the same.

3) Don’t be afraid to say a car has an accident. Everything has defects.

In fact, telling folks specifically what happened can be a great way to affirm #1 and #2. A VW Beetle TDI I recently sold had an accident on the driver’s side that required a repaint on the door and a replaced front quarter panel. By showing what was done, emailing the Carfax history beforehand, and specifying who did the repair, I was able to show the buyers that I had nothing to hide.

That candidness alone often gives you a price premium over those sellers who just glaze through everything. When I sold cards, I would mention the small defects and often times, it made the other guy feel like he wasn’t getting screwed.

4) Clean the damn thing! Please!

You ever go to a junkyard and see all the wonderful souvenirs that are left behind by the last owner? Well, the junkyard doesn’t have to worry about those endearing mementos.

But you must certainly do.

The next owner probably doesn’t want that Hello Kitty CD holder on the sun visor. All those crumply things in the glovebox? Remove them and reorganize what you have so that you can give them a maintenance history that they can physically hold. I would get the car washed, vacuumed, and invest in a basic spray on or quick wax along with an hour or so of time removing stains and marks.

A mint condition baseball card was always a better buy in the eyes of my customers when I was a kid, and a clean car is no different.

5) If the car doesn’t sell immediately, study the market.

Edmunds, Kelly Blue Book, NADA, and even dealer-focused price guides such as Black Book and the Manheim Market Report all have one thing in common.

They are rough approximations based on imperfect data… and much of the time, those imperfections are due to a seller’s inflated idea of their vehicle’s condition.

Everybody falls victim to this at one time or another. Even dealers. Even yours truly. Most sellers tend to price their vehicles in clean condition even though their vehicles are somewhere between average and God awful. If you see no action out there, forget about the price guides. Look at how the competition is pricing the same type of vehicle. The marketplace always tells you things that the price guides miss.

6) Pictures, pictures, and more pictures.

Take pictures of everything before you advertise…. and take multiples. I have often found that early mornings offer the best time when shadows and sun reflections have the least impact on my pictures. Overcast days are also great for this purpose. So make sure to take pictures of everything; especially those close-up areas that aren’t perfect.

If a seller is already comfortable with the price, showing them the cosmetic issues now will eliminate the desire for a lower price when they see those defects in person.

7) Organize The Sale: Bill of Sale, Money, Title, Plate and Keys

A lot of folks have trouble selling cars because it’s an organization game. You have to bring everything together and understand the sequence of events so that the flow of the deal is always in motion. Shake hands. Answer questions. Give them physical records of the car’s history. Let them have time with the car. Be patient. Leave them alone. Give them space.

When you are organized, you can afford to be laid back and observant. People like that because it means you’re paying attention to them and putting their needs first. When I was trading baseball cards, the eye candy alone was enough to keep me and the other person occupied. With cars there are more steps, but the same human elements of the transaction applies.

When you’re organized, in anything, it’s easier for both parties to enjoy the experience. It also keeps you honest because you don’t have to figure things out on the fly.

Am I wrong? Is the four-square method of customer manipulation more effective than being a mensch, putting your best foot forward, and keeping organized?

Let me know…

Steven Lang
Steven Lang

More by Steven Lang

Join the conversation
2 of 22 comments
  • Colin42 Colin42 on May 02, 2014

    Just saved this in my favorite for the next time I'm selling. I do most of what is suggested but it's always useful to have a reference. Thanks Steve.

  • LeeK LeeK on May 03, 2014

    I just sold a Honda Element via Autotrader. it's the fifth vehicle I've sold using Autotrader and I've been quite pleased with the results. I don't know if they filter the e-mail scams of "my client lives out of the country and is willing to pay $5000 more for the vehicle if you ship it to him using this shipping company", but I didn't get any this time around. Just truly interested people who wanted an Element for what I thought was a very fair price. Lessons learned over the years for private sales: 1. Price the car a thousand or two below what dealers are asking. Expect to come off your asking price by another $500 to $1000. People need to feel that they are getting some kind of deal, even a small one. It will still sell above the wholesale price, which is the main reason why you're doing this in the first place. 2. Be totally honest as Steve says, don't hold back on what the car's flaws are. I put them right in the ad and point them out when I show the car to the prospective buyer. Only once has that turned a potential buyer off. 3. Clean the car and keep it clean until it sells. Not into DIY? Have it cleaned and detailed professionally. it's worth the investment. 4. Keep all service records while you own the car and bring them to the showing. This implies that the car is well-cared for. I have a log that I keep in the glove compartment of my cars that I list every fill-up, every maintenance item, and even stuff like tag renewals. This has really impressed many buyers. 5. Meet prospective buyers at a nearby mall or fast food place -- never your home. If they rip you off, then insurance will pay you off. better that than dead or mugged. 6. Act cool. Tell them that they can test drive the car as long as they want. Don't go with them. Most buyers are back in fifteen minutes. They want to get the car inspected by a mechanic? Sure! They decide to pass? No hard feelings. They try to low-ball you? Just smile and say politely that it doesn't look like it's going to work out and walk away. Be cool and nonchalant about the whole thing. 7. Do the title transfer at a place where it an be legally done, like a DMV office or license tag agency. On a weekend, find a notary to witness the signatures. If you don't have the title, do the transaction at the buyer's bank if possible. 8. Hondas sell really quickly.

  • ToolGuy First picture: I realize that opinions vary on the height of modern trucks, but that entry door on the building is 80 inches tall and hits just below the headlights. Does anyone really believe this is reasonable?Second picture: I do not believe that is a good parking spot to be able to access the bed storage. More specifically, how do you plan to unload topsoil with the truck parked like that? Maybe you kids are taller than me.
  • ToolGuy The other day I attempted to check the engine oil in one of my old embarrassing vehicles and I guess the red shop towel I used wasn't genuine Snap-on (lots of counterfeits floating around) plus my driveway isn't completely level and long story short, the engine seized 3 minutes later.No more used cars for me, and nothing but dealer service from here on in (the journalists were right).
  • Doughboy Wow, Merc knocks it out of the park with their naming convention… again. /s
  • Doughboy I’ve seen car bras before, but never car beards. ZZ Top would be proud.
  • Bkojote Allright, actual person who knows trucks here, the article gets it a bit wrong.First off, the Maverick is not at all comparable to a Tacoma just because they're both Hybrids. Or lemme be blunt, the butch-est non-hybrid Maverick Tremor is suitable for 2/10 difficulty trails, a Trailhunter is for about 5/10 or maybe 6/10, just about the upper end of any stock vehicle you're buying from the factory. Aside from a Sasquatch Bronco or Rubicon Jeep Wrangler you're looking at something you're towing back if you want more capability (or perhaps something you /wish/ you were towing back.)Now, where the real world difference should play out is on the trail, where a lot of low speed crawling usually saps efficiency, especially when loaded to the gills. Real world MPG from a 4Runner is about 12-13mpg, So if this loaded-with-overlander-catalog Trailhunter is still pulling in the 20's - or even 18-19, that's a massive improvement.