By on May 1, 2014


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…

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22 Comments on “Hammer Time: Trading Cards, Tradin’ Cars...”

  • avatar

    On the valuations front, I’ve found that Edmunds is fairly realistic, Kelly Blue Book has its uses, and NADA, well the only thing I think NADA is useful for is for dealers who are trying to justify a too high asking price. Most valuable of all are auction prices, but they’re hard for most of us to come by.

    • 0 avatar

      To paraphrase, if your car’s not moving, throw the price guides out the window.

      I was trying to sell my 2003 MINI R50 after I got married. The car has 65k miles, I’d autocrossed the snot out of it for 3 years, and the new model R56’s were on the horizon. Still, the price guides said it was worth nearly 15k.

      The price guides were wrong. They reflected the insane market on MINIs when they first got over here, but by 06 word of hideous reliability on early-build cars was getting out and buyers were buying with their head again.

      It sat on autotrader, CL, for nearly 4 months. Then I looked up the ‘completed listings’ on ebay, priced accordingly, and it was sold in 5 days. True auction prices are hard to come by, yes, but eBay prices are a good way to get a ‘floor’ for your market.

    • 0 avatar

      Many banks use NADA for values so it makes sense for a dealership to as it maximizes loanable figures.

      Don’t feel bad for paying too much as most of you do. I just bought a 1979 Le Baron for $2k with 18k miles. The market value of cars has little to do with the utility value. The cars listed as bad for flipping make some of the absolute best values for actual long term purchase when considering cost to utility.

    • 0 avatar

      NADA is also useful to the state to get as much sales tax revenue as possible. Both CA and MA use it anyway. Unless of course you admit to paying over NADA, then they will happily use that number.

  • avatar

    It is good to find out that the seemingly “obsessive” things I did to prepare a car for sale are validated by someone who does it for a living!
    I did All of the things that would attract ME if I were looking to buy! :-)

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    Whenever I’ve sold a car using Craigslist, I always write a lot about it. I will list all the important details in a way to let skimmers see what they are looking for, and then below it I write complete paragraphs describing my knowledge of the car. I do this because when I am looking to buy something from “some guy” I expect him to know more about the car than a dealer.
    Sometimes I wonder if I am actually missing out by doing this. Obviously people are selling their cars by listing like they’re writing a classified for a newspaper: 2004 Toyota Camery pw pl ps lo mils call 555 one six nine four ask 4 bud.
    I feel like I’ve had pretty good success and can weed out a lot of tire kickers by answering a ton of questions before anyone can ask. Most of the people who actually come out to look at them have been stand up people and families. But am I missing out on people who don’t want to read a ton of stuff and just click off when they see more than 2 sentences?

    • 0 avatar

      >> But am I missing out on people who don’t want to read a ton of stuff and just click off when they see more than 2 sentences?

      I like a lot of pertinent information in a car ad.
      What I don’t like is an ad that is too verbose… more than 100-200 words, say. It turns me off because it indicates someone is very proud of their car and the price will likely be insane.

      But it doesn’t really matter. If your cars sell quickly, you’re doing it right.

      I just sold a $6k car on craislist in 24 hours. I listed my phone number and I was pleasantly surprised with the results. Emails from flakes, calls from grownups. The price was realistic and there was little haggling. Good pictures really help.

    • 0 avatar

      If the car is good, there shouldn’t be too much to be said about it. Trim, price, mileage, important features (engine, transmission etc), service history summary, any defects. Just keep it matter-of-factly… nobody wants to read a novel about a 2004 Toyota Camry.

      I recently bought two cars, both from dealers. Thing that put me at ease was doing a ton of research beforehand (forums, CR, etc), seeing the Carfaxes, and of course the test drives. Probably wouldn’t hurt to bring an OBD-II scanner to see if there are any weird codes hanging around. Other than that, not much else to it I don’t think.

    • 0 avatar

      In my (limited) experience, putting the detail in the ad isn’t worth the effort; most people don’t actually read it and ask questions that were answered in the ad anyway. You risk turning off some buyers while adding the hassle of answering everything twice.

      As a buyer I certainly appreciate details, but I think I’m in a minority there.

    • 0 avatar

      i absolutely agree. i have sold several cars on craigslist with this same tactic. i want to be as upfront as possible, and the used car demand has not let up either. the last car i sold was an ex chain smoking POS subaru and it still sold for $1600.

  • avatar

    “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?”

    Nah, you’ve pretty much nailed it.

    I never bother to look at “book values”. Similarly, I don’t give a sh1t if the owner is asking “way below KBB”. The books never accurately represent YOUR car or marketplace. What I do instead is take a look at the landscape where I’ll be selling the car and see what other owners are asking for comparable rides. Since these are the cars yours will be competing with in the marketplace, you should price your car accordingly, regardless of what the book says.

  • avatar

    I’ve sold a few cars on craigslist in the past couple years. Glad to see this basically legitimizes my approach:

    1. Maintenance. Get the oil changed – just to say that it was just done. Make sure there’s nothing obvious wrong like squeaking belts or squealing brakes. I’m good about maintenance anyway so aside from the final oil change everything is normally done
    2. Detail the thing. An afternoon with a wash, wax, Armor-All, Simple Green, and vacuum does wonders for the car in the next step, and in person.
    3. Pictures. I like to at least hit the following: front, rear, driver, passenger, all 4 quarter views, engine bay, trunk, front seat area, back seat area, center console, and instrument panel, plus a zoom in of the mileage. Craigslist only lets you post 4, but a 3rd party hosting site like Photobucket or Flickr will give you the html code to insert the pictures in your ad.
    4. Pricing. Check all your resources, especially your local CL for similar cars. I usually price a couple hundred under the KBB for the condition my car is in – it makes the buyer think they’re getting a good deal, and less likely to actually negotiate.
    5. The ad: I like to do a whole ad, maybe with a small write-up ie this would be a good first car for a kid (selling a civic coupe a few years back). The ad will include all important options and safety features such as ABS, how many airbags, alloy wheels, infotainment, sunroof, leather. Do the features as a bullet point list, buyers don’t want to read paragraphs.

    I actually think the ad is the most important part, especially when selling a car for four figures, so usually a cash buyer. Non-enthusiasts, especially parents buying for a kid, don’t generally realize what are options and what are standard features, so a writeup of relevant safety, luxury, and infotainment features makes them think they are getting more for their money. Also the pictures of a fresh clean car put them at ease as to thinking the car is well cared for and maintained.

    Sometimes I’ve had to weed out scammers, but I’ve never really dealt with tire-kickers advertising this way. The people coming to buy my old cars know what they’re getting, so they’ve generally been pretty serious.

  • avatar

    This is very timely for me, so thanks Steve! I’m in the process of prepping our 2000 Jetta TDI for sale. The dealer offered me $1500 as a trade so I said no to that. Of course they’d just wholesale it and who knows what would happen to it.

    So in the past few weeks I have clay barred, compounded and polished the paint, done a headlight restore (and used some ultimate compound on the tail lights, what a difference!). I also did some touch up paint work on a couple of rust spots. Then I rented a rug doctor and cleaned the interior and got all the stains out. After all that work it looks amazing for a car that was built in July of 1999.

    Took it for a new inspection sticker this morning and the mechanic said it was in excellent condition for its age. Then he proceeded to tell me about a 2009 Chevy Equinox he inspected recently that had more underbody corrosion that my 2000 Jetta because GM has apparently cheaped out on seam sealer – or at least they did in 2009.

    In the past I’ve used the TDIClub classifieds but this time I’ll probably post it to CL as well since it’s an automatic and the TDI fanatics don’t like automatics much.

    Land Ark has apparently had the same thoughts as me when browsing CL for cars. I’ve looked at several 2000 Jetta TDI listings recently and can’t believe how many of the sellers either don’t clean the friggin’ car or just put one line of text and nothing else. How can someone think they’re going to sell a car by not posting any pictures of it?

    Anyway, thanks again for this list. I hadn’t considered doing a Carfax. Does the B&B think it’s worthwhile to spend the money on one or would service records be good enough to a buyer of a 14 year old car in a private sale?

  • avatar

    What never ceases to amaze me is that dealers all too often treat as customers the same. Take shopping for a used Porsche. My guess is that most shoppers for this car, at least the Cayman and 911, have done a fair amount of homework. In your ad, don’t bore me listing standard equipment. I want to know the options on the car, whether it was serviced by you or not, do you have service records, how many prior owners, do you know if it has been tracked and if so, how much, any damage/body repairs, etc. The older the car and the more miles it has, the more all of this is important.

  • avatar

    We just sold “Barney” the Purple ’98 Inegra GS-R eaerlier this week for the wife of a deceased friend.

    I popped out the ugly and prominent dent from the front fender with the aid of a heat gun and broom handle, cleaned it as best I could, took lots of photos and then waded through the onslought of craigslist replies.

    I was relieved to sell to a guy who works at a Honda dealership. He knew what he was getting into, his expectations were realistic and the deal was fair. In memory of my friend, I’m happy to know that this car that he loved will be taken care of, refurbished and will probably find itself for sale again before the end of the year for a lot more money.

    By contrast, it was plain that most of the interest was from kids trying to scrape together enough money just to buy the car. Forget fixes or maintenance.

    One young man who worked at the car wash was desperate to buy it. Told me proudly that he and his wife just had their second kid. He tried to offer Kelly “Excellent” condition price which was well below the offer we had.

    My wife asked me why I spent considerable time texting back and forth with him, tryign to explain why I honestly didn’t think it was the right car for him, explaining why Kelley, Edmunds etc. have a hard time pricing soemthing like a GSR that looks nice on the surface, and that to get one in genuinely “excellent” condition (and by inference, ours was not) he’d be looking at twice that amount of money.

    In my mind, I was trying to dissuade him from his dream car for the sake of his young familly’s financial wellbeing. Maybe that does nothing more than display my own arrogance and prejudices, or my failure to recognize that a fool and his money are easily seperated.

  • avatar

    I always try and be as upfront as possible and let the buyer feel comfortable with the potential purchase. In July of 2010, my wife and I sold our 04 Odyssey EX by placing it on Ebay. A buyer about 1 hour away was interested, but since it didn’t meet my reserve, he made contact with me and asked to come see it after the auction ended.

    I let him and his family drive it on their own, showed him all the records (I bought it CPO 4 years earlier), the extended warranty paperwork (I transferred it to him and paid the $50 to do so), agreed to take it to a predetermined location for a PPI a couple of days later (STS Shop about 10 min. from my house), and even went with them to a local branch of their bank to make the process easier (and to ensure I was getting a real check). Did it take longer than I hoped it would? Yes. But was it worth it to get about 2,500 more than the dealer was willing to give me? You bet.

    Add in the fact that my pristine minivan was going to a similar family with two kids, and it was icing on the cake. I’m sure it’s still going strong somewhere in central NJ.

  • avatar

    Re: Pictures
    I’d add try to find a decent backdrop to your photos.
    A car parked on an oil stained driveway or weed filled lot never looks as good as a clean interesting backdrop.

    I’ve hunted around and have a selection of well manicured architecturally interesting office buildings to use as a backdrop.

  • avatar

    Interesting piece and comments

    Last time I tried to sell a car was in 2004, was selling a 94 camry in really nice external shape. GREAT paint on those cars, lexus paint. The engine did use a fair amount of oil tho and had 120K miles.

    I put in on CL for 2500 – pretty good price.

    within 20 minues I had the following calls

    – guy who said that he wanted to see it, but he lived 100 miles away, so he didnt know what time that day he’d be there (he was visiting his brother nearby). Wanted me to be available all day saturday

    – a guy who asked “are you near a BART (train) station?” I said no, nearest one is 15 miles away. He then asked me to drive it to the BART station so he could look at it.

    I took the ad down after 20 minutes and sold it to a used car lot for 1500 at lunch the next day. Lot owner even gave me a ride back to my office in my own car, and then put it on the lot for 4Gs. No idea what he got for it.

    Since then I have dumped a couple of cars worth 2500-4000 and I just take it to a buy here/pay here lot and see what they will pay.

    Life is too short to deal with people who are buying car worth that much. I’m sure that many of them are fine people, but too many of them are a PITA.

  • avatar

    I sold my beloved Oldsmobile the other day. Because I am one that believes in taking good care of my cars, I had someone come along and fall in love with it…he couldn’t believe that a 13 year old car could look and drive so well! He couldn’t hand me his money fast enough!

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

    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.

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