Published: March 30, 2022Updated: April 28, 2022

Guide to Reselling Your Car

How to make the most out of your car sale

Reselling your car can make a lot of sense, especially if you’re moving, upgrading, or saving money. Other common reasons to sell include health issues that prevent you from driving and a desire to switch to greener methods of transportation.

Whatever your reasons, a major part of reselling is knowing your car’s value. This guide walks you through determining how much your car is worth and the ways you can resell: dealership trade-in, online instant cash offer, and independently. Last but not least, we’ll explain how to figure out which method is best for you.

Calculate Your Car’s Value

How to Calculate Your Car’s Value

Online appraisal tools such as Kelley Blue Book (KBB),1 Edmunds,2 Consumer Reports (Black Book),3 and the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA)4 are all viable places to calculate the value of your car. KBB should be just fine in most cases; the other sites give you second opinions or could be more useful if your car is a specialty vehicle or a classic.

To calculate your car’s value, KBB analyzes factors such as its condition, make, model, year, and mileage. It also looks at vehicle prices in your area, car prices in general, and the state of the economy, among other things. Find out if you can pay less than Blue Book.

When KBB and other tools ask about the shape your car is in, be honest. Also, pay attention to how the appraiser defines terms such as “fair” and “excellent.” For instance, KBB says that 20 percent of the cars it values are in fair condition, defined as “requires some mechanical repairs.” (Note that KBB does not evaluate cars in poor condition.)

Half of the cars KBB values are in “good” condition. That means the vehicle “has some repairable cosmetic defects and is free of major mechanical problems.” For extra help assessing your car’s KBB condition, take this quiz: https://www.kbb.com/vehicles/path/condition-quiz/?showgenericquiz=true.

Now is not the time to mislead anyone, even yourself, about the condition of your car. A mechanic’s inspection, official appraisal, vehicle history report, or test drive is inevitable in the reselling process. If you begin with an overinflated valuation in mind, that drags out the process, leaves you unhappy in the end, and could be dangerous for buyers (depending on mechanical issues at play).

TIP

Want to increase your car’s resale value? Before you list your car and start transferring ownership, it’s a good idea to …

  • Take your vehicle in for repairs. Recall-related fixes should be free for you.
  • Go for regular servicing (oil change, tire rotation, brake pad changes, etc.).
  • Gather various documentation, including ongoing service and repair records, and paperwork from when you purchased the car. Documentation is particularly critical if you bought a used car through a private sale.
  • Clean your car (this is more important for private sales and dealership trade-ins than online instant cash offers). A gleaming vehicle means more curb appeal and potentially more money.

Different Types of Car Valuations

Valuation types include market, book, trade-in, private resale, and instant cash offer. When selling a car, focus on market value rather than book value.

  • Market: This is how much your car would cost if you were to purchase it today.
  • Book: This is the price you paid for the car. Cars tend to depreciate quickly and have lower book values than market values. Classic and specialty cars could be a different story, though.
  • Trade-in: This value is an estimate of how much a dealership would pay you for the car. Trade-in value tends to be lower than private resale value.
  • Private resale/party: This “as is” valuation for independent sales considers the realistic condition of the car and the local market.
  • Instant cash offer: This is what KBB, Vroom, Carvana, CarMax, or another appraiser, dealership, or business will pay for the vehicle upon verification of data you enter online. The offer tends to be good for a certain number of days and miles driven.

Other Approaches to Assessing Your Car’s Value

For a precise idea of what vehicles similar to yours are selling for in your area, search Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and other car-sale sites.

Online appraisers do not always account for factors such as the condition of the tires, seasonal demand, current gas prices vs. the mileage your car gets, and how clean your car is. Your car being strong or weak in any of these areas could affect the final price by a few hundred dollars, perhaps more.

How to Trade Your Car in at a Dealership

Trading your car in at a dealership has a huge advantage: It’s quick and efficient, and you get another vehicle to replace the one you trade in. Dealerships apply the trade-in valuation toward the purchase price of the second vehicle. (You can also sell your car to a dealership without trading in, but check out online instant cash offers first if you’re considering this method.)

You can perform a dealership trade-in even if you have a loan on your car. It’s called a “trade-in with a loan.”

Check your finances to ensure you have the money to pay off the loan after the trade (and to afford another vehicle, if that is your goal). Even if the dealership pays your loan off, it probably goes toward a new loan with the dealer. Contact your lender for the correct payoff amount, which can differ from the loan balance amount.

  1. If you use online appraisers to look up your car’s value, you may notice instant cash offers from area dealerships. These prices and dealerships could be starting points for trade-ins.
  2. Another good starting point could be the dealership where you bought your car. With an established relationship, the business may be more willing to work with you fairly.
  3. Make appointments to save both yourself and the dealership time. Call the dealership, or go on its website to “value your trade.” Fill out the info, and make an appointment when contacted if possible.
  4. Bring the vehicle’s service record to show any work you’ve had done. The more documentation, the better price the car commands. Also bring the registration, all keys, and the title (or the lender’s information).
  5. An appraiser will test-drive and examine your car to determine its value. Ask to be there in person so you can inquire about the appraiser’s valuation methods. If the appraiser identifies issues you disagree with, a mechanic can give you a second opinion. Don’t hide anything from the appraiser or dealership. For instance, if you smoke in your car, be honest about it.
  6. If the dealership’s offer seems fair and you feel comfortable with everything, it should be OK to accept. Otherwise, compare at least one or two other offers.
  7. After a dealership trade-in, update your insurance. If your former car still had a loan, contact that lender to make sure all is in order.

Negotiating a Dealership Trade-In

Negotiate the “sale” and “purchase” parts of a trade-in separately. This lets you maximize the value of your sale and purchase and keeps things simple. For instance, a salesperson might jack up the price of the car you want if the vehicle you’re trading in has high value.

It is a red flag if a dealership tries to negotiate both the trade-in and the new purchase together. Leave if this happens. You can find reputable dealerships that gladly separate the transactions.

You get a bit more negotiation power if the season is right for your trade-in. Dealers would rather cars not sit on their lots for months, and some vehicle types are in demand during certain times of the year. Suppose it’s the beginning of a brutal winter — you can expect a beachy, sporty vehicle to have less negotiating wiggle room than a vehicle that drives well in the snow.

How to Sell Your Car Online

How to Sell Your Used Car Online (Instant Cash Offer)

Instant cash offers have become more common in the past few years. You plug information into a website such as Vroom and get cash offers in minutes. You can use instant cash offers to either outright sell or trade in your vehicle. Here’s an overview of the process:

  1. Prequalify for financing. You can prequalify on your own or through the instant cash offer business.
  2. Decide whether you want a sale or a trade-in. You can switch later if you want. If you choose to trade in, search the instant cash offer website for your next vehicle to get an idea of prices and affordability. You get to apply the trade-in value toward the new purchase, whether as a down payment or more. You can also get preapproved for financing if needed. (State tax savings, even at dealerships, are an incentive to trade in rather than do a regular sale and then a regular purchase.)
  3. Enter the required information. On websites such as Vroom, Carvana, CarMax, and Shift, the data you’ll need to enter includes your license plate number, VIN, exact mileage, number of keys, and any optional vehicle features. (The website may fill in the VIN after you input the license plate and state.) Be accurate with your answers, including those regarding vehicle condition, tire mileage, and any mechanical issues. For instance, Vroom cautions, “Vroom will verify that the vehicle information you provide is accurate during pickup. Inaccurate information may result in a reduced price or canceled appraisal.” Enter the exact mileage even though Vroom and other businesses say the price is good for up to, say, 250 additional miles. If you guess the mileage wrongly enough, you risk losing the price quoted.
  4. Get your cash offer. You’ll usually only wait a few minutes to receive a cash offer on screen and/or in an email. In rare cases, the offer can take a day or slightly longer. The offer remains good for a certain number of days and miles, such as seven days or 250 miles, whichever occurs first. No negotiation or price matching occurs after the initial cash offer.
  5. Provide additional documentation. If you’re happy with the offer, you may have to provide more documentation. For instance, you’ll likely have to upload pictures of the odometer, your driver’s license, the car title, the lien release document, or the car’s 10-day payoff statement if you have an outstanding loan on it.5
  6. Get financed. Arrange financing if needed, and choose your preferred payment method (see the table below for examples). Set a time and location for the verification of details, test drive, and pickup of the vehicle. Depending on which business you use, the location could be your home, a hub, or even a vending machine. If you’re trading in, you’ll receive your next vehicle at the appointment.
  7. Finalize the sale. You’ll finalize the sale or trade-in at the appointment. There should be very little paperwork on your end.
  8. Get your payment. The funds may take a few days to clear, depending on the payment type. If you have negative equity in the car, you’d usually either include it in the financing for a new vehicle or pay the company that amount directly.
Services from car instant cash offer website Vroom Carvana CarMax Shift
Home pickups/evaluations Yes No Yes Yes
Location pickups/evaluations Yes, at locations in lower 48 states Yes, at hubs and vending machines Yes, after in-person or online estimates Yes, at Shift locations
How you get paid Direct deposit or mailed check Physical check given to you at the appointment, ACH bank direct deposit, or debit card instant payment at the appointment Bank draft check ACH or direct bank transfer

How to Resell Your Car Independently

There are three basic ways to resell your car to a private party: online, in person, or a mix of both. Whichever method you choose, you need to do a few things first.

Selling in person

Before the Sale

First, check with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in your state to see what it requires for sellers. This gives you an idea of the costs and paperwork involved. Below is a link to Washington state requirements as an example.6 (After you sell the car, you’ll need to report the sale to avoid any future liability.)

Be ready to explain why you are selling the car, as buyers are likely to ask. Reasons could include a new disability that makes driving harder, wanting to upgrade your vehicle to a newer model, or downsizing to a smaller vehicle.

These are some other steps to take before the sale:

  1. Prepare to negotiate. Assume buyers will negotiate. Price your vehicle a few hundred dollars more than the price you’ll accept, or remain flexible with the price tag.
  2. Repair your car. Get any necessary repairs, especially for a quick sale at an excellent price.
  3. Boost the curb appeal. Many buyers make up their minds within minutes of seeing a car.7 For best results, get a professional detail. You’ll pay at least $100, but it’s worth it for a quicker sale at a higher price. (A professional detail also ensures you don’t accidentally make a stain, discoloration, or something worse.) At a minimum, clear the car of clutter such as trash, small bits of food, and toys. Also clean the ashtrays.
  4. Gather your documentation. Consider showing potential buyers a mechanic’s inspection report, vehicle history report ($25 to $100), or both. That way, buyers know the chances of surprise issues are low. Autotrader and some other sites you could sell through include a vehicle history report for free. These reports give information on accident history and can disclose whether a car has been involved in flooding or other incidents. If your car has a history (like, say, it’s been in a flood), then a mechanic’s inspection offers peace of mind for buyers that the car is in good shape currently. A vehicle history report, or a VIN check report, does not necessarily show current problems, while a mechanic’s inspection does.

NOTE

Buyers like to see service and maintenance records to verify that the car has been well maintained. However, you should black out your phone number and other personal and financial information.

During the Sale With Interested Buyers

Things can get tricky with interested buyers. Sometimes, the process goes smoothly, and you make the sale without a hitch. Other times, there is problem after problem. To minimize issues, scan, save, or take pictures of paperwork and reports, and keep copies on hand to show buyers.

Plan on a lot of folks calling, emailing, or texting. Many won’t be serious, and some will lose interest after you answer their questions. That’s not good or bad; it’s just part of the selling process.

You may also get a few scammers. Try these approaches to vet potential buyers:

  1. Talk finance. Ask if they are local and have financing. Reiterate the payment method(s) you listed in your ad (if you had one) to ensure they’re OK with it. If using a payment method such as a cashier’s check, say that you’d want to meet at the buyer’s bank to complete the transaction.
  2. Trust your gut. If an interested buyer sets off any alerts for you, move on.
  3. Be patient. Prepare mentally for the process to take some time. This way, you won’t settle for the first offer that comes your way, especially if your gut is blaring.
  4. Get their documentation. Explain that you need to check their driver’s license and proof of insurance before they go for a test drive. Say that you’ll photograph the license and send it to someone you trust. Tell the buyer that, as a safety precaution, you’re bringing someone with you when you meet. Ask if they’re bringing someone and who. (Evasive answers are not a great sign.)
  5. Schedule a test drive. Set a time and location for a daytime test drive. Common places to meet are shopping malls and even police stations. Plan the test-drive route so that it includes multiple driving situations (such as both interstate and residential areas) and avoids isolated or risky areas.
  6. Partner up. Consider having your companion keep the potential buyer’s car keys while you and the buyer go on the test drive. Before the drive, remember to check the driver’s license and proof of insurance, and send a photograph of the license to someone you trust.
  7. Ask for a deposit. If a test drive goes well and a buyer seems legit and interested, you can ask for a deposit. Usually, $500 is fine. (If you want a deposit for sure, list that in your ad or mention it early on.)
  8. Complete the transaction. For the full sale, set a time to meet at the buyer’s bank. Go with the buyer when they get a cashier’s check. Wait to hand the title over until you’ve been paid in full. If you don’t or can’t witness the cashier’s check transaction, call the bank to verify the check is legitimate before you hand over the title. Beware of Venmo and Zelle, as there’s no fraud protection and people can cancel transactions. Ditto with PayPal, which specifically excludes motorized vehicles from fraud protection. A service such as Tred can be a safe way to place an ad or even to use only when you have a buyer. (Tred can also take care of the title and registration for the buyer.) Cash can work but might not be ideal for high price tags. As with a cashier’s check, meet the buyer at their bank to be there while they withdraw cash. That way, you’re sure not to end up with counterfeit bills.
  9. Remove your license plates. Take the license plates off the vehicle before the new buyer drives off with it. Typically, you turn plates in at the DMV.

Selling in Person

Word of mouth is a good tactic if you prefer to sell your car in person. Tell your family, friends, and colleagues about the car. Ask them to spread the word to anyone who could be interested.

Another approach is to find an appealing location to display your vehicle with its “for sale” sign. If possible, go for a high-traffic location or a parking lot with a lot of visibility. Just make sure you have permission to park your car in that location first.

You could also drive regularly with the “for sale” sign on the car, as long as it does not affect your visibility or ability to drive.

Selling Online Independently

If your car is ordinary, slightly used, or beaten up, KBB recommends a free platform such as Facebook Marketplace. Craigslist is free too, but beware of the higher chance of scammers.

If your car is a classic, hard to find, or otherwise special, or you just want to cast a wide net, look into paid classifieds such as KBB, Autotrader, and CarGurus. Bring a Trailer and eBay, with their auction-style listings, are good choices for higher-value vehicles. For classic cars, Hemmings does both magazine and online classifieds as well as auctions. Plan to spend a minimum of about $45 using the classifieds/auctions method.

  1. Use great photographs. Take a lot of quality pictures, both exterior and interior. A smartphone camera should be fine, but clean and vacuum the car first. Cloudy days work well for photographs. Strive for plain backgrounds, no shadows, and multiple angles. If your car has special features, such as a touchscreen or roof racks, snap pics of them too. Post pictures of seat tears, dents, and other problem spots as well, and take engine pictures.
  2. Get a new email address. Consider creating a new or separate email account just for selling the car.
  3. Provide the right information. Begin the ad with your asking price and all of the car’s vitals, including condition, year, mileage, and body style with trim or version. Include honest and detailed descriptions (which also means fewer questions for you to answer later!). State the KBB value (or the value from whatever online appraisal tool you used), and if your asking price differs from that, explain why. If your car gets good gas mileage, highlight that. Explain what drew you to the car in the first place and why you’re selling it. If you’ve modified the car or it remains under warranty, give the relevant details. Write about anything that needs fixing, providing vehicle history reports, mechanic inspections, and/or maintenance and service records. Also list the VIN so the buyer can run their own vehicle history report, and say how you want to be paid.
  4. Be consistent with pricing. If you post the ad in multiple places, list the same price in all of them. Different prices turn off buyers who spot duplicate listings.

Here is an example of an ad for prospective buyers (although the layout, order, and some specific features depend on the service or platform you use):

  • Used [year, make, model, trim/version]
  • $14,999
  • [Location of the car]
  • 80,461 miles

Selling to downsize, kids off to college! 32 mpg highway/28 mpg city, runs terrific, good condition. Well maintained, documented regular service and oil changes.

Accident-free, mechanic’s inspection report available. Most driving on city streets. Non-smoking, minor tear on driver’s seat.

New tires added in 2021, 900 miles on them. Cashier’s check only.

How to Choose the Best Resale Method

The best method for you basically comes down to two factors:

  1. How much do you want or need to receive the maximum sales price your car could get?
  2. How much work and time are you able and willing to put in?

Choose an independent sale if your biggest priority is making as much money as possible, if you’re patient, and if you’re willing to invest time and work. Otherwise, it may be better to choose either a dealership trade-in or an online cash offer.

Pros and Cons of Each Method of Reselling Your Car

Resale method Dealership trade-in Online/instant cash offers Independent sale
Pros
  • It’s quick and efficient.
  • It’s less hassle (but verify that the dealership will handle the paperwork, old car loan payoff, etc.).
  • It can finance your current car loan (if one exists) into a new deal.
  • There’s less tax on it if you live in a state that charges sales tax. You’ll pay tax on the difference between the trade-in amount and the new car’s cost.
  • There’s no cost to list and sell your car (like in classifieds, ads, etc.).
  • You can sell to a dealer anyway if you decide not to do a trade-in.
  • You can do either a regular sale or a trade-in deal.
  • You may get a little more money than if you sold your car to a dealership.
  • It’s a quick, primarily online process (as long as you have all documents).
  • It shares some of the trade-in advantages (efficient process, less hassle, flexible financing, less tax).
  • There’s no cost to list and sell your car (like in classifieds, ads, etc.).
  • You could get several thousand dollars more, depending on the vehicle (check trade-in vs. private party estimates on KBB or Edmunds).
  • It could be the best financial choice if you have a loan and negative equity in the car (you get more money from the sale but need a new loan to make up the equity difference to the car lender).
  • It’s free to list and sell your car on some platforms.
Cons
  • The offers are lower than in a private sale.
  • Some dealerships try to negotiate the sale of your car and the purchase of another car in the same transaction. Leave if this happens!
  • The offers are lower than in a private sale.
  • You have no ability to negotiate (but lack of negotiation is a pro to some people!).
  • The final price may change if some details are off or the in-person appraisal uncovers something you didn’t know about or forgot to mention.
  • Reselling may be tricky if you have negative equity; contact your lender for details and permission.
  • It’s more hassle (photographs, listings, work, time, buyer communications, DIY paperwork, etc.).
  • There’s higher danger of fraud and scams (but certain measures drastically reduce the risk).
  • It could take longer.
  • You have to pay to list and sell your car on some platforms.

Let’s dive further into a few considerations.

  • Time frame: First, consider the time frame involved with a private sale. Sometimes, such sales take a few months. Depending on seasonality, economics, increased mileage, depreciation, and other factors, your final price tag could decrease to the point where you could’ve made a similar profit with an instant cash offer months ago. Generally, the quicker you can do a private sale, the more money you make.
  • Convenience: The hassle with private sales can be huge. Sometimes, though, the process is not bad at all, depending on your luck. Maybe a cousin or co-worker happens to know someone looking for a car like yours, and the buyer is serious and responsive. Otherwise, it can be tedious to identify serious buyers from a deluge of emails, texts, or phone calls. Ideally, you’ll respond to messages within 24 hours. Just make sure you’re OK keeping your car around for a few months, should that become necessary.
  • Equity: Financial experts do not recommend trading in your vehicle if it has negative equity, especially huge negative equity. In these “upside-down” cases, you owe money that exceeds the vehicle’s current value. Still, you may be able to make it work with your financing for dealership trade-ins or instant cash offers. Private sales are trickier to execute financially with upside-down loans — but well worth exploring if you don’t plan to get another car.

FYI

Whichever reselling method you choose, you need to clean up your car’s tech. Clear your home address from the navigation system, cancel the satellite radio subscription, and so on.

Conclusion

That’s all the information we have on reselling your car — hopefully, you’ll get a bill of sale shortly! Learn more about our car insurance research if you’re buying a new car, or brush up on auto insurance in our car insurance guide.

Citations

  1. My Car’s Value. Kelley Blue Book. (2022).
    https://www.kbb.com/whats-my-car-worth/

  2. How much is my car worth: Instant used car value and trade in value. Edmunds. (2022).
    https://www.edmunds.com/appraisal/

  3. What’s your car worth?. Consumer Reports. (2022).
    https://www.consumerreports.org/cars/car-value-estimator

  4. Consumer Vehicle Values. J.D. Power. (2022).
    https://www.nada.com/

  5. What documentation is required to sell my car to Carvana?. Carvana. (2022).
    https://www.carvana.com/help/sell-or-trade/what-documentation-is-required-to-sell-my-car-to-carvana

  6. Report of sale. Washington State Department of Licensing. (2022).
    https://www.dol.wa.gov/vehicleregistration/transfertitle.html

  7. How to Maximize Your Used Car’s Curb Appeal. Consumer Reports. (2017, Jul 13).
    https://www.consumerreports.org/used-cars/how-to-maximize-your-used-cars-curb-appeal/