Are you in the market for a new or used car? You might want to get rid of your old one first.
Sure, it’s nice to have a backup ride in the driveway, but older cars are notorious money pits: registration renewal fees, wheelage taxes, loan payments, and routine maintenance all add up, not to mention increasingly burdensome outlays for unexpected repairs. At some point, you’re throwing good money after bad.
How to Sell Your Car Privately and Earn More
Selling your car is a great way to raise extra cash. On this point, how you sell makes all the difference. Compared with dealer trade-ins, private-party sales almost always result in a higher net sales price. According to a 2014 LA Times story, a car valued by dealers at about $13,000 sells for about $14,500 on the private market – a difference of 12% relative to the lower price. That’s real money.
The gap is comparatively wider at the lower end of the market. My wife and I recently shopped a car worth $3,300 to $3,500 on the private market to dealers in our area. Our highest trade-in offer: $1,800.
In the following sections, I’ll outline how to sell your car in a private-party transaction (spoiler alert: It’s not that hard) while staying safe and maximizing your return. You’ll learn how to:
Prepare your car for sale
Create a great listing and get it in front of serious local buyers
Deal with prospective buyers
Safely and legally complete a private-party vehicle transaction
See Also: This guide is designed for regular car owners looking to offload personal vehicles on the private market. If you’re interested in selling cars at volume to generate a regular source of side income, check out our guide to fixing up and flipping cars for profit.
Prepare Your Car for Sale
Before you list your car for sale, you need to know what you’re working with. Then, you need to get it ready for its close-up.
Assess Your Car’s Condition
First things first: assess your car’s general condition.
Using an oil change and coolant flush as a pretext, bring it into a trusted mechanic for a thorough inspection. You’ll likely have to pay extra for a thorough multipoint inspection – perhaps in excess of $100 – but it’s well worth the peace of mind.
Ask your mechanic to check any systems or components you’re particularly worried about – for instance, if the brakes are squeaky, you’ll want to make sure those are inspected. Weigh the results of this assessment objectively. An honest mechanic shouldn’t be too aggressive in diagnosing potential problems, but you’ll want to ask directly which problems are serious and which can wait to be fixed.
Potentially serious (and costly) problems include, but aren’t limited to:
Brake troubles (disc and hydraulic issues are costlier than worn pads)
Emissions system failures
Electronic problems (more common in newer cars)
With the exception of electronic problems, these issues are more likely to occur in older, higher-mileage, and seldom-driven vehicles. In other words, the 20-year-old car under the tarp in your yard is probably going to be more problematic than the three-year-old commuter car that just rolled off its lease.
Two Options: Fix Now or Let the Buyer Beware
If the pressing problems are numerous, costly, or both, think carefully about your plan to sell your car on the private market. You’ll have two options here: Pay out-of-pocket to make the fixes before you sell, or list your car in shaky mechanical condition and prepare to accept a lower selling price. In both cases, you’ll need to accept lower net earnings from the sale.
When to Cut Your Losses
When you know you’re going to get less, it’s natural to ask whether it’s worthwhile to go through the hassle of a private-party sale at all.
This question turns on a simple mathematical calculation: Will you earn more selling your tainted car to a private buyer or trading it in? Take your car to two or three local dealers to get a sense of what it’s worth on the trade-in market. Then, visit at least one other mechanic for a repair quote.
You’ll want to cut your losses and trade the vehicle in if:
The out-of-pocket cost of repairs would push your likely net earnings below what you’d make on the trade-in
The vehicle’s fair private-party value without repairs is lower than its trade-in value without repairs
You need to sell fast and you can’t wait to make repairs or work through the private sale process
If the private-party value is close to the trade-in value or a wash, the meager extra earnings might not be worth the hassle of selling the car yourself, but that’s more of a judgment call.
If repair costs don’t wipe out the difference between your expected private-party earnings and the vehicle’s trade-in value, you’ll want to stick with the plan to sell to another individual.
Get Your Car Ready: Minor Fixes and Beautification Checklist
Once you’ve checked out the car and decided to sell it privately, use this checklist to get it ready to list. Your exact presale to-do list will depend on your car’s overall condition and the type of buyer you’re hoping to attract.
Take Everything Out of the Interior and Trunk. Unless you use your old car to drive for a ridesharing app like Uber or Lyft, its interior is probably less tidy than you’d like. Go through its cabin, including hidden places like the glove box and seat-back pouches, and remove everything that isn’t tied down. Yes, even the manual. If you plan to drive the car again before you sell it, leave only its registration documents, proof of insurance, and anything else essential for day-to-day operation (such as a GPS device).
Thoroughly Clean the Interior. Next, deep-clean the interior. Take out the floor mats, beat them out, and then vacuum them for good measure. Vacuum every inch of the car’s flooring and upholstery, including hard-to-reach cushion seams and spaces under the driver and passenger seats. Use a mild cleaning solution (soap and water) and a cloth or gentle brush to work out upholstery stains. Attack tougher stains with a special carpet or upholstery cleaner (around $10 per bottle). Wipe down hard surfaces with a wet, soapy rag, taking special care to remove ground-in dirt. Use glass cleaner on both sides of every window (inside and out). If you don’t have the time or patience to do all this on your own, splurge on an auto detailing package, which includes a thorough exterior work-over. Depending on options, it’ll run you anywhere from $50 to $175 (per CarsDirect).
Change Oil. Next up, change the oil, even if the car isn’t due for a change. Bottom-Of-The-Barrel oil change costs as little as $20. If your car uses synthetic oil, you’re looking at $40 or $50. It’s still a sound investment. Consider a coolant flush or winterization package as well, especially if you live in a cold or hot climate. Expect to pay $50 to $80 for one of those, depending on options.
Top Off All Accessible Fluids. Even if you don’t change the oil, top it off to the upper end of the normal range. Do the same with your windshield wiper fluid, coolant (antifreeze), and brake fluid. You can find all these fluids at your local auto parts store or the automotive section of your go-to warehouse club or big box discount store. Wiper fluid costs as little as $2 per gallon, engine oil, and brake fluid as little as $5 per quart, and coolant as little as $5 to $7 per gallon.
Neutralize Interior Odors. If they can’t get that new car smell, used car buyers want the next best thing: a pleasant-smelling ride. Noticeable odors turn off prospective buyers, adversely impacting demand, time to sale, and final selling price. If bad smells persist after you’ve thoroughly cleaned the car cabin, liberally sprinkle baking soda on every porous surface you can reach. Rub it in thoroughly, roll up the windows, and let the car sit for a few hours. Then, come back and vacuum everything up. If this doesn’t do the trick, invest in an odor neutralizer spray ($10 to $20 per bottle, depending on size and brand). Don’t bother with spray or hanging air fresheners – though cheaper, they’re only good for masking odors temporarily.
Gather Maintenance Records and Receipts. Gather all service and maintenance receipts and work orders, preferably itemized, and stick them in a folder. Go as far back in time as you can – the goal here is to show skittish buyers that you’ve been taking good care of your car for as long as you’ve had it in your possession. Be ready to hand the receipts (or copies) over to prospective buyers upon request. If you haven’t been keeping records, make a point to start with your next car. The increased buyer interest and higher selling price more than makeup for the inconvenience.
Return All Manuals and Other Informational Material to the Car. Return the car’s owner’s manual and any other relevant informational material to the cabin before you list. Your eventual buyer will want them.
Go Through the Car Wash. Last but not least: Right before you list your car, take it through the car wash. Consider an add-on buff and shine package, which can run anywhere from $10 to $50 extra, depending on thoroughness. It’s not worth it for everyday tooling around, but it can make all the difference before you’re ready to sell.
List Your Car for Maximum Exposure
Now that your car is ready to list for sale, you need to create and promote a killer ad.
Create a Compelling Listing
Your listing’s format and the content will vary by medium. The print classified version is going to look very different from the eBay Motors version, and that’s okay. But, to prepare a great listing, you need to cover all your bases. Here’s what you need to do:
Take Copious Exterior Photos. Most online classifieds and car marketplaces have gallery features with ample storage space. Take full advantage by snapping copious exterior photos – at least eight, from a variety of angles. Zoom in on any exterior features you want to highlight, such as fancy headlights, aftermarket rims, and spoilers. Use a photo editing tool that lets you blur out your license plate.
Snap a Few Interior Shots. You don’t have to carpet-bomb your interior with photos, but you definitely want to create a sense of the space (and show off how nicely you’ve cleaned the car up). Again, focus on noteworthy features, such as leather upholstery and in-cabin entertainment.
Set a Price. Use the results of your mechanic’s checkup to honestly determine your car’s overall condition: excellent/new, very good, good, fair, or poor. Reputable car valuation services like Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds explain these terms in detail – check if you’re unsure. Use one of those valuation services to arrive at a fair private-party value. You’ll need to spend at least 10 to 15 minutes providing a comprehensive overview of your car’s features and options, some of which you won’t know off the top of your head. You don’t need to set your car’s initial selling price at exactly the price you’re given, especially if you’re trying to sell fast or get the best price, but it’s a reasonable starting place.
Decide What to Highlight. Put yourself in the buyer’s shoes. What features stand out? What attributes appeal to you? What’s the car’s ideal use case? Why is this the right car for this particular moment in time? Make sure those answers end up in your ad. If gas is expensive at the moment, play up the car’s excellent mileage. If its trunk is roomier than average for its category, highlight all the storage possibilities. If you’ve just made a big investment in repairs, mention those (without implying that the car is in bad shape). You get the idea.
Draft a Template Ad. Draft a template ad that includes all these selling points in concise, compelling language. Include a phrase or sentence that underscores a specific use case: “great commuter car,” or “perfect for active families.” Work in the more mundane attributes too, like transmission type and mileage. Most online marketplaces have sophisticated listing templates that incorporate features and options outside the text body, but you’ll need this language for Craigslist and print classifieds.
Customize Accordingly. Customize your listing’s language accordingly – more on that below.
Buy a For Sale Sign. Don’t forget to buy a For Sale sign to stick in your car’s window. Standard 9″ x 12″ signs cost as little as $3 or $4 – a bargain to tell the world that your ride is for sale.
Time Your Entry. If you need to sell your car ASAP, ignore this step. If you can wait to part with your ride, time your entry to maximize the likelihood of a quick, favorably priced sale. In four-season climates, used car buyers lay low during winter, when the market is dominated by savvier bargain hunters. Seasonality affects certain types of vehicles more than others. The market for midsize sedans is always active, but trying to sell a convertible when there’s snow on the ground is a fool’s errand. Wait until summer to list specialty rides.
Where to Advertise
There’s no shortage of places to list a used car for sale, but these are among the most common and effective. Depending on the type of car you’re selling and the type of buyer you’re seeking, some might not be appropriate for your purposes.
Free Online Classifieds
While researching this guide, I touched base with Donovan Drake, principal at Houston-based Texas Cars & Autos. Drake, a licensed dealer, sells the majority of his cars through his dealership. But, every once in a while, he needs to offload a ride from his personal collection.
When the need arises, Drake typically lists on Craigslist and Cars.com, both of which offer listing arrangements friendly to individual sellers. “Many auto sales websites allow individuals to list for free, while dealers are required to pay listing fees,” he says.
Craigslist is a bare-bones classifieds site that’s great for the lower end of the used car market. If your car is priced well, it’s likely to attract interest on Craigslist, regardless of condition.
Sites like Cars.com are a little more hands-on. A basic Cars.com listing is free, but you can pay for higher-end packages – the $49 Premium package includes more storage space for photos, a complimentary CARFAX report ($35 value), and keeps your listing active for five times as long as the basic package. Cars.com is ideal for low- to mid-range cars. The site claims to have an audience of 13 million, so you’re casting a pretty wide net – though, realistically, you’re only likely to attract buyers in your immediate geographic area.
Pro Tip: No matter how or where you list, remember to specify your preferred mode of contact: email, call, text, or something else. Mention your active hours while you’re at it. The last thing you want is random prospects calling you out of the blue late at night.
Unless you want to pay to promote your ad, which isn’t recommended for run-of-the-mill private-party transactions, social media is also free.
If you don’t want random, anonymous people to see that you’re selling a car, don’t post publicly: Share a Facebook post only within your Friends network, send out a quick Snapchat meme to followers you know well, or create a private Twitter list with trusted associates.
Social media is best used as an additive to other listing options. Use it to boost your Craigslist or Cars.com ad’s visibility, for instance.
Local Media Classifieds
Place a concise classified ad with local newspapers and community magazines. Most local print publications also post classifieds online at this point, so you’ll be catering to more than just the people who happen to pick up the paper while your ad’s running.
Print classified pricing is complicated, but the biggest determinant is the publication’s circulation. More readers mean more eyeballs on your ad, and publishers charge accordingly.
Space, measured in column-inches, is another important variable. The smaller your ad, the less you’ll pay. When every word quite literally counts, you need to be as sparse with your prose as possible. Flip to your local paper’s classifieds section to get a sense of how this looks in practice. Note useful abbreviations – they’ll come in handy.
Online marketplaces, such as Autotrader (affiliated with Kelley Blue Book) and eBay Motors, are higher-end versions of online classified options. They’re ideal for used cars at any price point, save for super-specialized models.
In theory, these online marketplaces charge you a premium to draw more traffic and serious buyer interest to your listing. In practice, their quality and value vary widely. For instance, Autotrader’s basic listing option unquestionably delivers less value than Cars.com’s free option – it allows fewer photos, has a shorter run time and costs $25. eBay Motors, whose ads are far more versatile and value-rich than Autotrader’s, charges $60 per successful listing when the selling price is under $2,000 and $125 when the selling price is over $2,000.