14 Tips to Help Sell Your Car for the Best Possible Price

2014 Toyota Tundra

Like most people, I spend can spend an inordinate amount of time researching the next new car I’m going to buy, but why don’t we spend more time than we do on researching how to sell our old car for the best possible price?

Used car dealers will tell you they make their profit when they buy a car, and not necessarily when they sell it. It’s easy to work out what the going price is for a particular used vehicle, so the lower the price they buy it for the more profit they’re going to have in it when they come to sell. By following the 14 tips I’m going to give you here, you’ll be able to get the best possible price when you sell your old vehicle.

To get the best possible price for your vehicle when you sell it:

  1. Start thinking about the potential resale price even before you buy
  2. Buy the right vehicle to begin with
  3. Look after your car with resale in mind
  4. Cherish your service history
  5. Don’t smoke in your car
  6. Limit the effect a dog has on your resale value
  7. Fix major bodywork issues quickly
  8. Get an accurate valuation before you try to sell
  9. Check your vehicle’s status
  10. Sell at the right time
  11. Think about where to sell your vehicle
  12. Don’t rush into anything, especially if you have finance
  13. Try and get more than one offer
  14. Present your vehicle at its best

Think about resale prices before you buy

A lot of people will do masses of online research and go around a lot of dealerships to save a few hundred dollars on a new car, truck or SUV. Instead, they could save an awful lot more money than that by thinking about potential resale prices before they decide which vehicle to buy. Some models depreciate a lot more than others, so it makes sense to prioritize models that hold their value the best when shopping for your new ride.

It’s not too difficult either. Websites like Autoguide publish details of what vehicles have the best resale values each year, so look out for the ones that fit in with what you’re looking to buy. At the time of writing this, the top ten are all pickups and SUVs. If you’re interested in a midsize pickup truck the Toyota Tacoma is a great choice with an estimated resale value of 69.4% of its purchase price after 36 months, and an even more incredible 62.2% at 60 months.

If you want a full-size pickup the Toyota Tundra holds its price best, with the GMC Sierra being the best of the domestic pickups. When it comes to SUVs, the perennial winner is always the Jeep Wrangler, which is currently estimated to retain 66.5% of its original value after 36 months, and 58.3% after 60 months.

KBB.com is another fantastic research resource, and they have lists of top resale values for every type of vehicle available. For example, if it’s a midsize car you’re thinking of buying, the top three are the Subaru Legacy, the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry – in that order.

Buy the right vehicle to begin with

When I say you should buy the right vehicle to begin with, I’m talking about the specification and configuration after you’ve looked into what model fits your requirement and has a good resale value. It’s all well and good being sensible and buying a Chevy Tahoe if you want a full-size SUV with great residual value, but if you get it in a polarizing color or you go for the wrong specification you could undo all the good work you did researching resale values in the first place.

Take the Tahoe for example. A dealer isn’t going to pay as much for a blue one as they would for a black one, and don’t even consider Siren Red or Deepwood Green Metallic if you care about what you’ll get when the time comes to sell or trade-in.

Another thing to watch out for is the trim level and options. Do not under any circumstances go and buy something like a Ford F-150 XLT and then go loading it up with expensive options. It doesn’t matter if you spend $10,000 or more on options, and F-150 XLT will still be valued as an F-150 XLT. If you want more features and equipment then go for a higher trim level, it will pay dividends when the time comes to sell.

2013 Subaru Legacy

Look after your car with resale in mind

Most people want to look after their new vehicle to keep it looking like the day they bought it, especially for the first few weeks or months. Let’s be honest though, the novelty soon wears off a little and it’s easy to let things slide. Well, if you want to make sure you get as much for your car when you eventually come to sell it, make sure you keep up with looking after it as if you’d just got it.

Start with protecting your car’s bodywork, which is the first thing any potential buyer will notice when you come to sell. There are a lot of paint protection products available so check out my blog about them here to help you choose the right one. Paint protection will help stop blemishes from bird droppings, sunlight, tree sap and other day-to-day contaminants, but it won’t help against impact damage.

Stone chips, dents and scratches don’t get better by themselves, and they don’t get better over time either. It’s almost impossible to avoid at least some impact damage to your car’s bodywork, but it is possible to minimize the effect by getting damage fixed before it gets worse or builds up into a big job. There are loads of companies who will come to your home or work and do the work for you, and it’s not particularly expensive unless the damage is really bad.

The same goes for your windshield. A small crack or chip might not seem like a big deal, but it could turn into a terminal crack in your windshield at any time and a prospective buyer will factor a fix or a screen replacement into the price they offer.

Cherish your service history

Unless you are going to keep your current vehicle for many, many years until its value is very low, it pays dividends to keep your service history in the best possible shape. A full service history shows a prospective buyer the car has been properly maintained throughout its time with you, and that gives them confidence in the vehicle and you as the seller.

A full service history of any kind is a benefit, but if it’s a full service history where all the services have been carried out by the main dealer that’s even better. There are many reasons why using the dealer for servicing is a good idea, even if it appears expensive at the time. The two main reasons are that a lot of little non-critical recalls will have been done to keep the car in the best shape, even if you’re not informed about them at the time, and it will allow you to ask top price for your car when you come to sell.

Don’t laugh. This is how some trade-ins look inside

Don’t smoke in your car

Whether the dealer or whoever you eventually try to sell your vehicle to will say anything about it or not, a vehicle that smells of stale tobacco inside will always be valued at a lower price than an identical model that hasn’t been smoked in.

On top of that, if you smoke or allow smoking in your car, you’ll reduce the number of potential buyers there are out there when you do come to sell. Most non-smokers, in particular, won’t consider buying a used vehicle that smells of cigarettes, and a lot of smokers won’t either. There’s nothing worse than finding it difficult to sell your old car when you have your heart set on buying a new one, so don’t make it difficult by smoking in your vehicle.

If you are a smoker and you can discipline yourself not to smoke when you’re in your car, it could even prove a catalyst to helping you stop, if you want to, of course.

Limit the effect your dog has on your resale value

There are three ways a dog or dogs can hurt the resale value of your car and stop you getting the best possible price, which are:

  • Smell
  • Damage
  • Dirt

It can’t be helped, but damp dogs or dogs that have rolled in something unmentionable when they’ve been out and about can make the interior of your vehicle smell pretty bad if they spend a lot of time in there. You’ll probably get used to any smell yourself, but when someone else inspects the interior it will hit them like a flying brick. If you have to take dogs with you regularly, do whatever you can to cover or protect your upholstery, use air-fresheners regularly, and get the interior detailed as often as you reasonably can.

Some dogs will destroy your interior intentionally, but some can cause damage completely unintentionally. I once had a sales exec working for me who didn’t re-appraise a Range Rover when it was brought in by a customer on the day he collected his new one. When it went to the detailers to be cleaned to be put up for sale, they came to ask me what I was doing about the back seat. Since the SUV was originally appraised when the deal was agreed, the customer’s gun dog had been in the back and had eaten the top of the rear seat. It cost us $750 for a new leather seat cover, which was obviously newer than the ones next to it.

A couple of years ago I had a Kia Sportage with perforated synthetic leather upholstery, so I thought it wouldn’t be a problem letting my Dobermann, Zakk, ride in the back seat. After all, synthetic leather can be wiped down nice and easy, right? Well, it can, but his rough paws and claws over time wore the perforated leather very badly. When it went back to the leasing company after two years and less than 6,000 miles, the rear seat bases looked like they were from a much older vehicle with tens of thousands of miles on the clock.

A seat cover is a good investment

Even if you fit a good seat cover, which will protect your seats from damage, or transport your dog in a crate, hair, sand and other stuff from your dog will still get into every nook and cranny. Even if you can’t keep up with it on a regular basis, make sure you get the vehicle professionally detailed before you try to sell it. Even if a vehicle doesn’t smell of dog and the seats are not damaged, some people will try and beat you down on the price if they spot tell-tale signs of dogs being in the car.

Fix major bodywork issues, and quickly

I’ve already covered the need to keep on top of small bodywork problems like little dents, scratches and stone chips, but you’d be amazed how many times I’ve been asked to value a car that has major bodywork issues that haven’t been attended to.

On the face of things, you might think that the cost of fixing something like a cracked plastic bumper will be the same as the amount of money a dealer will reduce the price they offer you for your car because they will need to fix it themselves. That simply isn’t the case.

For a start, they will work on the highest possible price for getting the work done, which might be the cost of replacing the bumper with a new one and the cost of painting it to match. Instead of you getting it fixed by an expert yourself for a couple of hundred dollars, the cost of replacement could be a thousand dollars or more.

Get bodywork fixed before selling

On top of that unnecessary reduction to your trade-in price, there’s also the problem of what else might be wrong that isn’t as obvious as a cracked bumper that you might not have done anything about. Even if there isn’t anything else wrong, the prospective buyer will look at everything in even greater detail than they would have done if everything had looked good on the surface. If it’s an expert you’re dealing with they could easily start to find things wrong you weren’t aware of, that they might not have looked for if the car appeared in great condition on the surface.

Get an accurate valuation before you try to sell

You wouldn’t put your house up for sale without getting it professionally valued, would you? It’s a similar situation when you come to sell your car. Why would go into the dealership and risk getting a big shock when they offer you a price? If you do your homework beforehand, at least you’ll know right away if the dealer is trying it on by offering you a ridiculously low price.

There are lots and lots of websites that let you get an accurate valuation of your vehicle, but you need to be prepared for these valuations to vary considerably. Prices differ depending on where you live, what the condition of your vehicle is, and whether you are selling privately or to a dealer. Also, you have to keep in mind a lot of sites that value your car have it in their best interests to tell you what you want to hear, so they’ll give you a slightly inflated valuation to keep you using their site.

Dealers will often use subscription services that collate auction results and other data, so to get that level of accurate valuation you will have to use a service that costs too. Alternatively, you could do a search in your local area on one of the big used car websites like Autotrader. It will take a little work, but at least it will be free.

Search for vehicles of the same make, model, trim level, age and mileage, and then look at the lowest price for one in a similar condition to yours. Even then, this is still a retail price, so you probably won’t be getting that much from a dealer as they will be looking at reselling your trade-in for not a lot more than that price. Dealers and car buying services pay wholesale, not retail, so be prepared.

Keep up with your service schedule

Check your vehicle’s status

You might have owned your vehicle from new and bought it for cash, but it’s still a good idea to do a vehicle history check before you put it up for sale, especially if you’re going to be selling it privately. A history check will bring up any details of insurance claims for damage repair and outstanding finance agreements attached to the vehicle. It’s a useful selling tool to be able to show this to a prospective private buyer to prove everything about the car and the sale is above board.

It’s unusual for something you didn’t know about to show up if you’ve had the vehicle from day one and never had a claim or finance, or if you know the finance has been paid off. However, in these days of online fraud, it’s always better to be safe than sorry, just in case. Even if there’s nothing malicious going on, finance you’ve previously paid off might not have been reported correctly by the finance company and may still be showing.

Even if you’re selling to a dealer, knowing about any error in advance will give you chance to correct the error before the dealer does their own vehicle history check, which they always will as part of their due diligence.

Sell at the right time

What time of year to sell your car is probably not as important as choosing the right time of the year to buy your new one to get the best price, but there are some cases where it needs to be taken into consideration. If you’re selling a pickup truck it won’t make any difference what time of year you are selling it, as there’s always a huge market for pickups. However, if you’re selling a convertible in a part of the country where the weather isn’t great in the winter, don’t expect to get as good a price in November as you would in March.

Think about where to sell your vehicle

Where you sell your vehicle makes a big difference to the kind of price you can expect to get. If you have a Ford and you’re buying a Mercedes from a Mercedes dealership, you might not get as much as if you were selling to a Ford dealer. If your trade-in is too old or has too many miles for the Mercedes dealership to retail itself, they’ll either get a price from another dealer or give you the auction price.

A dealer who only sells used cars doesn’t have new car sales to fall back on, so they will try and buy at as low a price as possible, especially if you’re not buying another vehicle from them. It’s even worse with those online car buying services. They make their money selling to dealers or auctioning your vehicle, which means they’re going to offer you the very lowest price for the convenience they offer.

Selling private will get you the most money for your old vehicle, but it can be a lot of hassle. And remember, you still won’t be able to sell for the price a dealership would be able to sell a vehicle like yours for because the buyer isn’t getting the warranty and backup a dealer will offer.

Don’t rush into anything, especially if you have finance

Take a little time if you can to think about how you’re going to sell and why you’re selling before you do it. This is especially important if you have outstanding finance on your current vehicle. If you still have finance on your car, you’ll either have to pay it off before you sell it or you’ll have to sell to a dealer who can pay it off as part of the deal.

If you are selling to a dealer and relying on them to settle your finance, especially if you’re in negative equity, they could make you feel like they’ve got you over a barrel and beat you down on the price.  

Try and get more than one offer

Just because you’re buying a new vehicle from a dealer doesn’t mean you have to sell your old car to them. If you can manage without your car for a while, try and sell privately if you want to get the best price. But even if you don’t want to sell private, there are plenty of used car dealers who will be only too willing to take your current ride off your hands instead of you trading it in.

Another dealer might not offer you a better price, but at least if you go armed and ready with a firm offer from somewhere else you can throw it at the dealer if they try to low-ball you to begin with. It also shows you know what you’re doing, which will strengthen your hand in the whole negotiating process and stop them from taking the you-know-what out of you.

Please get your trade-in cleaned

Present your vehicle at its best

This is the most basic tip for getting the best price for your old vehicle, but unfortunately, it really does need stating that you should always present your vehicle at its best if you want to get top price for it. You’d be amazed at the state of some vehicles when their owners bring them in to do a deal on a new model. Sometimes, the interiors are so filthy and full of garbage that you don’t even want to sit in them to test drive them as part of the appraisal process.

Unless your trade-in is a complete POS and no amount of loving care will improve its valuation, get it professionally detailed before you go to sell it. There are different levels of detailing, but even if you only spend $30-$40 it could mean you end up getting a couple of hundred bucks more for it than you might have done otherwise.

Sean Cooper

Former retail auto industry professional for almost a decade and now an automotive writer and journalist for the last 7 years

Recent Content