How to Get Your Car Ready to Sell – 7 Essential Tips


One of the first things you need to do when you decide you want to change your car is to get your old car ready to sell, and therefore getting ready to sell for the best price possible. When I was in the retail auto industry, it never ceased to amaze me at the state some of the trade-ins were in when customers came to do a deal.

If you were going to court, going for a job interview, or going to meet the parents of your partner for the first time you'd dress appropriately to make the best possible impression, wouldn’t you? Then why oh why do people turn up to a dealership with the car they're wanting to trade-in without doing their very best first to get the car ready to sell for the best possible price?

When you're walking around a dealer's lot looking at used vehicles for sale, what would you think of any you saw that were dirty, had dents or scratches on the body, or had bald tires? You'd either, walk by and forget about considering any cars in that state, or you’d try and beat the dealer down on price for all the things that you can find that are wrong with the car.

Guess what folks? That's exactly how the dealer thinks when you roll up in your old car and it isn't presented in the best way it possibly can be. It's amazing how incredulous some customers get at dealerships when the dealer offers them $10k for a car they've been told when they were doing their research online is worth $14k to trade-in. The reason the website told you it was worth $14k is that you didn't tell the website that it was in a condition that looked as though somebody had been living in it for the past couple of years and hadn't cleaned it in all that time.

If you’re serious about getting the best price you possibly can for your trade-in, here are some of the things you need to do to get your car ready to sell.

1. Clean it

A genuine image of a trade-in

Even running your trade through a car wash before you visit a dealer or have someone come round to your home to take a look at it will help, but the more comprehensive the clean the more money you will get. Doing it yourself is fine, but don’t assume cleaning a car properly for sale is always going to be easy and straightforward. There are a lot of professional detailing companies out there, and they wouldn’t be making a good living if it was easy to get a used car looking its best.

It might seem like madness to pay someone $100 dollars to detail a car you’re planning to sell, especially as you can clean your car yourself for free. Believe me, though, the difference between what you get for a vehicle that hasn’t been properly detailed in months or years and what you get for one that's just been professionally detailed is likely to be much more than that $100.

Not only will cleaning your car properly make it look infinitely more presentable and help you get a better price, the process of you or someone else going over the interior and exterior of the car could help flag up other issues that need addressing before you offer the vehicle up for sale. You might notice damage to some interior trim, such as a missing cover for a car-seat anchor point or a scratch from a shoe on a door card. On the outside, a good clean might reveal small scratches, dents or paint imperfections that you can get sorted before you try to sell your car.

Another treasured trade-in

2. Cosmetic repairs

No matter how good, how reliable and what a perfect service history your car has, cosmetic imperfections will go a long way towards undoing all that diligent maintenance you've done on your car over the years if there are cosmetic issues you haven't had fixed. You can get a mobile repair company out to your home or place of work who will sort out any scratches, dents and dings, and it will be money well spent. If a car looks fantastic inside and out, you'd be amazed how much that influences the price you get, and it can even go a long way towards mitigating the odd unexplained squeak, bang or rattle.

That covers the small bodywork issues, and you might think anything bigger and more serious than minor damage, would obviously have been fixed before anyone goes to sell their car, wouldn’t you? Well, think again. I've seen customers come in with tailgates that look as though they've been kicked in by a bull, and I've seen doors that look as though they've been involved in an accident so bad you'd wonder if the passenger survived the impact.

For some reason, these people think it won’t make much of a difference to the price, so why should they bother getting it fixed when the dealer will do it anyway before they sell it on? Just think about that for a moment. If it doesn’t make much difference to the price a used car can fetch, why would the dealer spend the money getting it fixed?

If your vehicle has bodywork issues and you're not going to get it fixed before you go to get a trade-in offer, don’t expect to get a good price. In reality, if you don’t spend a few hundred dollars getting some serious damage fixed then the harm it can do to the sale price is likely to be measured in thousands of dollars rather than hundreds.

That's not going to polish out

3. Make it smell nice

Ok, so you've had the vehicle professionally detailed and those bodywork damage issues are all sorted. However, when you open the door and climb in there's a terrible smell. It could be that the vehicle has been smoked in, it could have had a dog in on a regular basis, or it could be that there's been a leak letting water in and there's now an issue with damp in the fabrics.

A bad smell isn’t quite as bad as serious bodywork damage or an interior that looks like a landfill garbage site, but it's not going to help. Don’t underestimate how much of an effect a bad smell can have when you’re trying to sell your car. If it's not off-the-scale terrible it might not hurt the price if you’re selling private, but it will cause a lot of potential buyers to simply walk away. If you’re trading-in to a dealer, they're probably going to knock a couple of hundred bucks off the price.

Unfortunately, a really bad smell inside a vehicle isn’t easy to get rid of. Professional detailers are what you need, but even then, they will only be able to do so much. There are things like a "scent bomb" they can be set off inside the vehicle that is then left with the doors and windows closed for half an hour or longer. They're not going to get rid of the smell of tobacco or wet dog, but they will help.

Damp is another problem altogether. You could change the carpets or mats if they're the problem, but if it's got into the seats or headlining that's another matter entirely. It's probably more important to make sure the source of the problem has been identified and corrected, as that will hurt the sale price more than the damp smell itself. Once it's sorted you can then do what you can to dry out or replace the fabrics that are causing the odor.

4. Documentation

If you've kept all the receipts for money you've spent on maintaining you car over the years, which you should have done, make sure they're all together, well organized and ready to show to any prospective buyer along with the service history, title, etc.

Some people are concerned that if they show someone who's interested in buying their car a receipt for something major being done that it could make the potential buyer worried that there could be other issues with the car. It's an understandable point, but I'd say that it's of more benefit to show that you've been prepared to spend where necessary to keep the vehicle in top condition. Things go wrong with vehicles sometimes; it's just a fact of life. How you deal with them is the important thing, and being able to show you've been prepared to spend proper money to get things fixed is only going to help you sell a vehicle.

As for the service history, it has to be the most important piece of documentation apart from the vehicle title. Buyers, especially dealers, are not going to just take your word for it that the vehicle you’re selling has a full manufacturer service history, even if it has. Have the fully stamped service book at hand and ready to be inspected. It will instill confidence in the vehicle itself and you as the seller and it will save you time, and potentially grief later on, if you haven't dug it out by the time someone is viewing your car.

I cannot tell you have much grief I've had with customers and service history over the years. I've had customers simply lie about their vehicle having a full history, and when the day comes for them to collect their new ride and hand over their trade-in they've been in for a rude awakening. Some people seem to think that it's ok to say the vehicle has a full history when it doesn't, and the worst that will happen is it will be a bit awkward when they hand the car over to the dealer and there isn't a fully stamped service booklet with it.

This doesn't qualify as a full service history

The difference between a used vehicle having and not having a complete service history will be hundred, if not thousands of dollars. Let's say you have a five-year-old midsize sedan with 60,000 miles on the odometer and a price has been agreed of $10,000 with a dealer based on it having a full history. The difference if it doesn’t have a full history could be as much as $2,000, and a dealer isn’t going to stand on a bid of $10k if the car is really only going to be worth $8k.

This is especially the case if the vehicle you are selling is the same brand as the dealership sells new. Quite simply, a BMW dealer probably isn't going to put a five-year-old BMW on their lot for sale with 60k miles on it if it doesn’t have a full service history. The cost of preparing and warrantying that car so they could sell it with confidence would be uneconomical, so they'd then be looking to trade it to a non-franchise dealer or send it to an auction. That's why the difference in what they give you could be so substantial.

I've also had customers turn up on the day with service books with gaps in the history and some they've obviously filled-in themselves with a pen. And by the way, getting your friend who used to be a mechanic to sign to say he's serviced the car for you isn’t going to cut it.

You need as much documentation and paperwork as possible to help you sell your car for the best price, but it also has to be genuine documentation.

5. Basic maintenance

Sometimes it's the little things that count, and I've had enough of these little things trip me up in the past to know that for a fact! Make sure all the basic little jobs you can do yourself have been done before you show your vehicle to anyone interested in buying it, and certainly before you let them test drive it. I'm talking about things like making sure the windshield washer fluid reservoir is full, the oil is topped up, the tires are at the correct pressure, the battery is ok and that the engine is relatively clean.

Do not try and steam clean the engine though. A thorough wipe with a cloth is enough, but pressure-washing an engine can severely damage electrical systems, and it could raise suspicions with a potential buyer if it looks too clean.

Tires are an issue that has puzzled me at times over the years. It's amazing at how much some buyers get fixated on them, and sometimes how hypocritical they can be over them. Reputable dealers will have a policy about the tires on the used vehicles they have on their lots. The minimum legal limit of tread depth is 2/32 inch, but franchise dealers will usually always make sure the vehicles they have for sale have much more than the legal minimum.

If any of the tires on the vehicle you are selling are close to, at, or below 2/23 of an inch of tread depth, then get them changed. It doesn’t matter if you buy a really cheap tire as long as it's the right tire. Buyers love new tires, and you'll be amazed at how much of an impact it has.

As for the hypocrisy thing, I've had buyers almost screaming at me on handover that the used car they agreed to buy has got semi-worn tires, even though they saw them that way when they did the deal. A lot seem to assume a dealer will put a set of new tires on for free, even though it was never mentioned as part of the deal. The hypocrisy then kicks in when you go to get their trade-in and it doesn’t have the service history they said it has and one or more of the tires is now below the legal limit.

I've even had a customer in the past come in to buy a new car and their trade has a set of almost new tires on, but when they came to collect their new car and leave their old one a couple of weeks later the new tires their trade had on had been swapped for a set of barely legal ones. They'd borrowed a set of wheels from a friend to fit onto their car when they came to do the deal, but they swapped them back for the old, worn ones when it came to the handover. Guess who didn’t get their new car that day until they paid for a set of new tires their trade-in had been valued with?

Damaged alloys are not a good look

6. A little tip about tires and rims

If you have a luxury vehicle that's a few years old and it has severely worn tires you’re going to have to replace, it might actually be worth considering putting an entirely new set of tires and alloy wheels on to sell it. That might sound like an unnecessary expense, but hear me out.

It might not work with a mass-market vehicle, but if you have something like a Cadillac or a BMW that need a new set of rubber and the alloys are pretty scuffed, it could be as cheap to buy and fit a set of cheap tires and new alloy wheels as it is to fit decent quality rubber alone. If you go online you'll find plenty of business on eBay and elsewhere that sell cheap sets of alloys with tires that will satisfy the buyer obsession for new tires, and you'll have alloy wheels with no scrapes, scuffs or other damage.

Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn't do this if I was keeping a car because I always put top-quality tires on. However, if you’re going to sell your vehicle and you really are going to have to put a new set of tires on, this option could help you sell easily and for a good price.

7. Further small upgrades could pay dividends

Even if you’re not going to go down the route I've just described with tires and wheels, there are a few other little upgrades you could do that won’t cost a fortune and could help your selling efforts. Have a look at your vehicle's interior. Are the mats old and dirty, is the steering wheel or shift knob worn, and are your seats looking well past their best? For only a few bucks you can buy seat, steering wheel or shifter covers, and a new set of mats won’t break the bank either.

They don’t have to be perfectly tailored for that specific model, but getting some that are at least a decent fit will lift the look and feel of a tired interior and make it easier to sell. If you have a relatively expensive prestige vehicle like a Mercedes, a Caddy or a BMW it might be wise to buy the real thing, but only if the wear is severe and something really needs to be done about it.

Not everyone's taste

Just one word of warning though, if you have seat covers that are, shall we say, unique? Flowery, leopard print or other "funky" designs of seat cover might be your thing, but they're not going to be to everyone's taste. If you have seat covers in your car that are a little out of the ordinary, please take them out or replace them with something sensible. You will thank me later.

Sean Cooper

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

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