How to Sell Your Car

Money, Taxes, Tips & how-to

America is a country in love with driving, so virtually all of us end up selling a car at some point in our lives. Cars are big-ticket items, so when we do sell one, we generally want the most money for the least effort. So, how do you sell a car?

It depends on a several variables and what is more important to you: money or convenience. Factors such as your location, the condition of the car, and how comfortable you are dealing with random strangers and title paperwork will also help you determine on the best way to sell your car.

Generally, the options are to either trade it in at a dealership, or sell it yourself. If you’re in a rush and willing to accept less money in exchange for being done with the whole ordeal forever, trading it in to a dealer is easy and fast. If you want top dollar, though, and are willing to put a little work into it, you should sell to a private buyer.

Prep the Car

Regardless of how you end up selling your car, prepping it is an important first step. You should have the car professionally detailed. Yes, it can be expensive, but it’s a worthy investment, particularly for a private sale. Although the crumbs from under your 2-year-old’s carseat, and that spot on the carpet from when the dog barfed that time don’t take away from the car’s value in your mind, we guarantee you will not get enthusiastic buyers unless the car is as pristine as you can make it. Make sure it smells good, too. Nobody wants to buy a car that smells like all the stuff you’ve spilled in it over the years.

Prepping also includes minor maintenance. Get your oil changed if it’s due, fix the cracked windshield, and replace the missing gas cap. The less of a laundry list the buyer feels like they have to do to make the car as “like new” as possible, the more likely you’ll be able to sell the vehicle easily and for the price you want.

Do Your Homework

Once the car is all shiny and sweet-smelling, the next step is to determine what it’s worth. Kelly Blue Book online is a great resource for getting an accurate price for your car, given the year, mileage, trim package, and condition. It even takes your location into account, and will give you both the private sale value and the trade-in value, so you know what range to expect from a dealer.

You can also prepare the paperwork in advance by making sure the title is in order and, if you’re selling privately, printing off a bill of sale, which is available online. Fill out as much as you can in advance so that you’re ready when you get a buyer.

Finally, it’s a good idea to print of a vehicle history from Experian or Carfax and have repair and maintenance records in order—many buyers will want to see them, and having them ready gives them less time to change their minds.


Nothing can beat the convenience of simply trading the car in for a new one at a dealership. It’s no muss, no fuss—you simply sign the title over and you’re done with the car forever. The down side is that, in order to resell the car at a profit, the dealer will have to offer you less than the full retail value of the car. He will also have to cover the cost of repairs and cleaning to ready the car for sale, which is reflected in the difference between the trade-in value and retail value.

One thing to keep in mind is that you are only required to pay sales tax on the difference between the cost of your new car and what you get for the trade in, which can help make up for the disparity, depending on the sales tax rate in your state and what you’re buying and trading in.

Private Sale

There is no question that if you want to get as much money out of your car as possible, private sale is the way to go. Online listing is the best way to sell a car privately—you can quickly and easily list your car on sites like Craigslist and Autotrader. Always include photos, inside and out, and from several angles. The more information you give in your listing, the better your chances of finding the right buyer. Be absolutely honest about the car’s condition and any major issues it has—it’s all going to come out eventually, anyway, so don’t waste your time or the buyer’s by hedging.

When you find your buyer and have agreed on the price, accept cash only. Never take a check unless you’re selling to a close friend or relative. Fill out the bill of sale, sign over the title, and cancel your insurance. If you’ve done everything thoroughly and honestly, your buyer will drive away happy, and you’ll have a nice wad of cash to put toward a shiny, new car of your own.