The Complete Guide to Selling a Used Car

  • by: Andrew Smith
  • August 27, 2019

At some point in your life, you will probably need to sell a car. This seemingly simple venture can be fraught with hidden pitfalls, so it is essential to know all the ins and outs before selling. We have created this guide to help you through the process, so you don't miss any critical steps, and get the most for your used car while making it an efficient process along the way.

Know the Market

The first thing to do when selling a used car is to research the market and find out what your car or truck is worth. Keep in mind that flashy sports cars and collectibles may yield more money in the end, but they also may be harder to sell during certain times of the year. Sedans, SUVs, and trucks are always in fashion and in demand by people needing inexpensive, reliable transportation.
Check online ads and use sites like AutoDetective to compare the value of cars that match your make, model, year, and features. The more information you have, the better. You want to know exactly what the most desirable cars are right now and how much you can expect to get for yours. 

 

Price Your Car Competitively

Once you have done your research and have a pretty good idea of the value of your used car, it's time to price it accordingly. You will want to get as much as you can for it while also being competitive in the marketplace. Take into consideration the mechanical, electrical, and cosmetic condition of your vehicle, along with the mileage and features. Each car will price differently based on varying specifications.

Have a Pricing Strategy

You always want to go into a car sale with a pricing strategy. First, figure out the absolute lowest price you can afford to take for the car. Then price your car or truck slightly above your bottom-line price to provide some wiggle room for buyers who want to haggle. Generally, people offer less than asking price, and they do so in increments of $500 and $1,000. The more prepared you are, the more confident you will be during the negotiation.
Undertake Mechanical Repairs to Increase Your Car's Value
If you know the car needs some minor mechanical repairs, you might want to have those affordable items fixed rather than reduce the car's resale value. In the long run, you will save more money, making repairs and selling the car for a higher price. Skip the big-ticket items and sell those "as is."

Car Preparation

There are a few other things to do to get your car ready and make it more attractive to prospective buyers. With a little work, your used car can look like new, and appearance is half the battle when selling something.
Now is an excellent time to get all your paperwork ready, including the vehicle's title, maintenance records, and current emissions report.


Car Cleaning

Clean the car out thoroughly and use a nice finishing product like Meguiar's to give the vehicle a clean smell. Vacuum all the carpets and seats and use a stain remover to clean off any permanent spills on the fabric. Wash the windows and all interior vinyl, metal, and plastic surfaces. Clean the outside of the car or run it through a car wash. It also doesn't hurt to spring for a wax job. It will make the car look shiny and new.

Remove Personal Items

Be sure to remove all your personal items from the car. When buyers test-drive a vehicle, they don't want to see a big mess, and they want to visualize the car as their own. You'll have to clean it all out when transferring it anyway, so do now before anyone test drives it. Leave only the basics inside like the manuals and registration.


Have a Smog/Emissions Test Performed (if required in your state)

If you live in a state that requires annual emissions or smog tests, pull yours out with all your other maintenance paperwork. If you don't have one, pay the fee and get a smog test report. Your buyer will need it to register the car, and this will save a headache down the road when they ask for you, and you don't have it.


Get a Vehicle History Report

Most buyers now are internet-savvy and will check out the car online before they even test drive it. To be extra prepared and head off any questions, get a vehicle history report yourself on your vehicle to give to buyers. This report will put to rest any doubts they have about accidents, maintenance, and recalls.


Trading Your Car to a Dealer

There can be some advantages to selling your used car to a dealer. If the vehicle is in very poor shape, it may be better to get something for it than nothing at all. Just be careful and read the fine print of the trade-in estimate and the contract.

Selling Your car Privately

In most cases, however, you will get a better deal selling privately. Although it is more work, you will generally be able to sell your used car for more to a private buyer. The out-of-pocket expenses of getting it ready and advertising will be worth the better payout.


Advertise Your Car

Your next step in the process is to advertise your car for sale. Take your time on this one and follow the steps below to get it just right. With anything that you are selling, every aspect counts.


How to List Your Car for Sale

Now comes the fun part, listing your car. Social media has made it easier than ever to get the word out when you are selling something. You can also tell family and friends and also put an old fashioned "for sale" sign in the window for passersby to see.


Write a Complete and Accurate Description

When writing your ad, be as detailed as possible. The more information you can provide, the fewer questions buyers will need to ask. Don't overlook grammar and spelling; have someone proofread your ad to make sure it's accurate.


Facts About the Car

Be sure to include the year, make, model, and trim level of your used car. Don't forget to mention the color, condition, any added features you purchased after-market, the mileage, and of course your asking price.


Features That will Appeal to Buyers

Some common shorthand included in used car ads can sometimes generate interest with buyers. Words that might pique extra interest for your vehicle are:
●    Must Sell - this shows the buyer you are eager to sell and may considering bargaining on the price. 
●    OBO - which stands for "or best offer." This tells your buyers that you are willing to negotiate. 
●    Asking Price - this also indicates that you are hoping to get the amount specified, but you are willing to work with the right buyer and come down some. 
●    Firm – this tells the buyer that there is no wiggle room with the price, so they either buy it at that price or move on.


Photos

Once the car is clean and free of any trash and personal items, it's time to take photos of it for the ad. Be sure to take good, clear photos of all angles. Take a picture of the odometer to prove the mileage and the interior so potential buyers can see any wear-n-tear before contacting you. Try to frame the car in front of a good background and on a sunny day, if possible.
 

 

Show Your Car

Once your ad is out there, people will start contacting you to see and test drive the car. Use common sense when evaluating a good prospect with a bad one. Watch out for shady, pushy, or difficult buyers. It doesn't hurt to wait for the perfect one. There is a buyer for every car. Screen potential buyers through phone or email contact before having them see the car.


Let Potential Buyers Test-Drive Your Car

When allowing a stranger to test-drive your car, first check to make sure they have a valid driver's license. Go with them so you can witness the test-drive and answer any questions. Some buyers may want their own mechanic to check it out before buying. It’s up to you whether or not you allow them to.

Negotiate Your Best Price

Once a serious buyer makes an offer, it's time to negotiate. Do your best to be fair but also hold firm if you have a bottom-line price you need to get for the vehicle. If you have done your homework, you know what the car is worth and how much you should get for it. Don't be pressured into accepting the first offer or any offer from someone who is not willing to negotiate.

What Questions to Expect from a Used Car Buyer

Buyers are all different, so you can expect the typical questions to some downright strange ones. If you prepare ahead of time and get a vehicle history report to show them, you can head off any potential issues and instill trust in them right off. An official car history record will give you instant credibility with potential buyers and help to allay their fears.

Finalize the Deal

During the negotiation, once you both agree on a fair price, you must also agree on a payment method and pick a date and place for the final transfer. Also, check with your local DMV as to the rules for selling a car in your state and what paperwork is required. If you have done your homework, you may already have this paperwork printed out and prepared. You can often get boilerplate templates online to use for the sale of your vehicle.

Getting Payment

The best form of payment is always cash, but you can agree to a cashier's or bank check if you feel comfortable doing so. If the buyer is from out-of-town, you can choose an escrow service to receive the payment electronically. Watch out for scams and never allow someone to pay you through PayPal or another electronic method that you do not control. There are dozens of car-buying and selling scams out there, be careful.
 

 

Receive the Payment in Cash, by Cashier's Check or, if Selling Remotely, Through an Escrow Service.

Before you sign the paperwork or hand anything over, make sure the payment goes through and clears on your end. Once you have payment, make out a receipt to the buyer and jot down the odometer reading and include it right on the receipt. This covers both parties.
If you still owe money on the vehicle, you can meet at the bank or lienholder's office to pay off the balance and get the title released so you can transfer it to the buyer. They will need the title to register the car in their name.

Limit Your Liability

When selling anything, you always want to think about your liability. You don't want to be blindsided down the road by a lawsuit. Review your state's laws regarding the sale of a used car and follow them to the letter. Don't deviate in any way. Always operate fairly but from a position of protection.
Some other ways to protect yourself are to carefully screen the buyers before letting them see the car. Pick a public place to perform the test drive, during the day and always drive short routes familiar to you. If anything sounds "off" to you during negotiations or arrangements with the buyer, walk away. It's best to err on the side of being careful than sorry later. Document everything during the transaction. 

Fill out a Release-of-Liability Form

Some states like California require sellers and buyers to sign a release-of-liability form when transferring ownership of a vehicle. This document protects you and releases you from any liability after the paperwork is signed, payment is received, and you have handed over the keys. Not all states require this, so check with your local DMV office, and they can fill you in on the details.

Bill-of-Sale

It's always a good idea to use a bill-of-sale form even if your state does not require one. You can find templates online to print and customize for the sale of your vehicle. The document details the seller’s and buyer's information along with the price and details about the car. In some states, the DVM requires one to license and register the car, but in other states, there is no requirement. However, it may give you and buyer peace of mind having everything in writing and signed.

Current Mileage

When you transfer the title of a used vehicle, you must record the exact mileage at the time of the sale. You should also put the current mileage on the bill-of-sale and other state-required paperwork. It doesn't hurt to take a picture of the odometer with your camera and print it out to include everything.

File it with DMV

The release-of-liability form and other paperwork (depending on the state) needs to be filed with your local DMV office as soon as possible after the sale. If you sell the car on the weekend, be sure to make the DMV your first stop on Monday morning. In some cities, you can take care of this right at the local town office.

Take the License Plates Off the Car (if required by your state)

Many states require you to also remove your license plates off the car before the buyer drives away. This is a good idea anyway, so when arranging the final transfer of the vehicle, be sure to tell your buyer to bring a set of temporary plates so they can drive it home legally. You don't want anyone driving around with license plates issued to you. This is also an excellent time to remind them to call their insurance agent and have it insured because as soon as they sign, it's their liability. 
 

Hand Over Both Sets of Keys

Now it's time to say goodbye to your old car. Be sure to hand over both sets of keys. If you have lost one set, be honest about that long before you sign the paperwork. Some dealers/manufacturers charge exorbitant fees for an extra set of keys, and your buyer may have to absorb that cost.

Hand Over the Documentation

If you don't have a copier available, make sure you both sign a copy of the documentation so you can each keep one. Early in the process, you dug out your maintenance records, automobile manuals, and emissions paperwork. Hand all of this over to the new owner as a part of the final transaction.

Cancel Your Insurance for the Car

The final task for you to complete as part of selling your used car is to cancel your insurance. Call or email your agent directly after the sale so that they can refund any portion of your unused policy for the year.
Using these tips, you should be able to navigate through the process of selling your used car quickly and efficiently and walk away with the best price and a satisfied buyer.