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How to Sell Your Car


Edmunds Author: Will Kaufman
Will Kaufman | Senior Writer & Content Strategist, Edmunds
June 27, 2023
Man wiping down car interior with microfiber cloth while sitting in the drivers seat parked

Top tips for selling to a dealership or private party

With thousands of vehicles in our inventory, we’re here to help make car research easier for you. We’ve partnered with car review experts from Edmunds to weigh in on what matters most when you’re looking to buy a truck or car.

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This step-by-step guide to selling your car yourself will show you how to get the best value and have the smoothest experience.

Ready for a new ride? If you're looking to sell your car, this guide will help you do everything from figuring out its value to closing the sale. Let's answer your questions about selling your car. If you're interested in learning how to sell your car to CarMax, check out this handy guide.

Should you sell to a private party or to a dealership?

There are pros and cons to selling your car to a private party or to a dealership.

You should consider a private-party sale if you're willing to put in the work to get the highest price for your vehicle. It can also be worth it if you have a classic or collector's car or a car with some special value, like a car that's been heavily modified. But a private-party sale also takes more time and effort, can be much more complicated if you still owe money on your vehicle, and exposes you to more risk.

A dealership sale is a much quicker and simpler process, especially if you still owe money on your loan or are leasing your car. These days it's easy to get a lot of competing offers from dealerships online, so you can pick the best value without spending a bunch of time shopping around. Dealerships will pay you immediately and there's generally very little risk. The biggest downside is that you can't set the price you want for your car as you can with a private-party sale.

Either way, this guide will help you do it right and get the most out of your car in the safest way.

How much is your car worth?

Man sitting on couch researching his cars value on his laptio while enjoying a cup of coffee

Whether you're selling to a private party or dealership, the first step is to sit down and do a little research. You'll need a bit of basic information about your car to start. Knowing the year, make, model, trim level, and mileage of your car will make research much easier.

If you're not sure about your car's year, make, model, or trim level, you can find out by entering the vehicle identification number, or VIN for short, into the NHTSA's VIN decoder tool. Your VIN is a string of 17 numbers and letters that you can find on the dash under the bottom of the driver's side corner of your front windshield or on your insurance paperwork.

You'll also need to be brutally honest with yourself about your car's condition. Damage or mechanical issues that you don't plan on fixing are going to impact its value, and both dealerships and private buyers won't pay top-dollar if you obscure issues in your listing.

Figuring out your vehicle's value

For private-party sellers, check local ads and classified listings for other vehicles with a similar year, make, trim, and mileage to yours. Make a note of their prices and condition relative to your car. Remember that cars on dealer lots are generally priced a bit higher than private-party sellers, so you probably shouldn't expect your car to be worth as much as a dealer is asking for a similar vehicle.

You can use online appraisal tools, like the one offered by Edmunds, that will estimate the price you'll get in a sale to a private party or a dealer or as a trade-in. It's also a good idea to get a few offers from different dealerships to give you a baseline for how much you're willing to accept for your car. You might find an offer that's close enough to your private-party sale value that it's worth accepting.

Setting your price

If you're planning on selling privately, once you have a sense of what you expect to get for your car, add in a little wiggle room. Most buyers will expect to negotiate the final price, and they'll want to negotiate in bigger increments and round numbers—$500 or $1,000. Take that into account when you decide on your asking price.

That also means buyers will be more comfortable seeing an asking price that's a nice round number. Even if all your math says the right price for your car is $14,867, it's a good idea to round your price to a $100 or, even better, $500 increment.

What paperwork do you need to sell your car?

Man sitting in parked car looking at documents from his glovebox

Private-party and dealership sales both require that your paperwork be ready to go. Among that, the single most important piece of paperwork you'll need for selling your car is your title, sometimes called a "pink slip." Make sure you have it on hand. If you've misplaced your title, you'll need to visit your state's department of motor vehicles (DMV) website to find out the process for requesting a replacement. This process can take some time, so it's important to start as soon as possible.

When selling to a private party, it's also a good idea to collect all your maintenance records and receipts and to purchase a vehicle history report for your vehicle. Being able to show the vehicle has been maintained and having independent backup for its condition will give potential buyers more confidence.

You'll have to check with your state's DMV to see if any other paperwork is required. A bill of sale or recent smog certification may be required to sell your car to a private party. If you're selling to a dealer, it'll handle that extra paperwork, but you'll need your photo ID to complete the sale.

What if you owe money on your vehicle?

If you don't have a title because you still owe money on a loan or are leasing your car, you'll need to make some decisions. If you want to sell to a private party, the easiest thing to do is pay off your remaining balance or buy out your lease, but that's unrealistic for many buyers. The next easiest thing is to sell to a dealership since it can take care of the title transfer.

If you don't want to or can't pay off your car and are intent on selling it to a private party, you'll need to contact the company that holds your loan and ask it about the process. While it's possible to sell a car you owe money on to a private party, it will likely have to take place in a specific location, such as at a branch office of the bank that provided your loan. You may also have to follow specific steps, such as getting a temporary operating permit from the DMV once you have a bill of sale. These added complications may discourage a lot of buyers from making an offer, or may get you more lowball offers. No matter what, you'll have to be up front about it when you list your car.

Should you fix your car before you sell it?

Before selling, private-party sellers should take care of relatively inexpensive maintenance items that are due soon, like an oil change or tune-up. Buyers will appreciate the peace of mind and convenience. For other mechanical issues or dashboard warning lights, have the issue diagnosed by a mechanic. Then you can choose to fix it yourself, or you can be transparent with buyers about required fixes.

Having a report from a mechanic about the car's condition can help motivate buyers anyway. Buying a used car can often feel like a gamble, so having a little confidence about what you're getting can go a long way.

A little curb appeal goes a long way

Man wiping down his silver sedan with cloth to prepare the vehicle to sell

No one expects a used vehicle to be in perfect condition, but a car's curb appeal can make a big difference to a private buyer. Make sure it's freshly washed and vacuumed before you take pictures and before you show it to potential buyers. If you've fallen behind on your cleaning regimen, you may also want to have it professionally detailed. Consider buying a paint touch-up kit for small scratches if you're selling to a private party.

For larger dents and scrapes, you may want to consider getting a quote from a body shop for repairs. If you choose not to pay for the repairs yourself, you'll at least know what the damage means for the value of your car. An estimate can also be useful in negotiating with a potential buyer.

Prepping your car for a dealership

One big advantage to selling to a dealership is that vehicle condition and mechanical issues aren't as significant a stumbling block as they may be for a private-party sale. Dealerships will expect your car to be running and safe to drive, but scratches, dents, check engine lights, and other issues may not be a deal breaker for them. They'll ask you about any issues with the vehicle when you fill out an online offer form and take those into account when they make you an offer.

It's likely a dealership will inspect your car before purchasing it to make sure the car's condition matches what you told it. If the dealer finds any issues with the condition, it may adjust your offer. But overall dealerships will be less picky than a private buyer looking for personal transportation because a dealership has a couple of different options on what to do with your car. It can recondition it and sell it on its lot or sell it as-is at a dealer auction.

How do you make a great private-party sale ad?

If you're going to sell to a private party, one of the very first steps is to make sure you have good pictures. Lots of good pictures. Most shoppers can't get enough pictures. Take your clean car somewhere you can get a relatively uncluttered background, during the day, and take pictures from every angle. Take pictures of the wheels, and, if you don't have relatively new tires, of the tires with a tread gauge or coin to show remaining tread depth. Take pictures of the interior, including the seats, dashboard and steering wheel, gauge cluster (with the car on, to show the mileage on the odometer), and trunk. Also be sure to document any special features. For example, if your car has a navigation system or more modern technologies such as Apple CarPlay®, get a photo of those things displayed on the screen.

Describing your car

Two friends sitting in the front seats of a parked car adjusting the infotainment settings

When writing your ad for a private-party sale, make sure you include your car's year, make, model, trim level, and mileage. Mention whether it's an automatic or manual transmission and if it has an upgraded engine. (Trucks might have V8 or diesel options that are better for towing; sedans and crossovers might have turbocharged engines for more power or fuel efficiency.) Talk about what options and features the car has, like smartphone connectivity or driver aids.

If you've done any maintenance or major repairs, make sure to explain what those were and how recently they were done. This is also where you'd talk about any known issues with the vehicle. And if you've modified the car, whether with a newer stereo or aftermarket exhaust, make sure to list any modifications.

Price and contact information

When talking about your price, keep in mind a few key words. If you call it an "asking price" or add "OBO" (which stands for "or best offer"), buyers will know you're willing to negotiate. If you don't want to negotiate and you're listing at the best price you'd be willing to accept for the car, make sure to say that the price is "firm."

You'll also need to include contact information. It's a good idea to include both an email address and a phone number—and regardless of how a buyer contacts you the first time, you should talk on the phone before meeting in person. Don't panic if you're concerned about your privacy or just don't want to give out your personal information. Any number of websites will let you create a new email address for free. Your current email provider might even have the option to create a temporary alias that you can deactivate later. There are also services that will let you set up a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone number either for free or for a small fee, and you can forward calls to your phone.

What's the best way to handle test drives with prospective private buyers?

Before you agree to meet anyone, speak with the person on the phone first. This will let you vet buyers. You'll have to use your intuition, but if a buyer seems difficult, aggressive, or even just kind of fishy, you can say no to meeting in person. If the person's not very talkative, try asking a few questions, like how much he or she knows much about the kind of car you're selling. If you're selling a truck, you can ask if the person will be towing or hauling with it. If you have a family vehicle, you can ask if the prospective new owner is buying it to drive his or her kids around.

Don't negotiate the price at this stage. If a buyer is already trying to talk you down to less than you want to accept, you may not even want to meet. If the price mentioned is in your range, you can let the person know that you can talk price once he or she has seen the car.

And remember that buyers are also using this first conversation as a chance to decide whether they trust you and are willing to buy a car from you. Answer any questions they have honestly and openly to avoid giving them the sense you're holding something back.

The test drive

Mother and daughter in front seats of stopped car as friend leans in the passenger window smiling and talking

Depending on who you are, you may feel comfortable having buyers come to your house and meeting them one on one. But you can also set up meetings in a public place, and bring a friend for extra security, and of course for a ride home if you wind up making a sale. Parking lots for big-box stores or grocery stores often have plenty of unused space.

Buyers may want to test-drive the car, so you should be ready to ride along to answer questions they might have. This is one place a report from your mechanic can come in handy. If they have any concerns about how the car sounds or feels on the road, or even if they try a gotcha question like, "What's wrong with it?" you can refer to the report to put their mind at ease.

Presale inspection

A buyer may also want to have an inspection performed even if you have a report from your mechanic. This is perfectly normal but may mean more work for you. A mobile inspector can come to you to look the car over, or the inspection may be done at a shop. If you're going to be taking the car to another location, make sure to vet it by doing a quick online search. If you're not comfortable or get a bad feeling from the prospective buyer, you can always say no.

How do you negotiate a price for your car?

Three men standing in front of silver toyota sedan discussing the vehicles details

Even if you've indicated your price is firm, buyers may want to haggle. Don't feel pressured into taking less for your car than it's worth, especially if a buyer is offering less than you can get from a dealer.

Don't immediately go to your lowest price when a buyer starts negotiating. If the buyer asks what your best or lowest price is, turn the question around. Tell the person you've done your research and you think you're asking a fair price, but you're willing to negotiate. Let the buyer make the first offer.

If a buyer tries to play hardball with a "take it or leave it" offer, feel free to leave it. The person might be bluffing and increase the offer or might get in touch with you later to make a counteroffer. If you've priced your car fairly and competitively, the buyer may come back after looking at what else is available.

Can you negotiate with a dealership?

If you're selling to a dealer, there's a good chance you've received a non-negotiable offer. Then it's up to you to decide whether or not it's the right offer for you.

Some local or independent dealerships may be open to negotiating. You can always try letting them know if you received a higher offer from somewhere else and asking if they'll beat it. Also, if you're willing to trade in your car, some dealerships may be able to adjust the overall deal so you wind up getting a bit more value for your car.

What's the safest way to finalize your sale?

Once you've found a buyer and negotiated a final price, it's time to finalize your sale. While it's best to get cash, you or the buyer may not be comfortable carrying more than a certain amount of money. In that case, ask for a cashier's check.

Checking out a cashier's check

In order to verify the check, you can either meet at the buyer's bank to witness the withdrawal, or you can call the bank to request verification of funds. A real cashier's check will have the name of the bank and contact information printed on it, but for extra security you should look up the bank online and call the number you find there. Also, make sure your name has been printed on the payee line—this should have been done when the check was issued.

Make sure the check is made out for the agreed-upon price of the car—don't accept a check for more than the agreed-upon amount. A scammer may overpay with a fake check and ask you to transfer the excess amount back to them from your own account before you realize the check is bad.

If you still owe money on your car

If you’re selling to a private party and still owe money on your car, the process will be more complicated. If the title is held by a local bank or credit union, you should be able to arrange to meet at one of its branches with the buyer to finalize the sale. If this isn't a possibility, you'll need a bill of sale so you can get a temporary operating permit for the car from the DMV. Pay off the loan with the money you received for the sale and have the title sent to the new owner. Then you can meet to sign the title over.

While the bill of sale should protect the buyer, the fact is that there's a period of time where you have the buyer's money but the buyer doesn't have the title to the car. Make sure to communicate clearly with the buyer every step of the way to keep stress to a minimum as much as possible.

After the sale

Once your private-party sale is complete, you'll still need to protect yourself. Record the odometer reading and date and time at which the sale was completed, and sign the title over to the buyer. If your title doesn't have a release of liability form attached, check your state's DMV website for one and fill it out immediately. That will show when the new owner took possession of the car.

And don't forget to cancel your insurance policy on the vehicle once it's sold!

Remember, most states consider the sale of a used car to be as-is, with no implied guarantee. So long as you've been honest and forthright to the best of your ability, you should be protected if there are issues with the car after the sale. If you or the buyer had an inspection done, you can show you did your due diligence to ensure a transparent transaction.

Conclusion

Selling your car yourself is time-consuming, and if you still owe money on your vehicle, it can be a major stumbling block when it comes time to close the deal. However, if you have the time and patience, you may get more money out of your used car this way.

On the other hand, selling to a dealership is far less hassle and generally more straightforward. While you may not get as much for your vehicle as you might with a private-party sale, it's important to consider whether the extra time and effort you put into that private sale are actually worth it.

Regardless of where you sell your car, remember to be honest, open, and up front every step of the way to avoid surprises down the road.

Edmunds Author: Will Kaufman
Will Kaufman | Senior Writer & Content Strategist, Edmunds

Will has been creating automotive content since 2017, but has been reviewing cars to anyone who'd listen since his dad first took him to an auto show in 1993. He combines his experience writing trustworthy reviews and timely advice with hands-on knowledge of the automotive retail space to plan and create content to help you make the best choice for your next car.

Edmunds is a wholly owned subsidiary of CarMax. 

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