A Guide to Selling Your Car: Understanding Vehicle Value

Written by Carly Hallman

handshake with car and money in the background

For most of us, a vehicle is our second-largest investment after housing. The total cost of car ownership can be surprising, especially once you add up the purchase price, maintenance, repairs, fuel, insurance, and parking. It makes sense, then, to maximize your return when it’s time to sell the car. When selling a vehicle, recovering the most money depends on a few factors. Properly preparing the car for sale can yield bigger returns. But possibly the most important factor is understanding the value of your vehicle and setting its asking price accordingly.

Preparing Your Vehicle

The first step in preparing your vehicle for sale is to gather all relevant paperwork. You’ll want to have everything in order and ready to go as soon as a potential buyer sees the car. The most significant document is your vehicle’s title. This shows your legal possession of the car, and you’ll need it when you transfer ownership to a buyer. If you owe money on a loan secured by the vehicle’s title, make sure that you understand your payoff amount; your lender can provide this information. State laws vary, so check with your state’s department of motor vehicles or secretary of state for any forms you’ll need for a vehicle sale. Also include any supporting documentation, like vehicle maintenance records. These can help show the buyer that you have properly cared for the car.

Regardless of how well you describe the vehicle or talk up its features, the car needs to represent itself. That means presenting a clean, well-maintained car to potential buyers. Fix any mechanical faults prior to advertising the car for sale. Clean and vacuum the car thoroughly, or pay to have the vehicle professionally detailed so it looks as showroom-fresh as possible. Depending on the age and condition of the vehicle, some visible wear and tear may be acceptable. Just make sure to accurately describe any faults in your vehicle description. To add credibility, you may want to purchase a vehicle history report and include a copy along with your other paperwork.

Understanding Vehicle Value

With all of the possible options and factors that can affect a car’s value, setting a proper selling price can seem more like an art than a science. Following some common advice can help you to arrive at a fair price for all parties. Your vehicle’s mileage is a major factor in its value. Many buyers equate low milage with less wear and will accept a car that’s a few years older than ideal if it has low milage. Of course, even a low-mileage vehicle needs to be in great condition to fetch the best price. That means eliminating as many visible imperfections as possible: Fix scratches and dents, correct peeling paint, and quiet any squeaks or rattles.

A vehicle’s options also have a major impact on its resale value. Popular options like satellite navigation systems, air conditioning, and panoramic moon roofs draw big dollars. Some options are more popular in certain regions or vehicle segments. For instance, in northern climates, buyers look for heated seats and all-wheel drive, while heavy-duty pickup truck buyers prize diesel engines, four-wheel drive, and high towing ratings. On the flip side, some options can reduce your vehicle’s allure. Wild colors, for example, may attract one buyer but turn off many more. Neutral colors like white, black, and gray have wider appeal than unusual tones like gold, yellow, or purple. The same goes for many of the personalized touches you may have added to your vehicle. Your friends might appreciate the massive stereo you installed, but the next owner might not. Purely cosmetic additions like a non-functional hood scoop or deck lid spoiler should be removed prior to offering the car for sale. If your vehicle has more extensive modifications, like a lift kit on a four-wheel-drive pickup truck, advertise to buyers (like off-road enthusiasts) who will appreciate those features.

Car Selling Tips and Tricks

When setting your asking price, you don’t have to go it alone. Look up your car’s value with Kelley Blue Book or the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) to make sure that you’ve valued your car appropriately. Then, craft your car’s advertisement with an accurate description and plenty of pictures. A single picture with a phone number is unlikely to get many responses. Place your ad anywhere it makes sense to do so: Take advantage of free or low-cost online services like Craigslist and eBay Motors, but don’t forget about the local newspaper or bulletin boards in busy locations, too. These offline information sources may reach buyers you didn’t know about.

Additional Information

Not Ready to Sell?

If you need cash for an emergency, but aren’t quite ready to sell your car, a title-secured loan or pawn may be able to help!