SELLING YOUR CAR: 9 Ways To Get Top Dollar

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So you’ve decided to move on from your old car and buy yourself a new ride.

If you’re a typical buyer, then you’ve spent an average of 14 hours online, researching the specs, prices, and even the dealership from which you’re going to buy.

But if you don’t think about getting the most value for your current car, you’re potentially leaving thousands of dollars on the table, whether you plan to sell or trade your car in.

A little bit of time and effort on these nine tips can add double digit percentages to the value of your car.

We’ve arranged these tips in an order that makes some sense. Every one of these items are things that you can do yourself, though there are some things — like interior and exterior detailing and basic maintenance — that you may want to pay a professional to do.

We’ve tried to limit the entire expense of this procedure to less than $500, although there are some maintenance items that may increase that cost if the car needs it. We’ve included a DIY cost, as well as an average cost if you let the pros do it.

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Sell Privately

Image courtesy WikiHow

Trading in your car is super-convenient, but you pay handsomely for the luxury. The difference between average trade-in price and selling the car yourself privately is easily 15%, or about $3,000 on a $20,000 car. That’s a big dent in the amount you’re putting down.

That goes double when you’re trading in anything that’s out of the requirements for a Certified Pre-Owned program. If your car is six or seven years old and is running close to 100,000 miles, a dealer simply isn’t going to wash that car and stick it out on the lot. It’s going to a wholesaler. The dealer might make a few bucks on the transaction, but they’re really just providing a disposal service to you at that point.

On the private market, though, a clean, one-owner, sub-100,000 mile car can bring a lot more than a dealer can get from a wholesaler.

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Few people want to deal with the hassle of selling privately, but by following the tips below, you can move the car along with a minimum of inconvenience.

You’ve got tons of options to sell privately, from a For Sale sign on your lawn to a listing on eBay. A few tips for selling your car privately, with safety and convenience in mind:

  • Feel out your buyer – Lots of people complain about scammers online, but it’s pretty easy to weed out the Prince of a war-torn country who wants to pay you twice what your car is worth. In your online ad, it’s good to include something like “Mention the town where you live in your response”. You can quickly evade online scambots and get a sense that the person contacting you is an actual human
  • Don’t negotiate from your laptop – A lot of potential online buyers will start an email with “What’s your lowest price.” Those people aren’t going to buy your car and you shouldn’t be negotiating with them before they’ve even seen it. The lowest price is the price in the ad
  • Pick a neutral location – Don’t drive to a remote location to show your car, and avoid having buyers meet you at home. If your office parking lot is well traveled and lit, that’s a good option, but more and more, people are meeting at the local police station. Some police stations are even advertising themselves as safe online shopping meeting places


For Sale Sign – $0, with a piece of cardboard and a Sharpie
Craigslist Ad – $0
eBay Listing $125 for cars over $2,000, plus additional fees for various items

Interior Detailing

Image Courtesy JL’s Showroom Detailing

There’s no more efficient way to guarantee that you’re going have your price chiseled down to nothing than to present a car for sale with dirt ground into the carpet and Wendy’s bags tossed in the back seat.

It seems like a no-brainer, but we found this photo of a car for sale on Craigslist a while back:

Interested in a used car that doesn’t look like your college dorm room? Visit

“Yes, sir, I’m interested in paying top dollar for your vehicle, and I’ll throw in extra for your dirty laundry and your home improvement project.”

If you can’t take 10 minutes to clean the junk out of your car before you snap a photo, it indicates that you haven’t taken the time to do much else, either, including the regular maintenance that should provide the next owner with a good experience.

Interior detailing ranges anywhere from just removing the Ding Dong wrappers and hitting it with the vac at the self-serve car wash to hiring a pro to do it. You may not recoup the entire cost of a full interior detail, but it can help sell your car faster.

One step further than a cursory vacuum is to get yourself a bottle of Meguiars Interior Quick Detailer and a microfiber towel and wipe down all the plastic and vinyl surfaces. It’s a cheap investment and you avoid the sense that you just quickly hosed the car out for sale. Be sure to clean the clear plastic in front of the speedometer and gauges, because that’s one of the first places a potential buyer is going to look.

Nasty stained seats are a real turnoff, man. You can usually get a cloth or leather seat looking a lot better by choosing the appropriate fabric or leather cleaner at the auto parts store and following the directions. Here’s where a detailer can work wonders. They can resurrect some of the worst looking seats you’ve ever seen, thanks to more aggressive cleaning products and equipment.

Finally, take a look at your floormats. If they’re filthy and full of holes, toss them in the dumpster and pick up a set of color-matched mats at the parts store. Custom-fit OEM mats are better, but even a set of $25 universal rubber mats will vastly improve how your car looks to a buyer.


Vacuum – $2 at the self-serve car wash
Meguiars Quik Interior Detailer – $6.99 at most parts stores
Microfiber Towels – $5 at most parts stores
Floormats – Ranging from $10 to $200 depending on the source
Professional Interior Detail – $60 to $200 depending on the service, location and size of vehicle

Exterior Detailing

Image courtesy AS Autoparts Blog

Say you’re going for a job interview. Are you going to put on a suit and run a comb through your hair, or are you going to show up in flip-flops, cargo shorts and a Ramones T-shirt?

You can spend hundreds of dollars on making your car as clean as possible, but the most basic thing to do is to just make it look clean. You can improve the looks of a roached-out jalopy by just running it through the car wash. We’re fans of the touchless variety, and we also like to spend the extra buck for the undercarriage wash.

You can accomplish the same level of cleaning in your driveway with a bucket, of course, but it seems like car washing is right up there with smoking in public now, thanks to water bans around the country. If your municipality doesn’t have restrictions on car washing, have at it with a hose, a clean bucket and $5 worth of car wash soap from the parts store. Resist the urge to use dish soap.

The Internet’s cleanest cars: Visit

Just as important as washing the car is drying it afterward. Nothing says “I need to get rid of this heap” like a photo taken with water still cascading down the side windows. Dry the car off with the rest of those microfiber towels you bought in a bundle for $5 when you cleaned your interior.

The parts store has entire aisles full of cleaning products, but your best bet is a wheel cleaner safe for aluminum wheels, a heavy brush and some Bleche Wite tire cleaner if you have whitewalls or white letter tires. Spray the wheel cleaner on, but don’t let it dry on.

Scrub it with the brush and hose it off. Hit the white letters with Bleche Wite and follow the same procedure. Repeat on the other three wheels. Your car will look decades younger.

If you’re ambitious, you can wax the paint, which will definitely improve the car’s overall look. The level of detail can range from a quick job with a cleaner/wax, or to a multi-stage process involving clay bars, wetsanding and buffing, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll leave that to the pros.

A professional detail job — provided your car isn’t rusting to pieces and the passenger door isn’t caved in — can pay for itself. If you’re selling your 1993 Crown Victoria for $500, it’s not worth it, but if you’re trying to move your 2013 Honda Accord for $23,000, a pro detail is a wise investment.


Touch Free Car Wash – $15
Car Wash Soap – $5
Aluminum Wheel Cleaner – $6.99
Bleche-Wite – $6.99
Professional Exterior Detail – Ranges from $150 to $400 depending on service, size of vehicle

Show Your Receipts

One of the most confidence-inspiring things you can do for a potential buyer is to present them with a neat, organized folder of receipts for the work you’ve done on your car since you’ve owned it.

We’re hopeful you kept those receipts over the years, but if they’re just jammed in the glovebox, take the time to go through them and put them in order by date and keep them along with the title and any other relevant paperwork.

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You don’t necessarily have to present a receipt for every oil change, but if you’re suggesting to the new buyer that you deserve top dollar for your car because you performed a $1,000 timing belt replacement 500 miles ago, that documentation will help prove it.

If you didn’t keep the receipt for a major service, contact the shop that performed it. It’s more than likely that they can print you off a copy.


Receipts – $0.11 for a paper clip and a manila folder

Take Better Photos


We wrote an entire post a while back on how not to take photos of the car you’re selling, so if you’re interested in learning some basic photo tips, visit that post.

Nobody’s asking you to be Ansel Adams, and you’re not going to have to invest in thousands of dollars of photo equipment. But you definitely want to take better photos than these people on Craigslist did:

This guy used his phone to take pictures of the Nissan Xterra he had on his laptop. Wouldn’t it make sense to just upload those photos to Craigslist?

Bad Photo Laptop

Every single one of the photos in this Craigslist ad showed half the car:

Bad Photo Half a car

By simply thinking about what you’re trying to portray, and taking a good look through the viewfinder, you can present clear, informational photos of your car with the camera on your phone.

Four simple tips for taking better pictures:

  • Fill the frame with the car – Don’t stand three miles away and show a tiny picture of a car in a huge parking lot. Fill the frame with what you’re taking a picture of
  • Photograph just after sunrise or just before sunset – Cars look lousy when photographed at high noon, or with the sun blazing in the background. Wait until the evening and position the car so one corner of the nose is facing the sun
  • Turn the phone sideways – Sites like Craigslist and eBay favor photos with the phone rotated 90 degrees
  • Turn off the flash – When photographing the interior or under the hood, flashes tend to blow out what you’re taking pictures of, so turn it off and hold the phone as steady as you can. Unless you’re in extreme low light conditions, the results will be a lot better


Taking better pictures with your phone$0

Provide Comps

In the real estate market, one of the jobs of a real estate agent is to provide comparable properties in the area to the seller — and to the buyer — to provide both with some data on whether the property is priced fairly.

You can provide the same information to a potential buyer in a few different ways:

  • “Book Value” – Book value is the most common method to determine value, but it’s wildly inaccurate. These values are calculated using proprietary algorithms, but they fail to give an accurate picture of what’s going on in the marketplace at any given time. For example, a Nissan Leaf might have a used value of $12,000 when gasoline prices are $3.50 per gallon, but that value might drop through the floor when gas is under $2
  • Comparable vehicles for saleCheck out sites like, Craigslist and eBay to determine what owners are asking for comparable year, make, model and trim cars
  • eBay Completed Sales – One of the most accurate and timely pieces of information at your disposal is to take a look at completed sales on eBay. It requires using the Advanced Search tool, and filtering for Completed Sales only, for comparable year, make and model cars. It provides a list of cars that actually sold, with their top bid or the final sale price

Make the Car Available For a Pre-Purchase Inspection


Most independent shops will look over a used car for an hour or two of labor. They’re looking for the basics that can be determined by the naked eye, by putting the car up on a lift and taking off the wheels.

Most pre-purchase inspections will look at things like shocks and struts, brake wear, tire wear, oil and air filter condition, etc. They’ll also include a road test and an evaluation of all the car’s major functions. If you wanted to go further, you could order up a compression and leakdown test to determine the health of the engine, or an oil analysis.

A basic PPI is typically $100-200, and the cost is the buyer’s responsibility. If the mechanic finds suggestions that should be taken care of, then you’d decide to either drop your price or fix the items to make the sale.


Pre-purchase inspection: $0 (if the seller pays for it), $100 to $200 (if you decide to pay for it)

Shop Your Car To Dealers

Dealer BMW

This doesn’t work so well if you’re driving, say, a Pontiac Aztek with a cracked intake manifold, but if you’re driving a popular, well-maintained, late model car, there may be dealers in your area who are willing to give what you’d consider a fair price with a minimum of hassle.

It’s also a great way to determine the car’s real value on the wholesale market. An afternoon worth of running your car around to three high-volume car dealers who specialize in late model cars can provide you with a much more accurate picture of what your car is really worth.

And don’t count out independent used car dealers. The smaller lots in town often have an excellent reputation and a strong base of customers locally, who may be looking for exactly what you’re selling.


Shopping your car to used car dealers: $0

Perform All Maintenance


This is where you may be in for an expense if you haven’t kept up with the regular maintenance. It’s expensive to own a car, and the way good cars go bad is often through deferred maintenance.

If you’ve kept up with the service, you may just be in for a fresh oil change, a set of wiper blades and a new air freshener, but if you’ve put off getting a timing belt, brakes, struts and a set of tires, a trade-in might be your least expensive option.


Performing all required maintenance: Varies depending on the job

You only buy a car — on average — once every seven years. Expend some effort before you decide to buy to determine if selling your car privately is something you’d be willing to do. Even if you don’t, and you perform all of these tips, you’ll have the best chance of getting all you can out of a trade-in, too.

Good luck with your sale, and check out’s local search for your next ride.

Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald

Writer, editor, lousy guitar player, dad. Content Marketing and Publication Manager at