How to Sell Your Car in 5 Steps

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Red car with a "for sale" tag next to bold text promising to teach you how to sell your car in five steps
Image Credit: Dreamstime/Clark.com

If you’re looking to sell your car, you probably realize there are a lot of options out there. Picking the best one for you can be a little intimidating.

Team Clark has been helping people buy and sell vehicles the right way for years.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the steps involved in selling a used car. We’ll also explore the options for where to sell your vehicle, whether you’re looking for a quick sale or to get the most money possible out of the deal.

Table of Contents

  1. Figure Out What Your Car Is Worth
  2. Get Your Documents in Order
  3. Get Your Car in the Best Possible Shape
  4. Choose Your Marketplace
  5. Close the Deal

1. Figure Out What Your Car Is Worth

The first thing you need to do when you want to sell your vehicle is to figure out a fair price for it. There are several tools that will give you a good idea of your car’s value. Some of them will also make you an instant cash offer for your used car. These services include:

However, money expert Clark Howard says the best way to get a real sense of your vehicles’ value is to start the process of selling through CarMax and Carvana.

“The reality is that those two players have changed the game so much that what I recommend is that you start by getting a price from both of them,” he says. “Once you have that, then you know how much additional money you would want to make selling it yourself that it’s worth the pain points of doing that.”

If your vehicle is up to their specifications, they’ll make you an instant offer on it. You’re under no obligation to accept the offer, but it will give you a sense of your car’s value.

Keep in mind that you may get wildly varying quotes from these different dealers.

“You really get a sense that it depends on which vehicles their algorithm says their customer base wants,” Clark says. “When I sold a vehicle to Carvana, they offered $3,000 more than CarMax. It was really a matter of who wanted that inventory.”

The important thing is to be completely honest about your car’s condition. Each site will define its standards for various vehicle conditions (“Excellent,” “Good,” “Fair” or “Poor,” for example). To get accurate results, you must choose the one that most closely matches the state of your vehicle.

2. Get Your Documents in Order

Next, you’ll want to gather the documents necessary to transfer ownership of your vehicle. What you need to sell your car varies from state to state but in every case, you’ll need your car’s title.

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The title is the document that shows that you legally own your vehicle. When you sell your car, you will sign the title over to the new owner.

You’ll also need any documents related to the payoff of the loan on your vehicle if you had one.

If you’re selling your car to a dealership or online to a company like CarMax or Carvana, they should take care of any other necessary paperwork.

On the other hand, if you end up getting rid of your car in a private sale, more documents may be required. These could include title transfer documents and/or a bill of sale. You should contact your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to find out what’s necessary in your state.

The other thing you’ll want to do if you’re going the private sale route is to pull your vehicle’s history report, commonly known as a VIN check. This will show the buyer how you’ve maintained the vehicle. If you have receipts from repairs or purchases related to your car that aren’t shown on the VIN check, you’ll want to have those in hand as well.

3. Get Your Car in the Best Possible Shape

Before you put your car up for sale privately or have it inspected by a dealer for sale to them, you’ll want to be sure you’re putting your vehicle’s best foot forward.

The first thing you should do is to make any repairs or tune-ups that could boost your car’s value without costing you too much.

According to CarGurus, that could include things like:

  • Replacing headlamps
  • Cleaning foggy headlights
  • Replacing any burnt-out bulbs
  • Changing or refilling fluids
  • Changing out wiper blades if necessary
  • Repairing windshield cracks or replacing it if necessary
  • Touching up any scratches or dings

Beyond that, you probably don’t want to invest too much in a car you’re getting rid of.

“If you’ve maintained your vehicle properly, you really shouldn’t need to do any repairs except for things that would make it unsafe for an unaware driver,” says Mike Bland, owner of Motor City South, an auto repair shop in Atlanta, Ga. “For example, if your tires are unsafe, you should get new ones. Otherwise, let the new owner put their money into new tires.”

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You’ll also want to make sure your car is clean inside and out. Of course, you can do this yourself if you are up for it. The other option is to have your car professionally detailed. That will cost you around $50 to $125 for an average-size vehicle and $75 to $150 for an SUV or van, according to CarsDirect.

4. Choose Your Marketplace

Next, you need to figure out where you want to sell your vehicle. There have never been as many options for places to offload your car than there are now. Which one you choose will largely depend on whether you’re looking for convenience or to get the most bang for your buck.

Where to Sell Your Used Car Quickly

If you want to sell your vehicle quickly and with the least amount of effort, a car dealer might be your best option. Just keep in mind that you may end up with less money in your pocket than you could if you sold your car yourself.

Traditional Dealership

Many people will find it most comfortable to sell to a traditional car dealer. On the plus side, it’s quick and easy. The dealership will take care of most of the paperwork and financial calculations for the sale. You also have the option of trading in your vehicle on one in the dealer’s inventory, in which case you might get more value out of your car.

On the negative side, the biggest obvious drawback is taking less money than you might be able to get in the wider marketplace. Depending on the dealership, you could also be subject to a high-pressure sales pitch trying to convince you to buy or trade your car in for a replacement vehicle from that dealer’s inventory.

CarMax

CarMax turned the used car market on its ear when it debuted its first store in 1993. Since CarMax lots are located all over the country, it should be relatively easy for most people to get to one. You can even start the process online. Once you’re on a CarMax lot, you’ll get an on the spot inspection of your vehicle and — if they want to buy it — an instant cash offer. You’ll then have seven days to accept or decline the offer.

Again, the CarMax offer may not be as competitive as one you could get if you sell your car yourself. CarMax is also not the only kid on the block anymore when it comes to this sales model, so there might be better deals to be found elsewhere. That brings us to…

Carvana

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Carvana is a relative upstart that has taken the CarMax model and streamlined it even further using technology. Since Carvana uses your car’s VIN and algorithms to arrive at a value for your vehicle, you don’t even have to leave your house to get an offer. Carvana will even pick up your vehicle for free if you live within 100 miles of one of their locations. Otherwise, you’ll pay for transport costs.

Like CarMax, you’ll have seven days to accept or reject an offer. Once again, the offer you get might be significantly lower than what you might find on the open market. There’s also the possibility that when Carvana comes to inspect and pick up your car, they find that it doesn’t meet their specifications and cancel the purchase.

Where to Sell Your Used Car for the Most Money

As we’ve mentioned, a private sale will generally net you more money than selling to a dealer — but it will take more work on your part. While it used to be that people would advertise their vehicles in newspaper classified ads, the internet has made it possible to showcase your car to a global audience. Some of the most popular places for free used-vehicle listings are:

You could also try paying for ads on platforms like Cars.com and Autotrader, which reach a more specific car-buying audience.

If you do opt for a private sale, you’ll probably want to list your vehicle on one or more of these platforms for maximum exposure.

Don’t forget that with a private sale, you’ll be responsible for fielding calls and/or emails about your car, arranging appointments with potential buyers, facilitating test drives, and managing the paperwork to complete the transaction.

5. Close the Deal

Finally, once you’re satisfied with an offer on your vehicle — whether it’s through a dealer or a private sale — it’s time to wrap up the process.

As we mentioned, if you sell through a dealer they will take care of almost everything. You’ll just need to sign over your title, hand over the keys, and collect your check.

With a private sale, things are a bit more complicated. Unfortunately, not every potential buyer is on the up-and-up, so you’ll want to take some measures to safeguard yourself when it comes time to close the deal.

These safeguards include:

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  • Meeting the buyer at a safe, neutral location for a final inspection. If there is a test drive involved, be sure to get an ID.
  • For payment, insist on a wire transfer (Clark’s preferred method), cash, or a cashier’s check. If you accept a cashier’s check, verify it in person at the buyer’s bank or credit union.
  • Meet the buyer at the DMV to finalize everything: Sign over the title, fill out any remaining paperwork, and hand over the keys and car. Make sure to get your plates off the vehicle!

Final Thought

When you’re selling your car, you can maximize convenience or the money you put in your pocket. The path you take will depend on your particular needs.

If you follow the steps above and consider your options carefully, you can walk away satisfied with a successful sale.

More Car Content From Clark.com:

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