Personal Finance

How to sell your car to a private party

Selling your car privately requires a bit more effort than simply trading it in at a dealership, but it can be worth it. Unlike a trade-in, where a dealer must factor in costs of reconditioning, marketing, and reselling your vehicle, a private sale goes to the end customer. As a result, you’ll likely see more money from that transaction. 

Here’s how to sell a car privately and get the best price for it.

If you’re selling a car that you own outright, it’s important to have your title with your name on it in hand. The title is the legal document that says the car is yours. If you still owe money on the car, you need to either pay if off to obtain the title. Or, you can work out a deal with your buyer and your lender to either take over the existing loan or make arrangements to use the sale proceeds to pay off the balance. When you sell your car, signing over the title to a new owner is the first step in the buyer getting the car registered in his or her name.

If you’re curious about the specifics of the required paperwork to sell a car in your area, here’s a list of links for the DMV website in every state. Some DMVs require a bill of sale, which is always a good idea to have regardless of whether your state requires it or not. The bill of sale should have the name, address, and signature of the buyer and seller plus information about the car being sold. This includes the year, make, model, and VIN and gives legal protection to both the buyer and the seller. Make sure there’s a copy for both the buyer and the seller. The bill of sale is what legally transfers ownership of the car and allows it to be officially registered in the new owner’s name.

Find the value of your car

Now that you have the paperwork in order, it’s time to find the value of your car. Our friends at Kelley Blue Book can help you find what your vehicle is worth. The more specific you can get with the details and condition of your car, the more accurate your valuation is going to be.

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Knowing the year, make, and model is a good start. It also helps if you enter the ZIP Code where you’re selling the car, the condition on a scale of Fair, Good, Very Good, and Excellent, and specific features. Knowing the trim level of the car and any options like a sunroof, navigation, etc. helps to determine an accurate assessment of what it’s worth.

If you’re selling your car privately, make sure you’re looking at the private party value of the car. This estimate is different from the trade-in value, which is generally lower than what you get if you sell the car yourself.

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When you’re equipped with the KBB value of the car, you can confidently set a fair asking price. If you’re open to offers, set a price in your head that you won’t go under and stick to it through the negotiation. Remember that you have the final say on whether or not you’re going to sell your car at a given price. 

Clean the car inside and out

Clean your car so well that it will make you second guess whether you want to sell it or not. Washing the exterior is a given, but it might be even more important to thoroughly clean the interior. A car with a little dirt on it is forgivable, but there are few things more disgusting than stepping into a car with a nasty interior. You’ll have a hard time finding a buyer if there are fast food bags and empty water bottles on the floor of your car.

Get out all of the clutter, vacuum the carpets and floor mats (including in the trunk), clean the inside of the windows, and wipe down every surface that the driver touches with sprays or wipes that are specifically designed for car interiors. If this seems like an intimidating task, there’s nothing wrong with getting your interior professionally cleaned. 

Take great photos

After a thorough cleaning, your car is ready for a photo shoot. We can’t stress enough the importance of taking great photos when preparing to sell a car. A quality photo gallery not only makes your car look good, but it sends a message to potential buyers that you’re taking this sale seriously. Think about the kind of photos you would want to see in a used car listing and emulate that.

Make sure you’re taking photos in horizontal landscape mode rather than a vertical portrait mode. Do a simple walk-around of the car with a clear photo of every angle keeping the whole car in the frame. If there are any flaws in the exterior like dents or scratches, consider taking close-up photos of those so there are no surprises when someone comes to look at the car.

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Interior photos are often neglected by folks selling their car privately. At the very least, make sure you get clear photos of all of the seats, the cargo area, the dash showing the steering wheel and radio, and a “POV” shot of what the driver sees when sitting in the driver’s seat. It’s also a good idea to get a photo of the odometer confirming the mileage on the car. As with the exterior, if there are any notable flaws like a tear in a seat or some broken plastic, take close-up photos to avoid surprises.

As for mechanical photos, you don’t need much more than one or two shots of under the hood. If possible, it helps to add a couple of shots of underneath the car, especially if it’s an older car where buyers will be wondering about rust.

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Don’t worry about hiding your license plate in the photos. The only thing anyone can do with a license number is run a vehicle history report which shows no personal information on the owner. If it’s obvious that you’re trying to cover up your license plate, then potential buyers might think there’s something bigger you’re trying to hide, like an accident on a vehicle history report.

Advertise your car

Now that you’ve done all of the work of gathering your paperwork, finding the value, cleaning the car, and doing a photo shoot, it’s time to list your car for sale. 

While photos are very important, they’re not all you need for a great ad. You also need to write a brief description of the car. If you flunked English class, don’t worry, you don’t need to be a skilled writer to write a great description. Cover the year, make, model, and trim as well as any notable features like all-wheel drive, and anything else that would make your car sound attractive. Make sure to point out if you’ve been the only owner or if it has particularly low mileage.

A site like Autotrader makes it easy to get started on your description, with common selling points listed for you. Make sure you mention any modifications or any recent service. For example, if you just got new tires for the car, mention that. It’s also just as important to point out any flaws with the car like if it makes any unusual noises or if the air conditioning doesn’t work.

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If you have specific terms for payment, be sure to point that out. If you’re open to offers, make sure you note “OBO” (or best offer). If you won’t budge on the price, there’s nothing wrong with that, but you’ll want to note in the ad that the price is firm. If you insist on a cash deal, make sure you say “cash only” so you don’t get any buyers with weird ideas about payment plans. Buyers will want to know your ownership status of the car, so definitely mention whether there is a lien on the car or if you have the title in hand.

Talk to potential buyers

Now that your ad is up, you’re going to have potential buyers reaching out and asking questions about the car. It’s important to respond promptly and politely. Remember the golden rule: treat your potential buyers the way you would want to be treated by a seller. Buyers will be more willing to spend more money on your car if they’re dealing with a courteous and honest seller who is a good communicator.

Show off the car

After talking to a few potential buyers, you’re bound to get questions about looking at the car in person and taking a test drive. This is where you can set pretty much whatever terms you want. If you’re not comfortable having someone come to your house to look at the car, then set up a meeting at a public place like a local parking lot to show the car. If you have reservations about letting someone else drive your car by themselves, then simply go along with them on the test drive. This can be helpful in case the potential buyer has any questions about the car while driving it.

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Close the deal

When a test driver is impressed with the car and didn’t encounter any unpleasant surprises, they’re going to make an offer to buy your car. If you’ve decided to be flexible on the price, then hopefully you’ve set a rock-bottom price ahead of time so that you don’t have to decide that number while in the middle of a negotiation.

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If you agree on a price, congratulations! You’ve sold your car. Sign over any necessary paperwork, give the buyer all of the keys you have for the car and enjoy your extra garage space. 


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