How To Sell a Car Privately in 10 Steps

by Matt Smith

Selling your car privately can be the best way to maximize the amount of money you get for it. However, it does involve more research and extra effort compared with other methods such as selling to a dealer or selling your car online.

In this guide we outline some steps you can take to smooth the way for a quick - and hopefully profitable - sale.

How to Sell a Car Privately

1. Find Paperwork and Document Your Car’s Maintenance

Before you start, ensure you've gathered all the required paperwork. No matter what sort of car you're selling, you'll need the vehicle title. You may also need an odometer reading and warranty information. Check with your state's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to get a complete list of the documents required to complete a sale.

After locating documents like the car title, it's a good idea to pre-prepare a bill of sale. Next, track down any maintenance records you have, and get a vehicle history report (such as one from Carfax); you'll need to provide a vehicle identification number (VIN) or license plate number to get this report.

Head over to the Safety Issues & Recalls page on the website of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to see if there are any open recalls on your vehicle. If you discover open recalls on your vehicle, either take your car in to have the fix applied or, if that's not possible, collect documentation regarding the proposed fix. Eliminating potential headaches like these will make your car more attractive to potential buyers.

If you're selling a car you're still paying off gather the financing paperwork and contact the lender. The lender can provide you with a payoff quote and let you know how best to proceed with the sale and handle things with the new owner.

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2. Research the Car's Value and Establish a Selling Price

Use tools like the CarGurus Instant Market Value calculator to determine your car’s worth. Obtaining that valuation data will help you set a fair selling price. Also, understanding how much your car is worth in a private sale is critical to effective negotiating.

3. Clean Your Car

When a car dealer prepares to sell a car, they spend a fair amount of money reconditioning it. You don't need to break the bank, but whether you're preparing to trade your vehicle in or sell it yourself, you'll do well to spend a little time and money making it look nice.

At a minimum, you should expend some elbow grease washing and waxing your car, but don't discount the value of a professional detail. Cleaning the interior—particularly the upholstery and floor mats—can pay serious dividends and make an old car look nearly new.


4. Write the Ad

Including a comprehensive, well-written description in your vehicle's listing can hook shoppers—and make them more willing to take it for a test drive (and eventually fork over their hard-earned cash in exchange for your car).

If your car has any mechanical or cosmetic faults, be sure to document them in your listing. Also, take plenty of high-quality photographs of your car—including ones that show any dents and dings. It may seem counterintuitive, but you'll attract more legitimately interested shoppers if you present your car truthfully.


5. Get the Word Out

The more shoppers interested in your car, the stronger your negotiating position will be. Sell your car here at CarGurus. Put an ad up on Craigslist. Post your for-sale listing on Facebook and Twitter. Add it to your TikTok channel. Even putting a sign in the window can help.

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6. Get an Instant Cash Offer as Backup

You may think, "I'm trying to sell my car to a private party — why do I need an instant cash offer?" Here's why: Getting a CarGurus instant cash offer can help establish a floor for your price negotiations. It can also serve as a backup if, for one reason or another, you cannot find a private party buyer for your used car.

7. Know a Good Deal When You See One

Be willing to accept a reasonable offer. It might be tempting to wait and see if another buyer willing to spend a little more appears, but it's not always the most fiscally prudent choice.

The longer you hold onto your car, the longer you'll be on the hook to insure it. Also, some states will even refund part or all of your car's registration fee when you surrender your license plates after a sale.


8. Be Discerning When Deciding Which Potential Buyers to Meet

Simplify the process of interacting with buyers by setting up a separate email account and Google phone number to manage the transaction. And remember, time is money. So before meeting with potential buyers, have a phone conversation with them to determine if they're serious about purchasing the car.

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9. Schedule Test Drives

Meet at a public place – such as a mall or coffee shop – to facilitate test drives. It's a good idea to take a friend for safety. Your sale won't be profitable if you wind up becoming a crime victim in the process.

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10. Finalize the Transaction

The negotiation process will likely begin after the test drive when you find a buyer. We recommend finalizing the transaction either at your bank or at a local police station (many have designated areas for large transactions like this). Checks can bounce, so ask for cash or a cashier's check to complete the payment.

List Your Car with CarGurus

Now that you know how to make the most money selling a car privately, get the ball rolling by posting a listing on CarGurus. Or if you want to achieve the quickest and easiest sale, use CarGurus to sell 100% online.

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When it comes to cars, Matt's curiosity extends well beyond the powertrain. From Ford to Porsche, he's as interested in the history behind the machine as he is in the view behind the wheel. Matt has been working on the journalism side of the auto industry since 2014. As CarGurus’ Deputy Editor, he creates and oversees the site’s written and video content.

Throughout his career in the automotive industry, Warren has written everything from vehicle reviews to articles covering car insurance and leasing. His work has appeared in outlets such as Credit Karma, the New York Daily News, Edmunds, Carfax, and TrueCar. His mission is to help you make the best decisions regarding your vehicle.

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