How To Make the Most Money Selling a Car Privately

by Matt Smith

There are more avenues today for selling a car than ever before. You can trade in your vehicle at a dealership (or sell it to a dealership), you can post a listing and sell it privately, and now you can even receive an instant cash offer and sell your car 100% online.

Each of these paths has its advantages. Trading an old car in for a newer model at a dealership, for instance, is simple and quick. The dealership handles the paperwork, and because the trade-in value is subtracted from the purchase price of your new car, you’ll save some money in the process (unless you live in one of the states with no sales tax: Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and some Alaskan municipalities). However, trade-ins typically yield less money than an instant cash offer or listing a vehicle for private sale. Selling 100% online combines the speed and ease of a trade-in deal with the higher net profit of a private sale. But, if you’re interested in receiving the most possible money for your old car, it’s time to pull out that “For Sale” sign, stick it in the window, and sell the car yourself.

Of course, selling a car privately can be a daunting task. You will want to use tools like CarGurus’ Instant Market Value calculator to find a fair price for your vehicle before determining whether it’s even worth it to sell your car yourself. Understanding how much your car is worth in a private sale is critical to effective negotiating, but how can you help ensure that you’re positioned to make the most possible money from the sale?

Choosing between Instant Cash Offers and Listing Privately

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When it comes to selling a car, the two best avenues for maximizing profit are selling 100% online and selling to a private party via a used vehicle listing. On CarGurus, you can receive an instant cash offer and have your sale underway in minutes: just enter your vehicle information, get an offer, schedule a pick up, and get paid—it takes the pain and complexity out of selling a vehicle.

Because CarGurus sources offers from thousands of dealerships nationwide, you’re in line to get top dollar for your used car. Other websites like CarMax, Carvana, Kelley Blue Book, and Vroom also have instant cash offer options, but none of them operate quite the way the process with CarGurus does.

If you want to set your own price and sell the vehicle privately, you can do this online, too. Typical cars-for-sale options include Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and other vehicle listing sites, but CarGurus pairs massive visitor traffic for top-level visibility with data-driven vehicle valuation tools, helping you find a prospective buyer who understands the value of your car.

If you choose to list your car for sale to a private party, there are some key steps to help ensure you can make the most possible money.

Find Paperwork and Document Your Car’s Maintenance

Before you get started, make sure you have all your paperwork in hand. No matter what sort of car you’re selling, you’ll need the vehicle title. It’s also a good idea to pre-prepare a bill of sale and track down a vehicle history report (such as a CarFax). These items will help your sale go more smoothly, and your preparation can help bring some peace of mind to your buyer.

In general, if you know you’ll be selling a vehicle to a private party soon, it’s wise to hold off on major investments like tires or expensive bodywork repair. That said, anything you do to your car should be documented, and you should keep maintenance records for everything from oil changes and tire rotations to more involved service. For the most part, extensive aftermarket upgrades will deliver little value in a private sale. In fact, too many modifications can decrease your car’s market value.

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, and if any are, 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 that much more attractive to potential buyers.

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 car 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 plan to 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 floormats—can pay serious dividends and make an old car look nearly new.

In How to Get the Most Money for Your Trade-In, we encouraged folks to pay to have their car detailed, but to be careful not to go overboard. Dealerships might view an immaculate car suspiciously, but a private seller most likely won’t.

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, for Pete’s sake. If you’re interested in paid advertising, you can also look at websites like eBay Motors or Autotrader. The point is, you want to make sure everybody knows you have a car for sale. And remember, should you list on CarGurus, you can take advantage of our CarGurus Pay digital transaction service, even if you find your buyer on a different site. Just point them in the direction of your CarGurus listing and have them reach out there to get started!

Be Descriptive… and Honest!

Imagine you’re in the market for a car yourself (you just might be… after all, you’re looking to sell your current vehicle). You’ve identified a nice-looking example for sale by owner, and the price looks right. The trouble is, in describing the car, the seller has written only, “Call me,” followed by his or her phone number. In today’s Internet age, no one wants to enter that kind of situation blind. If the seller had written a thoughtful and descriptive paragraph or two on the car, wouldn’t you be more interested in calling?

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

Worse than a brief, uninformative description is a dishonest one. If your car has any mechanical or cosmetic faults, be sure to document them in your listing. Take plenty of high-quality photos—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.

Know a Good Deal When You See One

Finally, be willing to accept a good offer. It might be tempting to wait and see if another buyer willing to spend a little more money 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. Not to mention, some states will even refund part or all of your car’s registration fee when you surrender your license plates after a sale.

Good online car-selling sites do more than just list car prices. The best sites also help sellers know how much the car they’re trying to move is worth. Take advantage of these services. In short, if a buyer agrees to your asking price for the car (or close to it), be ready to take the deal. Waiting it out for a few extra bucks simply isn’t worth the hassle. This is how to sell a car privately.

Related Topics

Should You Sell Your Car Yourself?
What to Fix Before Trading In a Car
The Truth About Trade-Ins

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