What to Fix Before Trading In a Car

by Tim O'Sullivan

The better condition your old car is in, the better its private sale and trade-in value, obviously. What’s not obvious is how much work you should put into your old car before bringing it to the dealership for a trade-in appraisal. Major repairs are best left to the pros—they can do it for less money, and they won’t add the cost you paid for repairs to the trade-in value. Small fixes, however, are worth the effort.

Wash and Detail Your Car

Making a good first impression means thoroughly cleaning your vehicle, both the interior and the exterior. It will be hard to convince a dealer that your car has been well maintained if it looks dirty and neglected.

First, hand wash and wax the exterior. You can pay a professional or do it yourself. If you’re taking the wash into your own hands, make sure to use an actual car-wash product and not dish soap, laundry soap or any other household cleaners. It’s also best to use a specific car-wash sponge, microfiber cloth, or lamb’s wool washing mitt, and regularly re-wet that sponge, towel, or mitt in your bucket of car-wash suds as you clean each section of the vehicle.

Waxing your car after it’s washed will add an appealing shine. The newer synthetic polymer-based waxes are easier to use than carnauba-based waxes, but either will work as long you apply them with a foam applicator pad using tight, circular strokes. Once you’ve covered the entire car, remove the wax with a clean microfiber towel.

Climb inside and get rid of those empty fast-food bags and discarded gum wrappers. Then, clear out any personal items or papers that may have accumulated over the years. The only paperwork you should have in the vehicle is an organized pile of maintenance records stored neatly in the glove box.

Finally, take your car to a professional detailer, or if you want to save a few bucks you can detail the inside yourself—shampoo the carpets, clean the glass inside and out, use ionizers and neutralizers to eliminate any foul odors, get inside the door jams, use a toothbrush to extract those stubborn crumbs and a screwdriver to reach the difficult nooks and crannies.

Replace Headlamps and Clean Foggy Headlights

Check all your lights, inside and out, and replace any bulbs that have gone out. Bulbs are inexpensive and easy to find at any auto parts store.

Foggy headlights are also fairly easy to fix yourself, and clean lenses will give your car a fresh look. You can pay to have the headlights buffed out, but you can do it yourself by rubbing toothpaste (yes, toothpaste—the whitening kind works especially well) on the lens cover with a rag and an extra helping of elbow grease, rinsing it off with water and then letting it dry.

Change or Refill Fluids

Check (and top up, if necessary) the oil, radiator, brake fluid, transmission fluid and windshield-washer reservoir. Sure, the dealer can easily fill and replace the fluids, but if your oil is low or you’ve run out of windshield-washer fluid, the dealer may wonder whether you’ve properly maintained your car, which could result in a lower trade-in value.

Take Good Care of Your Windshield

In addition to filling the washer fluid, you should also make sure your wiper blades are in good condition. If not—if they’re dried out or cracked—buy a new pair of inexpensive wipers. You can install them yourself, but if you’re not sure how, the auto parts store where you purchased the wipers will normally replace your wipers for you at no cost.

If there’s a crack in your windshield, don’t ignore it. Your insurance company may replace the windshield for free, but even if it’s not covered by insurance, replacing the windshield should not be too expensive and will, again, give the impression of a well-maintained vehicle.

Use Touch-Up Paint on Scratches and Dings

If your paint job is dinged, purchase the matching touch-up paint and color in those scratches. You can find small bottles of touch-up paint at dealerships or online for less than $20, and we have more information about fixing paint scratches and dings in our guide to Easy DIY Car Maintenance Jobs Anyone Can Manage.

The Bottom Line

Don’t waste your money on significant repairs before trading in your vehicle. The dealership you will be negotiating with is in the business of fixing cars for resale, so leave the heavy lifting for them. Bigger-ticket items like a broken air conditioner or worn-out tires often aren’t worth the investment, but taking the time to clean inside and out, replace some bulbs, and refill some fluids will help you get the most money for your trade-in.

The Truth About Trade-Ins
How To Make the Most Money Selling a Vehicle Privately
Why Cars For Sale By Owner Cost Less Than Cars From Dealerships

Read More CarGurus Tips and Advice

Updated on: February 13, 2020

The content above is for informational purposes only and should be independently verified. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.