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Car Dealer Secrets: Get 21% More Money When You Sell or Trade Your Used Car

A clean, well-maintained car can fetch at least 20 percent more when you go to sell or trade it in.Last week, I wrote about what goes into calculating an accurate trade-in value so you can better understand that figure when the dealer presents it. Armed with this information, what steps can you now take to maximize how much you’ll get for your used car?

First, the big question:

Do you sell your used car privately or trade it in to the dealer?

Trading your car into the dealer offers a quick and easy way to get behind the wheel of a new car. Dealers have the time, money, and know-how to acquire, recondition, and sell your old car. Of course, the dealership plans to profit from your trade.

Why not remove the middleman from the equation and profit from the sale of your trade yourself? It all comes down to time. Almost anyone can successfully sell their used car for a good deal more than you would get from a dealer in trade, it just takes time, patience, and effort. But if you’re short on time or patience, or unwilling to put in the effort, trading into he dealer might be the way to go.

Finally, consider how trading your car may impact the sales tax you pay on your new vehicle. In some states, you do not have to pay sales tax on the portion of your new car price that was paid for in trade. That may add several hundred dollars to the realized value of your trade-in and skew the time-value decision on whether to pursue a private sale.

In my next post, I’ll talk about the best way to approach a private sale. Here we’ll focus on some tips to help you get the most for your car with either approach: private sale or trade-in.

Get out the soap and water.

A clean car will always fetch more money.

That said, it’s obvious when someone brings in their car to trade and it’s still dripping water from the carwash down the street or there is wax residue all over the trim from a last-minute buffing. All that does is make it easier for the appraiser to see the flaws.

What I’m really getting at is this: Keep your car clean on a routine basis.

A clean car speaks volumes for how you cared for your vehicle. In my experience, the clean cars I appraise are also generally the ones that have been well maintained mechanically.

Don’t know where to start? If cleaning a car is something you have the time to do and you could see yourself enjoying the process then just ask I can send you a link to a .pdf to learn all about proper car care. If you don’t have the time or desire to do the work yourself, look up a local detail shop and expect to shell out between $150 – 300 dollars for a professional detail job. This will include an exterior wash, buff and wax and carpets shampooed and vacuumed. I can tell you from personal experience that it is money well spent. I have my wife’s SUV professionally detailed twice a year and I feel it’s worth every dollar.

Have your service records ready to show.

Nothing makes your car’s next owner happier than a maintenance manual with all the service records stamped and dated. Like I said in my previous post, regular maintenance is expected. It doesn’t add as much value as lack of service will take away. Never the less, good service history is important to maximizing your car’s resale or trade value.

Have known issues with your car diagnosed and know what they cost to fix.

Here’s why: You might just pull a fast one on a dealer and trade in a car with an issue that goes unnoticed. But, like I said before, dealers appraise cars every day. The dealer will most likely find that issue you’re trying to hide and they may or may not bring it up. They might just automatically deduct from the value to fix it.

For example, let’s say you have a check engine light on and the car is running a little rough. If I ask you what the light is on for and you don’t know, then I have to assume worst-case scenario to fix it. As an appraiser, I might deduct $1,000 from my offer to cover the worst-case repair when it turns out it just need a $100 part. Even if you don’t want to spend more money to fix your old car, at least know the current issues and the price to repair them.

Finally, don’t go in with a cracked windshield.

Here in Maine, if you drive a car year-round in you’re bound to end up with glass chips from sand and rocks on the roads. You might not think that a little dent in the windshield is a big deal. But consider this: A new factory windshield can cost as much as $800, yet most insurance companies will fix or replace your windshield for free or for a low flat rate under comprehensive coverage. In most states, this won’t negatively affect your auto insurance rates. But if the dealer has to replace the windshield, that total amount is coming right off the top of your trade-in value.

Lesson: Fix your windshield before trading your car.

I can’t point to hard numbers that can guarantee if you wash and service your car regularly, you’ll collect X percentage more when you go to sell, but if I had to guess I might say a well cared-for car is worth 20 percent more…at least, hence the “21 percent.”

Again, next time I’ll give you some tips for selling your car privately. In the meantime, hit me up: What do you want to know about selling or trading your car? Leave your question and I’ll answer in the comments.

Published or updated on September 25, 2012

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About Tom Niejadlik

Tom Niejadlik has over 15 years of experience in the auto sales industry and is eager to help us understand his industry and save money on one of our biggest expenses: our cars. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife, sons, and golden retriever, Barkley.


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  1. David Cole says:

    Also I would add that having a clean car makes a statment that you are clean and organized person. I see people with dirty cars and trash inside of it, and think I wounder how they take care of there house or themselfs if there car looks like that. You would not go out in public looking like a slob with stains and miss matching clothes. So it is the same for the car to a point. It wont always be perfect looking but no reason to let it look like a slob lol.

  2. meg says:

    I’m wondering if it is actually worth having a car detailed. If you look at the numbers, if you have your car detailed twice a year for ten years, that would cost you $3,000 overall. I wouldn’t think that a ten year old vehicle could have that much leeway in value.

    • David Cole says:

      I would say it depends on the model of the car with it having 10 years on it. This seems for cars that have not hit that many years. Also don’t think it has to cost that much for a detail. I detail my cars and am good at it. It cost me about $200-400 for my supplies and has lasted me over 2 years so far. Like he said once you get good stuff online you wont go to autozone again. I go get my car detailed by some one when i’m to busy to do it myself.

    • Thomas Niejadlik says:

      Meg has a point and so does David. The newer and more expensive the car the more return you will get from a professional detail. You have to work within your budget. Detailing your car isn’t just about getting more money for it when you trade it in. I appreciate a clean car. It make me feel like I’m taking better care of my purchase. To me it’s worth more than just what it will do for resale value. You don’t have to have it professionally cleaned twice a year. That’s a personal choice. I have two kids and a dog. They help make that decision for me. Doing it once right before you trade it will be worth every dollar. My point was that there does need to be some level of upkeep throughout ownership. If you feel it is cost-prohibitive then doing the work yourself is always an option.

  3. Jared says:

    I found it makes a big difference to hold onto all of your maintenance records. My dad taught me this and he always got top dollar for all his trade-ins. Knowing the accurate cost of minor repairs also matters. I always keep my vehicles clean inside and out.

  4. Sasha says:

    I would like to get a copy of pdf file of the proper way to car/clean a car. Thank you.

  5. Aaron says:

    Hey Tom, I really enjoy these articles. I have a question for you as well. I just moved into an apartment in a big city where the parking spaces behind the building go for $200 a month, which I find disturbing and would never pay. Thus, I have been parallel parking my car on the street now for about a month now, and I have already started to notice some nicks in the paint on my rear bumper, and I have started to pay attention and realize that a lot of the cars around me have some impressive nick collections. What do you think of investing in a Bumper Bully or something similar to protect the bumper. The gold one I’m looking at is listed at $45. It seems like a small price to pay for protecting my car over the next two years so I was thinking about buying one. Do you have any thoughts? Will it be worth the investment? Thanks in advance.

    • Thomas Niejadlik says:

      Absolutley. There was comparison of these in Automobile Magazine back in July. For what’s it’s worth the Bumper Badger came out on top but I’m guessing they all do pretty much the same thing. I don’t envy you having to park on the street. Next time you are at your local car dealership ask if they have a dent removal service. The service is not widely known about but most dents can be removed without having to bring the car to a body shop. It’s called paintless dent removal and most dealers contract with someone to perform this work right on the lot. It’s an affordable way to take care of any dents the bumper gaurd doesn’t. I would definitely recommend the type of bumper gaurd you are thinking of. Paintless dent removal starts at around $100 per panel so the gaurd could quickly pay for itself. -Tom

  6. My dad always keeps the service records in the glove compartment. Growing up I always thought it was weird, but it’s saved me a couple of times, with tires and batteries that stop working but are still under warranty. Keep your glove compartment clean and organized, with all the records!

  7. Daniel says:

    Great article! You bring up some very good points here, especially the maintenance records. More often than it should, vehicles come in with no maintenance records. I have to assume that there was little to no basic maintenance performed on the vehicle. If upon reading this you think, “I change my oil every 3k miles and have new tires” then you are missing a lot! Modern cars are very reliable, but without standard maintenance their condition degrades super-linearly. Back to the point, maintenance is definitely a biggie, and cant wait for the next article!

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