Debating whether or not to sell your used car privately or trade it in to the dealer? Here's how to determine which is best for you.

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.

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About the author

Total Articles: 7
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.