Yes, it's possible to sell your car with payments left on the loan -- even in a private party sale. The key is finding a patient buyer.

With that in mind, let’s take a good look at those mechanics and legalities.

Find out the fair value of your car

The sale of any vehicle should start by getting a reasonable estimate of its value. Kelly Blue Book or are two trusted sources for car valuations. In fact, you should get estimates from both sites.

Enter as much detail as you can about the car in order to get the most accurate value. You should focus on “private party,” since this is the sales route that you will be taking. They also provide “trade-in,” in case you want to go down that path, and “dealer retail,” which won’t apply since you aren’t an auto dealer.

An accurate estimate of the value will be very important in pricing the car, particularly if there is a loan on the vehicle.
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Get your loan payoff balance

Contact the lender who holds your car loan, and ask for the payoff balance. (Note: This will be slightly different than the balance on your last statement, as interest accrues daily.) Then compare the loan balance to the estimated value of the car. That will tell you whether the car has sufficient value to pay off the loan, and allow you to walk away with some cash, or if you will need to write a check upon the sale of the car in order to pay off the loan.

This is an important step – if you determine that the likely sale price of the car will not be sufficient to pay off the loan and/or provide you with enough cash for a down payment on the next car you want to buy, you will have to come up with that cash or you won’t be able to sell the car. But you want to know that before accepting an offer from a buyer.

Naturally, the fact that you have a loan on the car will be a complication. Even if there is sufficient value in the vehicle to make the sale worth it, it’ll be harder than it would be otherwise because the lender holds the actual title to the vehicle.

Enlist your lender in the sale

Once you know the payoff on the car loan, and have decided to go ahead with the sale, you should get the lender involved in the sales process. They hold title to the vehicle, and you can’t sell the car without it.

Ask your car lender the best way to proceed so that you can pay off the loan and deliver the title to the buyer in the shortest time possible. This is not an uncommon occurrence, so the lender should have procedures in place.

If you can, hold the sale at the bank that holds your loan

The easiest way to handle the sale of a car that has a loan on it is to hold the sale at the physical address of the lender. That will provide you with the ability to collect the funds from the buyer, pay off the loan to the bank, and transfer the title to the new owner.

Holding the sale at the lending institution has certain other advantages. For one, it represents a neutral site to hold the sale. For another, it gives the sale a more formal tone than if you were to complete it in your driveway. Third, any documents that you may need from the lender will be immediately available. And, finally, you may be able to have the lender’s staff make copies or notarize any documents necessary.

This is the best way to go if your loan is from a local bank or credit union. Unfortunately, many loans written at car dealerships come from big national banks like Chase, Capital One, or the financing arms of car manufacturers (Toyota Motor Credit, for example). This makes selling your car with an outstanding loan balance a bit more difficult—but not impossible.

How to deal with an out-of-state lender

If the lender is not local, you’ll need to bring the bill of sale on the car to your state Department of Motor Vehicles. You’ll want to obtain a temporary operating permit for the buyer. This will allow you to transfer the vehicle to the buyer, and then to deliver clear title to the buyer once the loan has been paid.

Obviously, you will not have the title until the loan is paid off in full, so there will be a delay of several days while that process is completed. You may have to pay a fee to your lender to expedite the title, a process that ordinarily takes several weeks. The risk of this delay will be a problem primarily for the buyer, since he or she will have a vehicle without having the legal title. However, there is no easier way to complete the sale, unless you have the personal funds to pay off the car loan prior to the sale of the car.

Accept only cash or an official bank check

You can never afford to be casual about this part of the sales process! You are almost certainly selling the vehicle to a person you don’t know. This can include someone with less than honorable intentions, including someone who is fully prepared to commit outright fraud. Though you should always hope for the best, you need to prepare for the worst.

First rule, never accept a personal check from the buyer whether for full or partial payment of the sale price. A personal check can bounce, in which case the buyer will have both the cash and your car in his or her possession. It’s even possible that the buyer can pass a check that is entirely fraudulent, such as one drawn on the account of an unknowing third party.

For that reason, you should accept only cash or a bank check for payment. A bank check or cashier’s check is issued by the bank itself. To be extra careful, insist on going to the bank with the buyer to get the official check so you know it’s legit — there are Craigslist scams in which buyers pass counterfeit bank checks that are impossible to detect until they bounce.

This may be inconvenient – and even a bit embarrassing – but better to swallow that bitter pill upfront than deal with cleaning up a certified mess later on.

Wrapping up legal matters

The legal side of selling a car is not quite as simple as most people would like it to be. If you’re planning to sell your car, get a list of the specific requirements in your state from the Department of Motor Vehicles. And be sure to follow those requirements to the letter.

Some of the documents you should have prepared includes (but is not limited to) the following:

  • Bill of Sale. This is a simple document that will spell out the parties to the transaction, as well as the specific details, including date, price, and a description of the property being transferred. It should include the vehicle identification number of the car being sold, as well as the odometer reading as of the date of sale.
  • Release of Liability. You can usually download these forms from the DMV website in your state. It will confirm the transfer of the vehicle, and release you, the seller, from future liability. The form should include the odometer reading, and be filed with the DMV immediately so there is an official record of the transfer.
  • Cancel your insurance coverage on the car. And while you’re at it, require that the buyer provide proof of insurance coverage on the car as well. This will make it clear that the buyer is assuming responsibility for the vehicle.
  • Remove and keep the license plates. Not only will this reduce your liability after the sale, but you may be able to save some money by transferring the plates to the next vehicle that you purchase.
  • Pay any fees associated with the sale. Your state DMV will be able to tell you what fees are required in connection with the sale of your vehicle. There can be a variety of fees, including sales tax, which you will have to collect over and above the final sale price of the car.

Also be certain that the registration on the vehicle is current. If it isn’t, it can lead to problems after the sale, including the payment of late fees.

If all else fails, a trade-in is easier

If this all looks too complicated for your taste, the easiest route would be to simply trade the car in as a down payment on your next vehicle. The downside of this, of course, is that trading will get you less money than you can get from selling it yourself. If you have enough equity in the vehicle, and prefer that sort of convenience, by all means trade the car in.

Read more: Get 21% more when you trade or sell your used car

Another option is to simply sell your car to a dealer. Some dealers will purchase cars from private parties, even if those parties don’t buy a car through the dealer. One prominent example is Carmax. They will purchase any type of vehicle, and there is no obligation on your part to purchase a car from them. The process will be quick and clean, and you will walk out with a check.

Just always remember that selling to a dealer is not like selling to a private party. They simply will not pay you as much for the car as an individual will. For that reason, you owe it to yourself to try and sell your car privately first.

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About the author

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Since 2009, Kevin Mercadante has been sharing his journey from a washed-up mortgage loan officer emerging from the Financial Meltdown as a contract/self-employed “slash worker” – accountant/blogger/freelance web content writer – on Out of Your He offers career strategies, from dealing with under-employment to transitioning into self-employment, and provides “Alt-retirement strategies” for the vast majority who won’t retire to the beach as millionaires. He also frequently discusses the big-picture trends that are putting the squeeze on the bottom 90%, offering work-arounds and expense cutting tips to help readers carve out more money to save in their budgets – a.k.a., breaking the “savings barrier” and transitioning from debtor to saver. He’s a regular contributor/staff writer for as many as a dozen financial blogs and websites, including Money Under 30, Investor Junkie and The Dough Roller.