How to Sell Your Car Online

So you’ve finally decided it’s time to get into your next car. Congratulations! But what do you do with the one you already have? A lot of people will instinctively trade-in their car at the dealership they’re shopping at anyway. This can be a good strategy; if you have a low value car on its last legs, you’ll probably come out ahead with trade-in instead of scrapping it or struggling to find a private buyer. This will also save you additional money on your purchase, as the trade-in value will be deducted from the sale price for calculating any state sales tax owed (in many cases – there are exceptions to this though, and always confirm beforehand). It also streamlines the buying/selling process to a 1 or 2 day ordeal. Trade-ins are also ideal for people in situations where they can’t possibly get and store another car while they try to sell their old one.

But you may be leaving money on the table…lots of it. We’re talking hundreds if not thousands of dollars. With the average age of vehicles on US roads continuing to climb (currently at 11.9 years old according to the Freep), dealers are unlikely to keep your trade-in on their lot to recondition and resell. Odds are that it will be immediately sent to auction, which means the dealer won’t make that much on the transaction, and they’ll pay you even less. One easy alternative to trading in at a dealership is to get prices from some new comers in the marketplace, like online players Carvana and Vroom. You can get an online offer in minutes and outright sell your car to them, often at prices greater than trading in to the dealer you’re shopping at. They’ll even come and pick up the car from your house!

So what about used car prices in the private market? There’s good news on this front for those looking to sell, but bad news for buyers. Due to pandemic influenced economics, used car prices are at an all-time high (check out our other blog on how the COVID-19 has impacted the overall car market!).  We even have personal experience with this. Nearly 3 years ago we purchased a 2009 VW GTI for a fun spare car. It was…rough around the edges (tons of door dings, the typical MKV VW rust), had 186,000 miles, but it was mechanically sound. We sold it in September of 2020 for 13% more than we paid for it. Today NADA quotes for a “rough” trade-in value, which is wildly optimistic, of a little over $2000. We sold it to a nice fellow from New Jersey for $4500. That’s at least $2500 more than we would have seen trying to trade it in. All that for taking a few pictures and answering email questions for a couple of weeks.

Maybe you’re intimidated by trying to sell your car by yourself, or just not sure how. Don’t worry! As we’ve sold 5 of our own personal vehicles on popular spots like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace over the last 10 years, we have some tips that can help make the process a breeze and help put more money in your pocket.

Well that’s it! Just 5 easy steps to listing your car for sale online and ensuring that you’ll get top dollar for your ride and sell it quicker. We hope you found this guide useful, and following these instructions will put more money in your pocket than just sucking it up and trading in your old car. If you’re willing to do just a little bit of work, you can pay yourself thousands of dollars.

1. Honesty is the best policy. This should be apparent, but sometimes we all need a reminder. Does your car make some squeaky noises when it’s cold? Let the buyer know in the ad, not when they show up and start the car. Have to smack the dash to get the radio to turn on? The test drive isn’t the time for a buyer to learn that. Be up front about any issues and price your car appropriately. This saves time for you because you won’t be asked a bunch of questions, and it will give buyers less things to haggle over.

2. Be thorough. Let the buyer know all the details. Don’t leave it at “I have this car, runs, $2500.” Answer questions before they come up! Got a few nicks and scratches? Be up front about it. List all maintenance items that you’ve already taken care of, give a good assessment of the car’s condition, and list some selling points (gets great mileage! Handles well, heat and a/c work…the list really goes on). Being vague will dissuade potential buyers and likely make more work for you when a bunch of people ask the same questions.

3. For the love of everything holy, clean out your trash and fix the simple stuff.Look, we’re not asking that anybody trying to sell their car to have every surface perfectly clean and spotless (though trust us, it does go a LONG way). Just don’t have your car a mess when you take pictures and have people looking at the vehicle. Get rid of the gym bag, fast food wrappers, spare change in the cup holder, shake out your floor mats (or if they’re rubber, give them a quick soapy water wash), and get who knows what out from under the seats. If there are a bunch of stains on every surface, maybe consider taking it to a detailer for an interior vacuum and shampooing. This may cost $50-75, but it will attract more buyers and get you a quicker sale. If it looks like you take care of the inside of your car, buyers will assume you’ve paid attention to non-cosmetic issues as well and have more confidence that they are buying the right vehicle. Also, if there are little things that you can fix up on the outside of your vehicle, you should take a few minutes to tidy up. Replace those obviously torn wiper blades, tuck in that weather stripping, and pop any loose trim pieces back into place. One big note here is to not leave car fluid containers or funnels sitting around in plain sight. We’re not saying to hide the fact that your car may be burning through something, but leaving those consumables around doesn’t exactly give buyers a good feeling.

Photos from Craigslist. While far from the worst display, note the coffee cup, dangling wires, and random package in the left picture. Note the funnel in the cup holder in the right picture. It doesn’t make me feel good about the problems this Buick might have!

4. Make a respectable looking ad with correct spelling AND DON’T USE ALL CAPS.We see this all the time and you probably do too. Some listing that’s shouting at you in all caps with a ton of typos and poor grammar – not a good look. Using something approximating complete sentences (and with punctuation!) will give the impression that you’re a serious seller and not a bot generating spam listings. See below for a real Craigslist ad and how exactly NOT to do it. Take this example, do the opposite of what the seller did, and most of the work will already be done. Note this particular listing didn’t even address what model or year the Volvo is. Just a Volvo. S70? 850? What trim? The world may never know (but really…it’s some variant of an 850).


5. Take good pictures! Again, see above for an example of how not to do this step. Take well-lit and in-focus pictures. Blurry photos, or those taken in dark areas do little to tell prospective buyers what you’re really selling. It’s easy to hide defects, but you’ll probably get quite a few buyers who pass on your ad solely because they don’t want to waste their time going to look at an unknown-to-them shitbox. We get that not everyone has a DSLR or the latest iPhone to take the highest quality pictures, but you can do a decent enough job with most camera equipped phones. Also, don’t cut off parts of your vehicle with the edges of the frame; make sure the photos are showing everything you want the buyer to see (which is presumably the whole damn thing). Don’t forget to get pictures from multiple points of view (front, side, and rear) as well as some interior shots. Big points to consider for the interior are photos of the odometer, the car running to show that there are no warning lights in the instrument cluster, and anything to demonstrate the seating and storage areas. From a buyer’s prospective, bad listing photos aren’t even exclusive to cheap beaters. See below for an example of a gently used, relatively new Volvo XC60 (we’re not picking on Volvo owners or anything…this is just what we stumbled across on our local listings!) with some really good quality pictures that are poorly composed. Don’t cut your car out of the frame – it’s the star of the show!

Photos from Craigslist. When taking pictures, back up a few feet so you can fit the whole car into the frame! Let everyone see how nice the car you’re selling really is. While this car still presents well, try not to take pictures in shadows and uneven lighting.

Well that’s it! Just 5 easy steps to listing your car for sale online and ensuring that you’ll get top dollar for your ride and sell it quicker. We hope you found this guide useful, and following these instructions will put more money in your pocket than just sucking it up and trading in your old car. If you’re willing to do just a little bit of work, you can pay yourself thousands of dollars.