How to sell your car online

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In a Nutshell

From setting the right price to writing an appealing ad, it takes a bit of planning and research to get a good price when you sell a car online. Start by estimating your car’s worth and deciding where to list your vehicle.

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Selling a car online can help you reach a wider pool of potential buyers to get the best price for your vehicle.

But with so many websites and options to choose from, you might need a little guidance.

An online auto dealer or bidding site can expose your vehicle to an audience of buyers far beyond your ZIP code. Whether you’re using an auto trading website, a car-selling app or are posting an ad on an online classifieds website, here are some ways to maximize your chance of getting a good deal and handle the process with ease.


Step 1: Determine your car’s value

Step 2: Decide where to list your car

Step 3: Create your ad

Step 4: Finalize the price and accept an offer


Step 1: Determine your car’s value

Before you create an ad to sell your car online, you’ll need to do a little research. 

Use online tools

Sometimes a seller may overestimate the value of their used car if they don’t understand how it’s depreciated, or if the vehicle has emotional significance for them. But you can objectively assess the fair market value of your car by checking out other listings, sale prices and even getting free estimates.

Websites like Autotrader, Consumer Reports, Edmunds or Kelley Blue Book can be helpful by giving you an estimate of what your car may be worth. Some sites may even make you an offer, based on a handful of questions about your car. Typical appraisals are based on things like your mileage, condition of the vehicle, car color, vehicle identification number, your ZIP code and more.

You can also take your car for an in-person appraisal, even if you plan to sell online eventually. CarMax, for example, can give you an in-person estimate and maybe even an offer. You can hold on to your offer for the period of time it’s valid while you shop around and compare other estimates before listing your car.

Consider a trade-in

It’s still important to research the value of your car upfront to get the best deal possible when you’re trading in your car. Even if you just email a couple of dealers and compare quotes, you may be able to negotiate a better trade price.

If the car you’re trading in isn’t paid off, make sure you understand how the trade will affect any financing for your new vehicle. Some dealers may claim you won’t have to continue paying back your loan, but that’s not necessarily true. If you owe more on your car loan than your car is worth, trading in a vehicle doesn’t relieve you from that debt.

FAST FACTS

What does it mean to be underwater on your auto loan?

You’re “underwater” if you owe more on your auto loan than your vehicle is worth. This is also referred to as negative equity or being upside down.

Do a self-assessment

If you’re forgoing a professional inspection or simply unsure how your car really compares to similar vehicles online, take into account some of the main factors that can affect the value of your car.

  • New brakes or tires are needed
  • The car’s been in an accident
  • A recall hasn’t been resolved
  • You haven’t kept up with scheduled maintenance
  • The car’s had multiple owners 

Spending a little time and money on these repairs can be worth the investment. Professional detailing — or even simple cosmetic fixes to chipped glass, broken headlights or scratched paint — can help you get a better offer.

Step 2: Decide where to list your car

When choosing where to list your car online, be sure to shop around. To get the best price, you may have to be patient or even list in multiple places.

Wherever you decide to sell, consider taking a little time to familiarize yourself with the process first, from posting the ad to finalizing the sale. Keep a checklist to compare all fees, complimentary services, whether your car will be listed through partner websites, how long your ad will be posted and who may see your ad. 

Online dealers

If you prefer listing through an online dealer, there are many sites that can help you find buyers. Although selling your car through an online marketplace like Autotrader often involves fees, it can also mean getting your ad exposed to a large number of potential buyers in a wide geographic area.

In some cases, online dealers will also take care of the hassles involved with selling. For example, through Shift.com’s online car-selling service, you’re paired with an agent who evaluates your car in person and picks it up when it’s sold. For a fee, Autotrader can offer a VIP option that includes taking photos and screening buyers for you.

Bidding sites

Bidding sites may offer a variety of options for finding buyers and setting your price. If your main goal is to sell quickly, you can post your ad through a bidding service and simply accept the best offer you receive. EBay Motors offers a “Buy It Now” option, which allows a buyer to select a fixed price to immediately purchase.

The downside to bidding services is that buyers may expect a deal since they won’t necessarily have a chance to test drive or even see the car in person. And like other online auto-selling services, you may be charged fees, regardless of whether you sell your car. Be sure you’re familiar with what the fee structure is before you list.

Web ad

If you’re willing to invest more time or you want a more hands-on experience, you can post an ad through a social media or a no-frills classified site. These options may not reach as wide of an audience, but many of these options are free.

Although some sites will allow you to post your ad — and be contacted — anonymously, others will allow you to check out the profile page of your potential buyer. Remember to consider the risks in meeting a buyer from online in person and consider ways of managing that risk. Let’s look at some tips below.

Step 3: Create your ad

A carefully written car ad can help reduce the overall time spent answering questions about your car — and it may even bring in more offers.

According to Autotrader, it should take at least an hour to write a good ad for your car. The site recommends going beyond listing your car’s features to anticipate buyer questions and highlight details that make your car stand out in comparison to others.

A good online ad also includes lots of photos of your car. This gives the buyer a chance to examine the condition, including interior and exterior blemishes. The total number of photos you can post will depend on the site you use.

Before taking your photos, be sure to thoroughly clean the vehicle and park in an attractive, sunlit location. In addition to taking photos of the whole car, be sure to include shots of the following:

  • Odometer showing mileage and VIN number
  • Engine
  • Front and back grills
  • Wheels and tires
  • Carpets and upholstery
  • Any scratches or dents

Step 4: Finalize the price and accept an offer

Now that you’ve created your online ad, you can focus on communicating with buyers and negotiating your sale price.

Screen buyers

Some online services can take away the pressure of negotiating the price with your buyer. The process on some sites may be as simple as accepting an offer from a buyer who may be a dealer, while others may include you naming your price and waiting to see who is interested.

But if you have to manage this part of the process yourself, following a few tips may help you get a better price.

First, practice good communication. Be sure to respond to interested buyers in a timely manner and communicate your expectations clearly. Avoid engaging with people who can’t make the purchase without financing or payments.

Second, be prepared to negotiate. This may mean explaining how you arrived at the asking price, including references to your upkeep and maintenance records. Keep in mind that even if your price is well-reasoned, negotiating might mean accepting less. Decide your minimum price in advance.

Meet in person

Depending on the service you use, you may have to take the extra step of meeting the buyer in person to finalize the deal. Here are some tips for exercising safety when meeting with an unknown buyer.

  • Choose a highly visible, public place
  • Don’t go alone
  • Photograph the buyer’s driver’s license and send a copy to someone you trust
  • Accompany the buyer for a test drive if you feel comfortable, and bring along another person with you on the drive

The buyer may ask to have your car inspected by their mechanic, which is a common practice for car buyers. Consider whether you’d feel more comfortable accompanying the buyer on this step.

What kind of payment should you accept? Consider whether you are most comfortable with handling payment in cash or a digital payment tool as opposed to a cashier’s check or money order. The benefit of a cashier’s check or money order could be that those forms of payment ensure the buyer has already paid with cash.

If both parties agree to finalize the sale, you can hand over the title, maintenance records and any other documents required by your state’s DMV.

After the sale

Be sure to remove your plates and return them to your state DMV if you’re required to. You may also need to file a “release of liability” form, which helps ensure you won’t be held responsible for future tickets or other issues that might arise with the car. This should be done immediately after the sale.

Other rules about the transfer of ownership vary from state to state. In California, for example, the seller has to report the transfer of ownership within five days of the sale, but in Texas the name change on the title must be reported within 30 days.

Whatever the requirements set forth by your state’s DMV, make sure to follow them within any stated time frame.


Bottom line

Selling a car can be a headache, but doing it online can help make the process easier. Whether you’re in a hurry or want to take your time to find the right buyer, there may be an online auto-selling option for you. The hardest part might be deciding which website or app you like best.