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How to Sell a Vehicle Safely

Unless you plan on driving a car until it needs to get towed away you probably have to sell your vehicle eventually.  So how do you get the best return out of your old ride?  Also, how do you sell a vehicle without getting scammed?

This is an area I have a decent amount of experience in.  Sure these days I tend to hold cars I purchase for a decade at a time, but even with that I still have sold a significant number of cars in the last 15 or so years.    More than once during that period 4 cars say in our driveway.  These days we have only 2.  So what’s the trick to get the most money from your old clunker?

Why are You Selling your Car?

Well, the first step to selling a car is to determine why you are selling it.  Are you selling it because you need it gone fast, perhaps to clear a spot on the driveway or pay a bill? Or are you more interested in getting top dollar for your ride rather than expediency? The timing and goal really influence how you will sell your car.  The quickest sale is a trade-in when you purchase another car from the dealer.  But it’s also going to yield the lowest return.  It also might screw up your new car negotiating which you can read about here.

Selling to a Dealer

The second fastest way to sell a car is to a dealer like Carmax.  In this case, they sometimes buy cars even though you don’t buy theirs.  I have sold a car to Carmax, albeit about 5 years ago now.  In general you will get more than a trade-in but less than a private seller.  It may make sense as it is certainly low hassle and quick.  They’ll evaluate your car and check out its history while you drink a coffee in the lobby.  An hour later you have an offer take it or leave it.       I chose to sell a car to Carmax once because it was not selling privately and I needed it gone.  I have also used Carmax as a way to determine a floor on my pricing, which we’ll talk about later.  IE. I will not sell my car for less than this amount privately because Carmax will give me X.

The Private Vehicle Sale

Finally, the way to the most money and taking the most time is a private sale.    We’ll talk a bit more about how to sell your car privately, but I’ve generally netted around $1-2K dollars more selling cars privately over other channels.

Preparing for a Car Sale

The second thing to do is ensure you have the appropriate documents to sell your car.    Typically you need the title to the car you are selling.   If you still have a loan on the car you may need to contact your lender to arrange the sale as they would need to release the title too you.  Honestly, I have never sold a car on which I had a loan so I cannot help much here other then advise each lender is different.  But anyway before going any further you need to determine what hoops you will need to jump through to sell your automobile.

How to Determine Sale Price

Now that you can sell and know where you will sell your vehicle you have to decide what price you will accept and how to list it.  In general, I use a combination of a few sources to determine my pricing.  First I look at Kelly Blue book price for my vehicle with options.  Note everyone thinks their car is in excellent condition but most are just good, so remember that when observing their pricing.  The next place I check is what cars are selling for online.  The same sites I talk about later on for advertising your car privately are a great source of information on pricing. 

Finally, I might go to eBay Motors and check out completed auctions for your make a model.  (I have also sold a car on eBay, though that is now closer to 20 years ago.  Beyond the scope of this piece except to note I find online auctions undervalue the car somewhat so I would not sell your car that way).  Anyway, based on all these sources of information I start by determining my target sale price.  This is the price I want, and typically I try to set it as somewhere around the middle of the range of the prices I have seen.  From this, I also determine the lowest I am willing to accept. 

Setting Listing Price

Now if I am planning to sell my car privately I determine one more price.  My listing one.  Never list a vehicle at what you want to sell it at.  Everyone wants to win a little with negotiation and this gives you the capability to provide your buyer that win.  But also pay close attention to dollar cutoffs.  For example, if you have a car worth between 4-6K you may be better off listing below 5K.  Why?    Online search engines will often be filtered at this type of cutoff, losing potential eyes for your placement.    

Pictures and Vehicle Maintenance

Then with price in hand, it is time to go fix up your car.  At a minimum wash the car and give it a thorough cleaning.    I tend to go further and take care of any glaringly obvious issues.    Just like selling a house, first impressions matter.  After cleaning the car if you are listing privately you will want to take some pictures for your listing.  Take pictures from all angles and inside the car.   Remember though for your safety to block out the license plate number.

Writing the Listing Description

 Then write an appropriate description of the car.  Include in this description the make, model, color, year, mileage, any modifications,  options, plus something eye-catching or attention-grabbing.  Say you are selling an economy car, well highlight it’s gas mileage in your listing.  Minivan?  Perhaps its utility for carrying large numbers of people.  Sell the car as most people that might end up buying your vehicle are probably not looking for your exact vehicle.  They are looking for something in a range of vehicles in a price range.  So you are looking to attract their attention.  Titles also matter a lot in this regard, if your listing source provides one.  So be creative. Finally, don’t include personally identifying information in your ad.  Try to use a throwaway email address, the listing agent’s communication system, or something else for your own protection.

Free Listing Locations for a Private Vehicle Sale

Now if you are selling privately there are a number of great free places to list.  I would never pay to list given the number of options.  I personally have listed cars via eBay Motors,, Craigs List,, a car forum dedicated to the make/model, and even Facebook market place. 

In fact, our quickest car sale ever was snatched up by a gentleman on Facebook marketplace about 9 minutes after posting.    In general, I would recommend you place the listing on all these sources to get the most eyes.    It costs nothing to post your car for sale on any of the above forums.  eBay and Cargurus do have some fees if you sell your car there, though in some cases these might be worth the fee.  IE. both have mechanisms in place to ensure you do not get scammed out of your car, which is what you are really paying for with those two.  From my experience, the lowest paying of these options is the make and model of the forum and Ebay.  The most likely culprit seems to be supply and demand for the former and auction style for the later being sub-optimal for most car sales.

Spam and Scam Avoidance

From here on you will get every spammer and scammer alive if you sell privately and you do not luck out like my 9-minute example.    In general, if they cannot compose an email in English, you can’t verify their identity in some way, or they respond in ways that indicate they have not even read your listing then don’t waste your time.    That weeds out most of the lazy scammers.    For the rest, you need to watch yourself through the rest of the process.    A good sign is if someone asks you for your VIN or asks to ensure it is not a salvaged titled car.  Those are good signs they are serious. Don’t hesitate to provide your VIN since any Joe walking by your car can read it off your glass.  

The Vehicle Test Drive

Anyway, the next step is typically a meetup for a test drive.  Some general thoughts:

  • Always do the test drive at a well-trafficked public place, not your house.  Safety first
  • Always keep the title and the spare key on you.  There have been cases of people taking someone’s car and running.  In fact years ago someone did that with a multiple 100K Ferrari at a dealer not far from where I live.  If they can do that to them they can to you, so keep your eyes and ears open for suspicious activity.
  • Answer any questions, but like when dealing with an auditor only volunteer what is asked.   You shouldn’t be hiding major car issues if you have morals, but you don’t have to point out every chip in the car paint either.  The buyer has eyes after all.
  • Remember every initial offer is still negotiable.  Also, you as the seller do not need to take the first offer on the table.  I’ve typically found my target price still pops up, but sometimes its 2 weeks in after the low ballers have died down.

Collecting the Money from a Vehicle Sale: The Hard Part

Finally, when the person is ready to make a purchase is the moment of truth.  How to collect money without getting scammed depends on the method of payment? With sources like eBay motors or Cargurus they have systems for getting your money.  I would recommend using these systems, as while they come with a nominal charge they also typically give you recourse/provide some validity that the funds are real.  If you sold the car on a different channel then it depends on the form of payment.

How to Handle a Cash Payment or Cashier Check  

If cash, I would recommend always doing so at your bank.  Your bank can best ensure the cash is real on the spot.  If the person chooses to pay with cashiers check things get a little trickier.  In that case, you need to validate the cashier’s check is real.  The only way to do this is either to call or go in person to the issuer’s bank. (Not all banks will verify cashier’s checks over the phone). However, it’s very important to do this. Discuss this with your buyer before agreeing to a sale and if they disagree run away fast.  If you call to validate use the bank’s website to find the number, not their paperwork.  In general, just use good financial security steps.

No Personal Checks!

Do not take other forms of payment like a personal check from anyone you do not know.  It’s very possible a check is not real or even if it is the person may not have the money in their account to pay.  In fact, even if they do have funds in their account most banks allow them to stop payment after issuance.  You could easily end up with nothing.  So stick to cashiers check, cash, or one of the systems from car marketplaces that have protections.

Bill of Sale and Release from Liability

So you are at the bank and have the funds?  For one final protection write up a  bill of sale documenting the car is sold as is for x amount of money including the VIN.  Have both parties sign the bill of sale.  They will also need to sign a release of liability for the car and the title.    Finally, depending on your state they may take the tag or you may.  These steps may protect you later if they do something nefarious with your car or find additional issues with the vehicle later on.  They also are often required by state law.

Tax Back

And that’s it for the sale.  One more thing to keep in mind.  Many states, like my own, will give you a break on new vehicle purchase tax if you sell a vehicle within a certain number of days before or after purchase of a new vehicle.  So be sure to check your states DMV sites on car sales tax.  This often happens automatically with a trade-in, but your state may also have a mechanism to do so with a  private sale.

 Anyway, that is it.  Now you just need to decide what to do with your new funds.  


  1. Xrayvsn
    Xrayvsn May 30, 2019

    Great tips FTF. I have taken the lazy route in the past and do dealer trade ins. I leave money on the table but it is what it is (and by the time I do get rid of a vehicle, there is not much meat on the bone anyway)

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance May 31, 2019

      Sometimes the extra funds are a lower priority than expediency, especially near the bottom of the value chain. We’re selling a few odds and ends from the house right now as well. In some cases, the items are only worth a few dollars and the point of selling is more about keeping it out of a landfill/avoiding the cost of disposing over making money. Not everything is sold to make cash…

  2. Joe
    Joe May 31, 2019

    Pretty good. I sold a few vehicles, but not very safely. Luckily, the personal checks worked out.
    Once, I sold a crappy old Subaru to my friend for $500. He didn’t transfer the name and sold it on a couple of years later. This was really bad. The other owner got a ticket and I had to follow up on changing the name. Lesson learned – do things by the rule…

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance May 31, 2019

      Ouch. In today’s day and age of red light and speed cameras I would assume the problems can mount quickly.

  3. Dan
    Dan June 7, 2019

    I live in California. There is a law which states that if your vehicle’s smog certificate is expiring within 90 days, you cannot legally sell the car. If you sell the car with the smog certificate expiring within 90 days and subsequently the new owner fails the smog test, he can sue you to get the money back.

    I had a 23 year old car which failed the smog test. The cost to bring it into compliance was more than the car was worth. I couldn’t legally sell it so I donated it to charity. The charity explicitly had a waiver for the 90 day smog rule. I think they scrapped & parted it out. I was able to deduct $500 from my taxes for the car donation.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance June 10, 2019

      Ouch, that would make it difficult to sell a car. No smog sales rules here, but there are a number of rules about tag and insurance requirements that can get you into trouble if you don’t pay attention.

      Still, a tax deduction is better than nothing.

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