Neurocarbuying: How to Sell Your Car

Selling a car is much less fun than buying a car.  If you have the time and energy to do a little work though, you can make a substantially larger amount of money than trading in your car.  With my help, you can use the science of decision-making to your advantage in advertising and selling your car (maybe!).

One thing cannot be denied: this will take effort, but again, use your emotion for guiding your long term benefit: postponing the reward will mean probably about one or two thousand additional dollars in your pocket.  Dealing with idiots on Craigslist has its own cost, smogging your car has its own cost and haggling over a price has its own cost.  This is not free money, but I contend that selling your own car can net you at least $1000 over the trade in value for about ten hours of work, spread out over a few weeks.

I am not trying to influence readers to sell their own car, but if you want to, the following steps will help you do so effectively.

Good, so my impeccable rhetoric has convinced you to get your car out the door and now you are literally jumping up and down waiting to find out what to do next.

The first thing you need is data.  You need to figure out what your car is worth.  Make sure you have your car’s info in hand: mileage, year, make, model, model specifics, features, modifications (large spoilers and rims) ready to go.  Now go to the internet and search the private party listings to figure out what your car is worth.  Start with, navigate their awful website, and you will get a rough estimate of what your car is worth.  My car, a 2008 Honda Accord LX-P with 65,000 miles in good condition is worth $10,742, apparently.

What, you didn't believe me and had to look at the picture to see for yourself?
What, you didn’t believe me and had to look at the picture to see for yourself?

Kelley Blue Book tends to be a pretty basic metric for determining a car’s worth, but there are exceptions to its accuracy.  Toyota Trucks and Honda cars can often sell for more than Blue Book value.  To get a better estimate of your car’s value, consult craigslist, autotrader and ebay.

Here’s from craigslist:

I know I can out-market the guy who wrote his ad in all caps.
I know I can out-market the guy who wrote his ad in all caps.

Craigslist shows me that there are very few cars with my car’s low mileage, there are few cars that have my car’s option package, and the cars that are most comparable, the EX model, is listed for a little bit more than kbb.  Let’s say the sample-deficient range of prices here is $10,000 to $11,600.  On Autotrader (not pictured; you will need to just believe what I say), I see a few cars for sale by dealers that are comparable to my car and they are selling for $13,000 to $16,000.  Private party sellers are $12,000 to $13,000.  Now, on to Ebay.  What you need to do on ebay is to look at the “sold” listings.  I see here that 2008 Accords have sold for a range of values from about $9,000 to $11,400 for comparable cars to my own (wow, as an aside, there are a lot of cheap cars on ebay…hmmm).

This is enough information for me to feel comfortable setting a price.  To get a baseline, I like to calculate the mean of the median value from the ranges above.  So that’s $11,167 as a starting price.  Now, if I need to sell the car very quickly, or, I hate negotiating, I might list it at 10% below that value.  If I think I am an amazing salesman and I will be lucky, I might bump it up 5%. I like to make deals quickly, but I am not in too big of a hurry.  I’m not selling my car, but if I were, I’d probably list it at $11,100 to see if I could get a hit or two, $10,900 if I wanted to try to move it a little more quickly.

Now it’s time to prep the car for sale.

Time for you to find your inner advertiser. Think about the story your car tells, what kind of emotion would be most likely to make someone get out their wallet?  Selling the 4runner was a breeze because the story was so clear (zombie apocalypse), but there was only a tiny audience.  Selling the Honda means telling a story about the joy of calm, deliberate and efficient travel.  I want people to know they’re getting a car that will outlast the current supply of fossil fuels; this car will keep them ahead of the game financially as it does not depreciate and is cheap to own.  Okay, so this part is more challenging, let’s get back to the basic steps.

First, you need to clean your car and you need to mentally disown it.  It’s a pork shoulder and you are the butcher; it’s a turnip and you are the farmer (for my vegetarian readers).  Take out all your personal belongings.  Leave only the manual, the registration, and the proof of insurance. It should feel like a car with new possibilities, people take ownership of things very quickly, they will feel like it’s their car much more easily when they don’t see your disco ball hanging from the rearview and your stickers on the bumper.

Now you need to take pictures.  If you want to know where/how to take a good picture of your car, look at the original advertising for the car.  Here is the link to my Honda’s.  I found this by googling “2008 Honda Accord Dealer Literature.” It is surprisingly easy to take these kinds of photos, AND YOU SHOULD DO THIS.  Copy their photos with your own car.  Get down low and get a shot with the headlights on, find a tree-lined street during a street sweeping day and take a shot with no other cars in the background.  Do it in the morning or during dusk to get a little better light on it, fill the frame with the car.  Bring a ladder and get a great top down shot.  Don’t take the picture in your alley way with the concrete still wet from when you last washed it. Don’t take a photo from across the street while some dude wheels his shopping cart behind it.  Sell the crap out of that thing! It takes literally 30 minutes more to do this and I guarantee you will get more hits on your ads and better buyers lined up.


Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 11.16.31 AM
Looks better than your standard Craigslist ad, no? Copy these types of photos with your car.


How much maintenance should you do before selling the car? It depends.  It’s cheap marketing to have the oil and fluids changed, saving the buyer some money and the car will better pass inspections.  I once looked at a pre-owned Subaru and the transmission fluid was black and burnt like a diesel tailpipe.  I did not buy that car.  If your tires are old, just subtract some from the asking price.  If your car has dents and dings, you can fix them, but you’ll probably only get about 60% back from the cost of repairing them (this is a wild guess).  Sometimes it’s better just to put the car up in whatever state it is in and try to price it fairly.  Contrary to this, sometimes a repair is the difference between selling the car and not selling the car. You can always list it in the state it’s in and see if anyone wants it. Nobody sells a perfect car.  It is worth the money to get the engine bay steam-cleaned and the fluids changed, since this will often seal the deal for a buyer.

Get the car smogged if you live in California.  Again, this is just good marketing; people are more likely to buy a car that is ready to go.  While you’re at it, square away the title or whatever you need to do to have it ready to get out of your hands as soon as possible.

Now we write the ad.  Be Honest.  Sure, you can hide some flaws, but this is bad karma.  Factor in the costs of the problems into the selling price and be up front about them.  You will probably forget to tell them about a few problems as it is, but try to save them any surprises.  Nobody sells a perfect car, don’t lie to people, don’t omit important details.

The ad should tell the story about why you bought the car, what you loved about the car, and why you’re selling the car.  You should state what the car does really well, using descriptive language, i.e. “This car has been a rock-solid car for 7 years, always gets me to work on time, and is great on long road trips.” This is better than saying, “It’s reliable.” This is the story and it will be where you sell the emotion of your car.

Now fill in the facts.  Justify your price, mention that it is comparable to other cars in similar condition, and you have reduced it because of whatever issues you have.  Tell them that your registration is paid, pinkslip is in hand, and it is smogged.  Tell them that you have done recent service to the car–and that most other cars will need to have this done so aren’t you so nice to have done it for them and they should consider that when the view other cars. You need to say in your ad that the car is sold “As-Is” to prevent any implied responsibility for the car once they buy it.

Put the ad on Craigslist, Autotrader (you will have to pay a little bit, so this is sort of optional, but I say just do it since they tend to sell better cars anyway), and any other sites you like.  Buy some for sale signs and put them on the car in the windows and in the windshield whenever you park.  Park in places where a lot of people will walk by.  Advertise your damn car!

Now comes the most annoying part: dealing with the general public.  The rate of  emails you receive will determine a lot of your behavior.  From Craigslist, you’ll probably get a lot of scam emails, so disregard them and don’t take it personally.     Screen out the people that are clearly going to be a pain, or you can decide to deal with them by steeling yourself for the idea of taking some a-holes money.  Don’t stress either way.

If you get a lot of emails, you will know that your ad is working, and that you will not need to negotiate your price.  It is perfectly acceptable to tell buyers that the reason your are firm is because you have gotten a lot of requests to see the car, and you’d like to stick to your asking price.  If you get only one interested party, see what they want for your car. If their price is reasonable, then close the deal and count the money.

It’s good to meet in a public place with a friend.  If you’re willing to drive near to their house and you can bring a friend with another car, that will also help them want to close the deal.  They may want to take it to a mechanic to inspect it–just make sure they pay for the inspection, and be sure that you keep a copy of the report.

Let them decide how the interaction is going to go. If they don’t want to test-drive it, that’s on them.  You can ask them about what they’re looking for in a car, and then try to pitch your car as fulfilling their needs.  I don’t know, maybe there is some great advice about what you should be saying to get the folks to close the deal.  I’d say just be nice, be gracious and respectful, and that will probably be the best salesmanship.  If they want a hard sell, they probably would want to go to a dealership.  One thing though: you should gauge their seriousness pretty quickly. If they don’t seem that interested, you’re under no obligation to give them a test drive etc., and you can end the meeting when you feel it is not going to go anywhere.

Dealing with the people is no doubt the worst part of the process.  There will be flakes and jerks and people telling you that your car is not worth anything.  But in this scenario, remember to put your panic emotions in check.  You are a cold calculated car-selling monster.  Let their stupid comments be their own downfall.

In the end, you can ask them if they like the car.  Say, “Well, what do you think of the car?” If they like, it say, “What do you think it is worth to you?”  Go from there.  You should have decided your lowest possible price some time ago, so you can relax during negotiation knowing that you have an out.  Just remember: the bar is lower than you think.  You’re only trying to sell the car for more than the trade-in value.  Anything above that is a bonus to pay for your time dealing with craigslist idiots.  I tend to be more likely to close a deal as soon as I can, I just like to move on from things. This column is about getting more than trade-in value and getting on with your life, it is not about getting rich selling your pre-owned Dodge Intrepid.

This is the cash I received for my 4Runner.  I bought the 4Runner for $2250, put about $4000 into it, and sold it for $6200.
This is the cash I received for my 4Runner. I bought the 4Runner for $2250, put about $4000 into it, and sold it for $6200. It pays to buy cars that are desirable and that hold their value.

Once you’ve settled on a price, demand cash only.  Cashier’s checks can be forged; checks are worthless.  If they’re nervous about it, go to a bank and deal with it there.  Don’t take payments, don’t mess with anything less than cash in hand.  If you know the person, obviously, you can take a check and give them the car when the check clears.

Selling a car is something of an adventure.  Use your advertising to tell a story about the car, then negotiate with a knowledge base that allows you to have confidence in the deal.  If it all goes well, you’ll pay back your efforts to the tune of a couple thousand dollars over trading it in.

I think that about covers it; I’m happy to answer questions in the comments.


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