How to sell a car online

We've all heard horror stories about selling cars online, but if you follow our handy guide, you'll skip the hassle and get the best deal.

Selling a car can seem like an arduous task. Perhaps you’ve never been involved in a vehicle sale before, or maybe you don’t know much about cars at all. Fear not — even though there are several steps to sell your vehicle successfully, our guide on how to sell a car online will take you through the process bit by bit.

You can use this guide to sell your car through non-electronic means, but the internet is an extremely helpful tool that makes the job easier than ever. You can use it to approximate the value of your ride, survey your local market, research vehicle history, and reach an extremely  wide audience. To learn more, including a list of our favorite sites where you can sell your car, continue reading.

Before the sale

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Inspect and repair

A vehicle rife with mechanical flaws won’t sell quickly, and if it does, you’re likely to get a lowball offer. A little extra work up front will pay dividends in the long run, so don’t forgo simple fixes like burned out lights, persistent rattles, or blown speakers.

For larger issues like leaky seals, check engine lights, or worn suspension, schedule an inspection with a mechanic. That way, you’ll have official documentation about what needs to be repaired, which you can either factor into the price, have repaired, or fix yourself.

Installing new tires, changing the oil, and taking care of other basic maintenance tasks is a great incentive for potential buyers to choose you.

If you’ve modified your car, try and bring it back to stock specifications if you can. Heavily-tuned cars have a reputation for being abused, and it’s unlikely you’ll find a buyer with the same taste in add-ons as you. Luckily, you can find cheap OEM replacement parts at junk yards or through local sellers.   

Detail

Having a freshly detailed vehicle is helpful for both writing your ad and showing off the vehicle in person. Washing the car is the obvious first step, but investing in quality materials like clay bars, buffers, and wax can give your vehicle next-level shine. Don’t forget the door jambs and body seams, as automated car washes don’t reach these areas.

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If your vehicle has noticeable scratches, consider purchasing touch up paint from your car’s manufacturer for a perfect match.

Remove the carpets, vacuum them, and use stain and odor removers if necessary. Vacuum every crevice you can reach, including under the seats and around the center console.

Detailing the engine bay isn’t necessary in most cases, but if you’re selling a performance-oriented car to a fellow gearhead, you may want to give it a once-over.   

Compile your documents

A proper seller will have their vehicle’s official paperwork and records onhand so there’s no guesswork involved. The first step is to verify the make, model, and year of your vehicle, which you can do with the vehicle identification number (VIN), usually found where the dashboard meets your windshield on the driver’s side. If it’s not there, check the driver’s side door jamb. After you find it, use a free VIN decoder website.

In addition the VIN, compile a vehicle history report to clarify if it’s been in an accident. This is important because accidents can cause frame damage, which can cause a cascade of issues down the line such as poor alignment.

Collect major service records as well. This gives buyers extra assurance that the vehicle has been maintained well in compliance with manufacturer recommendations.   

Crafting your ad

Approximate your car’s value

The first step in crafting your ad is to approximate the value of your vehicle. Resources like Kelley Blue Book and National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) make this process very simple — all you have to do is input the make, model, year, milage, and condition, and you’ll have a pretty solid idea of where to start price-wise.   

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Research your market

Book value is only half the equation, however, because a lot of it depends on your market. Look at similar vehicles in your area in similar condition and adjust your price as necessary. Without local context, you could end up asking way too much or too little.

Market research is especially important if you have an old, rare, or specialized vehicle. Book values don’t always reflect the demand for collectible vehicles, as they’re often worth far more than the book dictates.   

Take photos

Cover everything you think buyers will be interested in — paint condition, body damage, headlight clarity, interior cleanliness, wheels, and everything in between. The more, the better — and again, detail the car first.   

Consider where to sell you car

Selling a vehicle on Craigslist is very simple, but the casual nature of the site can attract flippant buyers and unattractive offers. A suitable alternative is AutoTrader, as it allows people to find your vehicle through advanced filters, and should attract more serious buyers. CarsDirect offers similar advantages, but if you’re trying to sell a old or rare vehicle, try Hemmings, one of the best classic car sites around. Finally, consider AutoTempest, which combines results from Cars.com, Craigslist, AutoTrader, eBay Motors, and others for convenience.   

Write your ad

Now you’re finally ready to write your ad. There are more bad advertisements out there than good ones, so set yourself apart by going against the grain. Be thorough and specific when describing the life of your vehicle, and include all the details you can think of. Does it have a perfect service history? Include that! Did it sit for two years without seeing much use? Include that! Has it been in a major accident or flood? Include that as well, and craft your ad in a friendly yet professional manner.   

Shopping list

Here’s what you need to make your car-selling experience a success:

A car wash kit to get your car nice and shiny for photos and potential buyer visits.

Wax to cover small scratches, blemishes, and swirls in your paint.

Touch up paint to cover imperfections and dings on your car’s finish.

Headlight cleaner and sealant to keep your vehicle’s lights clean, clear, and bright.

A ratcheting wrench set to accomplish basic maintenance tasks on your car before sale.

An oil filter wrench to help with those pesky oil changes.

All-purpose interior cleaner to spruce up leather, vinyl, carpet, and upholstery.