Selling Your Car: How To Trade In Your Car

1968 Jaguar E-Type Coupe, for sale on eBay, April 2013

Falling for a car on a dealer’s lot is the easy part.  What can get sticky is knowing how to trade in your existing car.  With the right mindset and preparation, you can make quick work of a tedious process.

Clean it--to a point.  You can’t erase years of neglect with a quick wash and vacuum, and a dealer simply will not fall for it.  That said, a modest cleaning on the average car boosts curb appeal and helps the dealer rule out areas of concern like paint work and excess interior wear.

Fix things--to a point.  Dealers recondition trade-ins at less expense than consumers.  Besides, you cannot shore up every fault and expect a dollar-for-dollar return when selling your car.  What you can do is fix a few inexpensive things or at least get estimates to avoid further deductions on your trade.  For example, you know your air conditioning doesn’t blow cold air because it needs a recharge.  A dealer can’t simply take your word for it though, and could assume it needs more extensive service without evidence like an estimate.

Research the value.  Valuation websites are helpful tools to understand a price range of what the dealer could offer on your trade-in.  Be sure you are understanding the actual cash value of your car as a trade, and not the private party or dealer retail value, as they take different factors into account.

Know what you owe.  So you’re still making payments on the car you’ll trade.  That’s not necessarily a problem, but do confirm how much is left on your loan.  If you are “upside down” or owe more than the car will fetch on trade, consider your next steps carefully.  Rolling over the unpaid balance into the new loan, even if your lender allows it, can be risky.  You may want to equalize things with cash down, or simply keep driving your current car until the numbers are more favorable.

Even still, your results may vary.  Just because a website says a car like yours is worth a certain amount, there is zero assurance that a dealer will agree.  Curb appeal, market demand and a dealer’s need for your car come into play.  If there are already clones of your car for sale on the lot, don’t assume the dealer will want yet another.

Bring maintenance records.  Like receipts from repairs, these are not redeemable for cash on your car deal; it’s expected that you will keep up on maintenance.  What they can offer is assurance to the dealer that you did your part, so they will have less to do before offering it for resale.

Time the trade.  Seasons and market demand trump the value delivered by a website.  So you should expect your rear-wheel drive sports car will command different dollars when there is a foot of snow on the ground versus late spring.   

Leave emotion at home.  If you see your car as nothing more than an appliance, this probably won’t be an issue.  For the rest of us, our cars are extensions of ourselves.  If a dealer doesn’t present the trade-in value you’d hoped for, it’s easy to take it personally.  Don’t.  A little objectivity will make it a better experience.

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