When it’s time to upgrade your vehicle, most people look at their current vehicle as simply a trade-in option at the car dealer.
But if you want to maximize your financial return, learning to safely sell your car online yourself will get you a lot more money in your pocket than a low-ball offer from a dealership.
Sure, new online dealers like Carvana, Vroom, and even Carmax make it easy for you to give your car up, but they aren’t giving you the best price. If you’re willing to put in just a little effort, you’ll be able to get a lot more money in your pocket.
If you have ever wondered how to safely sell your car online for the highest price, then this post is for you.
Today I’ll walk you through the step-by-step process that I’ve used to safely sell my cars online to private buyers and get the highest possible price – in cash.
Let’s dive in.
Step 1 – Make Sure You Have the Title
Before you’re ready to safely sell your car online, you need to make sure you have the title for the vehicle and ensure all the information on it is correct.
The title is the official document that says you are the owner of the vehicle and therefore you have the legal ability to sell it.
Generally, when you pay off the loan for a vehicle, the bank or financing company will send you the title document with you listed as the owner.
If for some reason that didn’t happen, or if you have lost or misplaced it, you can contact your local Department of Motor Vehicles and request a certified copy.
Once you have the car title in hand, you’re ready to move on to step 2.
Step 2 – Clean Your Vehicle
Cleaning your vehicle may seem obvious, but in years of buying used cars from private sellers, I’m surprised how many people just offer up their vehicle as is without so much as a car wash or vacuuming of the interior.
You’re not selling an old lawnmower. You are engaging in a sales and marketing process that will net you several thousand dollars in the process. If you want to earn top dollar, having a really clean car is a must.
If your vehicle is older, you might think there is no point in trying to make it look brand new because that’s impossible and nobody would expect that of an older vehicle anyway.
But you have to remember that anyone looking to purchase your older vehicle is also looking at other similar vehicles to purchase.
You’re not competing against new cars, you’re competing against other cars that are similar to yours, none of which are going to be perfect, but the vehicle that is cleaner is going to feel better and therefore going to make a much better impression.
When it comes to the psychology of buying a vehicle, a car that is cleaner will feel like it’s in better condition. It will feel like it has been more lovingly maintained. It will feel like a higher quality car.
Those feelings are a big motivational factor for potential buyers, even if they don’t recognize those feelings in themselves.
If you can make your car feel better than the other similar cars your buyers will be comparing it against, you’ll end up selling your car faster and for a higher price than those that just toss their car out there as is.
So clean your car!
- Vacuum it out.
- Wipe down the interior surfaces.
- Put in a discreet air freshener to remove unwanted odors.
- Remove trash and debris from the inside.
- Remove all of your personal belongings from inside the car.
Taking everything out of your vehicle including your personal belongings.
This will go a long way toward making it feel clean and neat no matter how old it is, and that will make a great impression on your potential buyers.
Now that you’ve got your car looking its best, it’s time to document it for everyone to see.
Step 3 – Take Fantastic Pictures
Nobody is going to want your car if it doesn’t look like a car they want to purchase, and the first chance they get to make that decision is when they see the pictures.
You don’t need to hire a professional photographer, but you also can’t just take a bunch of bland, boring pictures and expect people to be clamoring to give you money for your car.
Your pictures need to grab people’s attention and clearly communicate as much about your car as possible.
Before anyone makes the decision to contact you about your vehicle, they want to know as much about a vehicle as possible.
Your pictures aren’t just showing images of the vehicle, they are telling people what trim level the car is, what features and options it is equipped with, whether it has the split rear folding seats, what kind of hooks are available in the storage area, whether it’s the model with the 2.4L engine or the 3.0L engine, and a million other little things that you may not care about…but the potential buyer does.
It also helps to find an open setting to take pictures. Your driveway can work, but you may not want to include your home location in your images.
Use an empty parking lot at a local school on a weekend.
Use a dead-end street that is rarely used.
Use an open field.
Take pictures in a location where your car is the focus of the images, not your neighbors leftover Halloween decorations or your own landscaping that you’ve been meaning to clean up.
Oh, and you need to take a lot of pictures.
Make sure your pictures include:
- Exterior images from every angle.
- Close-up shots of specific areas of interest.
- Images with every door, hood, trunk open.
- The engine.
- The cargo space.
- Every angle of the interior you can think of.
- Close-ups of the buttons on the dashboard and center console.
- Close-ups of the upholstery.
- The odometer for proof of mileage.
- Folding seats in every possible configuration.
- Door panels and arm-rest buttons.
- Any dents, damage, or excessive wear and tear. (Honesty builds trust.)
- Anything else interesting or unique about your vehicle.
Your pictures are often the difference between safely selling your car online in one week and having to wait for several weeks or months.
And as we’ll discuss next, your pictures can also make a huge difference in the price you sell the vehicle for.
If you want to sell your vehicle fast and for the highest possible price, take lots of really great photos.
Step 4 – Set Your Price
The point of selling a vehicle is to make money. The more money the better.
That means you’ll have to figure out how much money you can realistically expect to sell your vehicle for and set your initial price accordingly.
This means going online and looking at other similar vehicles of roughly the same age, mileage, options, and quality to see what price those vehicles are listed at.
Use a resource like www.kbb.com to get an idea of what your vehicle is worth, but don’t take this information as gospel.
You really need to see what other similar vehicles are being listed for in your area, then evaluate how your vehicle is better or worse than those vehicles to set your own price.
We’ll talk in a moment about where to list your vehicle online, but when doing your initial research, some great sites to check out are your local craigslist website, Autotrader.com, Facebook marketplace, and even local used dealer websites.
Determine how your vehicle stacks up against these other similar vehicles.
Is your car in better condition, or worse?
Higher mileage or lower?
More available options or fewer?
This isn’t an exact science, but remember, your potential buyers will likely be looking at these other vehicles as well, and you don’t want your price to be completely unrealistic.
In fact, you don’t necessarily want your car to be the most expensive or the cheapest.
You want your car to feel like the best value.
You want people to see your car and think, “That’s a great price for this car.”
A “great” price isn’t necessarily the lowest price. It’s the best price based on all the qualities and features of the vehicle.
That’s the sweet spot you’re aiming for.
Once you have your price in mind, you’ll want to boost the price just a bit so you have some room to negotiate.
We’ll talk more about negotiating in step 10 below, but know that the price you initially list the car at has to attract the buyer, but likely isn’t the price you will sell the car for.
Being willing to reduce the price in the negotiation process will help you close the deal.
But we’ve got a few more things to do before we get to that, so now let’s move on to step 5.
5. Write an Informative and Honest Vehicle Description
Now that you have your awesome pictures and a great price for your vehicle, it’s time to write a description of your vehicle.
If your pictures grab a potential buyer’s attention, the next thing they will do is read the description of your vehicle, and that description needs to be…
- extremely informative.
- 100% honest.
An informative description should tell the potential buyer everything they would want to know about the vehicle.
This is mostly all the bullet point stuff that you would have seen on the window sticker when the vehicle was new.
Of course, it’s not likely you have that sticker lying around anywhere, so you’ll probably need to do a bit more research to find all the features and options that are included with your particular vehicle.
You might think this is overkill, and be tempted to just throw in a short paragraph with the basics, but keep in mind that some potential buyers are looking for a particular feature or trim level of your particular car.
They will look for that feature first in your pictures, whether it is indicated in a button on the dashboard or a specific insignia somewhere on the vehicle.
After spotting the feature they are looking for, they will then look to your written information to verify that that feature really is included, so be as detailed as you can in your description.
Your description also needs to be 100% honest.
We live in a marketing-saturated world where most people are desensitized to all the flowery language about how awesome, wonderful, mind-blowing, and life-changing some product is.
In this case, you are selling a used vehicle, and every potential buyer fully knows and expects that it is going to have some wear and tear and possibly even some issues.
If you don’t mention these items, your description will come off as inauthentic and possibly even sound like you’re trying to hide something.
Used-car buyers are already skeptical of potentially buying a lemon, so descriptions that seem too good to be true often get ignored.
Instead, you want to include any known issues or defects with the vehicle in both your pictures and your written description.
This could be cosmetic damage such as scratches or dents all the way up to air conditioning issues or engine problems.
Remember, buyers want a great value, not just a great price.
Yes, mentioning the flaws of the vehicle will likely bring your final sale price down a bit, but your honesty will go a long way to ensuring the potential buyer that they are getting a fair deal on the car, knowing full well what they are getting and what they might need to fix.
Honesty is the best policy.
Now you’re all set to load your images and written content on the used vehicle sales website of your choice in step 6.
Step 6 – Upload Your Images and Sales Content Online
Unlike small consumer products that are easy to ship all over the country, cars are a very local market, so websites tailored to your local city or community are your best bet for safely selling your car online.
All of these sites allow you to list your vehicle for sale to your local community.
You can even list your vehicle on all of them at once to get the most attention, but I’ve personally found that not to be necessary.
By following the steps I’m outlining in this article, I’ve never had a problem listing my vehicles on Craigslist and selling them in a matter of days.
Choose the website or mobile app that you think will work best for you, load your images and wonderful written description, and now you’re ready to move on to handling inquiries from potential buyers.
Step 7 – Have the VIN Number Handy and Buy the CarFax Report
When potential buyers start contacting you with their interest in your car, some may want to jump straight into seeing the car in person, while others are simply looking to find out more.
Those looking to do more research will likely ask for the VIN number of the vehicle, so make sure you have that handy so you can send it to anyone who is interested.
Most of those people will be plugging the VIN number into one of the best resources for used-car buyers –CarFax.com.
This is a 3rd-party company that compiles historical data on all vehicles by their VIN Number.
It will show when and where the vehicle was first sold brand new, how often it has transferred ownership, a reasonable maintenance history, as well as an accident history.
As a seller, you want to know everything that is on this report, so it’s absolutely worth buying a copy of the CarFax report for yourself.
You certainly don’t want to be surprised at the negotiation when the potential buyer tells you something about the vehicle’s history that you were never aware of.
But beyond just buying a copy of the report for yourself, keep digital copies that you can send to potential buyers, and print copies that you can give to potential buyers in person when they come to look at the vehicle.
Getting the CarFax report is something that potential buyers can pay for themselves if they want, but not all know about it or are willing to pay the money because they are likely looking at a bunch of different cars and that means paying for many different reports.
But if you are willing to give them the CarFax report on your vehicle for free, this goes a long way towards making your potential buyers much more comfortable buying your car.
Think about it. If they are looking at 3 potential cars to purchase, but yours is the only one they have the CarFax report for, they will likely feel much better about the deal they are getting with you than the others.
This will get you more buyers and a higher selling price that is more than worth it for the small price of the report.
Now let’s talk about safely meeting potential buyers in person to check out your car.
Step 8 – Safely Meet Potential Buyers in a Public Place
When attempting to safely sell your car online, often the scariest step in the process is finally meeting the potential buyer in person so they can check out your vehicle.
But this step doesn’t have to be scary.
Here are the 3 things I do to make meeting potential buyers as safe and relaxing as possible.
1. Meet in a Busy Public Parking Lot Where You Feel Safe
I always choose a relatively crowded place where I feel safe. I never meet in a place that I have never been before. The meeting place is a non-negotiable and if the buyer wants to see my car, they have to come to my chosen location.
A shopping center with stores that have large glass windows looking out on the parking lot also works well. Having a bunch of people in a beauty salon staring at you while you’re showing a stranger around your car is quite comforting.
2. Bring a Friend
Never meet someone to look at your vehicle alone if you can help it. It’s not always possible, but if you can convince a friend to go with you, it goes a long way toward making the meeting more relaxing and enjoyable.
Also, keep in mind that you may be selling your car at this meeting, potentially handing over the keys for cash, so you may need a ride home anyway.
So bring a friend if you can, or at least have one on standby so they can pick you up as you wait at the nearby frozen yogurt shop counting all your cash.
3. Remember the Buyer is Just as Nervous as You
The potential buyer is likely a bit uncomfortable as well, so your meeting location should be a place that will help them feel more comfortable meeting you too. They might also bring a friend, which is completely understandable.
It helps to remember that while you are trying to safely sell your car online, the buyer is trying to safely buy a car online. It takes a certain amount of trust on both sides to make the process work.
If you or the buyer is too uncomfortable, the deal isn’t going to happen, so take precautions for yourself, and realize you are being cautious for the buyer as well.
Once you arrive at the location and meet the potential buyer, it’s time to showcase your vehicle.
Step 9 – Showcase Your Vehicle to the Buyer
When letting the buyer look at your vehicle, open the doors, the hood, the trunk, anything so they can get a good look at the physical condition of the vehicle.
Let them sit inside, start it up, turn all the knobs and dials.
Your job is to point out anything of particular interest that they should know about…good or bad.
Don’t assume they read everything in your written description. If there are things that are unique and nice about your vehicle, point them out.
Conversely, if there are issues or defects, you should point those out as well. These items should have been listed in your description, so they shouldn’t be a surprise to the potential buyer. The fact that you are willing to point them out shows you aren’t trying to hide anything, which will help put them at ease.
If nothing about the physical appearance turns the buyer off, then the next step is to allow them to drive the vehicle.
The buyer may not be as familiar with the area as you are, so have a pre-planned route that you’ll want them to take. This isn’t a 30-minute excursion, just a short 5-minute jaunt so the potential buyer can feel and notice how the car runs and handles.
Don’t let the potential buyer take the car by themselves. You need to go with them.
Other than the obvious concern that they take off with your car and never return, you really want to be with them so you can experience exactly what they experience, whether that’s a funny rattling noise in the interior or odd behavior with the engine.
As you direct them where to go along your pre-planned route, you can answer any questions that come up, or at least acknowledge any issues they notice so they know that you know that they aren’t just making something up while test driving the vehicle.
When you arrive back at your meeting location, the buyer may simply say thank you for meeting them and that they will get back to you in a couple of days. That’s completely fine. They may have more vehicles lined up to check out. They may need to talk it over with their spouse. There are many reasons they may not be ready to make a deal right then and there.
Or, they may be ready to start talking price to buy your vehicle. If so, it’s time to dive into negotiation and making the deal.
10. Negotiate Price and Make the Deal
Another often intimidating process when attempting to safely sell your car online is negotiation.
Here in America, we are not accustomed to haggling over prices for the goods we buy.
It’s best not to think of negotiating as haggling or trying to win but, rather, trying to be fair.
Your vehicle is worth a certain amount of money to you, and it’s worth a certain amount of money to the prospective buyer.
Your goal is to find a price that is fair for both of you. You’re not trying to extract an insane amount of money from them, or lose an insane amount of money on your part.
In the pricing discussion in step 4 above, we talked about how you should set the asking price for a slightly higher amount than you are willing to sell the vehicle for.
The sole purpose of this is being able to reduce the price as part of the negotiation.
If you’ve done that, then you’ve got two prices in your head that you are working with.
- The asking price.
- The lowest price you are willing to accept for the vehicle.
The buyer knows the first one but doesn’t know the second, and you want to receive as close to the first number as possible.
With that in mind, here are a couple ways the negotiation may go.
1. Buyer Uses Vehicle Issues to Lower Price
The first option is that the potential buyer starts with your asking price, but then based on things they find unappealing or wrong with your vehicle, they start asking for a lower price.
Maybe the car doesn’t have cruise control or Bluetooth or the seats are more worn out than they expected, so they offer $2,000 less than your asking price.
These could all be legitimate concerns for the buyer, or they could just be pretending they matter to try and get a lower price.
Your best defense against this is by showing as much detail about your vehicle in the pictures you provided online and as well as in your written description.
If you’ve done that well, then the buyer shouldn’t be unaware that the car doesn’t have cruise control, Bluetooth connectivity, or be surprised at how worn out the seats are.
In theory, nothing should surprise the potential buyer when they come to check out the car.
If the buyer is aware of these issues, and they knew what price you were asking for the vehicle before they agreed to come look at it, then they shouldn’t be surprised when you say, “I think I’m asking a fair price for this car.”
Once it’s established that these things were all listed in your vehicle description or pictures, then you’re no longer negotiating about the car, you’re just negotiating to try and reach a fair price that you can both agree on.
Now, if they do find anything that you forgot to include in your description that they are not happy with, then that could be a legitimate reason for them to offer a lower price than what you asked, but if you do your work up front and list as many details about the vehicle as possible, this scenario is much less likely to occur.
2. The Buyer Goes Straight for the Lowest Price
The second way the negotiation could go is that the buyer starts out, not by establishing a price they are willing to pay, but by asking you what the lowest price you are willing to accept.
If this happens, simply say, “I think I’m asking a fair price for this car.”
This is a buyer that knows that you have two numbers in your head, and although they may be willing to pay your full asking price for the vehicle, they understand that you are likely willing to accept a lower price and they are trying to find out what that number is.
Your job is to not reveal that number.
Each time they ask you to state the lowest price you are willing to accept, simply respond with, “I think the asking price is a fair price for this car.”
You may do this several times, and that’s ok. It’s not contentious because you aren’t trying to win, you are trying to be fair, and you think the asking price is a fair price for the vehicle.
Eventually the buyer will suggest a price and it may be much lower than you are willing to accept.
If the offer is ridiculously low, you can simply restate, “I think the asking price is a fair price for this car.”
If the buyer really wants the vehicle, they will start bringing their price into a more reasonable range above the lowest price you’ve got in your head and closer to your asking price.
This is when you know the buyer is actually serious about buying your car, and you can begin lowering your price in an attempt to find a fair price for both of you.
3. A Combination of 1 and 2
The third scenario that could happen when negotiating is a combination of one and two.
A more seasoned negotiator will start with tactic number two in order to try and figure out the lowest price you will accept.
Then, once a number has been established that they are comfortable with, they will then revert to listing things about the vehicle that they don’t like and start reducing their offer based on those items.
No cruise control. That’s $100 less.
No Bluetooth. That’s $100 less.
Worn out seats. That’s $100 less.
It’s not clean inside. That’s $100 less.
Again, your best defense against this combination tactic is to eliminate the option to combine them in the first place by listing as many details about the vehicle as you can in your written description. (Are you detecting a theme here? Make your pictures and description thorough!)
If the potential buyer has nothing to claim they “didn’t know” about the car, then they lose the option to negotiate based on these “surprises” at the time of driving the vehicle.
Doing steps 2 (Pictures) and 5 (Description) well really simplifies the negotiation process.
Finally, don’t be afraid to hold firm around your asking price until the buyer starts offering amounts that you feel are reasonable, and feel free to walk away at any time.
Things won’t always work out with the first or second person who looks at your vehicle. If they are unwilling to pay a reasonable price above the lowest price you have in your head, thank them for their time and wish them luck in their vehicle search.
Once you do reach a fair price that both of you agree on, it’s time to complete some paperwork and walk away with the cash.
11. Complete Paperwork & Get the Cash
Some buyers are not prepared with cash in hand to buy the vehicle at the time they first see it and test drive it.
If so, it’s fine to establish another time to meet up at the same spot to complete the paperwork and get the cash.
But some buyers will have cash on the spot, so as the seller, you should always be prepared to complete the paperwork immediately, get the cash, and say good-bye to your vehicle. (Another reason to have all your personal stuff removed and a friend on stand-by.)
The process for transferring a vehicle’s title can vary from state to state, so be sure to check your local department of motor vehicles website to ensure you follow the process for your state.
I’ll share how the process works here in Texas, as your process will likely be close, though some of the details may change.
In order to transfer the title for a vehicle to a new owner here in Texas, we have to sign, date, and list the name of the new owner right on the back of the vehicle title.
We also have to include the odometer reading of the vehicle.
There is also a form that the buyer will need called the Application for Texas Title and Registeration form. This form includes the same information as the title, but also includes the sale price of the vehicle.
The sale price is important because the buyer will have to pay taxes on that amount when transferring the title into their name.
The buyers don’t always know about this form until they go to the county tax assessor’s office to transfer the vehicle into their name. As the seller, I always bring a copy of this form with me and complete the “seller information” portion right there with the buyer.
(Often buyers are glad that I brought this form as they are unfamiliar with the process. Don’t assume your buyer will know everything to do. Do your homework beforehand to make sure everything is completed at the time of sale.)
Once the title and form are completed, the buyer has everything they need to get the vehicle registered in their name.
I recommend taking a picture of both documents with all information before the buyer leaves with them.
There is also one additional online form that is optional for the seller to complete, but it’s an important one in my opinion, and that’s the Vehicle Transfer Notification form.
This is a form that you complete as the seller simply notifies the motor vehicle department that you sold your vehicle on this date and includes the new buyers information. In the event that the buyer doesn’t register the vehicle in a timely manner and runs up a bunch of parking tickets or other violations, they don’t get attributed to you as the owner of the vehicle. Pretty important in my opinion.
With that, you are ready to swap the completed documents and the car keys for the cash.
Count the cash as you will likely never see the buyer again and what you get is what you get, so make sure it’s the agreed upon amount.
If so, then you are ready to go your separate ways and you have successfully completed the vehicle selling process.
The three final steps when you arrive back home are:
- Delete your vehicle listing online to prevent ongoing inquiries about it.
- Complete the Vehicle Transfer Notification process online to confirm you no longer own the vehicle.
- Throw the cash in the air and do a happy dance. (This step is optional. 😜)
And that’s it. You’ve safely sold your car online and earned a pretty hefty commission for yourself in the process. Congratulations!
I hope you find this step-by-step guide to safely sell your car online helpful the next time you are looking to sell your car.
While the process to safely sell your car online may seem like a fair amount of work, it’s not necessarily hard work, and the additional money you’ll make from selling your vehicle yourself online is quite significant.
If you follow the steps I’ve outlined above, you’ll be able to sell your vehicle safely, quickly, and for a great price. Then you can use that cash to secure a great deal on your next vehicle.
Good luck selling!