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How to Get Your Used Car Ready for Sale

Want top dollar for your old set of wheels? We've got tips

car odometer

Adrian Sherratt/Alamy

To get the best price when selling your used car, you'll want to take a few simple steps before starting the process.

Whether you’re selling your car privately online or to a dealer for cash or trade-in, you want the car to look as appealing as possible. Experts say it’s worth putting in a little effort to spiff up your ride before you place it on the market — but only to a point.

Here's what the pros say.

Know your numbers

If you’re considering getting rid of a car, and it’s approaching 100,000 miles, it may be time to act, suggests Jennifer Bartusiak from CarMax, which appraises and buys thousands of used cars a month. Even if you’re selling on the private market, that number is a psychological barrier for potential buyers, and that has financial implications, she explains: “After 100,000 miles the value can drastically decrease.”

Likewise, cars more than a decade old are more difficult to sell. Bartusiak says, “The cutoff between 10-year-old and 11-year-old vehicles can be substantial in affecting the offer you’ll receive.”

Clean matters

Remember the joy of getting behind the wheel of a clean, brand-new car? You want to re-create that experience for your buyer. If you can afford it, consider getting the car professionally detailed.

At minimum, tidy things up. Not only does that require clearing out fast-food wrappers, but also vacuuming, washing and waxing. Make sure to polish windows and mirrors, and invest in a spray bottle of Armor All to spruce up your dashboard.

Also, look under the hood. While you don’t want to power wash the engine bay, which can damage components, you should remove debris and wipe away grime.

Some repairs are worth doing

While situations differ, you generally don’t want to make repairs costing more than 10 percent of the car’s value, says Kimberlea Buczeke of RepairPal.com, a site with a calculator that estimates repair prices based on your location and the age, make and model of your vehicle.

In most cases, new brakes or tires won’t make much of a difference in the price you’ll get. But it does make sense to focus on visible maintenance issues, she says. You’ll want to replace broken tail lights and burned out bulbs. If the “check engine” indicator or other dashboard warning lights are illuminated, address the issue before you try to sell the car.

Beyond that, other repairs can make sense. Body shops can often remove minor dings at a reasonable cost. Missing or damaged hubcaps also can be replaced inexpensively online, and using carefully matched touch-up paint on minor scrapes can do wonders.

Above all, be honest with your potential buyer about the car’s condition. While private sales are typically “as is,” the last thing you want is to have an unhappy buyer claiming you misled them. In most states you are at least obligated to tell the buyer if the car has been salvaged, rebuilt or damaged in a flood. (Keep in mind that a buyer can learn much of your car’s background by purchasing a car history report online.)

Consider small upgrades

A few minor upgrades — most under $20 — can make a big difference, says J.R. Duren, a personal finance expert at HighYa.com. Dirty or worn-out car mats are inexpensive to replace. Likewise, invest in new seat or steering wheel covers if yours are stained, faded or cracked. “You'd be surprised how many little things you can get done when $20 is the max spend on each upgrade,” Duren says.

Keep your paperwork handy

Vehicle condition aside, a car's sale price may depend on your record-keeping.

Most important, have the title in hand. If you financed and paid off the car, have the lien release available as well. Also, read the title carefully before you sign it over to the buyer. Every state’s procedures are slightly different, and if you make a mistake, it may require additional forms to correct it.

If you have them, bring receipts and detailed records of all oil changes and maintenance work, which can put a buyer’s fears to rest — and boost your selling price. And if you’ve been in any accidents, or have had extensive work done on the vehicle, have those records available too.

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