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10 Things to Know When Selling Your Car Online

Beatrice Manuel
Article
Throughout the United States, sales of used cars trump sales of new cars. As the National Transportation Statistics report states, people bought 39.3 million used cars and 14 million new cars in 2020. Used cars sales are up slightly from 2015 — when they reached 37.2 million.

 Here are 10 things you need to know to sell your car online without fuss.

1. Instant cash offers are a good option for some sellers

Used car sellers generally have 3 sales options: 

  1. Sell their car back to the dealership
  2. Sell their car via private sale online
  3. Accept an Instant Cash Offer (ICO) 

If you are willing to invest in the maintenance and reconditioning for your car, you can sell your car for a higher price if you sell privately online (as there is no middle party). 

However, that money isn't a guarantee. If your car is older, in poor condition, or an unpopular vehicle, buyers may not offer you a price that covers the cost of preparing the car for sale. In that case, accepting a lower price from an ICO may work out better for you. 

If you choose to accept an ICO, remember to shop around. Call several local ICO buying firms and get competing offers. You'll need to provide your car's license plate, vehicle identification number (VIN), and proof of ownership to secure an offer. 

2. Potential buyers will want to see your car's history on paper

The days of quick sales sealed with a friendly handshake are long past. Today, buyers do their due diligence on used cars before they're ready to talk about price. 

Naturally, they'll care about your car's history. So, be prepared to provide: 

  • A copy of your original sales paperwork. Buyers will use this to confirm the car's make, year, model, trim, and features (keyless entry, head-up display, navigation system, etc.). 
  • Service records. Buyers will use this to assess if you took good care of the car and invested in routine maintenance at each mileage milestone (like replacing the air filter at 15,000 miles or the timing belt at 60,000 to 100,000 miles). 
  • A vehicle history report. Buyers will use this to assess if your car has been in an accident.

Additionally, you'll need to show proof of ownership through your car's title and/or vehicle registration records. 

3. Cosmetic reconditioning can get you a better price

Cosmetic reconditioning (investing in fixing scratches, small dents, chips, holes, stains, and burns) makes your car look well cared for. As buyers evaluate the value of a vehicle based partially on how well you've looked after it, cosmetic reconditioning can help you secure a better final sales price. 

Here are some reconditioning techniques to try:

  • Clean dirt and grime from your tire rims
  • Use cleaning putty to clean hard-to-reach places internally (like car door pockets and air conditioning vents)
  • Shampoo your carpets and seats (but be careful to choose products that work with your car's upholstery!) 
  • Remove bumper stickers
  • Clean your mirrors and windows
  • Aerate your car and use an air freshener 

Additionally, consider getting your car professionally detailed. 

4. Price is an important marketing tool

Have you ever seen an online listing for an item that looked so suspiciously low it set off alarm bells in your head? The price you list in your car sales ad influences how potential buyers value your car. 

If you opt for a price that's too low, buyers might assume your car has severe mechanical faults or was a repairable write-off. If you opt for a price that's too high, buyers may not consider you a serious seller. 

Research other listings carefully and set yourself a desired sales range to strike a balance with your car's price. Your walk-away price should sit at the bottom of this range, and your dream price should sit at the top. 

List your car's price somewhere in the middle at a rate that buyers will expect for your make and model. 

If you want to grab attention, you can also try pricing tricks like listing your car at $X9,999.

5. You don't need to pay for advertisements

Though some car-selling websites may try to convince you that you need to invest in paid advertising to get eyes on your listing, this is seldom necessary. 

You can advertise your own car listing by posting on your local community's Facebook page, asking friends and family to share it, and optimizing your listing for search engines. 

To make your ad easily searchable, ensure your car's make, model, year, and sales price are clearly listed (preferably in the ad’s title). You can also try using keywords like "navigation system," "seat warmers," or "large cup holders," as potential buyers will often search for listings with features they want. 

6. Researching equivalent sales will help 

The market for used cars is changing quickly. According to McKinsey, purchase intention for cars is "almost back to pre-COVID levels", but for many months, it dropped substantially. 

Consumer preferences have also changed. Some people are driving less, and others prefer electric vehicles (EVs) to diesel guzzlers. 

To get the best price for your car, you need to research equivalent listings carefully. "Equivalent" in this context means they are from sellers looking to sell cars online that local buyers would reasonably consider competitors — like two family-sized SUVs or two small city cars. 

If you have time, wait several weeks and watch local listings. Look for:

  • Listing and sale prices
  • The average time it takes to sell used cars
  • How other sellers market their car 
  • The payment and negotiation processes other sellers use

Use the information you learned to produce a sales listing that will stand out in your local market's current conditions. 

7. The buyer will expect a test drive

Over 4.95 billion people worldwide (roughly 62.5% of the total population) now have internet access. Naturally, online shopping has grown dramatically—even for cars. 

But just because people look for cars online doesn't mean they don't want to assess them in person. 

Test drives help buyers identify faults, test the car's comfort, and visualize life as your vehicle's new owner. Be prepared for serious buyers to ask for a test drive. 

Make sure you:

  • Clean your car's interior
  • Plan a short route for the driver 
  • Check the driver's license 
  • Double-check your insurance to ensure you're covered
  • Give the driver an overview of the car's main controls

And, of course, accompany the driver on the test drive. Or, if you don't want to join, you can also ask to hold onto a valuable item (like their license or current car keys) as a safeguard. 

Remember, you don't need to say "yes" to every test drive request, and it's not rude to verify the buyer's intentions in advance. 

8. Car sales listings are scam magnets

Not all buyers have genuine intentions, so watch out for common car sale scams. 

In one common scam, a potential buyer might tell you they aren't local and want to buy your car without inspecting it. They will send you money for the car plus extra (usually several hundred to several thousand). Then, they'll ask you to refund the difference. As their transaction wasn't genuine, your bank will remove the car money from your account—but you'll be out the money you refunded. 

Another common scam tactic is to buy the car under a false identity and pay with a fake check. You can avoid falling victim to this by verifying the seller's identity and using a secure payment method. 

Speaking of which…

9. Not all payment methods are equally secure

Once you've finalized the sale and watched the buyer drive off, locating your vehicle and claiming it back if something goes wrong becomes extremely difficult. The buyer could leave the state, disguise the car (often called "re-birthing" the vehicle), or stop meeting payment installments. 

Always ask the buyer to pay in full via a secure payment method before handing over the keys. Secure payment options include:

  • A secure third-party platform like Payoneer, Venmo, or PayPal
  • Direct bank payments 
  • Licensed escrow services 
  • Cash, a cashier check, or a money order handled at the bank with you and the buyer present

Try to avoid payment methods that make it difficult for you to dispute or reverse the transaction. This includes cryptocurrency payments and payments through unlicensed escrow services. 

10. You should use a safe exchange zone

A safe exchange zone is a place local police set up for buyers and sellers to conduct transactions safely. These zones are often monitored by video surveillance 24/7 and are close to law enforcement if things go wrong. 

If you can't find a local safe exchange zone, opt for a public place with lots of light and foot traffic. You could use a local mall parking lot, for example, or a busy public park. Whatever you do, don't conduct the transaction at home, on a secluded street, or in a location without phone service. 

For additional protection, bring someone with you, take your phone, and tell others where you will be (and when to panic if you don't return). 

Conclusion 

The used car market is expected to grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 10% to $460 billion in 2027. And, as more buyers decide to say "no" to used car salespeople and their dodgy tricks, selling cars online is growing in popularity. 

If you're a prospective online car seller, remember these key things:

  • Research, cosmetic reconditioning, and price marketing will get you a better price
  • Buyers expect test drives and vehicle documentation
  • You can protect yourself by using a secure payment method and a safe exchange zone 

And, of course, exercise caution and vet your buyer thoroughly. 

Beatrice Manuel
Beatrice is a seasoned personal and business finance writer. Beatrice completed a triple major in Commerce, Finance and Insurance from Christ University with a CIMA (UK) accountant certification, where she won multiple awards at both national and global levels. After this, she worked at Goldman Sachs as an Executive Office Analyst. She is also a seasoned marketer and current Head of Content & Operations for MediaBerry, a digital PR firm trusted by HubSpot, SemRush, Cloudtalk and more.