One of the lessons to be learned in a down economy is this: when it comes to selling a used car, it’s buyer’s market. Prices have fallen lower than Lindsay Lohan’s moral standards, and it doesn’t look like we’ll be hitting rock bottom any time soon. If you try to trade a car in to a dealer, the results are likely to be even worse. Trying to negotiate with a car dealer on a trade in is like trying to negotiate over a pork chop with a pit bull: at the very least, it’s bound to be unpleasant.
That said, there are things you can do to increase the value of your used car before you post it on eBay, Craigslist or anywhere else in cyberspace. You don’t need to spend a fortune to make your car look good, and you can probably dress it up in less than a full day.
Step one – clean your car top to bottom, inside and out. If you’ve got access to a hose and some shade, wash it yourself. If you live in an apartment, take it to a car wash and spring for their deluxe wash. It’ll cost you money, but it’ll save you some time.
Once the outside is clean, start on the inside. Use a Swiffer or similar dusting cloth to pick up as much dirt as possible from the hard surfaces (dash, center console, instruments, doors, etc.) before you vacuum. Once you’re done dusting, vacuum every square inch of the car’s interior, including under the seats and in the door pockets.
After you’re done with vacuuming, use the cleaning products of your choice on the inside. Personally, I hate the glossy, sticky mess that regular Armor All creates, but I love their cleaning wipes. Be sure to get all that film off the inside of the windows, and using a microfiber towel with a good auto glass cleaner (like Invisible Glass) will make this job much easier. If you’ve got leather seats, now’s the time to break out the Lexol (or equivalent product) to condition the leather. If it’s been a while since you did this, be prepared to put on several applications.
Take out anything that didn’t come in the car. Yank that pine tree air freshener from the rearview mirror, because no one cares about your irritable bowel syndrome. If the car still smells funky after you’ve cleaned the inside, try an odor neutralizer like Febreeze (which now comes in a formula specially for cars). Pull your topless hula bobblehead doll from the dash, because not everyone shares your taste for the absurd.
Step two – wax your car by hand. How crazy you get with this is entirely up to you, but let me say this: even a three step wax isn’t going to add much value to your 1998 Camry, so judge accordingly. Personally, I like Meguiar’s Cleaner Wax myself, since it does a good enough job, doesn’t cost a fortune and is available almost anywhere.
First, remove any dried bugs, tar or tree sap with a bug and tar remover, Follow the directions on the can, but use just enough to get the job done since the solvents used in bug & tar remover aren’t good for paint.
If your car has light scratches around the door handle or keyhole, consider using a scratch remover like Scratch X before you wax. Be careful with this, since it’s a lightly abrasive cleaner; use too much or rub too hard, and you can turn a slight scratch into a big dull spot in the paint.
Take your time, work in the shade and be careful not to get wax where it doesn’t belong (black trim, rubber seals, etc.). It’s a lot easier to put the wax on carefully than it is to spend hours digging it out of places it shouldn’t be. If you do get it jammed between the paint and a car logo, use a soft toothbrush to remove it once it dries.
When you’re done with the first coat of wax, take a step back and look at the car. Make sure you got all of the dried wax off of it, especially on the rocker panels and lower fascias where it’s easy to miss. If you’re felling motivated, go ahead and throw on a second coat, but chances are you’ll be done waxing after just one.
Step three – now it’s time to work on the trim. If you have black plastic trim that’s faded in the sun over time, go beg, steal or borrow a heat gun from your neighbor. You know, the guy that owns every tool ever made? Working carefully on the lowest setting, work the heat gun over the black trim until the color starts to return; I’m not sure why this works (probably has something to do with causing the oils in the plastic to bloom), but it does. Be VERY careful, especially if you turn the heat gun up to a higher setting, as it’s easy to melt plastic trim and body work with heat. Keep the gun moving constantly and use just enough heat to get the job done.
An alternative, if you don’t have access to a heat gun, is to use a trim restorer to bring the color back. Like Armor All, these tend to make the trim greasy and don’t last all that long, so this isn’t the best way to do it.
Check out your headlights as well. If they’ve turned opaque over the years, buy a headlight restoration kit and follow the directions to polish your headlight lenses. This goes a long way towards turning a junker into a clean used car.
Step four – wheels and tires are often the most neglected part of your cars, so show ‘em some love. Personally, I use Simple Green and a scrub brush to clean my wheels, but this is labor intensive process. If you’re selling the car, just spring for a commercial wheel cleaner and follow the manufacturer’s directions. Keep cleaning until all the black, caked on brake dust is gone, even if this takes some scrubbing on your part. You may have ignored your car, but you don’t want the next owner to see this from 50 yards away.
Once the wheels are sparkling clean, work on the tires. Any commercial tire dressing will do, but make sure you don’t overlook the bottom of the tire’s sidewall. Yes, you’ll have to drive or push the car forward to get to this part, so don’t be lazy and blow it off.
Step five – now that the outside and the interior are done, it’s time to seriously assess how much money you’re going to sink into the car before you sell it. If you’ve maintained it well all along, good for you. Your work is done, so go post it on the internet and keep your fingers crossed.
If, like most people, you’ve ignored maintenance and haven’t spent a dime on repairs in the last five years, it may be time to pony up. If the car needs tires, think about buying them before you list the car since new tires are generally a selling point. The exception to this is sports cars; if I were shopping for a used 911, I’d rather buy a clean example that needed tires than one equipped with Pep Boy special tires. Use your judgement, depending upon the type of car you’re selling.
At the very least, you should fix any problems that would preclude the car from passing a state inspection, assuming your state still does this. This may include things like replacing the brakes and rotors, replacing broken tail or indicator lights and even replacing the windshield if it’s significantly cracked. If you opt not to do this, don’t be surprised when you get low ball offers from potential buyers who calculate the cost of making your car road worthy.
So that’s my advice on how to get the most out of your used car. I also recommend full disclosure to any potential buyers, since karma has a way of biting people in the ass. If your car was in an accident, be up front about it if the buyer asks. Unless you funded the repairs yourself (unlikely, if the accident was significant) he’ll be able to get this info from a Carfax. Likewise, if your car has a salvage title, be sure to list that in the description. No matter how clean the car looks, I’d walk away from a salvage title vehicle unless I was building a race car. I’d be plenty pissed off if I drove for an hour to find out that the “immaculate” used car had a salvage title that the owner hadn’t disclosed.
Finally, be realistic about your pricing. Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book are good places to get generic pricing information for your particular year, make and model, but don’t expect to walk away with that much cash in your pocket. Know your asking price, but also know what you’re willing to settle for. Try to be as emotionally detached from the sale as possible; the car may have been your baby, but it’s just a bunch of metal and plastic to the new buyer. The more realistic you are about your cars condition and price, the sooner it will sell.