Autotrader: How to sell your car and make it shine

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If you’re planning to sell a car yourself, you’ll get more responses to your ad and make more money by presenting your vehicle in its best light. As with most things in life, you won’t get a second chance to make a first impression, so you’ll want to do everything you can to compel shoppers to respond to your ad and make an appointment to go on a test drive.

Mechanical matters

You may have long ago stopped noticing thumps, squeaks, and other signs of protest on the part of your vehicle. But a prospective buyer is sure to call you out on these telltale symptoms of age or mechanical issues, so be prepared to explain them.

“You have to be the expert on the car you’re selling,” says Keely Funkhouser, selling adviser. “You could cost yourself the deal by acting surprised to hear the noise or to see the engine light come on.”

Enlist the help of a friend if you need to, but objectively assess your vehicle’s imperfections, including dents, dings, and noises. Then plan in advance how you’ll respond to questions about them.

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If you’re looking to get top dollar, take the time and bear the expense to visit a mechanic for an assessment. Find out if there are any serious defects, and decide whether you want to have them repaired or to sell the car “as-is.” You may be able to avoid having a buyer talk you down in price if you fix small issues up front.

At a bare minimum:

  • Ensure all major systems and components are in good working condition, or prepare to fully disclose issues to prospective buyers.
  • Replace burned out lights and fuses.
  • Top off all fluids.

To get an idea of cost for a given repair in your area, visit

Cleanliness counts

A quick washing before you show your car simply won’t do. It’s going to be compared with many similar vehicles, so you want to be sure it looks squeaky clean and well maintained, inside and out.

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There are a couple different approaches you can take to the cleaning, but however you go about it, don’t skip this step. If you prefer, take your car to a professional detailer and have it thoroughly detailed. Be prepared to spend up to $200 to have it done right.

Or roll up your sleeves and prepare for a couple of hours of TLC and elbow grease:

  • Start with getting the debris out — toys, cups, french fries, crayons, backpacks, sporting equipment and the like all must go. Be sure to empty the ashtrays and vacuum them out if needed.
  • Next, thoroughly vacuum the seats and the floors, both front and rear. Vacuum under and around floor mats if you have them. And if your floor mats look grungy, try washing them with a carpet shampoo, or get new ones. They can be found inexpensively at most retail stores, and they are well worth the investment
  • Be sure to wash the windows all around until they shine, inside and out. A newspaper used to wipe off the cleaning solution helps minimize streaking.
  • Remove any bugs and tar (there is a product made especially for this purpose available wherever you buy car-care supplies).
  • Thoroughly wash and wax the car.
  • Lastly, scrub the wheels and tires and apply a blackener to give the tires a slick appearance.

If you haven’t detailed your car lately, you may be pleasantly surprised at how nicely it cleans up. But more important, you’ll favorably impress prospective buyers with your spruced up machine.

Picture this

Once your vehicle is ready for prime time, photos are key. And you should take them immediately after the detailing is complete to capture your car at its finest.

“Pictures, pictures, pictures, please!” asserts Tye Frazier, Customer Adviser. “And don’t just take one shot of the exterior. Get several different angles, under the hood, inside the trunk compartment, the wheels. Try to think of all the things a buyer would want to see, and show them.”

Also see: 5 auto-buying tips from a former undercover car salesman

If you continue to drive the car while you’re trying to sell it, keep it garaged if possible. It’s not likely you’ll keep it in picture-perfect condition, but keeping it out of the elements as much as possible will help keep it looking sharp.

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