Basics and Terminology

In most cases, selling your car on your own will net you more cash than trading it in because the dealer won't be a middleman seeking a profit. However, consider the amount of time and effort that selling it yourself requires versus the option of trading it in, which is relatively simple and efficient.

How Much Do I Sell It For?

The first issue to address is what price to put on your old car. To begin calculating a price, research the wholesale value of the car — that's the price dealers are paying for the car. Cars.com's Kelley Blue Book tool lets you research trade-in and retail prices. The National Automobile Dealers Association's Official Used Car Guide also can tell you the trade-in and retail price of your car. These guides give you a starting point if you're shopping around the trade-in to different dealers.

Asking Versus Actual Price
This table shows the differences in asking and actual used-car prices for franchised and independent dealers. Actual pricing has ranged from 92 to 95 percent of asking price since 2001.
YearFranchised AskingFranchised ActualPctg.Independent AskingIndependent ActualPctg.
2001$12,876$12,23895.0%$8,769$8,27594.4%
2002$12,592$11,78693.6%$8,450$7,89993.5%
2003$11,653$10,78092.5%$7,863$7,23392.0%

Source: CNW Marketing Research

Second, find out how much vehicles similar to yours are being priced at retail. Check out similar models in the classified ads of your local newspaper. You can find automotive classifieds for more than 175 newspapers on Cars.com. You should also check out how high local dealers are pricing equivalent vehicles.

If you have a special-interest or collectible car, check the Cars of Particular Interest Value Guide or Hemmings Motor News, which are available at most large newsstands, or the classifieds section in motoring magazines. You also can consult members of a local car club or a professional auto insurance appraiser.

Once you know the trade-in and private-sale values, you can come up with a price that should be lower than the dealer's suggested retail price but higher than the price a dealer would pay for a trade-in.

Who's Selling Used Cars
Franchised dealers typically sell the most used vehicles, followed by independent dealers and casual — or private — sellers. Sales numbers below are in millions.
YearFranchised SalesIndependent SalesCasual Sales
200115.914.412.3
200216.513.113.5
200316.213.713.7

Source: CNW Marketing Research

Defining Your Vehicle's Condition

Once you've determined the general price range for your kind of vehicle, you can zero in on a price by honestly evaluating your vehicle.

List your vehicle's optional equipment, such as automatic transmission, air conditioning and any accessories you added — running boards on a truck or a sunroof, for example. Desirable extras add value to your vehicle.

Also evaluate your vehicle's condition. Is it in poor, fair, good or excellent condition? Obviously, the better the vehicle's condition, the faster it will sell and for the highest price. Cars.com's Kelley Blue Book tool provides definitions of vehicle conditions.

In addition to the vehicle's condition, other mitigating factors could affect the price of your vehicle.

The time of year you sell your vehicle can have an impact. Used-car sales are seasonal depending on where you live. In the northern and western parts of the United States, fewer used vehicles are sold from December to March than during spring, summer or fall. In fall and spring, used vehicles are at their highest levels at dealerships. You might fare well if you try to sell your vehicle during the off-season when you have less competition. Of course, the trade-off in the north is that there may be fewer buyers in colder months, and used cars show more poorly in the cold and slush of winter.

On occasion, you'll notice a glut of a particular kind of vehicle. For instance, a few years ago when Ford's Taurus and Honda's Accord were in a December race for the title of best-selling car in America, some very attractive lease deals were offered. A couple years later when those vehicles went off lease, there was a glut, which depressed prices. It's easy to recognize such a glut if you drive around town and check out the lots of new- and used-car dealerships, or by perusing newspaper advertisements.

Explanation of Vehicle Characteristics

The following list includes important vehicle characteristics that you should be familiar with when selling your vehicle:

body style: This describes the configuration of a vehicle. For example, passenger vehicles are available as coupes, sedans and convertibles. "Coupe" implies a two-door hardtop. Technically, a sedan is a hardtop vehicle with two or four doors and seating for four to six occupants, but this word's meaning is so widely misunderstood that "sedan" often appears in for-sale listings representing a four-door vehicle. A "convertible" is a car with a roof that can be removed or folded back for top-down driving.

class: This refers to the pricing, type and/or size of a vehicle.

cylinders: It's common to describe engines by the number of cylinders and their configuration. Most engines come in either a V or inline configuration. The former has two banks of cylinders arranged in a V-shaped engine block. A six-cylinder engine with this configuration is commonly referred to as a V-6. An inline engine is one with all of the cylinders in a single row.

doors: Most vehicles come with either two or four doors. However, a two-door vehicle with a hatchback (or liftback) rather than a trunk may be called a three-door, and a four-door hatchback a five-door.

drive system: Vehicles are equipped with either front- , rear- or some type of four-wheel drive. Generally, all-wheel drive implies a type of four-wheel drive that automatically routes power to the front and rear axles as needed, with no involvement from the driver; this is most common in passenger cars. Four-wheel drive, a more heavy-duty system used in pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles, typically includes a Low gear for off-roading and pulling power. Vehicles can have both four- and two-wheel drive, or permanently engaged 4WD.

transmission: The mechanism that uses gears to link the power produced by the engine to the drive wheels over a broad range of speed. Most vehicles are available with either an automatic or a manual transmission. Manuals require the driver to depress a clutch and select a proper gear via a shifter. Vehicles equipped with an automatic gearbox do this automatically.

vehicle style: The designation, or trim level, assigned to a vehicle by its manufacturer to distinguish base models from those with upgraded equipment packages.

VIN: Established in 1954, American automobile manufacturers use a vehicle identification number, or VIN, to describe and identify motor vehicles. Beginning with the 1981 model year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration required that all over-the-road vehicles sold must contain a 17-character VIN. This standard established a fixed VIN format. Found on the driver's side of the dashboard where it meets the windshield, the VIN encodes the vehicle's year, make, model, body and engine style, and a unique serial number.

Posted on 12/20/04