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How to Sell a Car That Needs Some Work

By Colin Bird

Selling your car can be tough. You have to figure out a price, get the car cleaned and, most importantly, find the right buyer. Depending on the age of your car and how you took care of it (or didn’t take care of it), you may also have to tackle one more step: repairing your banged-up ride.

Whether to repair the car you plan to sell is a difficult thing to sort out. What should you fix? How much should you spend? Who should do the repairs?

Assess the Damage

If you’ve owned your car for years, you may think you know a thing or two about its problems. Even so, it’s always good to double-check what’s going on and maybe even get a second pair of eyes to help you out.

Clean your car thoroughly inside and out. This should help you spot most problems, whether they’re inside or outside.
Walk around your car. Look for things like excessive wear or damage that may affect your car’s value, including rust, dents, scratches, missing pieces of trim, broken lights, etc.
Check under the hood. Make sure the engine compartment is clean and there are no signs of leaks.
Check out your car’s interior, too. Make sure you know – and acknowledge -- about anything that’s worn or broken before the buyer finds it.

It’s important to be honest in this examination in order to determine the price of your car and whether or not the money you spend on repairs will make its way back to you after the sale.

Cost vs. Benefit for Repairs

To figure out how much your car is worth, we recommend using Kelley Blue Book’s pricing tool, which can be found on Freebo. Enter your car’s make and model, check off the appropriate boxes, and think long and hard about whether it’s in fair, good or excellent condition.

Excellent: A vehicle must be in exceptional condition to earn this title, and can require no (zero!) refurbishment.
Good: If your car is a few years old, it most likely falls into this category. Minor exterior and interior wear is acceptable, but there should be no mechanical problems.
Fair: Many older used cars fall into this category. They’re cars that have both exterior and interior wear and tear, as well as some mechanical problems. However, the car should still be in safe driving condition and have a clean record.

Kelley Blue Book lists one more condition category that’s worth mentioning: Poor. This designation is assigned to cars with severe mechanical and/or cosmetic problems. They may also have harder-to-fix problems, like frame damage. A vehicle in Poor condition can’t be priced on KBB because of how much a wide range of damage can affect a price. If your vehicle falls into this category, you may have to bring it to an independent appraiser to assess its value. These cars can gain the most value when repaired properly.

Keep in mind that the older a car is, the less likely it is that expensive repairs will be cost-effective. It might be best to sell the car “as is,” or sell it for scrap (depending on its record and condition). Both of these options will dramatically reduce your asking price.

A car that should be repaired is one that is relatively new or valuable and has a major but fixable mechanical problem, or minor cosmetic issues that will be cheap to fix.

For instance, if the difference in value between a Fair-condition Honda CR-V and a Good one is $1,100, then spending $450 to replace a faulty power window is worth the trouble, as that could earn you $650.

If you’re very lucky, your vehicle could still be under manufacturer warranty for the issue you want to fix, although most common maintenance items, like oil changes and brake pads, typically aren’t covered.

Fixing Your Car

Now that you’ve figured out whether your car needs repairs, it’s time to find a good mechanic. If you’re the ambitious type, you could even fix it yourself, but unless you have substantial experience repairing cars, we recommend handing it over to an expert. You don’t want to unintentionally cause more damage and dig yourself a deeper financial hole.

To find a reputable mechanic, you can do one of the following:
Ask friends or family members for recommendations.
Go to a manufacturer-certified auto shop. For example, GM Goodwrench handles service for all GM vehicles.
Check out the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence for a certified auto mechanic.
Check out yellowpages.com, yelp.com or kuduz.com for listings and user ratings of mechanics in your area.
Search the Car Talk Mechanic Files for mechanics recommended by the Car Talk community.

Using a combination of these methods should ensure you get a reputable mechanic who does the job you ask and doesn’t try to drain your life savings.

When you find the right shop, it’s important that you communicate with the mechanic about the problems you’re there to fix. Your own examination should have helped you identify funny noises, leaking fluids or warning lights on the instrument cluster. If you’re going to a body shop for detailing, make sure you point out the dents and scratches you want fixed.

Before you hand over the keys, get a quote and be aware of their labor rates, guarantees and any warranties. At this point, you may decide not to get the car fixed, but rather to deduct the cost of repairs from your asking price instead.

Remember, you’re investing in the car to sell it. If the mechanic tries to “upsell” you helpful but unnecessary repairs, like a chassis lube or rotor turnings, promptly turn them down.

Use the Repairs as an Asset

Once repairs are done and you’re ready to sell, make sure you tell the buyer about all the work you put into the car. New tires and brake pads or topped-off fluids show the buyer you really put care into your vehicle.

A rebuilt transmission or engine block and other chassis work should also be mentioned as a selling point. If your mechanic had a warranty on the repairs (most have ones ranging from 30 days to six months), be sure to bring that up, too. Make sure you keep the paperwork to prove the repairs were actually done. Cosmetic repairs probably don’t have to be mentioned – the body should speak for itself.

If you’ve opted out of repairs, be honest and tell potential buyers about the problems you discovered during your examination or the auto-shop assessment.

Essentially, make sure you know your car before you sell it. Discovering a car’s weaknesses and strengths, and fixing basic problems before you sell, will almost always translate to a better payoff for you than if you did nothing at all.