How Does Selling to a Dealer Work?

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When you have a car you need to sell, selling it to a dealer is the easiest way to unload it. For many dealers today, the goal is to make that process as quick and painless as possible. Many dealers will buy your car for cash without requiring you to use it as a trade-in to buy another car. When you are not in the market for a new car, deciding to sell your used car to a dealership could save you the hassle of trying to make a private sale.

Most reputable dealers strive to make selling a car as simple and pain-free as possible, but there are still a few steps you should take to ensure the process goes smoothly.

Related: Selling Your Car? Can Help

How to Sell Your Car to a Dealer

One of the best parts about selling your car to a dealer is that you do not have to worry about trying to locate a buyer. There are a few things you can do in advance to make sure you get a good deal, though. Before you pull into a dealer lot, make sure your car is ready to be looked at (see more on prepping your car) and that you’ve done some research on how much it’s worth. Consider the cash value as well as the trade-in value.

If you need to grab a used-car value, provides estimated values that are calculated by examining prices dealers are paying at auction for similar vehicles. You should also make sure you have all the necessary documents (especially the car’s title, if you have it) and valuable accessories, such as extra key fobs. Extras are a good way to negotiate a better deal with potential buyers, even when that buyer is a car dealer.

What to Do When You Arrive to Sell Your Used Car

When you arrive at the dealership, inform the salesperson who greets you that you’re there to sell your car; that salesperson might be able to help you, but in some dealerships, you’ll be directed to see the used-car manager (specific titles may vary from dealership to dealership). Once you’re in the right hands, that person will take down your information, inspect your car, take down the vehicle identification number and run it through a vehicle history database to check for damage, accidents and the like. They will likely ask you if you are using the car you want to sell as a trade-in for a new car. You may be offered more money “on paper” if you are using the car as a trade-in than if you want to sell it for cash. Most dealers will work with you whether you are looking to use your car as a trade-in for a new vehicle or not, though.

While the salesperson is gathering information about the car, the dealership may have its service department check out the vehicle’s condition — particularly its tires, brakes, fluids and mechanical parts. They may take the car for a quick spin to see how it runs. After that, it’s time to get your offer.

The Offer

The offer you receive will depend on several factors, but it will mostly rely on the price being paid for similar vehicles at auction. Other factors that could influence their offer include whether or not they have similar cars on the lot for sale already, the condition of your vehicle and whether your vehicle needs any repairs to make it ready for sale. If you still owe money on the car, this may also have an impact on how much you are offered. In most cases, you can sell a car back to a car dealership prior to paying it off, but the amount you receive will need to be enough to pay it off.

Many dealers focus on making this transaction transparent. The internet has changed the car-buying and selling process, and consumers now have access to tools that can help them estimate the value of their car before they set foot on a dealer’s lot. If you have questions about your offer, ask them; many dealers will show you current auction prices or other online tools and sites they use.

Even though you’ve done your homework in advance, remember that each dealer is different. If the dealer you’re visiting has too many of the vehicle you’re trying to sell, it may lead to an offer that’s lower than what you were hoping for.

As you would when shopping to buy a car, it’s a good idea to shop around. Weigh any dealer’s offer against offers from other dealers, or from places like CarMax, and choose the one that’s best — and remember, you can always try to negotiate a bit, as well. But be quick about it: A dealer’s offer could change as the market changes, so if you spread this process out over a few weeks, you may find yourself disappointed when you finally decide to act.

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Closing the Deal

After you agree to an offer, the paperwork will start. If you have the title and necessary documents on hand, you could walk out with a check as soon as that day, though some dealerships take as long as 24-48 hours.

What if you don’t have the title to your car — or, worse, you’re underwater on it (meaning you owe more on it than it’s worth)? Well, dealers say that shouldn’t affect the offer they give you, but it will make for a longer process. If you owe money on the car, the dealership will have to wait until it gets the title from your lender, then send you a check for the balance you’re owed. If you’re underwater, you’ll have to write them a check for the amount you owe that isn’t covered by their offer. This process can take up to 10 business days, so be prepared for that.

Editor’s note: This story was updated May 24, 2021, to reflect how provides estimated vehicle values.’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.

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