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How to Sell Your Used Car


Although the negotiating aspect of selling a used car hasn't changed, the actual process is a whole different ballgame. It's worth exploring how to approach a used-car sale, because those of you who figure the benefits of a dealer trade-in outweigh the hassles of selling a car yourself are paying dearly for the privilege.

I haven't sold a used car in a long time and, as luck would have it, I ended up needing to sell two. (Long story, don't ask.) Anyway, I found that although the negotiating aspect of human nature hasn't changed, the technical means of making such a sale is a different ballgame. It’s worth exploring how to approach the subject, because those of you who figure the benefits of a dealer trade-in outweigh the hassles of selling a car yourself are paying dearly for the privilege.

Depending on many variables, you lose between $1,000 to $3,000 of your trade-in car’s value when you sign it over to the dealer. If you don't believe me, go to auto-valuation websites such as Edmunds, Kelly Blue Book or NADAGuides.com and when you bring up the value of your current ride, look at the difference between what the dealer will give you for it -- if you’re good negotiator and, face it, few of us are -- and what you can get selling Old Nellie to a private party.

Why is that, you ask? For starters, we don't get much practice negotiating. In American culture, if we don't like a price, we go elsewhere instead of sitting down and haggling over the deal. There are exceptions, of course, such as flea markets, art galleries, real estate, etc., but even there we tend to just pay and move on.

And, as I’ve said again and again, doctors get little practical training in matters economic, so we focus on the things that we are trained to do, shrug, pay more, get less, and figure we'll just work harder and longer to make up the difference. Money is fungible, isn't it?

Okay, you've decided to sell your used car on your own, having been seduced by a shiny new whizmobile and figuring the extra money from the sale will reduce the guilt that you feel for overspending on something new. We are American Consumers -- that's what we do. (For those of you not wired that way, bare with me.)

After you’ve checked the car-valuation websites, you’ve have a good ballpark estimate of where to set your asking price and a fudge factor for what you’ll ultimately accept when all is said and done. At first pass, you may be shocked, then annoyed, and, finally, resigned to how little you’re your trusty beater is worth.

In my case, after recovering my composure, I went to Craigslist.com and listed my car for free for one week. Autotrader.com is another, low-fee option.

Like all new experiences, you don't really know what to expect until after you are done. So here are some tips:

Ad Wording: How you word your ad is important, so spend some time looking at ads for similar cars and copy the wording that looks good to you. Just remember to change the specifics.

Photos: Always include pictures, from as many angles -- interior and exterior -- as possible. I was overwhelmed with the demand for pictures. If you’re not tech-savvy, and I must confess I’m not, ask a friend to do it for you (as I did).

Timing: The best time to post an ad is Thursday evening. Why? The sharp buyer begins a search on Friday morning, planning ahead for the weekend, trying to get a jump on the competition.

Scams: Pay careful attention to the many posted warnings on Craigslist about scams and how to avoid them. Even then, when you’re dealing with a prospective buyer, be skeptical and careful.

Anonymity: On Craigslist you can list an ad anonymously, and the site will forward the emails from interested parties to your email account. This is useful to weed out the crazies, the bottom-feeders and constant interruptions. All responders are not created equal. Choose the ones you want to respond to by replying online or by phone.

Showing the Car: Agree to meet any interested parties at a neutral site, such as a local Starbucks or department-store parking lot -- not at your home. Ask to see a valid driver's license and accompany the buyer on the test drive. You'll answer questions, point out features and act as a damper on wilder impulses, especially if you have a performance car or a very valuable car. Do not accept holding their keys while they test drive alone. Too many thieves never come back, and that's a hassle that no one needs.

Payment: You’ve found a buyer and agreed to a price. Ask the buyer to bring a cashier's check for the full amount, drawn on a major bank. Believe it or not, cashier's checks can be faked and you certainly don’t want to accept a bag of cash, for many reasons. There’s a phone number on a cashier's check that you can call to verify the check's authenticity.

Closing the Deal: Once again, do not invite the buyer to your home. A good place to complete this transaction is at a AAA office. (Find the closest one near you here.) Here's why: If your local department of motor vehicles is anything like mine, you do not want to go anywhere near it. In California, at least, AAA has a DMV station right inside for registrations. In my case, no line and a helpful, cheerful clerk. Like manna, I tell you.

I wrote out a simple bill of sale specifying the vehicle identification number (VIN), found on registration and inside the left front driver's side window, the odometer reading, our names, addresses, a statement that the car is in "As Is" condition, so that there will be no recriminations and the agreed price. (You can find free samples of used-car bills of sale here and here.) The AAA clerk was happy to make a copy. Take your payment, sign the pink slip over, take the registration plates off the car, and Voila! Now all that’s left to do is to call your respective insurance companies to start or, in the seller's case, stop the coverage and you're done.

What did I learn through the whole process? A little humility and more respect for car salespeople. True, dealer salespeople have the advantage, being daily practitioners of the skill set, but it’s not an easy way to make a buck. But I feel that I earned my couple of thou fair and square -- more per hour than seeing patients, incidentally. And I will be more than grateful to go back to doing what I usually do.

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Victor J. Dzau, MD, gives expert advice
Victor J. Dzau, MD, gives expert advice