While most people cannot imagine living without a car, buying a car is generally a losing proposition. Unless you’re investing in that rare classic automobile that you can sell for a hefty profit at the Barrett-Jackson auction, it’s an asset that loses value rather rapidly. However, there are things you can do to increase the amount of money you walk away with when it’s time to get rid of your vehicle, whether you’re turning your leased car in at the end of the term, trading up, or dealing with a private party. Let’s cut to the chase:
The Basics: Fix the Easy Problems
If you’re returning a leased car or trading one in, the less amount of work the dealer has to do to re-sell your car, the better. With the glut of cars on the market from lease returns, you want your car to stand out for maximum impact and money back to you.
Today’s cars are built better and have a longer lifespan than they had even 20 years ago; therefore, people are keeping cars longer. While an older car may be in good shape mechanically, the additional wear and tear can really take its toll, and there may be issues that need attending to. Small repairs can definitely improve your car’s resale value.
- Make sure no warning lights are lit: Seems obvious, but if a buyer is looking for a red flag, this would be a big one, and could cast doubt on the condition and reliability of the car. Take care of any issues that your dashboard is alerting you to, pronto.
- Fix door dings, bumper dents, and paint scratches: There are body shops and even mobile services that specialize in these types of repairs at relatively minimal cost. A Google search would likely yield a good local resource for you.
- Window chips should always be fixed promptly for safety reasons. A crack can start spreading, which will require the windshield to be replaced entirely rather than simply repaired.
- Replace worn tires: Good quality tires can last up to 80,000 miles. If at any time your tires show their wear indicators, it’s time for a change whether you’re selling the car or not.
- Fix brakes: Any potential buyer will be able to tell immediately if your brakes are poor during a test drive.. Replacing your brake pads is an easy and important fix.
- Check air conditioning & heating systems: If you’re having problems with heating or cooling, they may or may not be easily fixable, depending on the issue. If you decide to sell “as is,” just know that major repairs should be disclosed at the time of sale and may impact your selling price significantly.
- Top off fluids: Easy peasy. Have a reliable mechanic check fluid levels and top off any that are running low.
- Replace windshield wiper blades: This one can be easily missed during dry summer months, but turn your wipers on and off a few times just to make sure they’re still functioning property.
Maintenance, Maintenance, Maintenance
It’s important to get and keep your car in tip-top condition for maximum selling price. Benjamin Franklin famously said “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” and that saying could not be more true as it applies to car maintenance, for safety, performance, and cosmetic reasons. Follow your car manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule (which may vary depending on driving conditions and other factors), and keep good records. Proof of a well-maintained car speaks volumes to a potential buyer, whether it be wholesale or retail.
- Use the oil suggested by the manufacturers - don't skimp on this one. If you do, your warranty may be voided because you did not follow the manufacturer's recommendations for a new car. Regular, on-time maintenance will help keep your vehicle in good health and your money in your pocket over the long run.
- Use the recommended fuel for your car. Skimping on the proper octane grade to save a few cents per gallon can cause surging, poor gas mileage, and is simply not good for your car’s engine.
- Tire pressure is another important maintenance item. If neglected, low tire pressure can affect tire performance and safety. Keep tires properly inflated according to manufacturer recommendations. Every vehicle is different, so check your manufacturer's manuals.
- Other regular servicing recommendations by vehicle manufacturers, such as changing air filters around every 15,000-20,000 miles and changing various other recommended fluids at set intervals (20,000, 40,000, 60,000, etc.) also affect the performance and lifespan of the car.
A Clean Car is a Beautiful Car
After maintenance and mechanical issues have been tackled, a good spit and polish is always an excellent idea.
- Get your car thoroughly detailed by a professional if possible.
- If your car still has halogen headlamps and you choose not to upgrade to HIDs or LEDs, make sure they are clear and sparkling clean.
- Clean the upholstery -- see great DIY tips here.
- Steam-clean your engine.
- Remove bad odors, especially smoke. Detailing and upholstery cleaning usually handle this problem, but not always. If you can’t eliminate the odor, see a professional car detailer.
- Replace floor mats if necessary.
Watch Your Mileage
Annual mileage of roughly 13,500 a year is considered average, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The higher the mileage, the lower the trade-in value; conversely, if you drive less than the average, your car is likely to depreciate at a slower rate.
Don't underestimate the importance of carpooling, and combine trips whenever possible. Some employers subsidize the cost of commuting by train if that is an option where you live, and telecommuting is more popular than ever. Evaluate the miles you've driven at the end of each year and see if there are ways you can drive less.
If your car is in excellent condition, make sure you communicate that to your potential buyer. Major pluses worth mentioning:
- One owner
- No accidents -- consider running a CARFAX report and offering it to your buyer as validation
The Whole Nine Yards
If you have already made your car exactly the way you wanted it for yourself and can’t think of anything to add, great! If not, you may consider adding a thing or two to get it past “base car” status.
- Replace your headlights & tail lights w/ HIDs and/or LEDs: Not just for the “Fast & Furious” crowd anymore, upgraded headlights add additional visibility and safety at night, in addition to looking super cool. Many headlights feature easy plug & play installation using basic garage tools, like the ones available here.
- Replace tires/wheels: This can be considered a major upgrade, depending on the style and quality of the tires and wheels desired. At the very least, replace your worn tires and remember to follow your car manufacturer’s size specs.
- Window tint: If you live in an exceptionally hot climate, some degree of window tinting is almost a necessity, plus it just looks cool (right?). There are mobile companies that provide this service, but make sure you know the DMV rules for allowable tint to minimize problems with law enforcement.
Know Your Car’s Approximate Value
Kelley Blue Book is considered the gold standard for determining a car’s retail value (keep in mind that a car dealer will likely not get close to this price while haggling with you!). Consider KBB’s rating scale when advertising your car if you are placing an ad to sell privately:
- Excellent (3% of cars): Looks new and is in excellent mechanical condition
- Very good (23%): Has minor cosmetic defects and is in excellent mechanical condition
- Good (54%): Has some repairable cosmetic defects and is free of major mechanical problems
- Fair (18%): Has some cosmetic defects that require repairing and/or replacing
- Poor (2%): Kelley Blue Book does not provide prices for cars in poor condition -- good luck!
Choose the Right Car to Begin With
While you should get a car that suits your needs and makes you drive happy, there are some cars that are more popular and have a higher resale value than others. When buying or leasing a new car, there are options you can add at purchase that increase a car’s value (like leather upholstery, a sunroof, HID/LED lights, and Bluetooth connectivity -- a newer option that is quickly becoming very popular) and are usually more conveniently added by the dealer at time of purchase than after the fact.
Even a car’s color can be a factor: Did you know that the most popular car colors for all vehicle categories are silver (23% of purchases), white (15%), and black (12%)? Choosing one of these neutral colors would appeal to the largest number of potential buyers down the road. The hot pink paint job your teenage daughter is begging for could come back to bite you come sale time, so choose wisely.
Second to buying a home, a car is one of the most expensive purchases most people make; therefore, everyone should buy and sell cars skillfully to maximize their investment. Make sure you get the most bang for your buck by keeping your car in peak condition. By keeping these simple steps in mind, you can preserve more of your car's value and get the most money when it comes time to sell.