Should I trade in my car or sell it myself?

Pros and cons and strategies for offloading your current ride

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Christopher Murray

Christopher Murray is a professional personal finance and sustainability writer with six years of experience. He writes about everything from budgeti…

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Beth Swanson

SEO Content Strategist

  • Licensed Insurance Agent — Property and Casualty

Beth joined The Zebra in 2022 as an Associate Content Strategist. She is a licensed insurance agent whose goal is to make insurance content easy to r…

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Susan Meyer

Senior Editorial Manager

  • Licensed Insurance Agent — Property and Casualty

Susan is a licensed insurance agent and has worked as a writer and editor for over 10 years across a number of industries. She has worked at The Zebr…

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Trade-in vs. sell

You’ve had the same loyal car for years, but you’ve finally convinced yourself it’s time for an upgrade. Or maybe, you've just seen how much used cars are going for and want to cash in.[1] The Zebra recently conducted a survey focused on car buying and found that 2 out of 5 people were motivated to buy a new car based on their current car's resale value. 

Regardless of your motivation for selling, you want the old car gone. Should you trade it in? Just put a 'for sale' sign on it and park it on the side of the road? 

The answer to this question will largely depend on how much effort you want to put into the whole process. And there’s a nearly equal list of pros and cons for both sides. Let’s take a look so you can decide which path is right for you!

 Woman at car dealership

Pros of trade in

Trading in your car has its perks. If you’re thinking about trading in your vehicle, here are a few reasons it might be the right choice

It’s so easy

Perhaps the number one reason sellers consider trading in their car is the sheer convenience of doing so. The appraisal process takes about 15 - 30 minutes and then you’ll be offered a trade-in price.[2] 

You can apply the value to a new car

If you check around with multiple dealerships, the one that offers you the highest price for your trade-in may also offer you the best deal on a new car. If you’re planning on purchasing your next car from a dealer, you can apply the price of the trade-in to your new car as a down payment. 

No repairs required

When you sell your car yourself, you’ll want to take care of any major repairs, or else you could have a hard time finding a buyer at all. Dealerships may still take your car as a trade-in, even if there is some damage, especially if it’s an easy fix on their part. They’ll just deduct a chunk from the asking price.

Cons of trade in

Trading in may not be the best option for every seller. Take a look at a few cons before jumping into a trade-in. 

You won’t be getting a high price

How much you get for your car in trade-in will depend on the make and model of your car, the condition it’s in and how new it is. But in general, you won’t ever get as much from a trade-in as you would from a private-party sale. Dealerships need to make a profit, so if they give you the full price for the car, there’s no wiggle room for them to make anything on the sale. 

Before you even step foot in a dealership, take a few moments to find your trade-in value on Kelley Blue Book. They have a calculator that can give expected values.[3] If you take this with you to the dealership, it can help you make sure you’re not getting lowballed. 

You could pay more because you opt for a trade-in

Surprisingly, purchasing a new car at the dealership where you’re trading in may not be the best deal. A study from the USC Marshall School of Business found that, on average, buyers pay $990 more when they trade in their cars vs. buyers who don’t.[4] 

So, brand loyalty doesn’t always pay off in the trade-in game. That’s why you must negotiate your trade-in and new car prices separately.

Tips for trading your car in

Trading your car in is as simple as walking into a dealership and telling a salesperson you’d like to talk about a potential trade-in. But there are a few things you can do to prepare. Follow these tips to ensure you’re getting the best trade-in value. 

  • Have your paperwork in order. Having your original paperwork handy is going to help the trade-in process progress more smoothly. 
  • Do your research beforehand. You can find your potential trade-in value on KBB, so spend the few seconds it takes to get this number before going to the dealer. This can help you demonstrate why they should offer you the right price. 
  • Make minor repairs if you want the best value. Fixing any significant issues before trading it in can raise the value of your trade-in. 
  • Check with multiple dealers. It pays to check out a few dealerships and see what they’ll offer you. While the difference likely won’t be thousands of dollars, you may find that one offers the best value and trade-in experience. 
  • Don’t be afraid to walk. Before going in for an appraisal, have your walk-out number. This is the lowest you’ll take for a trade-in. If a dealership won’t offer you that, don’t be afraid to go find someone who will.

 car for sale

Pros of selling your car yourself

So, you’re thinking about selling your car on your own. While it’s not the most convenient option, it’s still a very good one. Here’s why DIYing your sale may be the right move. 

You’ll likely get the highest price

Selling your car on your own means you’ll most likely be getting the best price. This is because only you are getting a share of the profits since no intermediary needs to resell the car later. Securing the highest price is likely one of the biggest reasons sellers choose to go the DIY route.   

It’s getting easier to do so 

Before online options, selling your car took a little more legwork. Now, however, there are multiple sites where you can list your car for sale and have people contact you in a matter of days if not hours. Plus, it’s become easier to spot scams so you can more easily avoid putting yourself in a dangerous situation.[5] 

Cons of selling your car yourself

Selling your car can be deceivingly simple, but there’s a lot that can go wrong. Here are a few reasons you may want to consider a trade in over selling on your own. 

You’ll need to do all the work

When you sell your car yourself you’ll need to clean it up, advertise, meet with potential buyers, haggle when buyers offer way too low of a price and make up the bill of sales and any other purchase agreements. Depending on where you live, this can take a few days or a few months. 

You still might not get the best price

Even after putting in a ton of work, you could end up taking a lower price than you wanted out of sheer desperation. For starters, most buyers will try to negotiate the price down. Staying strong and rejecting these offers can be more difficult than you might think.

Additionally, the longer your car sits for sale, the less you’ll get. If your ad has been up for months, potential buyers will want to know why. Is there an issue with how the car runs? Are you asking too much? You’ll need to have answers and be prepared to potentially lower the cost to get a serious buyer. 

Selling on your own isn’t always safe

My personal #1 selling tip: avoid Craigslist if possible. There are so many alternatives (Facebook Marketplace being just one) that taking the chance of getting scammed on Craigslist just isn’t worth it. That said, even sellers with the best of intentions can find themselves in sticky situations. If you prefer to avoid meeting up with people, trading in your car may be a better option for you.

Tips for selling on your own

When selling your car on your own, there’s a lot you can do to increase its value. Here are a few tips to get the most bang for your buck:

  • Remove bumper stickers. Selling your car is a transaction, there’s no need for personal opinions to get in the way of you getting the best offer. 
  • Make sure it’s clean. While not everyone will care about the state of your vehicle, most buyers will be turned off by a car that hasn’t been washed or vacuumed in years. Making sure your vehicle is clean is also simply courteous to the next owner.  
  • Take professional-looking photos. Ads with one or two exterior photos that look like they were taken on an early 2000s flip phone aren’t going to get you the best buyers. Make sure you take lots of photos showing the inside, outside and underside of the car. 
  • Be honest in your ad. There’s no use lying in your ad. The potential buyer will eventually show up to look at the car and when they see the dings you swore weren’t there, everyone involved is just going to get angry. 
  • Research and get a realistic picture of the asking price. Before listing your car for sale, look up its value on Edmunds[6] and Kelley Blue Book.[3] This will make sure you’re not listing your vehicle for a ridiculous price or having buyers lowball you. 
  • Make any necessary repairs. You can sell your car with minor issues, but you won’t get the best possible price. Making any small repairs like changing old tires or replacing a dead battery can add value to your vehicle. 
  • Advertise on safe sites. Avoid websites prone to scams (such as Craigslist). Instead, try listing on Facebook Marketplace (which seems to be getting more scammy over time, so be alert) or simply park your car on the side of the road with a for sale sign.[7]

Who should sell vs. who should trade

Sell if…

  • You have a high-demand car. Luxury and vintage cars often fetch a high price, no matter how old they are. Selling it yourself can mean you could get thousands more than a dealer might offer. Additionally, trucks and SUVs are also popular cars constantly in demand. 
  • You want the highest possible price. Selling your car on your own takes a little hard work, but it comes with a higher price tag. You’re cutting out the middleman, so that means more money goes directly into your pocket. 
  • You have the time to dedicate to selling. There’s no use in trying to sell a car on your own if you’re simply too busy to do so. If you have the time to take photos, make repairs and meet buyers, your work will pay off. 

Trade in if…

  • Convenience is your number one concern. Simply put, if you’re looking for the easiest way to cash in on your old car, trade it in. You can trade in your car and leave with cash all in one day. 
  • You have a new, low-mileage car. Old cars that barely run might be overlooked by dealerships that can’t make much of a profit. If, however, you have a car that’s a few years old and is still in good condition, you’ll at least get a price that’s worth the trade-in.

  1. Average used car price now over $28,000. Kelley Blue Book

  2. How the Trade-in Appraisal Works in a Dealership. Auto Cheat Sheet

  3. What's my car worth? Kelley Blue Book

  4. Buyers with a trade-in get a raw deal. Science Daily

  5. Online car-buying scams to watch out for. Experian

  6. How much is my car worth: Instant used car value and trade-in value. Edmunds

  7. Car scams on Facebook. autohitch