How to prepare your car for a sale

Words ByJim Holder

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There are two traditional ways to sell your car when you've decided it's time to part company: selling it to a dealer is the more straightforward, while private sales should make you more money.

These aren't your only options, however, as the digital age has seen the arrival of eBay and online companies ready to take your car off your hands with minimum hassle.

Trade-in/dealer sale

This is the quickest and simplest method to sell your car. If a dealer is keen to sell you another car he may offer a good price for your old one. Conversely, if you negotiate a good discount on your new car, he may be reluctant to give you the best price for your old one, so make sure you know exactly what your car is worth before you offer it.

Private sale

As a rule, you will get more for your car by selling it privately (on sites such as PistonHeads). However, the process can be time-consuming. You need to be available to take phone calls and to meet buyers for inspections and test drives. Also, advertising can be costly, particularly if your car takes a long time to sell.

Online auction (eg eBay)

A combination of quick and easy, but also potentially the riskiest way to sell your car. A good method if you know what you're doing.

Online buying companies

Selling your car to a professional online buyer is a quick and easy alternative to selling privately or at a dealer, but you probably won’t get the best price – only you will know if it’s worth it to avoid the usual car-selling hassle.

However, there are reasons why selling online may suit. If your car has a high mileage, is in less-than-perfect condition or is simply getting on a bit, you may struggle to find private buyers or dealers that are interested. Online buyers make no judgments and just value the car as they see fit.

In all cases, though, make sure you know the real market value of your car and shop around to get the best price you can. Don’t let an online buyer fob you off with a drastically lower valuation, and walk away if they start adding on extra charges at the last minute.

To get the most money for a car, you need to know its value. Pricing it correctly is a fine balancing act. Underpricing will lose you money, but in today's market overpricing is even more dangerous, as buyers will simply ignore your car.

Underselling or overselling the condition of a car will impact on a sale too. It's far better to err on the side of underselling. Most buyers appreciate honesty and will be more inclined to go for your car if they think they're getting a bargain. Similarly, most buyers will walk away from an oversold car as soon as they see it.

Use's Free Valuations to establish a fair price for your car. With our valuations, we analyse the car's age, mileage, condition to gives you an instant appraisal of its worth.

Using it is easy, too. Simply enter your car's registration number and we'll automatically identify the car. For an even more accurate valuation you can use intuitive slider bars to enter the mileage and condition.

Next, all you have to do is click the 'Get Valuation' button to reveal the following valuations:

  • The dealer price you can expect to pay when you're only buying a car.
  • What you can expect to receive from, or pay to, a private buyer or seller
  • The part exchange value. This is the value you should aim for when trading in a car for a different vehicle at a franchised or reputable independent dealer.
  • The trade price. This is what private buyers will get by selling their car directly to a trader or dealership in a cash deal, with no part-exchange. This is a car's lowest value.

Also, check out what other people are asking for similar cars to yours, because seasonal fluctuations can influence prices. A glut of Mazda MX-5s on sale in summer will depress values. Selling in springtime can reduce that effect. Demand for 4x4s can soar in winter, so you could be better off waiting until then to sell yours.

Special or limited editions are tempting, but in practice their secondhand value usually isn't that much greater than the basic model. Newer cars that are in short supply are another matter. These 'flavour-of-the-month' cars appeal to people who want to jump the waiting list and can sometimes command premiums over the list price.

Getting your car looking its best before your show it to a potential buyer – whether a private individual or a dealer – will help you sell it as quickly as possible and for the best price. Apart from looking more attractive, a clean car sends out a good message about how well the car has been cared for. There are several things you can do to make it look more appealing.

Clean your car

You can give your car a 'forecourt' look by using the professional cleaning products that garages use.

Plastic restorers are especially effective in rejuvenating a tired car, both inside and out. If you've had the dog in there, borrow a powerful vacuum to get rid of the hairs and put in an air freshener to banish unattractive smells.

Valeting is a competitive business in the UK, so you get a lot for your money. Spending between Β£15 and Β£50 on a full valet is cost-effective if it results in an immediate sale and stops you having to re-advertise.

Some DIY checks

Wipe the engine clean, but don't steam-clean it. Besides raising buyers' suspicions, you might also cause some damage to the electrics. Topping up the engine oil is a good idea though, and filled washer and coolant bottles look good.

Bodywork repairs

Small dents and scratches are worth removing from nearly new cars, but generally they're to be expected on older vehicles so you're unlikely to recover the cost of getting professionals to put them right.

Dealers, in particular, won't bat an eyelid at the odd dink as they can get any obvious ones repaired in their own bodyshop.

The paperwork

Collect together all the relevant paperwork for your car, including the V5C registration document, servicing schedule and MOT certificate. If you have receipts for work done on your car, so much the better – it'll show that you've attended to problems as necessary, and that you're particular enough to retain the evidence.

How you word your advert can make all the difference to the amount of interest you receive and the speed at which you sell your car.

Keep it relevant

Even if you have an unlimited wordcount – in an eBay listing, for example – you won't have readers' unlimited attention, so make sure buyers will see the most relevant information as soon as possible in your ad. There's more scope for pictures online, so take advantage of this option – generally, the more the merrier.

The following are the essential facts to include:

  • Year of registration
  • Essential number plate info (eg. ’09/58 – a car registered in 2009 but while the 58-plate was still current)
  • Mileage (be specific – 78,400 not 78k)
  • Whether or not the car has a full service history
  • Colour (in plain English)
  • Number of owners (if it’s low for the age of your car)
  • List of equipment/features (if space is limited, keep these as noteworthy as possible)
  • Price
  • Colour photograph
  • Contact details

Abbreviations and cliches

Avoid abbreviations if you can: it's too easy to scan over them and lose their meaning, and many buyers won't know what they stand for anyway.

If you really have to use them to reduce the cost of an advert or fit within a word count, stick to the most common abbreviations such as FSH (full service history), PAS (power-assisted steering), AC (air-conditioning), EW (electric windows), RCL (remote/central locking), ONO (or nearest offer), VGC (very/good condition).

Cliches such as 'first to see will buy' or 'one careful lady owner only' sound insincere and will undermine the genuine nature of the rest of your ad, so avoid using these, too.

Dan Trent, editor of PistonHeads, the best source of classified cars, advises this:

'Keep your advert punchy and informative, avoid txt spk and use your spellcheck!

'You're not just selling the car - you're selling yourself as a responsible owner and it pays to make a good impression.

'Cliche or not, pictures tell a thousand words too so take the effort to give the car a wash, photograph it in daylight in front of a clear, uncluttered background and from plenty of angles to help your buyer make an informed choice about what they're looking at.

'Be honest too - you'll immediately win trust and owning up to a couple of faults that'll be immediately obvious upon viewing anyway marks you out as a straight talker.'

If you decide to sell your car privately, you will have to meet potential buyers to allow them to inspect and test drive the car. However, it is vital that you protect your own security and that of your car, so make sure you consider the following:

Have a friend over

If you feel vulnerable or at all uneasy about meeting strangers by yourself, make sure you have a friend or relative around when the buyer visits.

Do it by day

Aim to meet buyers at your home in daylight hours to give them plenty of opportunity to examine the car thoroughly. You will also feel safer if you meet a stranger in daylight. In the winter, this may mean arranging for the buyer to visit in the morning, particularly if there is any chance that any delay would see them arrive after dark.

Check insurance

Ensure the buyer has at least third-party insurance cover. (If they have comprehensive cover on their own car, then they'll have third-party cover on your car.) Alternatively, you could change your policy to cover any driver during the selling process.

Check their licence

Ask to see the buyer's driving licence, and make a note of the licence number. Make it clear to the person driving that any speeding fines incurred on the drive will be their responsibility.

Stay with your car

Never allow a potential buyer to examine or drive your car without you. When it is time for the test drive, get into the passenger seat and then hand over the keys.

Be fair

Allow the buyer to drive on a variety of roads and for a decent amount of time – at least half an hour. If you try to cut it short, they might think you have something to hide.

A car buyer has responded to your advert and wants to buy it. Great news, but what happens next?

First of all you have to make sure your buyer is genuine. If you use a website to advertise your car, you may receive an email from a foreign buyer agreeing to pay the full advertised price, asking you to contact a shipping agent on their behalf, and offering to send you a cheque.

These 'buyers' are almost always scammers. Don't reply to them, but do advise the website administrator.

Fake cheques became a big problem for banks after 2007, when they lost the right to any comeback. It can take six business days for funds to clear, so check your account before releasing the car.

CHAPS/BACS electronic payments or direct money transfers are quick and safe. You can see the money is 'real' as soon as it's in your account.

Escrow is a method of holding a payment in trust until the car has been delivered. It's not a bad system, but you need to be sure that you're really dealing with a legitimate escrow company and that the person collecting the money is who they say they are.


Once a price has been agreed, take a non-refundable deposit of whatever amount gives you confidence that the buyer won't pull out, or that will at least cover some of your costs if they do. Around Β£100 is normal.

Never hand over the car or any paperwork until you have been paid the full agreed price. Be wary of anyone who wants to pay for an expensive car (over Β£10k) in cash. They may be trying to launder money.

Counterfeiting is a problem in the UK. If the buyer continues to insist on cash, see how they react to your suggestion that they can only take the car once their cash is safely in your bank.

Sadly, banker's drafts are no longer 'as good as cash'. They can be forged, and if they are, banks will reject them. Safeguard yourself by waiting six business days for the funds to clear. Under banking rules introduced in 2007, you're guaranteed that the bank will pay the funds, even if the buyer's cheque later turns out to be fraudulent.


Once the deposit has been taken and the deal done, prepare two copies of a written sales agreement including the following:

  • Make and model
  • Registration number and VIN
  • Year of registration
  • Mileage (if you know it to be genuine; if you don't, state 'mileage not verified')
  • Agreed sale price and the deposit paid
  • Buyer's name and address
  • Your name and address
  • A note that the vehicle is 'sold as seen'.

Make sure you both sign and date each copy.

Before you say goodbye to your car, make sure you fill in all transfer documents. Tell the DVLA of the sale by filling in and sending off the form on the vehicle's V5C registration document.

If your car is listed with a security register, you've got to inform them of the sale. If you can't find the forms you need, call the register's number: it should be etched on the car's windows.

Inform any warranty company, manufacturer or independent, of the new owner's details.