How to Sell Your Car and Get Top Dollar in 2021

Selling your car in the right place, to the right buyer, and even at the right time can be paramount when it comes to getting the most money from the sale.
Last updated May 13, 2021 | By Stephanie Colestock
Woman in car holding keys

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A few months ago, my beloved SUV crossed the 100,000-mile odometer threshold. Although I finished paying off this vehicle a couple of years ago — and have very much enjoyed being car payment-free — this mileage milestone made me start wondering whether I needed to sell my car before its value bottomed out.

After doing many hours of research, soliciting cash offers, and taking a few tempting test drives, I ultimately decided to keep my trusty SUV for just a bit longer. If I were going to sell, though, I learned that there are a few things all owners need to know about timing and their approach in order to get top dollar.

In this article

How to sell your car: 4 options

There are a few different avenues to consider if you want to sell your car for the most money possible. The route you take will depend on the details of your vehicle (make, model, year, mileage, condition, etc.), where you live, how quickly you want (or need) to sell, and whether you plan to purchase another vehicle at the same time.

1. Consider a private sale

Typically, you will get a higher sale price for your vehicle when you sell it privately. This method involves a bit more work and time, though. You’ll usually need to advertise the vehicle on your own, then wait for the right buyer to come along before you can sell.

Private sales can be advertised in your local paper, through online platforms like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, on dedicated sites like Autotrader.com or Cars.com, or even by placing a for-sale sign in the window as you drive around town. This may be a great option for drivers who are interested in selling their current vehicle but wouldn’t mind having a bit more time to save for a car they really want next.

2. Sell it to a dealership

Many dealerships may purchase your used car even if you’re not planning to buy a replacement from them. In some cases, they will sell the vehicle in their used car lot; other times, they may send the vehicle to auction instead.

Although your vehicle will likely need to be running and in decent physical condition, dealerships accept a range of cars for purchase or trade-in. Selling to a dealership is often a good choice if you are looking to get rid of the vehicle sooner rather than later and don’t feel like waiting for the right private buyer. However, because dealerships are in the business of making money — and will also need to sell your car to someone else for a profit — this might not necessarily be the most lucrative option.

Selling your car to a dealership allows you to shop around for the best offer. Many companies, like CarMax, will offer free appraisals and purchase offers. In some cases, these offers last as many as seven days, which gives you the ability to have your car appraised by multiple dealerships to find the best possible offer.

3. Trade it in

Trading in your vehicle at a local dealer could be the most convenient option if you’re looking to buy a new (or new to you) car at the same time. This allows you to sell your vehicle to a dealership and apply that credit to the new vehicle you are buying from the same dealer.

You might include your trade-in’s value during your new vehicle’s negotiations. In addition to negotiating the purchase price for your new car, you may find your salesperson offering you a better price on your trade-in vehicle in order to sweeten the deal.

Trading in is not only convenient — allowing you to drive onto the lot in your old car and drive off in your new car — but it could be a smart choice financially. You can get a few trade-in and dealership sales offers before finalizing your purchase, so you know you’re getting the best possible price for your old car. Some dealerships also run trade-in promotions throughout the year, such as a percentage above Kelley Blue Book value, which means a higher overall offer for your old vehicle.

4. Sell it online

These days, you can do pretty much anything online, and that includes selling and buying a car from home.

Selling your car online could involve private sales, as mentioned above, or a car-buying service. One such company — which is also the coolest, in my opinion — is Carvana. Carvana is perhaps best known for its contactless car buying vending machines around the country. But if you are looking to either sell or trade your car in, Carvana can also make that process quick and painless.

With Carvana, you can get an instant offer for your vehicle online, at any time and from anywhere. If you accept the offer, which takes about two minutes to receive, it will send out a representative to pick up your car. That person will show up with a check as soon as the next business day. They’ll look over your vehicle to ensure everything is as stated and if so, take your car away and leave the payment.

You can also sell semi-online with platforms like Kelley Blue Book Instant Cash Offer. With just a few clicks online, you can get a firm cash offer for your vehicle from a number of local dealerships. If you accept the price, you can choose whichever participating dealer you want to work with and drop your car off for inspection and payment — even if you don’t plan to buy a car from that dealership.

6 simple steps to take before you sell your car

Your vehicle might be one of the most expensive things you own. Before you jump into selling it, there are a few steps you need to take to ensure the best possible process.

1. Understand the value of your car

No one wants to sell their car for less than it’s worth. At the same time, it’s important to know what you can realistically get for your vehicle today, based on its condition and the current market.

Research your car’s value using sites like Edmunds.com or Kelley Blue Book to get an idea of the private party and trade-in values. These will be based on your car’s specific features, mileage, location, and history. Things such as mileage, wear and tear, and past accidents can all lower your car’s worth.

Understanding your car’s value can not only help you make informed sales decisions, but it can also help you know how to manage your money when it comes to planning your new car purchase and even saving enough for its down payment.

2. Know when to sell

Just as Kenny Rogers once advised, you gotta know when to hold ‘em and know when to… well, trade ‘em in.

There are many factors that can help you decide when the right time to sell your vehicle is. Typically, you can count on the following to be true:

  • According to industry experts, the best time to sell or trade your vehicle in — especially to a dealership — is during the first two quarters of the year.
  • A vehicle will depreciate considerably in value during its first few years. At the five-year mark or so, this depreciation begins to level out; if you haven’t sold it by then, there isn’t much value in rushing to sell once you’ve reached that point.
  • You may want to sell your car before its extended warranty expires, so you are always covered against unexpected mechanical issues. If your vehicle is about to age or mileage out of its warranty, that might be the right time to sell.

3. Make sure your maintenance records are up to date

Whether you are selling to a private buyer or a dealership, they are likely going to want to see that you have taken care of the vehicle while you owned it. That means providing up-to-date maintenance records that show you change your oil, have the car inspected, and rotate your tires regularly.

If you are selling privately, you may also want to pay for a Carfax vehicle history report, which will include maintenance reports as well as any accidents, recalls, etc. on the vehicle. Having this can give a buyer added peace of mind and ensure that the sale is transparent for everyone.

These are just two of the documents you may want to have on hand before you go to sell or buy a new car.

4. Give your car a deep cleaning

Whether your car has 30,000 miles or 300,000 miles, presentation can go a long way. Although it may seem like a hassle, it can be a good idea to give the car a good deep cleaning before getting it appraised or meeting with a potential buyer.

Vacuumed carpets and a dust-free dash may not seem like much. Showing that you care about the smaller details of the vehicle, though, can help your buyer to feel assured that you’ve also taken care of bigger things (like the engine), and they may be more willing to pay top dollar.

5. Take pictures of your car

If you plan to sell to a dealership, photos aren’t necessary. If you are hoping to sell your car to a private buyer, however, taking listing-quality pictures can make or break the sale.

After giving your car a good cleaning, take a number of photos of your car, being sure to show the exterior, interior, engine, special features, areas of wear or damages, and the dash, including the current odometer. These will help entice potential buyers and allow them to adequately check out your car before scheduling a test drive.

6. Write up a listing

When selling your car online or through classified ads, your write-up is paramount. In addition to your photos, the description of your car can either help draw buyers in or drive them away.

In your listing, consider mentioning as much as you can about the car while also being succinct. Include details such as:

  • Make, model, year, and trim
  • Current odometer reading
  • Special features, aftermarket accessories, or upgrades
  • Past accidents, significant damage, major repairs, or existing mechanical problems the car may have


You may also want to mention the car’s market value, especially if you’re listing it for a competitive price. If you have other selling points that could factor into the sale — such as new tires with only 1,000 miles on them — mention those too.

FAQs about selling your car

What's the best site to sell your car?

The best site for selling your car online depends on exactly how you want to sell. If you’re hoping to find private buyers, sites like Autotrader.com could connect you to buyers across the country while platforms such as Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist might connect you with buyers in your own backyard.

If you’re hoping to sell your car with an easy, immediate offer, consider selling to a company like Carvana. You might also decide to get instant cash offers from participating dealerships in your area with Kelly Blue Book Instant Offer.

What is the best way to sell your car on your own?

When selling your car on your own, research is key. Find out the market value of your current car and how much more you can potentially get for it through private sale versus selling to a dealership or other company.

It may also be a good idea to catch the car up on any scheduled maintenance, give it a good deep clean, take some flattering photos, and write up a compelling description for potential buyers. Then, post through local and national platforms — online and in print, if you’d like — and wait for prospective buyers to come calling.

How do you sell your car for the best price?

Typically, you will get the best price when selling your car to a private buyer. Private sales tend to take longer, however, so be sure you can afford to hold onto the vehicle until the right buyer comes along.

If you’re concerned with how to sell your car quickly, first get appraisals and offers from multiple dealerships before committing to a sale. You might also find that trading in your vehicle — rather than just selling it to a dealer — often nets a more lucrative offer.

What is the safest way to get paid when you sell your car?

However you and your buyer choose to handle the transaction, be sure to confirm receipt of your funds before handing over keys or a title. Cash could be the fastest payment method, but it’s important to be sure that none of the bills are counterfeit and that you can transport the money to your bank or home safely.

A wire transfer is another option to consider, as these can often be conducted the same or next day, and receipt can be confirmed with your bank before completing the transaction. Be careful with accepting paper checks — even cashier’s checks — as these can potentially be counterfeit or the payment can be stopped after you’ve already handed off the vehicle.

What documents do you need when you sell your car?

You'll likely need certain documents when you choose to sell your car, though requirements can vary from state to state. Check with your state's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to learn more about what's required for a car sale. Depending on where you're located, you may need the following to transfer ownership:

  • Your car's title
  • Maintenance records
  • Odometer reading
  • Warranty information
  • Vehicle history report
  • License plates

While it's not required, getting a bill of sale could also be a good idea. Basically, this is a notarized document that outlines the terms and conditions of the sale. It's designed to offer a measure of protection against liability after a sale is complete.

The bottom line

Everyone wants to get top dollar for their vehicle when it comes time to sell. Actually squeezing every penny out of the car, however, comes down to how, when, and even where you plan to sell.

Maybe you’re hoping for the highest asking price from a private buyer, even if it takes a while, or you are willing to sell quickly (but for a bit less) through a car-buying platform. Or perhaps you plan to maximize your trade-in value by buying a new vehicle at the same time. No matter your approach, there are several steps you can take to try to sell your car for the most money possible, from researching its value to getting it detailed, taking great photos, and even posting the right listing in the right place at the right time.

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Author Details

Stephanie Colestock Stephanie Colestock is a credit card expert, travel rewards aficionado, and writer who enjoys teaching people how to be financially independent and confident about their money choices. If it has to do with credit, credit cards, or traveling the world on points, you'll find Stephanie writing about it. She also enjoys teaching people how to reach financial independence, regardless of obstacles in their path (such as the crippling student loan debt she once held). Stephanie graduated from Baylor University, and is currently working toward her CFP certification. Her work can be seen on sites such as Forbes, Dough Roller, and Johnny Jet, among many others.