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Y ou're ready to buy a new car, or maybe a newer used car. Should you trade in your old car, or try to sell it yourself? In most cases, you can get a lot more money for it if you sell it privately. On the other hand, trading it in is hassle-free. It's a choice between cash and convenience.
       Before you decide, maybe you'd like to know how much money is actually at stake. Roughly, we're talking about the difference between the sell-it-yourself price and the trade-in value. That's something you can look up very easily, especially if you're on-line, or find out by calling the credit union.
       Then, what exactly are those hassles--and the possible dangers--that you'll have to endure if you try to sell your car privately? Are they worth the extra money you can make? Here's a look at the prices, costs, hassles, and risks.

Retail vs. wholesale
You can look up retail and wholesale prices for used cars going back as far as 20 years in various publications. Some resources are on the World Wide Web (see sources at end of this article). Be aware that these figures will vary from one publication to another, depending on how they define the terms--from highest to lowest value--retail, wholesale, market price, and trade-in value. Typically, market is a little less than retail, and trade-in is a bit less than wholesale.
       When you trade in a car, a dealer generally will offer you less than the published wholesale price, at least for starters. You might be able to negotiate that number up a little, but the dealer will try to recoup by raising the price of the new car.
       Almost always, car dealers make bigger profits on used cars than on new ones because they pay such "lowball" prices for trade-ins, says Christian Wardlaw, managing editor of Edmund Publications, which includes Edmund's Used Cars: Prices and Ratings. The only way to know for sure what dealers will offer for your car is to take it into one or more dealerships and ask. Explain that you are asking for a cash sale price, not a trade value.
       Wardlaw says you can expect to sell your car on the open market for somewhere between the wholesale and retail price, depending on how good a salesperson you are and what kind of shape your old vehicle is in.
The gulf between wholesale and retail naturally varies according to the make and model. Here are two examples from the Edmund's used-car guide:

  • For a 1992 Ford Escort four-door LX sedan, the difference between trade-in value and market price is about $1,000.
  • For a 1992 Mercedes Benz 600 four-door sedan, the difference between trade-in and market is more than $10,000.

       Are you willing to spend a significant amount of time, part with a few dollars, and maybe take a risk to earn possibly $1,000 on your old Ford, or $10,000 on your used Mercedes? Let's look at the costs and risks of selling your car privately.

The hassles
       The first thing you must do when selling a car privately is give it a royal cleaning. Customers usually believe that if you've maintained your car well on the outside you've probably taken care of it mechanically as well.
       Paying a professional detailer $100 to clean it top to bottom, inside and out is a good idea if you don't relish the thought of using an old toothbrush to remove accumulated dust and grit from every seam and cranny. "In fact, if your used car is worth around $10,000, a $100 investment in detailing can bring you a return of as much as $1,000 in higher market value," says Ed Henry, associate editor of Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine and author of a monthly column about automobiles.
       Likewise, taking your car in for minor body work, repairs, or repainting may yield a good return whether you sell it privately or trade it in--depending on the cost of repairs relative to the car's age and condition.
       When your car is shipshape, you've still got a lot of work ahead of you. Here are the steps necessary for a successful sale:

Advertising. To make the most of free and low-cost advertising, post notices in neighborhood shoppers and bulletin boards, pass the word at work, and put a sign in the car window (if it's legal in your state). A paid classified ad might reach a wider audience, though.

Security. Do you feel comfortable inviting strangers to your house to see your car? If not, you'll have to meet prospective buyers in a public place. Always ask to see a driver's license before allowing a test-drive. But don't let a stranger test-drive your car alone--theft is not rare in such circumstances. If you're worried about your safety, bring a friend or relative along.

Haggling. Expect customers to offer you a lower price than you're asking. Some people play hardball, so you have to decide whether you're up for a round of tough negotiations. If you hold tight on your price, it'll probably take longer to sell.

Legalities. Consummate the transaction with a written agreement or bill of sale, and transfer the title according to state law. Accept only cash or a cashier's check for the purchase, not personal checks, unless you're dealing with a trusted friend. If the buyer is a minor, deal with the parents. If you can't accompany the buyer to the division of vehicle registration, at least notify the division that you've sold the car.
       You can see that selling your car in a private transaction will take a good deal of time and some expense. Remember, when you're figuring how much time it might require, that a well-maintained car will sell a lot faster than a broken-down one, and an expensive car typically takes longer to sell than a less expensive one.

Timing the sale
Before you finally decide whether to sell your car privately or trade it in, there are two more considerations: the time of year and the type of vehicle you're selling. The best time to sell a car privately is spring and early summer, because that's when demand for used cars is strongest, according to Ashley Knapp, CEO of AutoAdvisor, a Seattle consulting service for consumers who are buying or selling a car. So you'll usually get a higher price for the same car, and it'll probably sell faster, during that season.
       "The interesting thing is, the dealers usually will not take into account the time of year when they calculate trade-in values," says Knapp, himself a former car dealer. "They know they'll probably have that car on their lot for months before they can resell it." Thus, the difference between trade-in and market values generally will be greater in the spring and early summer--and so there's a greater incentive to sell privately in those seasons--than other times of the year.

       If your car is either a convertible or a four-wheel drive, timing is important too. Convertibles are in great demand when the snow melts in spring; four-wheel-drives are in demand around Thanksgiving. Again, dealers usually won't take that into consideration, so you would have a greater incentive to trade in those vehicles during periods of lower demand. The choice between trading in and selling privately isn't always easy. At least now your decision can be an informed one. Used-Car Price Guides
You can look up both retail and wholesale prices, for cars as old as 20 years, in the publications listed below. They're available at most bookstores and libraries, and are updated at least once a year. You also can ask your credit union for help in determining trade-in and market values, based on pricing guides used to establish "loan value."
       Blue Book Used Car Guide, Consumer Edition, Kelley Blue Book Co., Irvine, Calif. Available on-line at http://www.kbb.com.
Edmund's Used Cars: Prices & Ratings, Edmund Publications Corp., City TK, Colo. Available on-line at http://edmunds.com.

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