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How to Get the Best Price for Your Used Car

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In the mid-’90s, a neighbor in my apartment building taped a “for sale” sign in the rear window of his Nissan 240SX. A few days later, he knocked on my door and asked if I had any magazines I wasn’t reading. Puzzled, I handed him my girlfriend’s old Cosmopolitan.

“Thanks,” he said. “I’m selling my car.”

“Yeah, I noticed,” I said. “But how does this help?”

He motioned for me to come outside, and I watched him flip through a small stack of magazines and pull out the perfume and cologne ads – you know, the ones with the aromatic samples. He tossed these under the front seats.

He was convinced a good-smelling car would fetch a better price.

I never found out what he got for that Nissan or if those ads added to the price. But it showed me just how creative we can get when we’re selling our old cars.

Let’s look under the hood at some advice for selling your used car.

1. Get detailed about the detailing

Just like selling your house, the cheapest way to add value to a car is to clean it thoroughly. Seems obvious, but we don’t always notice the grime on something we see every day.

Also sprinkle baking soda on the carpets and cloth seats, then vacuum it up to remove odors you might not smell but potential buyers will. Arm & Hammer recommends waiting at least 15 minutes before turning on the vacuum, “or longer for strong odors.” If you’re a smoker, that can mean letting it sit overnight – and not smoking in the car for at least a week.

You can scrub your floor mats, but if they still look bad, replace them. Clean out the glove box, removing everything but the owner’s manual.

While you’re cleaning the windshield, make sure the windshield wipers are in good condition and that they function properly. If they don’t, it’s a sign that other parts of the vehicle may also have been neglected.

2. Let there be more light

Make sure all the lights work. Do your headlights, taillights and brake lights work? How about the dome light (which illuminates the interior when you open the door)? Map lights? Do you have a vanity mirror that lights up?

Your headlight covers can yellow with age. Instead of replacing the entire headlight, spend less than $20 on products like the 3M Headlight Restoration System. While they won’t make your headlights look like new, they’ll go a long way to clearing up the cloudiness. Plus, your headlights will shine brighter than before.

3. Be solid on your fluids

Knowledgeable buyers are not only going to check the oil level to make sure you have enough, but also whether it’s bright and clean – because long-term driving with low or old oil means years off the life of the engine. If necessary, top off the other fluids, like the windshield washer fluid (front and back), and the antifreeze.

4. Treat your tires

If you paid for a car wash and the tires aren’t glistening, get out that box of baking soda. Add just enough water to make a paste, use a scrub brush to rub it in, and let it sit for a few minutes. Rinse it off and marvel at the results. Also spend a few quarters at a nearby gas station to properly inflate those tires.

5. Check the “check engine” light

Philip Reed at Edmunds says, “The light could mean a costly problem, like a bad catalytic converter, or it could be something minor, like a loose gas cap.” Ask your trusted mechanic to diagnose the problem if the “check engine” light is on and make the needed repair.

6. Remove scratches and dings

Getting rid of scratches on a car’s finish isn’t easy. It’s so complicated that Popular Mechanics even developed a step-by-step guide. Forget about DIY dent repair. If you’re not adept at it, you could make the problem worse. If you have anything more than minor scratches and dings, take the car to an expert.

7. Gather your records

Neatly order the maintenance and repair invoices you had stashed in your glove box. Didn’t keep meticulous records of your repairs? Consider using a service like Carfax. These services are usually used by buyers who want to check a used car’s history of accidents, recalls and repairs. Pay for a report yourself and show it off.

8. Set the price

Now that your car looks and smells as nice as possible, it’s time to settle on an asking price. Don’t depend solely on Edmunds and/or Kelley Blue Book. Check sites like eBay, Craigslist and other online classified ads to see what cars like yours are fetching where you live. Always ask for more than you’ll settle for; buyers love to negotiate.

9. Write the ad

Now you have to promote your ride. AutoTrader offers an incredibly detailed list of do’s and don’ts for writing an ad that can serve as your guide. AutoTrader also offers 10 tips for writing an effective online ad for your car. One of those tips: Be honest about repairs.

10. Take buyers out for a spin

Stacy suggests that before you let a prospective buyer take a test drive, you chauffeur them yourself. Emphasize the car’s features – fine leather, a smooth ride, excellent speakers. Without coming on too strong, let no selling point of your vehicle go unnoticed.

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