The 11 essential steps to selling your own car

As a car dealer who has sold well over a thousand cars, I can share with you plenty of horror stories about people who wanted to sell their ride. A nasty crash from a driver who thought the clutch pedal was the brake. Fraudsters with checks worth less than their empty words. Even a supposed doctor who tried to use a late-model Lexus for a week-long getaway,

None of those disasters ever came near me. But acting as your own car dealer can bring the best and worst of humanity to your doorstep. If you want to sell your car solo, and enjoy a stress-free experience, you have to plan ahead. Here’s how:

Gather your records

Nothing gives better assurance to a buyer than a long list of maintenance records. Oil changes, tires, repairs, scheduled tune-ups and even unscheduled ones. All of these records provide assurance to the next owner that you were a good caretaker.

If you haven't already, start contacting the shops that have worked on your car. See if they can email or fax your records. Or, just write down what was done on a small notebook paper with the phone number for the service center. This way, an interested buyer can always confirm that you are an honest broker.

Honesty reduces stress for everyone when there is nothing to hide, and sets the right expectations with your potential customers. So offer your buyer full disclosure and take the high road.

Do an easy slow clean

Start by removing all the big items out of your car, followed by napkins, wrappers, and personal items in the glovebox and trunk. Then go for cups, coinage and whatever little things can be had between the seats.

Begin with the driver's area and slowly work your way around. By going slow, you eliminate the need to do it twice. At that pace, it's not your hands that dictate your actions. It's your eyes.

Go get the car washed. Then use a vacuum for the second go-through. Again, start slow and let your eyes guide the removal of the various dirt and crumbs.

Finally, if you like, you can go with a simple instant detailer spray product. Most used car buyers already have experience buying a used car. So there is no need to try to make your old car look showroom new.

Just go slow. Take it easy. And enjoy some nice music. After a while, you may realize why car guys enjoy cleaning their rides so much.

Put the word out

Start small at first. Search online price guides and other listings for a general idea of your car's worth. Once you have settled on a realistic number, raise that by $500 for negotiation purposes and get ready to publish your ride.

Put your vehicle on a social media site for the first week or so and encourage your friends to share your post, but not your phone number.

If you haven't sold it after a couple of weeks, then consider Craigslist or other listing services, but don’t just throw it online. Write a good description, take at least five exterior pictures and three of the interior. Consider this a golden opportunity to learn about salesmanship and amateur photography.

Get a temporary phone number

There are several services, most free, that offer a temporary phone number; some require more information than others. Choose a phone app that will forward the calls to your cell phone.

These numbers serve as a healthy buffer to your everyday life. It also helps you with the after-sale experience; once you sell the car, you can dispose of the number as well.

Use a standard “AS/IS” bill of sale

If you haven't seen one before, "AS/IS" means "as it is" — selling the car with no guarantee or warranty. Do a search for "As/Is Bill of Sale" and you will see plenty of examples. Or add your state name to the search if you want the state form.

Meet in a well-recorded public place

Giving your most valuable mobile possession to a stranger shouldn't be done casually, and doing so in a private area can unduly raise your stress. Credit unions, banks, your favorite eatery — if they all offer a video camera and familiar employees, you have one less worry and one more reason to relax.

When you meet in familiar territory, it also allows you to present well, which sends the right message to a good buyer. So pick out a place that's right for you, and consider taking a friend along with you as well.

Stick to your plan

Handshake, conversation, show your records, license, test drive. You don't need to be an Israeli airport screener here, but it does pay to ask the buyer some basic questions — what's their job, where they live, why they want to buy the car. If they decide to test drive the car, it's time to do the big check.

Verify their license

This can be done online or with a phone call, depending on your state.

Search for "(your state) driver license verification" and you will get quick access to a database.

By taking this step, you avoid letting an unlicensed driver get access to your vehicle.

Go along on the test drive

Let the driver go through a route that is familiar to you; that way you can focus on the questions instead of the traffic.

Also bring a friend and let them sit in the back passenger side — not the driver's side. Do remember that the driver is allowed to use your car, but not abuse it. If you don't like what they're doing, tell them in a polite way.

Truth be told, I can count on one hand the times I have met an abusive driver. It happens though. Keep in mind that until the car is sold, it's all yours.

Collect your money, carefully

Everyone has their own negotiation style; if you agree to a deal, then it's time to head straight for the place where the faces are familiar and the cameras are always on.

I only accept three payments: cash, Moneygram and a certified check; there's no end to the scams available with a personal check or other payment methods. The latter two should be cashed immediately before you do the paperwork. No cash for now means no title or key for the buyer until later. They can offer a cash deposit to hold it, or you can simply agree to meet again when they do have cash in hand.

Complete the paperwork, carefully

Does the buyer have cash? Thank goodness! Now take care of the bill of sale first. Remember to put your name as the seller and their own as the buyer. Sounds silly doesn't it?

Well, not so much when it comes to the payment and the title. Once the money is counted and exchanged, you want to see their name alone on the buyer section of the title. Some titles are a bit more tricky than others.

So make sure to highlight the areas they should sign on the back of the title beforehand, and make it a point to do it last.


Now go deposit the money in the bank — and enjoy the fortunate fact that you don't do this for a living.

Photos: Robert Couse-Baker, Hugo90, bcymet via Flickr