Preparing the Car for Sale

Okay, so you've decided you're up to handling steps 1-4. Great!

Now, it's time to get your car ready to sell. Here are our suggestions, honed and refined after decades of getting top-dollar for many a cream puff!

1. Before you devote a lot of time and energy to selling your car, take it to a mechanic for a thorough inspection.

There are three reasons why this is important. First, you may discover that your car needs 18 boat payments worth of repairs, in which case, it's not worth as much as you thought. Trading it in or donating it would save you quite a bit of hassle.

Second, chances are good that a buyer is going to want to get the car inspected by a trusted mechanic. If you choose to get the car inspected first and disclose the findings, you're being honest
and upfront. That will instill confidence in the buyer - making it
easier for him or her to write you a very large check.

"If a mechanic offers to inspect the car for less than $75, we think it's unlikely that he'll give the car the level of inspection it should get. In our experience, it should take at least an hour for a thorough inspection."

Finally, if a buyer does opt to take the car to be inspected by his or her mechanic, their lists of recommended repairs may differ - and that could be to your benefit during those perilous moments of the final negotiation. In other words, you won't have to rely exclusively on a repair list developed by a mechanic who's being paid by the buyer.

How much should a thorough inspection cost? At our garage, we charge $95. We'll do such things as scan for engine codes, check brakes, all the belts, hoses and fluids, inspect the suspension, and check important safety items like lights, horn and the front end.

That's just a partial list of what should be checked, however, and is not meant to be inclusive. This is just too big a topic for us to cover right here - in fact, the checklist runs for a full 8 pages! (It just so happens, we have a little booklet on this very topic. You can check it out here.)

If a mechanic offers to inspect the car for less than $75, we think it's unlikely that he'll give the car the level of inspection it should get. In our experience, it should take at least an hour for a thorough inspection.

2. Collect as many of the maintenance slips and records for your car as you can. If you're missing some, your local shop may print them out for you for free or a small fee.

3. If you can afford it, get your car detailed. If you've never had your car detailed, you'll be amazed by how good it looks. You may even feel a pang of regret for letting it go! (You'll also find clothes and shoes that have been lost for years.)

Prepping Your Car
Seller's Checklist (PDF)

If you do get a professional detailing done, we think it's likely that you'll more than make back the $100 or so it should cost.

If you can't afford the professional detailing, our advice is to buy a variety of cleaners, including rug, glass, vinyl and exterior cleaners. Toss in a few chamois clothes, grab the vacuum and go nuts! (For a few detailing hints and tips, drop by our feature with Greg, our local, detailer extraordinaire, right here in Our Fair City.)

A clean looking car is a thing of beauty. But, there's a strategic reason why it's important to get your jalopy spic and span. It suggests to a buyer that you've been taking good care of it or, at least, that you care enough to have it detailed. And that's another step that will inspire confidence in the buyer - which gets you that much closer to an empty driveway and a check burning a hole in your hand.

"That's right. It stinks. But you won't be able to tell it. Why? Because you've been living in your car since Jerry Ford was President."

Here are a few of our favorite tips if you're cleaning your car before a sale:

1. Get everything out, except the owner's manual and the registration. Check every conceivable nook and cranny. You won't believe how much junk accumulates in your car, until you take it all out.

2. Clean the upholstery, and remove any spots. If your seats are a mess, and they can't be cleaned, consider buying a set of seat covers to hide unsightly blood stains and bullet holes.

3. Clean both sides of the windows-not just the outside. A lot of folks will just clean the outside, assuming that's the only part of the window that can get dirty. But, the interior of your car's windows very likely are covered by a thin layer of film, which can't help but give your car a dingy feel. And, in our humble opinion, there's nothing like clean glass to suggest a well-kept car.

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4. Check and top off all the obvious fluids, such as oil, brake fluid, and windshield washer fluid. This is another step that will suggest to a potential buyer that you've been taking good care of your car.

5. Get rid of the smell. "What smell?" you say. We have news for you: your car stinks.

That's right. It stinks. But you won't be able to tell it. Why? Because you've been living in your car since Jerry Ford was President.That, alone, is enough to make your car stink. Factor in your dogs, your kids, those long commutes after burrito dinner, and your three college buddies who hurled in the back seat, and, well, you get the picture.

Get a trusted woman friend to tell you if your car smells. Why a woman? Because they have a much better sense of smell than guys do.

Finally, if you smoke cigars, forget about selling your car. We're not kidding. Who's going to want a car that smells like Alfred Dunhill himself self-immolated in the passenger compartment? Instead, donate it to the Car Talk Vehicle Donation Program. Or have it crushed, then tossed into the cone of Kilauea.

If you must sell your car, and it does harbor the perma-stink of years of smoking, you can try Neutra-Aie as a last ditch effort to remove nasty odors.