How to Sell Your Car to a Private Party

Couple sitting in a car while buying from a private party

If you're thinking about replacing your car, trading it in to a dealer can be convenient, but you'll generally get more money if you sell it in a private party transaction.

Private party sales can take more time and effort than trade-ins, so it's important to understand the process to maximize your profit. Here are seven steps to selling your car.

1. Gather Your Documents

Selling a car requires a bit of paperwork, so it's important to have everything ready before you start talking to potential buyers. Some documentation you might need includes:

  • Vehicle title: If you own the vehicle outright, make sure you have the car's original title on hand. If you still owe money on the car, your lender will have the title in its files. Contact your lender to ask about the process and how the title transfer will take place.
  • Vehicle history report: A vehicle history report provides important information about the car's history of accidents, service, mileage, number of owners and more. While buyers can obtain reports on their own via Carfax or AutoCheck, having it readily available can make the process go more smoothly and build trust.
  • Bill of sale: Some states require private party transactions to involve a bill of sale, which includes details such as the sale date, odometer reading, sales price and more. Check with your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to determine if you need one.

Keep in mind that each state has its own laws surrounding private party motor vehicle sales, so check with your local DMV to see if there are other requirements you'll need to meet.

2. Set a Reasonable Asking Price

To get an idea of the vehicle's value, you can use Kelley Blue Book or Edmunds. You'll start by entering some details about your vehicle, or you can provide the vehicle identification number (VIN) to fast-track the process. Make sure you add the correct trim or style, color, mileage, features and condition.

Once you've entered all of your details, make sure you're looking at the car's private party value. You may get a range of values, allowing you to get an idea of where to start. You can also look up advertisements for the same make and model and similar mileage in your area for more pricing data.

Consider setting your price slightly higher than the average value to give you some breathing room in negotiations.

3. Clean Up the Car

Having a good first impression is crucial in the sales process, and cleaning both the exterior and interior of the car will give it good curb appeal. If the inside is dirty or only partially clean, it can be an instant turn-off for potential buyers.

If the car is newer, it may make sense to hire a professional detailing service to do the job. Depending on the car and what you want, detailing can cost anywhere between $75 and $300 or more.

4. Take Time With the Listing

Throwing together a few haphazard photos and a brief description of the car may not drum up a lot of interest in your vehicle. Take your car to a nice location and wait for good lighting—around sunrise or sunset—to take some photos, and make sure you take a lot of them to give prospective buyers a good visual tour of the car.

Among other things, make sure you get shots of the odometer, tire tread, back seat, trunk, exterior and under the hood.

Next, make sure you're detailed with your description. Think about which features and information are important to you, and try to cover as many questions you might get as possible so you don't have to spend your time answering them in person. If the car has had recent updates or add-ons, be sure to mention those.

Finally, list the vehicle on multiple websites to increase your reach. Options include Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, Autotrader, Offerup and local classifieds.

5. Screen Buyers

It's virtually impossible to avoid scammers and unserious buyers, but there are a few ways to identify them relatively quickly. If you decide to give out your phone number, let calls go to voicemail so you can listen to them before deciding whom to contact first.

If someone lowballs you from the start, you'll know not to waste your time. Other potential red flags include:

  • People willing to buy the car without looking at it
  • Buyers who live far away and want you to ship the vehicle
  • Buyers willing to overpay with a cashier's check or money orders (which may be fake)

You can even consider setting up a Google Voice number or a separate email address so you're not giving out any personal information.

6. Prepare for Negotiations

Before you start talking to buyers, determine the lowest amount you're willing to accept. If they start out lower than that, you'll know from the start that they might not be a good fit.

Also, make sure you're giving yourself enough time to sell the car. If you're impatient or desperate to sell, you may be pressured into taking less than what you want. Take your time to negotiate to avoid agreeing to something you'll regret later.

Make sure you set time aside for test drives and be willing to go along so you can answer questions and get to know the buyer a little better.

Finally, if you're courting multiple buyers, share that with each one so they understand that they'll need to make a decision quickly to avoid missing out.

7. Close the Deal

Once you've settled on a deal with a buyer, you'll decide on a payment method, whether it be cash or cashier's check. Avoid personal checks that can bounce or money orders that can be easily falsified.

If you still have a loan on the vehicle, you may need to meet at a local bank branch to get the title transferred. If you're required to have a bill of sale, draw that up and make sure both parties sign it.

Finally, make sure you remove the license plates from the vehicle, as they're tied to your name and registration. If the buyer asks to keep them, recommend that they visit the DMV promptly to register the car in their name and get temporary plates. Until then, the title and bill of sale should be sufficient.

The Bottom Line

Selling a car to a private party can take a lot of time and effort, but it can help you get hundreds or even thousands more than if you were to trade in the vehicle to a dealer. As you go through the process, make sure you're transparent. If you feel uncomfortable about a buyer or can't come to terms, don't be afraid to walk away.