Practical tips on selling a car on Craigslist

Recently I sold a car on Craigslist. I never planned to sell my car there when I set out to buy a new one, but it turned out to be the best…

Practical tips on selling a car on Craigslist
My photo but not my car

Recently I sold a car on Craigslist. I never planned to sell my car there when I set out to buy a new one, but it turned out to be the best option. After some trial and error, I sold it, and I wanted to share my lessons from the experience in hopes others may find it useful if they’re considering the process.

1 This is obvious, but the very first step is to clean your car from top to bottom, inside and out. Wash, dry, and wax your car. Scrub your wheels to remove any and all brake dust and apply some armor-all on the tires. Vacuum the heck out of the interior and remove every bit of spare change from inside. Clean the windows with Windex and paper towels. You want everything showroom fresh.

2 Be sure to take great photos in order to sell it. I’d strongly suggest a few tips: use a big camera, either a good micro 4/3rds point-and-shoot or a digital SLR camera with a good lens. Phone photos generally aren’t great and could limit your response with potential buyers. Next, when you take photos of a car, get low. Don’t shoot from the ground on your stomach, but don’t shoot from a standing position. Ideally, you’ll be crouched low taking photos at about the height of the door handles of most cars. Take your photos in early evening, just before sunset on a sunny day, during those Michael Bay “golden hours” to really bring out the shine of your car. Try to have the sun behind you when shooting a car.

3 Go to (Kelly Blue Book) and figure out how much your car is worth to private sellers and at trade-ins at a dealer. Be honest with the condition your car is in. Know the values because they’ll be good reference points through the rest of the process.

4 This one is much easier if you’re planning to buy a new car, but take your car to a dealer and get an appraisal and offer for a trade-in from a professional. Yes, car dealers are in the business of making money, so you won’t get a great offer, but you should know what your trade-in value is from Kelly Blue Book and you can compare with their real trade-in offer. Chances are high they will be drastically different numbers, but it will give you a range of what you might expect to sell your car for on Craigslist.

Let’s say your used car is worth $15,000 as a private party sale according to Kelly Blue Book. Often, a dealer with play up the shortcomings of your car and only offer you $10k or $11k in the hopes you take it, so they can turn around and sell it for $14k and make a few bucks. Consider the trade-in appraisal as your low-end offer (your goal is to get higher offers than the dealer but likely less than blue book value).

5 You don’t want to put your mobile number on the public internet, so be sure to use the Burner app or Google Voice to supply a temp phone number to your craigslist listing. With either choice, you’ll get the calls and texts on your real phone, but cloaked through that number.

Here’s one thing I learned from all my Craigslist ads: No matter how much you say you prefer email or text, people will always call you up instead. I think it’s a trust thing—they want to hear your voice to figure out if you sound trustworthy for a transaction worth thousands of dollars—email and text isn’t good enough. My ads said to only text me so I wouldn’t be interrupted while at work, but every single point of contact was a phone call. Zero emails, zero texts. Half a dozen phone calls. It was always phone calls.

6 Plan to spend at least a half hour writing your Craigslist post. Write down every trim package and option your car includes (look them up to make sure you got the names and spellings right). Write a description of the car. Write honest reasons why you decided to sell (if you don’t every single person will ask). Edit your photos down to the best dozen or so and upload them and share the VIN and total mileage. Send it to friends for editing suggestions. A well-written post with good photos will do better than one that is poorly written and light on details.

7 It’s clear from my experiences that PRICE IS EVERYTHING. Craigslist is a market and the biggest variable in how many and how strongly people responded to my posts was price alone. During my first attempt, I put my car up just below the Kelly Blue Book price. I got zero bites. I went and got a terribly low-balled trade-in offer, and came back to relist it about 20% cheaper than before (still thousands more than my trade-in offer). My phone rang like crazy. People respond to a deal.

8 If someone wants to come test drive your car, tell them you will hold the car for them and not sell it to anyone else until after they’ve seen it, whether or not you’ve gotten any other offers to check it out. It’s both a courteous promise to make (and follow through on) but it also lets the person know you may have other offers.

9 If someone test drives and likes the car, they will likely start with low-ball offers. This is completely natural. If you’ve ever seen car shows on TV, everyone comes in with low offers, then the person selling comes down slightly, and slowly the buyer ramps up the price to something in the middle. This is the negotiation “dance.”

It’s easy to watch that stuff on TV and not get emotionally involved. But when you’re standing next to your own car that you need to sell, everything feels SO HIGH STAKES. When someone starts offering you a low amount, it can be tough to rebuff their offer, but try and hold firm, maybe come down from your listed price a bit (if you’re comfortable with it). Instead of being worried you won’t sell your car, worry about selling it too cheap. Chances are if you priced your car right, you will get several calls, and you’ll likely get multiple low offers from the first few people that come to check it out. It’s up to you to get as much as you can from the sale.

10 Make sure you have your affairs in order so when you accept an offer, you can close the deal quickly. That means have your car’s title ready to be signed over to the new owner. Google your state’s DMV ahead of time to find out what needs to be filled out when sold. In my state of Oregon, I just needed to submit a form online with the new owner’s name and some information about my car, all of which I got during our sale.

11 The final step is accepting the money and handing over the keys and the title. This is a precarious place to be—you have two complete strangers trusting each other with thousands of dollars worth of money and cars as they swap hands. In my case, it was all cash, which I had my bank verify, count, and deposit into my account before I handed the car over.

In the end, I sold my car below Kelly Blue Book, but more than a dealer offered me as a trade-in, so it was a positive experience overall.

These tips assume you’re flexible on time and can spend a week or two selling your car and also that you’re ok with not having a car until you get your new one (I had to ride my bike everywhere for about a week between cars).