How can I get the best price for my clunker?
April 26, 2015 7:35 AM   Subscribe

It's finally time for me to part ways with my 16-year-old car. I've picked out a new car, and had my existing car appraised for a trade-in. Unfortunately, the dealer's appraisal came in way lower than the Blue Book value, allegedly because of two warning lights (ABS and Airbag) that would affect the car's ability to be sold legally in Virginia. Is it worth investigating other options for selling my clunker, or should I just take the dealer's offer? [Details inside]

The Blue Book value for my car is $3000 for a private-party sale; $2000 for a trade-in, and is in very good cosmetic condition. The dealer offered $900.

The ABS/Airbag issues have not been fully diagnosed, and could potentially be an inexpensive repair (as both issues are intermittent). There are no major issues that affect the car's drivability.

Is it worth attempting to fix the issues and re-approach the dealer and/or sell the car privately, or should I just take the dealer's offer? Are there any tips for maximizing value while selling an older car?

I live in DC, which does not require a safety inspection, for whatever that is worth. The car that I'm buying is a CPO model with a combination of features/mileage that I am unlikely to find again, so I have some motivation to make the deal as quickly as possible.
posted by schmod to Home & Garden (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Even if you repair the issues, there's no guarantee that the dealer will offer you blue book value for the trade-in. I wouldn't bother with trying to repair it.
posted by amro at 7:38 AM on April 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

The dealer is probably trying to rip you off. That's what they do. Get offers from 4 other dealerships and play them against each other to get the best price.
posted by sninctown at 7:41 AM on April 26, 2015

The KBB is a guideline; the problems you have are really unlikely to be resolved for less than a few hundred dollars and could be way more than that (honestly the dealer is probably giving you incentive and scrap value, your car is basically worthless with those two warning lights on); and you are interested in a rare car that is hard to get. Take the trade in the dealer is offering you and run.
posted by Mitheral at 7:42 AM on April 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'd take the trade too. You'd do a bit better selling it yourself on Craigslist, but that's a far from trivial hassle. The dealer really is unlikely to be ripping you off on this - I don't know that there's a law preventing them from selling it, but that's totally plausible. And while the parts for the repair are probably quite inexpensive, the labor for tracking down an intermittent issue and making sure that it is fixed is potentially unlimited. Having to fix that sort of gremlin would give a stout man pause.
posted by wotsac at 7:57 AM on April 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

Wait until the lights are off. Go to Car Max.

Dealers will always rip you off. They are right that the airbag light is "a safety issue" that is taken more seriously than other issues with the car; however, they are still ripping you off.

Also no, this is not definitely a huge fix. Most likely the seat wiring harness is screwy.
posted by quincunx at 7:58 AM on April 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

Sell it as-is on craigslist. 2500 OBO.
posted by asockpuppet at 7:58 AM on April 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Sell it yourself if you're willing and have the time to do it. My guess is that a dealer selling CPO vehicles won't try to fix and retail a 16-year-old anything; they'd just sell it off wholesale, and it would end up on one of those sad buy-here-pay-here-bad-credit-ok lots. I think it's entirely plausible that he's honestly estimating the price he's likely to get for your old car when he sends it down the line.
posted by jon1270 at 8:04 AM on April 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

I also want to say, I went to a dealer with my 2001 Honda Civic with an oil leak and they offered me $500. Car Max offered me $2,000. My car literally had duct tape on it and looked like shit.

Of course the dealer made it seem like they were "doing me a favor for a worthless car"- that's what they do! The car is worth more just for the parts. It doesn't matter if no one will buy it with the light on if they're going to strip it up anyway. That's why you need to take it to Car Max or at the very least a different dealer who will buy it without a trade-in.

Seriously, they're ripping you off.
posted by quincunx at 8:22 AM on April 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

If it's just about money, sell your car elsewhere. There's no guarantee that you can fix up the car in a cost-effective manner, but even if you could, the dealer would not give you top dollar for an old clunker (or any car).

I would just trade it in and be done for the difference of probably a few hundred bucks, just to not have to spend time on it and not have to deal with it. But if the money is worth it to you, I would start by seeing what you can get elsewhere for your car in its current condition.
posted by J. Wilson at 8:27 AM on April 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

From my own very similar experience just a couple of months ago, I'd advise you to ignore the advice to just accept the dealer's offer and encourage you to take the advice to go to CarMax for a second offer. If your experience is anything like mine, the Car Max offer will be significantly higher.

In my case I had a 2005 Nissan Titan, well over 200K miles, check engine light on, obvious transmission issues, cracked windshield, front bumper missing, ripped seats. A local dealer offered me $800. Figuring it wouldn't hurt to get a second opinion I took it up the street to Car Max who offered me $2000. While I had no interest in making a whole ordeal of it and taking the car to a zillion different places, I'm certainly glad I didn't fold at the first dealer offer. As you can see, I would have been leaving a lot of money on the table.
posted by The Gooch at 8:35 AM on April 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Definitely get at least a second quote, but do be aware that those warning lights will significantly impact the value. You say that they "could potentially be an inexpensive repair" but they could also be very expensive. If they are intermittent you will obviously do better to sell the car while they are off, but that also brings the risk of a very unhappy buyer.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:50 AM on April 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't think the dealer is "trying to rip you off", I think that your car is genuinely not worth more than $900 to them. Their lot space is valuable as is their reputation for selling good cars, so you will never see your car for sale on their lot - the only place they could actually get rid of it would be at auction. In some sense the only reason they're buying it from you is because trade-ins and them handling all the paperwork are part of the service package associated with you buying your new car.

If you want more money, sell to someone who actually wants your car, not just your business.
posted by aimedwander at 8:55 AM on April 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

~Sell it as-is on craigslist. 2500 OBO.
This. Once a car gets down to this level, CL is your best option. Someone will buy it.

~Wait until the lights are off. Go to Car Max.
The errors that triggered the warning lights are most likely stored in memory. They will show-up when Car Max hooks-up the diagnostic computer. And, they will hook it up. Probably before they finalize any purchase price.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:03 AM on April 26, 2015

Nthing Craigslist. I sold my old clunker years ago on CL, and the process was painless. Take cash or cashier's check only, of course.
posted by sevensnowflakes at 9:46 AM on April 26, 2015

Put it on Craigslist for $2200 as is, get into a frame of mind, it's gone.
posted by Oyéah at 10:21 AM on April 26, 2015

I was just unable to sell me running car on craigslist. I had only like 2 replies. I probably could have tried harder but literally could not sell it when I posted twice with two different ad-copy attempts. Just one story.
posted by latkes at 10:55 AM on April 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Definitely shop the trade around to different dealerships. I have walked on an otherwise good deal on a new car because they lowballed the trade-in and was able to get a better deal on the trade elsewhere.

That said, if you are a serious buyer, try talking them up a bit if you can. I just yesterday traded a 1999 Nissan in for a new car and they started by offering me $1200 for it. By the time we were done negotiating they came up to $2500. I had to start getting up to go to the next dealership TWICE before they would start thinking about coming closer to my asking price though.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 11:17 AM on April 26, 2015

I was just unable to sell me running car on craigslist. I had only like 2 replies. I probably could have tried harder but literally could not sell it when I posted twice with two different ad-copy attempts. Just one story.

Back in November, I sold a 13-year-old Maxima with over 420,000 miles on it via Craigslist. I asked $800, and sold it for $500. You just have to be realistic about what the car is really worth and what your bottom line is.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:40 AM on April 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

Have you tried My SO sold his 12-year-old car and had better luck with that than Craigslist.

When my 11-year-old car was totaled in an accident (and not just financially totaled, it was undrivable), I shopped around to a couple local salvage yards, all who offered me in the $200 range. I got about $800 from It's pretty easy to get an estimate from them, so I'd recommend trying them and seeing what they'd offer you.

Oh also if you sell privately (Craigslist, Autotrader, etc.) it's worth it to get the Carfax report ahead of time. Buyers look for that.
posted by radioamy at 9:53 PM on April 26, 2015

Just from your question, the difference between private party and trade-in is $1000. So you can probably get at least another $1000 over what the dealer is offering by selling it yourself. We were upgrading from an older car and the dealer offered $1500, then $2500. I sold on Craigslist for $4900. Total cost was $250 for detailing. Took a couple hours to get detailed pictures in flattering light and write up the post, and maybe 6 hours giving test drives and the final negotiations. Started Friday evening and had a cashier's check by Sunday at 2.
Dealer offers are always lowballs, because they need to make a decent profit margin. If you really need the money from the trade-in to buy the replacement, then the dealer is offering you quick cash at a very high price.
posted by wnissen at 11:16 AM on April 27, 2015

Took the car in to Car Max today, where they appraised the car at $1000, and actually didn't note any of the lights/faults in their report.
posted by schmod at 9:19 PM on April 27, 2015

Dealer is not going to offer you anywhere CLOSE to BB value. They have to make a PROFIT, and that means fixing up all the stuff AND clean it inside out and polish it up to sellable condition AND still have a profit. That's why he's lowballing you. It's not his fault. It's just the way it is. Also, a car that old wouldn't be on their lot. It'd be dumped at an auction, which means it'd have to be even LOWER priced.

If you want to haggle a bit, get a quote from reliable mechanic on how much the fixes would be, and/or sell it yourself (either before or after the fix). THEN buy the new car.
posted by kschang at 10:19 AM on April 28, 2015

After browsing Craigslist for similar cars, I think I'm going to take the dealer's shitty offer.

At best, I'm going to make $500-$750 more, and at worst, I'm going to end up having two cars titled and insured in my name, and unable to sell one. If I lived in the suburbs and could leave the thing in my driveway, I would probably try to sell it on my own...

However, given the reality of living in a city, and having very little free time, I'm not hugely enthusiastic about taking on the risk of holding onto my old car until I can find a buyer.
posted by schmod at 5:48 PM on April 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh, and thanks to everyone who responded!

I'm glad I explored my options, and although it's bittersweet to part with my trusty old car (and take on a larger-than-expected amount of debt for getting a new one), I'm pretty sure that this is the best path forward.
posted by schmod at 5:49 PM on April 28, 2015

Also, some random food for thought:

Mechanical faults aside, the value of my car plummeted over the past 1-2 years. I wonder if the residual effects of "Cash 4 Clunkers" are finally starting to wear off, and the recovering economy is starting to take some pressure off of the lower end of the market. There were definitely one or two years when KBB reported that my car's value had gone up, which is basically never supposed to happen...
posted by schmod at 11:01 AM on April 29, 2015

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