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How to Determine Your Car Value and Get What You Deserve

I still have the pickup I got in college. And I’m dreading getting a new car.

What should I do with my old one? Can I trade it in? How much is it worth?

If I walk into a car dealer blind, I’ll likely get screwed. They hold all the cards and know this stuff a lot better than I do.

As it turns out, there are several options to easily determine my car value. This is the first step to getting a good trade-in when buying my next car.

If you want to learn the same secrets I have, read on.

Use Pricing Guides and Compare to Get a Baseline Value

Start by getting a value estimate from several different guides. That gives you a better sense for the overall range that you can expect.

The more data you have in hand, the better you’ll be able to negotiate a fair value for your car.

You will need to enter information about the vehicle:

  • Make
  • Model year
  • Model name
  • Mileage
  • Extra features
  • Estimated condition

Additionally, you will need to enter your ZIP Code. This allows the online car pricing guide to give you a value that’s appropriate for vehicles in your area.

Fair warning: you will have to provide your email address before you receive the information you want. I’d expect to get a bunch of followup emails and offers. Use a burner email if you don’t want this spam.

Best Used Car Pricing Guides

Here are the four best pricing guides for cars, and all of them will give you the basic information you want for free.

  • Kelly Blue Book: This is a trustworthy guide that has appeared in print form for decades and now is available online. The KBB site gives you a price range you can expect to receive for the car. It also gives you cost estimates for new car models.
  • Edmunds: The Edmunds site is another trusted car pricing guide. You can find prices for cars you want to buy or sell. You can search by make and model or by a specific car’s VIN.
  • NADA: The NADA site is not quite as reliable as the other two sites, as it tends to overinflate the prices versus what you’ll find in the real world. But it at least gives you an idea of the value.
  • CARFAX: You can obtain a CARFAX report on a specific car at this site for a price. But for free, you can receive estimated value for the car. This site is easier to use when you know the VIN or license plate number for a specific vehicle. If you’re just searching for a price for a general make and model, this site doesn’t work as well.

Be careful with these pricing guides, as some of them have ads that look a lot like the forms in which you’ll be entering information. If you end up clicking on an ad inadvertently, you may end up at a site that doesn’t give you accurate information.

Find Similar Cars That Have Been Sold In Your Area

You can use a couple of online tools to help you find prices for cars similar to yours that have sold in your city or region. These numbers can be helpful as you try to estimate the price of your car in a real world setting.

Guides may give you an estimated “value” but the real value is what the car is being sold for currently. Cars are only worth as much as someone is willing to pay.

Understand that the condition of your car may be significantly different than the sold used car that the site is using for data.

  • TrueCar Price Report: The TrueCar site uses a price report that averages the prices that others in your area paid for a particular make and model. Although this is a nice feature, if you are looking at an uncommon car or if you live in a medium to low population area, you’ll probably receive an error message, telling you there isn’t enough sales data to generate the report.
  • Edmunds TMV: The Edmunds site has a True Market Value feature that bases its data on actual cars sold in your area.

Values Depending on Who Is Buying

When looking at the value for your car on the web sites we have listed, you’re going to find a few different types of figures listed. It is extremely important to pay attention to these different figures, so you don’t make a mistake in valuing your car.

These values tell you what you should expect to receive based on how you plan to sell the car. Here are the four primary values to understand and how they compare to each other.

Trade-in

A trade-in occurs when you’re selling your car to a dealership as part of a transaction where you are purchasing a different car from the same dealer.

With a trade-in, you will receive a price toward the lower end of the range of values you’ll find for your car.

Remember, the dealer is going to be selling your traded in car on his or her lot. So the dealer will attempt to give you as little as possible for the trade-in, maximizing the profit the dealer can make on the resale.

Using a trade-in is popular, though, because it is a very easy process.

Cash Offer

If you find the process of a trade-in to be confusing, you’re not alone. Dealerships do this on purpose to make it appear as though you’re receiving a large amount for your car. But they just use the math to charge you more for the car you’re buying.

To eliminate these games, you can ask the dealership to give you a cash offer for your car. Then, if you purchase a different car from the same dealer, request that the two transactions occur separately, so you can see the true price you’re receiving and paying for the two vehicles.

You also can use the cash offer to just sell your car to a dealership without purchasing a car from the dealer. A cash offer will be worth a little more than a trade-in, but it will not be as high as selling to a private party.

The benefit of accepting a cash offer from a dealership is that it is easy and hassle-free.

Many of the car value websites we listed earlier allow you to request a cash offer from dealerships.

Some sites list the price you could expect to find your car listed for on a dealer’s lot. You will not receive this price when selling it yourself, though, so don’t base your hopes on this number.

Private Party Sale

If you choose to sell the car on your own to a private party, you’ll receive a much higher amount than you’ll receive with a trade-in or a cash offer. It will begin to approach the price a dealership would have the car listed for on its lot.

Private party sales can be a hassle, though. You have to worry about title transfers and creating a bill of sale. If the car has several thousand dollars of value, accepting the large payment by check is worrisome, as is accepting such a large amount of cash.

You’ll also have to post ads for the car, meet prospective buyers, and follow up with people that are interested. There’s a lot more time involved that getting an offer from a dealer.

Factors That Most Impact Value For Used Cars

Your particular used car’s value likely won’t precisely match what a website says. The look and condition of the car is important.

If you’ve kept your car in pristine condition, cleaning it religiously and keeping potential disasters out of the car, your vehicle has a higher value than the person who hasn’t maintained their car.

Beyond cleanliness, these items have the biggest effect on the value of the car:

  • Mileage: A car that has 100,000 miles on it has a significantly lower value than the same model with 50,000 miles on it. After all, every car only has a certain number of miles it will travel before breaking down for good. A car with fewer miles should last longer than one with more miles.
  • Condition: We touched on condition a bit already when talking about cleanliness. However, condition also refers to items like scratches, rust, or dents on the exterior of the car and tears, cracks, or stains on the interior of the car. A car that smells like cigarette smoke or wet dogs will drop in value because of poor condition as well.
  • Options: A car that has multiple add-ons may have a higher value. Things like backup cameras, seat warmers, a sun roof, or a larger engine place it at the higher end of the price range for its make and model versus a basic car with few or no add-on options.
  • Color: You may have thought buying a lime green car was a cool and fun idea at the time you purchased it. But when it’s time to sell the car, you’re going to find that the majority of buyers do not want a lime green car, which drops its value.
  • Location: Certain car designs are more popular in some areas of the United States than others. Pickup trucks may have a higher value in the Midwest, because they’re more in demand than in New York City. Sports cars with convertible tops should yield a higher value in southern California than they will in Montana, especially in January.

Beat the Car Dealer

If the thought of shopping for a car and dealing with a smarmy car salesperson gives you a feeling in the pit of your stomach that’s equal to visiting the dentist for multiple root canals, you’ll find that having data on your side during negotiations over the car is a significant relief.

No longer do you have to wonder if the salesperson is lying half the time about what your car is worth. With a bit of research, you’ll walk into that dealership knowing what you deserve for your vehicle. The cards will be in your favor now.

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