How to Sell Your Car in the 2020s, during COVID-19, and Beyond
We at TTS spend a lot (a LOT) of time looking at classified ads for cars – just like we know a lot of you do. Some of us <ahem!> have also written our fair share of them. Now, while I have gotten some of my best deals on cars thanks to a poorly written ad, we decided that we owed it to the motoring public to provide this simple primer on how to write a car ad in this day and age: the day and age of the internet and high-resolution smart phone pictures. Hopefully our handy do’s and don’ts will help sellers maximize their sales price while at the same time helping potential buyers avoid wasting their time and yours. Keep in mind that these are just the basics – folks selling special interest cars on sites like BringaTrailer or Cars&Bids should plan to go WAY above this. For a handy, printable PDF of the important points below, click here: TTS Guide to Making a Car Ad.
1. Key Elements of Ad Text
So you want to sell your car. Hopefully it’s because you’ve replaced it with something more interesting to you or you’ve decided that it has appreciated significantly and you’re ready to cash out and invest elsewhere. Whatever your motivations, in order to maximize your dollar whether you’re selling a pretty mundane car or something truly special, there are several key elements that should be included in every car classified ad. As a basic rule of thumb, be descriptive, informative, and avoid fluff and deception.
- Year, Make, Model, Sub-model (if applicable) – “2001 Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG”
- Current Mileage
- Title Status (Clear, financed/need to pay off/branded and if branded, why?)
- Transmission – and no, a sequential shift/tiptronic is NOT a manual transmission. A manual transmission has a gear selector and a clutch.
- A list of accessories (AC, power windows, power locks, sunroof, stereo, heated seats, adjustable suspension, etc.) and their functionality. If it was equipped with something but it doesn’t work or is failing, just say so. Don’t make that a happy surprise when a buyer shows up or receives the car.
- Any modifications to the car.
- Any recent service work/part replacements/upgrades.
- Condition of wear and tear items – battery, tires, and brakes, primarily.
- A general description of the car including colors (inside and out), condition, known history, and why you are selling (unless there’s really no reason – although in those cases I just tell people honestly that I have a short attention span). If you’re a dealer, be upfront about it whether you have a brick and mortar shop or not.
- Any other condition issues including but not limited to: rust, dents, glass cracks, torn upholstery, sagging headliner, dash cracks, missing parts.
- Any information you have about where the car came from, past owners, and history of accidents/floods/odometer issues. If you have a CarFax or equivalent, history report, offer to share it. If there is something negative on the report, explain it if you can.
- Availability to make the car available for inspection. Even during the current pandemic there’s no reason not to let a buyer or their agent see a car. Get some spare disposable masks and disinfectant to make everyone comfortable. There is no reason someone should buy a car that a seller won’t let them inspect. MAJOR red flag.
- Comprehensive, clear photos per sections 2, 3, and 4 below.
- If applicable, relevant information about accepted payment methods, willingness to assist shippers.
DO NOT include:
- A complete history of the model. If I am looking at the car, I have an idea what it is. If I don’t know about it but am interested, this is 2020 and I can Google it. Extraneous text about the general car model makes a potential buyer lose interest trying to sort through to find the details about the specific car on the table.
- “AC just needs a charge” – If it just needs a charge – CHARGE IT. This is one of my key pet peeves. As stated above, just indicate if it works or it doesn’t, and if you know anything specific about why it doesn’t (no compressor, receiver dryer fell off, etc.) then state that.
- Blurry photos, pictures of your girlfriend posing with the car, pictures of someone else’s car (even if “just for reference”), pictures that are too close or cut off, pictures that conveniently miss major issues, edited pictures.
- A complete lack of information. Again, I’ve gotten some great deals this way, but we’re trying to help you – the seller – here. A little bit of effort will make a difference.
2. The Five Pictures You MUST Include
In this day and age, there is really no excuse for not taking pictures – decent ones at that – if you’re trying to sell a car. There are five pictures that EVERY seller should take to include with their ad:
- Rear/Quarter (opposite side of car from front quarter)
- Front Seat Area
- Rear Seat Area
- Engine Bay
It is important to give buyers an overview of the whole car, so if you take a picture of the front of the car from the driver’s side front quarter (as with the red 500E at the top of this article), take the picture of the rear of the car from the passenger side (as with the 560SEC above). That way you capture the entire car in just two photos. Pay attention to the background of the photos as well – nobody wants to see the couch on your front yard. Your best bet is to find a nice park, parking lot, or some other aesthetically pleasing area the complements the car but doesn’t take attention away from it.
The interior is critical as well. This is where your buyer is going to spend the vast majority of their time with the car, so it stands to reason that they want to see what it looks like. Sine we are just talking about the five critical photos now, a good shot of the front seat area and the rear seat area (if it’s not a 2-seater) are key. Looking at this second generation Prelude, we can see both seats, the dash, and the floors. I can tell it’s a manual transmission, and it doesn’t look like someone lived here through college.
This picture also gives me a sense for the condition of the car, and in the case of this S600 rear seat, I can even imagine how it smells and feels! Note the factory all weather floormats. We buyers like to see things like that.
The last of our five critical photos is the engine. Granted, the majority of buyers are not expert mechanics, and even if they are they cannot tell the condition of the motor by looking at a picture of it. That’s all the more true these days with plastic covers basically hiding everything mechanical.
Still, I want to see the motor. It shows me that you, the seller, at least know how to open the hood. This photo is not my finest hour, because I clearly didn’t so much as wipe it down before I took the picture – but even so it’s an honest depiction of what I was selling at the time (a 2006 Mercedes E320 CDI).
3. Five More Photos You Really Should Include
Let’s assume for a moment you are not lazy, have a few extra minutes, and are inclined to go “above and beyond” to sell your car. As the buyer, the more I can see means the less likely I am to be a time waster. So what else do I want to see? The driver’s seat photo above is a great example – so often an interior can be great, but the driver’s seat (the one that gets used the most) is thrashed. Show me.
- Convertible Top (this is really a MUST if you’re selling a convertible)
- Problem Areas – Rust, damage, etc. (again, really a MUST, but if you don’t take pictures you have to describe)
- Driver’s Seat
Cars age. It’s a fact of life. Sure, you may be selling an all-original, delivery-mileage, hermetically-sealed, factory new something or other, but most folks aren’t. Rust, corrosion, nicks, and dents are not necessarily dealbreakers, but be honest about them. One of the most frustrating things in the world is a seller representing a car as “showroom” or “perfect” and finding something like this rust trap (a 1971 300SEL 6.3) above. But maybe I’m okay with a project. DISCLOSE!
If you’re selling a convertible, I want to see the top. I want to see if it’s faded, torn, and if the window is clear enough to see out of. Seems pretty logical, yes? Tell that to the majority of sellers. It’s also important to show both tops if the car comes with a hardtop as well, and the text of the ad must include functionality of the top. But more to come on that.
This BMW 733i had a crazy clean trunk – very much worth showing to prospective buyers. I failed to capture the toolkit in this picture, and that would have been even better (like the 1970 BMW 2800 below).
Gorgeous, ain’t it? Only missing the spark plugs.
If you’ve made any modifications to the car, or they were made prior to your ownership, try and show those. This NA Miata has a simple Racing Beat intake added to it, but it’s worth showing – and explain in the text of the ad if you retained the factory parts. Some folks like mods, some folks are ambivalent about them, and some abhor them. Let them see what they’ll have before they show up at your door.
4. Other “Nice to Have” Photos
Some selling sites are very generous with their allotment for the number of pictures you can include with a listing. In those cases, I am a firm believer in more is better. Usually you have up to around 15-25 photos available – again, unless it’s a specialty car auction site or the like. With that added space available, there are a few more photos I know I like to see, of course your mileage may vary. Here are some thoughts:
- Door panels
- Undercarriage and hard to see areas like door bottoms, etc.
- Known Trouble Spots
- Books and Records
- Other OEM equipment (tool kits, emergency kits, extra floor mats, repair manuals, third seats, etc.)
- Tires and Wheels
- More angles – interior, exterior, engine, undercarriage, trunk
5. The Selling Process
So your ad generated a good response, and you’ve got a buyer on the hook. Assuming this car checks all of his or her boxes, here are some considerations for the actual sales process:
- Be available and responsive. If someone is looking at spending real money on your car, don’t be hard to reach.
- Answer all of their questions, even the tough ones.
- Let them have the car inspected by a pro – at their expense. Ideally you may have had a mechanic look it over before you listed it for sale – especially if the price of entry is more than about $10K. I’m a fan of the buyer coordinating getting it to or from the inspector or the inspector coming to the car, but that’s really up to you as the seller.
- Be willing to sell remotely. This is 2020, the internet means we can see ads all over the world. The ability to purchase should come down to 1) the buyer’s ability to pay (and the payment clearing the bank); 2) whether the car meets local requirements (read: US EPA/DOT and 25 year rule); 3) The buyer’s ability to have the car picked-up and delivered to them at their expense – but be flexible about working with the shipper on meeting times, etc. Conversely, be willing to pick the buyer up at a nearby airport.
- For remote buyers or folks who may be in-person hesitant, consider making videos available on YouTube or similar covering interior and exterior walkaround and start-up. If you have someone else hold the phone/camera, a driving video is good to have as well. Alternately, consider offering a Skype or FaceTime walkaround with the potential buyer.
- Accept convenient payment methods. My favorite is bank wire transfer/ACH, but if the buyer is willing to pay the fee I’ll take PayPal. Bank checks are okay, but take longer to clear.
- Offer to express important documents once payment is clear – title and bill of sale primarily. If there is a lot of service history, spare keys, expensive or rare bits – send those separately as well. It’s not all the time, but stuff can disappear from a car during shipment.
And best of luck with your sale!
Anything to add? Share it in the comments section below.
Please leave out sentences and words in all caps! I have always found any sort of statement like only “serious buyers” are to contact the seller to be off-putting. I get that tire kickers, particularly when the car being sold is inexpensive, are irritating, but if you really want to sell your car you might have to put up with that sort of interest.
+1 to all of what has been said here!
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