Maximize your profits when selling your car online

Many of us spend time perusing online car ads. Usually, a LOT of time. It’s because we often dream of the hunt, barn find, or deal of a lifetime. Sometimes, it’s simply to keep up with the market for interesting cars. Since we do this too, and appreciate sellers who value their time and ours, we’d like to provide some advice about selling your car without raising fellow enthusiasts’ blood pressure. Not only will you avoid upsetting the internet, you’ll also increase the number of potential buyers and your profit, and sell your car more quickly.

The inspiration for this article was this fantastic Craigslist post. Let’s use this as a starting point for our lesson:

craigslist example
1. Spelling

Yeah, we’ve all seen the common errors like “new break pads.” But when it comes to online advertising, search visibility is everything. If you misspell the car’s name potential buyers won’t find the ad. At least “Alfo” is more original than the more common “Alpha Romero,” but neither will find you a buyer. If you’re unsure, just go outside and double-check. It’s on your car.

I once bought a Porsche 911 that lingered on Craigslist unseen for weeks (including by me) because the seller rechristened it a “Porch.” Fortunately, he also put “cabriolet” somewhere in the posting so I eventually found it. That was my lucky day. Sadly for the seller, he had already lowered his price a couple of times because he wasn’t getting calls.

Proper spelling and grammar never hurt. Type your text in a word processing program that checks spelling and then paste it into the listing site. Since you may be listing on multiple websites, this will save you time in the long run.

These days, Craigslist has some basic categorization for year, make, model, and common questions. In the sample ad, this did allow the seller a second opportunity to have the correct spelling of the car’s brand, though he still didn’t add the model number. Which brings us to our next point…

2. Don’t leave out the basics

There are some basic questions that all potential buyers will ask. These include price, model name, engine, transmission, mileage, number of cylinders, color, and the title status. There are even more specifics for trucks.

Almost every online classified or auction site include simple fields for answering these questions. Whether you’re using a site with details like these or just posting on a message board, it’s important to answer these questions. Some shoppers will filter out vehicles using the website’s tools so omitting information could limit your visibility. Worse yet, if you don’t provide an answer, many shoppers will simply assume the worst and bypass the car.

Some dealers purposefully leave out details like mileage or asking price in the hope that this will prompt a phone call. As an individual seller, just don’t do it. Many buyers won’t reward dealers who do this and certainly won’t find it endearing in a peer to peer sale.

3. The details matter

Since you’re filling in the vehicle detail fields, use correct information. One pet peeve for many is the transmission type. An automatic transmission with gear selector or paddles is not a manual! For those looking for a stick-equipped car this means three pedals. Again, this is a filtering game. People looking for automatics don’t usually filter but those looking for manuals do. When a rare manual car like a Lexus SC300 or late C3 Corvette shows up in a filtered or saved search, there is a certain excitement followed by deep depression when photos reveal the truth. Don’t be that seller.

Follow the site’s listing guidelines for miles as well. For example, Craigslist uses a standard number field for miles so if you write “127” rather than “127,000” you’re messing up search filters again. Here’s a hint: If somebody is looking for a car with under 75,000 miles on Craigslist, use the filter to put a minimum of 999 and maximum of 75000. This filters out the 127s so if you’re the seller, your listing is now virtually invisible. You aren’t fooling anybody, it just looks like you can’t read directions.

4. Description text

Our sample listing is not uncommon. Many sellers seem to think that nothing has changed since newspaper ads charged by the word. Online, you have unlimited free space to answer potential questions and to tell a compelling story about your car. There is no excuse for banging out one incomplete sentence.

Please make sure your “caps lock” key isn’t on either. This makes your listing harder to read and is considered rude (like yelling) by tech-savvy shoppers.

Successful ads provide thorough descriptions of the car and point out the positives and negatives about them. Think about the positives. Have you owned the car for many years? Have you made any major repairs or upgrades recently? Have you already addressed commonly-known problem areas with the car? The first question people are likely going to ask is if you changed the timing belt on your 1996 Nissan 300ZX. Did you upgrade the IMS bearing on your Porsche 996? Proactively address these issues or mention they need to be done. It will make you sound like a more knowledgeable and honest seller.

Randy Nonnenberg, founder of online auction site, sums this up well:

Information can usually be presented by sharing what you know about three categories: the vehicle’s history, the current condition, and the features or specification. A short list of bullet points on each of those will already have you ahead of most sellers. Being realistic and avoiding gushy superlatives will build trust with bidders and buyers. Unless you are selling from the lawn at Pebble Beach, your car likely has some flaws. List and display them honestly so there aren’t surprises later.

5. Pictures

Another way to tell a story is with your photos. Nearly everyone has a decent camera on their phone or can borrow one from a friend, so there is little excuse for an advertisement with no photos or, perhaps worse, one or two fuzzy pictures.

Get the car outside unless your garage looks like Jay Leno’s. Give it some space and pay attention to the background. It shouldn’t be too cluttered so that the car is clearly visible and it doesn’t look like you store it at an auto dismantling yard. If you can, wait for a nice day and give the car, at a minimum, a wash and vacuum. Get the cups out of the center console and old wrappers off the floor. This alone will add hundreds of dollars to the perceived value of the car. Stains on your floormats look even worse in online photos so wash them or remove them altogether if the carpet is nice.

Again, most sites allow dozens of photos so why limit yourself to only one or two? There are a lot of common mistakes: Many sellers fail to show even one picture that contains the entire car. Partial photos are a good idea if you want to focus on a particular area like damage, but shouldn’t be the only pictures you include. Logos that help identify the specific model, trim level, or engine are great to photograph and help answer potential questions. Be sure to include ¾ angled shots, the front, rear and both sides at a minimum. Just walk around the car and take photos as you go. A photo of the roof is also helpful if the model had an optional sunroof (whether your car has it or not) or to show the condition of a convertible. Why not get low and take some photos of the underside of the car?

Another nuisance: buyers don’t want to see your finger. Where the paranoia from showing your license plate in an ad stems from is a mystery. You drive your car with your plate exposed, don’t you? Anyway, don’t bother to Photoshop a smudge over the plate or to use your thumb. It’s just annoying and a waste of your time. No one can change the title by using your license plate number.

Interior pictures are often overlooked altogether. Combined with an ad that fails to even mention interior color, this can be a serious oversight. Your goal with interior pictures is to show the condition of the car and answer potential questions about it. A dashboard photo can tell a lot about the radio, air conditioning, trim level, and other options. Again, focus on known problem areas. Driver’s side outside seat bolsters are often the first wear area on seats, for example.

Another tip, take pictures in landscape mode. Turn your phone sideways or don’t turn your camera ninety degrees. This format works better on a computer screen… just look at our “Alfo Romeo“ ad as an example. But be wary, don’t go with studio photos either as these may get you flagged by folks who think they’re too good and stolen from a press kit.

In summary

There is no reason to annoy the Internet with a terrible listing. Nor is it hard to post one of the most compelling ads out there and maximize potential buyers and profit. Be honest, tell a story, answer potential questions buyers may have, and use the medium to its full advantage with a lot of photos. And by all means, keep your thumb out of the pictures.

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