Professor Siegel’s Guide to Selling a Car (Part 2)
Last week, I began writing about how to sell a car that falls outside the Kelly Blue Book or JD Power (formerly NADA) Guide values because it’s either vintage, needy, high mileage, or all three. I talked about the need for preparation and description, and the choice of a selling platform: fixed-price like Facebook Marketplace (FBM) or Craigslist; and auctions like eBay or Bring a Trailer. (Hagerty Marketplace, you should be aware, offers both Classifieds and Auctions.) Today we’ll talk about photos and videos, price, the difference between an offer and a commitment, and the passing of papers.
On the one hand, the needed quantity and quality of photos depends heavily on how the car is being sold. If it’s going on a fixed-price local platform like Facebook Marketplace (maximum of 12 photos) or Craigslist (24 photos), you’d think that the pics just need to be good enough for people to decide whether or not to come see the car in person. On the other hand, the increasing national use of FBM and CL for sight-unseen purchases means that you need to be prepared to send anyone who expresses interest a full detailed set of pics via something like a link to Google Photos.
If the car is worth a lot of money and you’re putting it on Bring a Trailer or other auction site, professional photos that use a narrow depth of field on the details (e.g., a perfect taillight in focus and the rest of the background blurred) are worth every penny, but these days, any DSLR in auto mode or any modern cell phone with multiple cameras will do a presentable job provided you follow a few simple rules.
For the exterior, shoot the car on a sunny day in an uncluttered environment like an empty parking lot. A scenic backdrop is better, but most of us don’t live in Sedona. If the car is a bright color, the degree to which sun makes the paint pop can dramatically help the presentation of the car. All photos should be in landscape mode, not portrait mode (hold the phone horizontal, not vertical), and the car should fill most of the frame of the photo. At an absolute bare minimum, shoot it from eight angles—front, back, left and right sides, and the oblique views. Twice that many is better. Don’t block out the license plates with your thumb. It just looks stupid. Either leave the plates visible, take them off, or blur them with Photoshop. Another pet peeve of mine is photos with the shadow of the photographer lurking like Bigfoot. Just take the 30 seconds required to re-orient the car and re-take the photo.
The exterior whole-car pics are just the beginning. Take detailed photos of bumpers, grilles, lights, trim, and wheels. Photograph any dents and non-trivial scratches. Shoot several pics of the engine compartment, and the trunk showing the rear shock towers and the spare tire well.
For the interior, unless you know exactly what you’re doing with a flash, bright sun isn’t a good idea, as you never get the whole interior either fully in or out of shadow. It’s better to shoot it in the shade.
Remember that for a vintage car you need to prove its condition. You don’t say “rust-free”—you prove it with pics. Unless you have a lift, it’s difficult to photograph the undercarriage. Even if you jack the car up and put the cell phone flat on the driveway, the photos often show things too close and out of context. If the car runs, it’s well worth driving it to any repair shop and handing over the necessary number of $20 bills for them to put the car up on their lift while you snap away for five minutes.
Lastly, if the car not only doesn’t run but is marooned in a garage or barn with boxes on top of it, it’s best to do some upfront work to try to get it out where it can be walked around and photographed. While some cars are so iconic and valuable that, even in barn-find condition, your inbox will explode with interest, most cars will benefit from potential buyers being able to see the condition the car is actually in.
Videos aren’t required to sell a car, but they’re strongly advised on BaT; they provide dramatically more information than still photographs and go a long way toward showing prospective buyers what the car actually is. I shoot a full walk-around video showing both the exterior and interior, a cold-start video, a driving video that includes around town as well as nailing and wailing on the highway, and a full undercarriage examination. One of my walk-around videos can be seen here.
On auction sites, the price is set by the high bid, but on fixed-price sites like FBM, you need to list a price. On a modern car that’s more of a daily-driver commodity, you can look up the book value and price your car accordingly, but for a classic car, you need to triangulate off the Hagerty values, recent sales on BaT, and completed listings on eBay to see what cars in comparable condition have actually sold for. Because I have such an active Facebook presence, I’ve done pretty well by describing and photographing my cars in crushing detail, pricing them realistically, and putting them on my FB page, as well as other marque and model-specific pages (e.g., the “BMW 2002” page and the page for “The Vintage,” an annual event I attend in Asheville). I’m then usually contacted by someone who I’ve either met or who knows folks I know, trust is established, and we work it out.
If the car isn’t a classic, I list it on FBM, hold my nose, and deal with the garbage messages like everyone else. It’s rarely productive to combine poor condition and high price and be one of those “I know what I have” people, but I’ll sometimes price a car aggressively, say in the ad “Price is absolutely dead nuts firm,” and mean it.
Generally, though, you need to show some price flexibility as a seller. A potential buyer may say “I’ll come there prepared to do the deal with a truck, a trailer, and cash, but I want some sense of how firm the price is before I allocate the whole day to it,” and that’s understandable. It’s part of the larger context of seller and buyer feeling each other out. I may respond, “There’s some flexibility for the right buyer once he or she is standing in the driveway.”
Last week I talked about the increasing frequency of ads that say “don’t ask me a million questions,” which drives me crazy because of the implication that the seller’s time is more valuable than yours. Something else I’ve been seeing more often is the “soft auction,” where a car is posted with a price so low that it’s guaranteed to generate many responses, but the seller has no intention of selling it at that price. Typically the ad is then edited and the price is either raised dramatically or the seller says, “Message me your best offer.” If you really want to do something like this, I suppose you could advertise, “I’m showing the car Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Come see it, give me your best offer, I’ll select the highest one on Sunday at 10 p.m.,” but I maintain that if you’re going to auction off a car, it’s really far better for both buyer and seller to put it on a real auction site with the structure of a starting price, a possible reserve price, and bids that are publicly visible as they come in, as there’s nothing in a “soft auction” to prevent the seller from pulling the car or the high bidder from not following through.
The Difference Between an Offer and a Commitment
If the very first contact from a potential buyer is a message that says, “Would you take $X?,” it’s difficult for me to take that seriously. What, no questions about the car? No requests for more photos of the floor pans? You don’t want to talk to me on the phone? I sure would if I was the buyer.
A distinction needs to be drawn between “I’ve read your description, I want the car, and I’ll offer you $X, and wire you the money right now” and “I’ll buy it for $X and will pay for it when I pick it up.” The first is a commitment. The second sounds like a commitment, but it’s really an implied sight-unseen offer. Be wary of it. History has taught me that sight-unseen offers like this, if they’re absent a wire transfer or the binding commitment of the “Make Offer” button on eBay, are usually worthless, as the lowered price simply becomes the starting point for a new negotiation. What often happens is that once the seller sees and drives the car, they often say, “Oh, I didn’t know about X, Y, and Z” and try to get you to take less so you don’t lose the sale. I’m sorry, but the buyer can’t have it both ways—they can’t have the sale locked up with an accepted offer and you therefore considering the car as sold so you’re not showing it to anyone else, and also be able to lower the price further when they see the car. When a buyer makes an offer and a seller accepts it, in my opinion the buyer loses the right to renegotiate the offer. One big advantage of an auction is that it largely removes this possibility. (I say “largely” because I’ve had one or two eBay buyers try it. I sent them packing empty-handed.) This is another area where as complete a description as possible is to the seller’s benefit—there are fewer things the buyer can claim he or she didn’t know about. Obviously, if a car is grossly misrepresented by a seller, that’s an exception.
I hate deposits and try to avoid them. It gets dicey when you accept a deposit and the buyer changes their mind and wants it back. If someone comes and looks at my car, wants to buy it, and we shake on a price, they can come back tomorrow with the cash or talk with their bank about a wire transfer. I’m an old-school word-is-my-bond guy and won’t sell it out from under them. If they change their mind or vanish, so be it. The exception is that if someone sees the car advertised, contacts me with extreme interest, and asks me if I can hold the car for a day or two until they come and see it, I’ll sometimes take a small ($100) non-refundable deposit. In this instance, it’s clear that the deposit is really just buying their place at the head of the line.
Payment and Papers
If you’re selling a car in person, you sign over the title to the buyer (here in Massachusetts, every registered car, no matter how old, has a title), and they give you the money. In states where titles aren’t required for a car over 15 years old, a previous registration and a bill of sale in the same name usually take the place of a title. But the point is that, for an in-person sale, the money and the paper transfer occur at the same time. The buyer then owns the car, and how they get it home—drive it legally, drive it illegally, or tow it—is up to them. I’ve had buyers ask me if they can drive the car home on my plates and insurance. I’ve done it for friends, but in general it’s a poor idea, as you really don’t want to experience the nightmare scenario of someone getting into an accident in a car that’s in ownership limbo (e.g., the title has been signed over to them but it’s still on your insurance).
In-person payment can be cash (which carries with it magical negotiating powers), wire transfer (sort of), or check, if you the seller are comfortable with it. Bank transfer apps like Zelle are great, but they have a low limit—typically around $4000, though it varies bank to bank—that essentially limits them to inexpensive cars. It’s sometimes enough, though, that when combined with a trip to a nearby ATM for cash, a buyer can pay you on the spot. Otherwise the buyer needs to initiate an actual bank-to-bank wire transfer to the seller, which usually requires a physical visit to the bank and is usually not instantaneous. Bank checks or money orders can be used, but as a seller, you need to be clear that you’ll wait for them to post to your account before you’ll release the car. The exception is if the check is drawn on a bank where there’s a branch nearby and you and the buyer can actually go there and have them verify the check or even cash it.
I know that I’m writing this from the seller’s standpoint, but I’d add that, as a buyer, looking at a car during bank business hours and scoping out in advance where the nearest branch of your bank is can eliminate the need for showing up with an uncomfortably large amount of cash for a car you’re not even certain you want. This is why I maintain my account at an evil-empire-style big bank—they’re likely to have a branch office within a 30-minute drive of any car I look at in New England.
If the car is a remote sale either via auction or online purchase, money and papers have to be passed somehow. For high-dollar cars, there are escrow services that do this, but I usually just do the human-to-human thing and have a phone call with the buyer. We talk, establish trust, then agree to simultaneous exchange. They begin the process of wiring the money or sending a bank check, and I sign and date the title and put it in a USPS or Fedex envelope with a tracking number and send the buyer a photograph of me doing so. I’ve never had a problem doing it this way.
Once payment and papers are exchanged, the buyer is the owner, and you as the seller need to be extremely careful with the car. In one of the BaT sales I brokered, the shipper refused to drive into my neighborhood, insisting the streets were too narrow and the power lines were too low for his two-level tandem transport (and he was probably right). He asked me to meet him at a service area on I-95. I was happy to do so, except that with the sale of the car consummated, the owner (actual seller) had cancelled his registration and insurance. I contacted the buyer and explained this, and it turned out he hadn’t insured the car yet (this was his first remote purchase). A few frantic phone calls later and the car was insured. I drove it the five miles with a set of my old plates on it, as I was willing to risk getting stopped for driving an unregistered car but not for an accident in an uninsured car. The first is a potential ticket. The second is potentially losing my house.
As we wrote in Part 1 of this story, although it’s still young, Hagerty Marketplace offers the added reassurance of holding purchase payments in escrow until the sale is complete, and the $99 seller’s fee is currently being waived.
That’s most of it. Classic cars usually find a good buyer—often someone not unlike yourself—but garden-variety needy high-mileage daily drivers are tougher to sell. It often seems that the more you lower the price, the more of a zoo the whole thing becomes, and when you find someone who communicates in complete sentences, does what he or she says they’ll do, shows up when he or she says they will, and offers you something in the same planetary orbit as your asking price, you’re glad to take their money and end the whole episode.
Rob’s latest book, The Best Of The Hack Mechanic™: 35 years of hacks, kluges, and assorted automotive mayhem is available on Amazon here. His other seven books are available here on Amazon, or you can order personally-inscribed copies from Rob’s website, www.robsiegel.com.
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