Professor Siegel’s Guide to Selling a Car
The past few weeks, I’ve written about looking at cars with the hope of picking up a winter project. Not surprisingly, this showcased several of the things that drive me crazy about car ads, and about the process of buying and selling. While it’s all still fresh and irritating, I thought I’d share some of my pointers on how to sell a car.
Let me first say that I’m talking here mainly about vintage cars—but also needy cars, high-mileage cars, or cars that are all three of those things at once. If, instead, the car you want to sell is only a few years old and in excellent condition, with normal mileage, its value is generally a fixed quantity that can be looked up on Kelly Blue Book (KBB) or the NADA Guide (now called the JD Power Guide).
That known value brings make-it-easy-though-not-top-dollar options such as dealer trade-in and services like Carvana, Vroom, CarGurus, CarMax, etc. But if you have an old or needy car, make no mistake: Selling it yourself is a giant pain in the patootie.
“It’s Supposed to Be Work!”
One thing I noticed in my recent searches was a significant number of ads where the description said, “Don’t ask me a lot of questions, just come and see it,” or “I’m not going to answer a million questions or take a million photos.” The vehicle was usually some ran-when-parked-long-ago car, or well-priced because it needed work.
I really don’t understand why people think this a productive way to sell a car. To me, it screams that going to see the car will be a waste of time, as I’m likely to find things that, if they were simply disclosed, would’ve saved both me and the seller the effort. The funny thing is, when people do this, they’re likely to get a hundred messages, half of which are worthless—time-wasting, insultingly low, sight-unseen offers—with the other half being people asking those unwanted questions anyway.
It’s really as simple as this: Selling a car is supposed to be work. If you’re not willing to do the work, just donate the car to charity, or drive it down to the local used-car lot and see what they’ll offer, or ask your mechanic what they’ll give you for it.
Seriously: You can’t have it both ways. If you want to maximize your sale price, you need to put up-front work into the sale. The good news is that, by writing up a thorough, honest description and providing a good set of photographs, you provide information up front. Which reduces the number of questions from potential buyers.
Which Selling Platform?
There are two basic ways to sell a car—auction it, or sell it at a fixed price. Don’t confuse them. No one wants to see your no-price “testing the waters” ad. Either do your homework on your car’s value and state your price, or create an auction listing and let people bid.
Sales are also broken into two groups: local versus remote. In the grainy, sepia-toned past, selling a car meant putting a fixed-price ad in the local newspaper. That got supplanted by car-specific local weekly publications (here in New England, we had The Want Advertiser). Those weeklies, in turn, eventually had their lunches eaten by Craigslist.
These days, much of the action is on Facebook Marketplace (“FBM,” for short). Even a few years ago, an FBM or Craigslist sale was inherently local—that is, you’d post your car on those platforms, and the people who would respond were either in your city or within a small radius of your zip code. The result was often in an in-person visit and direct sale. (This was stark contrast to an eBay or Bring a Trailer (BaT) auction sale, transactions almost always sight-unseen.) Over time, that changed—a FBM or Craigslist response can now come from anywhere in the country. This makes a thorough description and significant photo documentation even more important.
Finally, there are marque-specific publications and websites. I’m most familiar with the classifieds in the BMW Car Club of America’s Roundel magazine, and on its website, bmwcca.org. With marque-specific websites, the tradeoff is specific interest versus quantity of eyeballs. You may have a model only appreciated by other marque aficionados, but these days, it’s often smarter to aim for the sheer volume of eyeballs on Bring a Trailer.
The Old Standby: Fixed-Price Sales
I’ll talk mostly here about Facebook Marketplace, as the volume of cars listed on Craigslist has dropped substantially since FBM’s launch.
From a buyer standpoint, Marketplace is laughably bad. Much of that badness can be traced to an architecture that appears to prioritize algorithm over search engine. Search for “1972 BMW 2002” and you may or may not be shown any 1972 BMW 2002s. Repeat that search a few times, the site will learn that you’re interested in 1970s European cars, and it will show you those whenever you jump on.
Cars will also mysteriously appear and vanish depending on whether you sort your search by price or by year, and cars within your search radius may be mysteriously excluded. It’s maddening.
From a seller’s standpoint, though, FBM has positives. The service offers free listings—Craigslist charges a fee—and uploading photos and a description is easy enough. You’re allowed a max of 12 photos, four more than with Craigslist. Other advantages: Communication with the seller happens through Facebook Messenger, and the site will provide a satisfaction score for that person’s previous Marketplace transactions. Finally, the buyer and seller can see each other’s Facebook profile, so you can get some sense of who the other party actually is.
Still, there are several downsides. FBM forces you to choose make and model from a laughably incomplete picklist. (The site, for example, doesn’t even know what a BMW 2002 is.) If a car isn’t on that list, sellers will often intentionally list it as the wrong model (“Yeah, I know it’s not a 1973 BMW M3, but that’s the closest thing I could select.”) Or they’ll advertise it as an “Item for Sale” instead of a “Vehicle for Sale,” in which case the car won’t show up in a vehicles-for-sale search.
The main downside of selling on FBM, though, is the app’s social-media-connected nature. Something about Facebook seems to bring out the worst in people. Any listing is virtually guaranteed to receive many insultingly low, sight-unseen offers. Sometimes those offers are full sentences. (“I’ll show up today with $500 and tow it away.”) Sometimes they’re text-speak. (“Wld U tk $500 4 it?”). Sometimes they’re nothing more than a number. (“$500.”) Also, Facebook’s auto-filled buyer message to a seller is, “Hi, is this still available?” so you’ll receive many of those, no further explanation or comment.
I’ve tried writing descriptions that begin with, “Any lowball offers and Is it available? messages will be ignored.” It makes no difference. You simply have to read every ad response you get and respond to the intelligent ones.
Another option (though I haven’t used it yet) is Hagerty Classifieds. Listing is free for Hagerty Drivers Club members, and there are no fees for either sellers or buyers. The submission process is template-based, somewhere between the completely open format of eBay and the highly-regimented submission steps of BaT. And the resulting description is your own, not the strange word salad that pops out at the end of the BaT process.
Buyers contact sellers through Hagerty’s website, which adds a measure of protection. Other advantages include access to Hagerty’s Valuation Tools and a 10-percent discount on shipping via Reliable Carriers.
The Wild West: Online Auctions
Any auction site offers five substantial benefits.
The first: Auction sites provide the structure for a starting price and, if you want, a reserve price. Bids are publicly visible as they come in.
Second: The auction process almost always produces a buyer. If you can’t sell a car by auction, it’s either because you set a reserve that wasn’t met, or because your winning bidder and every other bidder after that flaked and disappeared. (Rare, but it happens.) If you want to get the car out of your driveway and money into your bank account, that virtually guaranteed sale is a huge advantage.
Third: There is usually some sort of protection service in place—to assure the seller that the buyer will pay, and that the car will be as represented. This can be anything from structured insurance or assurance services, offered by the auction house, to your ability to leave feedback ratings after a transaction.
Fourth: You don’t need to deal with the torrent of insulting, sight-unseen offers that accompany selling a car yourself.
Lastly, online auctions are an inherently remote process. Yes, anyone who happens to be local can still contact you and ask to inspect the car. But those folks are usually a tiny trickle compared to the potential throngs beating down your door if you only advertise locally.
The downsides are simple: Auction houses have fees for listing and selling. Auctions can take a while to play out. As with any remote sale, you need to be prepared to assist the buyer with shipping—at a bare minimum, you have to be available to meet the truck, sometimes on short notice.
If you have a highly desirable car and can stomach the lead time and the description process, Bring a Trailer can certainly produce very high sale prices. As I’ve written, however, the BaT process is lengthy, from auditioning to get your car on the site to the actual listing, and the description process is frustrating.
eBay has the advantage here, in that it leaves you in control of the description process. Your listing can go up instantly, as soon as you’re done building it. These days, many cars on eBay are from dealers using fixed-price ads with high asking prices, not actual auctions. But that only makes a real auction—where an actual bargain might be found—stand out all the more.
You also might want to consider Hagerty Auctions. Although still young, the service offers many of the features of the company’s classifieds, plus a high degree of curation from Hagerty. For added reassurance, Hagerty holds purchase payments in escrow until the sale is complete, and the $99 seller’s fee is currently being waived.
I don’t have direct experience with the other auction platforms.
Selling: Car Prep
For the love of everything good in this automotive hobby of ours, wash and vacuum the car. It takes half an hour.
Okay, if you need to hand-wash it, it’s more like an hour. But you’re not prepping for a concours. Just throw out the Dunkin’ Donuts cups on the floor, vacuum the rugs and seats, pull the suction-cup phone mount off the windshield, and stow any cables. Is that too much to ask?
I also strongly recommend that you take ten minutes to open up the hood and remove any leaves, acorns, and pine needles that have found their way in. That one change goes a long way toward making an engine not appear neglected.
A tougher question: Should you have any repairs done? If the car only needs a battery, then absolutely, spend the $150. A car that starts and runs is worth more than one that doesn’t. From there, though, the cost-return relationship grows dicey. As a DIY mechanic, I make a punch list for any car I’m selling and clock through as much of that list as I can. I figure that it’s better to not have to state and apologize for a needed repair, but then, I don’t pay for my labor.
A car’s value is impacted by two sets of variables. The first is year, make, model, and mileage. The second is overall condition—the shape of the paint, body, interior, and mechanicals. For all intents and purposes, you can’t change anything in the first group. You can easily change three of the four items in the second group, however. Isolated small mechanical issues—a lit ABS warning light, for example—typically affect an older, high-mileage car’s sale value less than you’d think.
Selling: Writing the Description
The single biggest thing you can do to help sell a car is provide an accurate description.
The blurring of the difference between local and remote sales only makes that description more important. Unlike late-model cars, which rarely deviate far from as-new condition, vintage cars can be in any condition. From rust-free to solid to good bones to basket-case.
By fully and accurately describing a car’s condition, you reduce the risk for a buyer—you are eliminating much of what the car might be and replacing it with knowledge of what the car actually is. (Or at least, what you say it is, and what you know to be true, assuming you’re honest, which you should be.)
Not to toot my own horn, but some readers have referred to my ads as a gold standard for car descriptions. I write ads this way because, when I look at a car, I can tell if I’m interested or wasting time in the first 30 seconds. It is possible to write a for-sale description that conveys the same level of detail most people would see in person. (Note: With a BaT auction, you can’t write the main description, but you can post your description in a comment; see my link above.)
When I see an ad for a car I’m intimately familiar with, and the ad says, “rust on frame rails, rear shock towers, and floors,” that’s great. I don’t do bodywork, so I know that my interest in the car ends there. But if the ad doesn’t describe the condition of the car’s body, and no photographs of those areas are shown, every single other person interested in the car who knows anything about the model will ask the seller about those areas. To think you can avoid that conversation by using the idiotic “Don’t ask a million questions” line is . . . well, idiotic.
When writing a description for a vintage car, start with visible bodywork. Describe it at the walk-around level. Is the paint pretty or shiny? Is there peeling clearcoat? Are rust holes visible? If so, where, and how extensively? (In the corners of the doors or fenders, small bubbles forming at the corners of the doors, you get the idea.)
People are going to see these things anyway, when they come to look at the car. Just use the ad to tell them about all of it. It’s not hard to do.
Next, describe the condition of hidden areas of the body—the undercarriage, engine compartment, and trunk. Again, be truthful. “Some surface oxidation but no visible rust-through” is a very good description, if it’s accurate. Do not say “rust-free undercarriage” unless you are certain that that is the case. If the car has been sitting in a barn with a dirt floor for 30 years, you can say, “Standing at the side of the car, I don’t see any rust on the floor, but I haven’t crawled under it because I can’t safely jack it up.” That’s just being honest.
Look at it this way: If you write an ad that says, “Paint on hood and roof is cracked, one rust hole in left rocker, small bubbles at bottoms of doors, rust-through in spare tire well, no rust on shock towers, floors, and frame rails,” you’ve nut-shelled the body condition. The folks who want a perfect car won’t waste your time (and you won’t waste theirs), and the ones who want an affordable driver now know your car is right up their alley. A butt for every seat, and all that.
Next week, we’ll talk about photos and videos, price, the difference between an offer and a commitment, and the passing of papers.
Rob Siegel’s latest book, The Best of the Hack MechanicTM: 35 years of hacks, kluges, and assorted automotive mayhem, is available on Amazon. His other seven books are available here, or you can order personally inscribed copies through his website, www.robsiegel.com.
One issue that has been coming around is it safe to sell.
Bear in mind your own safety when selling a car. If something just does not look right back out right away. Swindles and even murders are now too common on these. private sales.
There was a guy here in Ohio not long ago went on a test drive. They found him dead a city away with a gun shot and found the car later on abandoned.
Selling a good car is not really that hard but depending on the type of car the condition and popularity make a difference.
Right now in many cases if Caranna is not our of business yet selling to them can be top dollar. Just if you are not buying you will pay taxes.
As for general selling like buying be informed on what it is worth. Make sure it is detailed and presented in top condition. Looks sell cars. If on the web make sure the photos are top notch. Bad photos can get by passed,
Yes be honest as if I find one thing that is not disclosed I walk. I had a El Camino I looked at that was nice. New paint and all. Then we got it on the rack and it had frame rust holes the size of my fist.
Thank you for voicing your annoyance with the “don’t ask a million questions” crowd, Rob. It’s bad etiquette as well as bad business practice to scold or berate potential buyers. Even a public servant like me knows that much. Only in a seller’s market as tight as this one are such bad manners thinkable in the context of a sales transaction… Let’s hope that the end of chip shortages and inventory droughts will bring some relief to the entire market: in prices, availability, and attitudes.
Rob very helpful suggestions with an overall thesis of, just give an honest description. How ever I would add one thing, never say; the AC works it just needs a shot of R-12…… that is is biggest falsehood told. AC systems for vintage cars never need just a shot of R-12….. 🙂
HelenC, as you probably know, the title of my air conditioning book “Just Needs a Recharge” is meant to poke fun at this very thing.
To anyone who asks “What’s the best you’Il do?” (usually before even seeing it) your response shall be “What’s the most you’ll give me for it?” They will never EVER have a figure in mind.
Can we get some links or pics on some ads you have done. The way you do ads sounds interesting and I would like to see a full ad or two. I’ve been thinking about selling later this year so it’s good info to have.
Gary, here’s a link to a BaT auction I represented for a widow who was selling her husband’s 1972 BMW 2002tii. My full description are the first four comments. If you keep hitting “more comments” and scroll all the way to the beginning, you’ll see them.
Something that I have been doing in all my ads for listings for many years and works very good to get maximum for your item or vehicle.
Take good pictures like there is no description and compose a description like there are no pictures.
This process takes more time but always seems to get much better results.
That’s a very good way to put it, Steve, thanks.
My annoyance/warning sign is when they say it just needs brake pads, shocks, left tailight hsg, or some other simple part and that the new part is included. If it’s that simple a fix and you have the part, just do it. Chances are they tried to replace the pads but found a caliper had seized up so they abandoned the repair. And if you really are that incapable of performing a “simple repair” (which I know some folks are) how can I trust your ability to have maintained that vehicle?
I have sold 2 collector vehicles in the last 2 years. The first was to an out of state buyer via Facebook Marketplace which went very well. The second I advertised on an old but oft forgotten publication, Hemmings. And no it wasn’t an old antique but rather a 2002 Prowler. They do of course still have their paper periodical but I sold the Prowler via their website long before the magazine hit the stands. Both transactions went very well as both vehicles were in excellent condition and described honestly. The most frustrating aspect was dealing with the tire kickers and those who agree to a price and then suddenly reduce their offer when it comes time to cut a check.
Dave S, I talk about the issue of people trying to bargain when they come to pay for and pick up the car in the second part next week. This drives me crazy. I’ve sent people home empty-handed when they’ve tried this.
Two points on advertising:
On FBM, by clicking the ‘other’ box for make, you can then enter any make and model you choose. Not intuitive, but it works. Or did, two years ago when I last sold a car there.
If listing on ebay, expect a lot of hassle on actually selling. I have sold four cars there in the last four years, and EVERY ONE took three re-listings to get an actual buyer. Ghosted every time, charged the fee, had to re-list, apply for a credit from the previous listing. EVERY TIME. Just the nature of the beast. And of the trolls whose sole purpose in life is to piss YOU off.
eBay now also requires you to link a bank account – not just a credit card – to any selling account. Having had a bank account hacked previously (talk about a nightmare to rectify), that was a hard no from me….this after having sold on the platform for 15+ years.