Once upon a time, selling your old car was pretty simple: You'd put a sign in the window, and maybe an ad in the local paper's classifieds. Eventually, you'd find a buyer.
Today, the used-car market is hot. But it's a lot different from days of yore. Shoppers can use online listings to find dozens of similar cars in a hurry, which means stiffer competition. At the same time, sites that offer free price data can help sellers make sure the asking price is in the right range. Plus, those trading in can see exactly how much the dealer should offer.
Whether you're trading in or selling, how you present your old car will have a big impact on the price you get for it. Here are three ways to make sure you get the best price for your old ride.
Step 1: Shine Up the Old Beast
The used cars that get the best prices are the ones that look like they were cared for and well maintained. While you can't completely hide a decade of neglect, you can make sure that the car you have shows itself as well as possible: Just an hour or two of work can yield hundreds of extra dollars at sale time.
Even if it's an old worn-out clunker, always -- always -- clean the car thoroughly before you put it up for sale or take it to the dealer. At the very least, wash it carefully and clean those smudges off the windows, inside and out.
Don't neglect the interior, either. Automakers have learned the hard way that skimping on a new car's interior hurts sales -- Ford (F) in particular has spent a fortune upgrading its cars' interiors, and that has been a key factor in its recent success. It's true when cleaning up your used ride, too: Vacuum the carpets, shake out the floor mats, and spend a little time wiping the dust off the top of the dashboard and other surfaces.
For newer cars, consider a professional detailing service, which can make a nice used car look nearly brand-new. For a moderate fee -- generally between $100 and $200 -- a detailing service will wash, buff, and wax your car's exterior, and thoroughly clean and shine the interior as well. Good detailers can even remove those old coffee stains from your console and all traces of that lollypop your toddler left stuck to the backseat several years ago. These little details can make a big difference to a buyer.
Step 2: Assemble the Service Records
Yes, it's time to dig out all of the receipts and invoices you can find. Having records of a car's service history -- ideally, everything from oil changes to major repairs -- helps show buyers that the car was cared for properly while you owned it.
A complete service history is especially important if you're selling your car privately -- but it can make a difference with a trade-in too, particularly if your car is one that might have some enthusiast or collector value. If you don't have all the records, put the ones you can find into a folder in chronological order and keep that folder with the car.
Step 3: Know Your Car's Real Value
It used to be that a used car's "Blue Book value" was a secret jealously guarded by dealers. Not so anymore. Nowadays, services like Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book have put pricing and other market information online, free of charge. Spend a few minutes on one or both of these sites to get estimates of your car's current market value, and look at local ads for vehicles similar to yours to make sure the price you have in mind is on the mark.
While many people think that selling a car is a stressful process, following the steps above will help you ensure that you have many buyers' questions answered before they arrive -- and will help you get top dollar for your old ride.
Motley Fool contributor John Rosevear owns shares of Ford. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Ford and have recommended creating a synthetic long position in the company's stock.