How to Tell What Your Car’s Worth

If you’re in the market for a new-to-you car, it’s time to figure out how much your current vehicle is worth. Here’s a hint – it’s never as much as you think.

I had a 2006 Land Rover LR3 that I had owned for about 5 years, adding 100K miles to the odometer. I had paid it off early but it still cost me several thousand dollars a year fixing the random failures that plagued the complex SUV. Plus, it used premium gas and the cost to keep it running just didn’t make sense anymore.

Two years ago, I decided to upgrade to a 2017 car. So I dealt with the dilemma of figuring out how much the car was worth and whether I should sell it myself or trade it in.

The dealer taking the trade in or the buyer from Craigslist doesn’t want to know its name or care about all the fun and not-so-fun times you’ve shared. When it comes time to sell, you need to be a steely-eyed business person concerned about your bottom line. After all, it’s just a used car.

Here are six questions to help you figure out how much your used car might be worth as a trade-in or whether you should sell it on your own.

  1. Figure out what it’s worth in the market

Car values are basically determined by year, make and model, mileage, condition, accident history, vehicle popularity, and occasionally the color. (You can’t expect a bright yellow car to fetch as much as a black one.)

Use an online source to check the value of your car based on your area. Sites like,, NADAGuides or will give you a price for a car like yours in your location. The sites will ask about mileage, options and colors that go into the algorithm and spit out a value. The figure will be based whether you’re going to trade it in or sell it yourself, or may be segregated by condition. An auto dealer uses a service that taps into the used car wholesale market to get an average auction price.

  1. Condition counts

Be realistic about your car’s condition. You may have come to overlook the dings in the door and the tear in the seat fabric you only see when you sit down.

Professional appraisers will look past minor flaws, but will reduce the value if the car has a salvage title, suffered flood damage or obvious damage.

If you’ve driven less than 12,000 miles per year, you may get a bump in value for low mileage. But keep in mind service records/history will add value as well. Also, does the interior smell like spilled coffee? Does everything work? Do you have both remotes? Do your brakes squeak? Does it have a clean Carfax report? Been in any accidents? Was it repaired properly with genuine OE replacement parts? All things these things can bring down your car’s value.

Depending on the site, your car will be grouped by condition such as rough, average, clean and outstanding or fair, good, very good or excellent. Or it may be determined by how you sell it – trade-in, private party or dealer retail. Trade-in is always the lowest figure and should be your bottom dollar.

  1. Sell it myself or trade it in?

When you sell it yourself, you’ll usually get more money. But you have to manage it all yourself – advertising, meeting with buyers and taking care of the DMV paperwork.

If you trade it in, you turn over your paperwork and the dealership handles the rest.

I took the LR3 to CarMax and also used a site called Carvana to get a quote. The trade-in price was exactly the same from both sites.

I also advertised it on Craigslist, and met with three people who were serious. One guy offered me $2,000 more than what I would have gotten on a trade-in. But then he went out of town for a few weeks, and I didn’t want to wait any longer. I took the lower price from the trade-in so I could get my new car sooner.

  1. How can I boost the value?

Private buyers may be impressed with a fresh wax job and a clean interior. Dealer appraisers will overlook those cosmetics and look for signs of long-term maintenance. I had extensive service records for the entire time I owned my car, including regular oil changes and all the broken bits I had fixed. But nobody seemed to care.

Most add-ons, like a body kit or a spoiler, will actually detract from the value. But some upgrades like leather seats or adding a Bluetooth connection could help you get a better price.

Low mileage is the best way to get a good value, but of course if you’ve already racked up the numbers like a long-haul trucker, it’s too late.

If you’re going to show it to someone, whether a dealer or private party, at least clean out all the fast-food bags, sports gear, and any other stuff you’ve accumulated. Wash it and vacuum the carpets. A little effort will pay off because it also gives the impression you may have cared for the car’s mechanical needs as well.

  1. Do new tires etc. pay off?

For most cars, the tires and brakes are expected to be in good condition. You won’t get extra value from putting on new ones, but bald tires and squeaky brakes will hurt the value. My car had a few problems that I didn’t want to spend the money to fix, which I believe lowered the amount I’d get. But the loss in value was a lot less than what it would have cost to fix them.

  1. What do I need to sell it?

Whether you trade-in your car or sell it yourself, there are a few things you’ll need.

  • Title or payoff information for financing
  • All keys and remote
  • All parties listed on the title must sign or have power of attorney and have a photo ID

When the process is over you’ll have a check or cash in hand, or the value subtracted from your new car’s purchase price.

When I was done with the process, it was hard to turn over the keys to the nice man at the dealership. I did get a few thousand dollars less than I possibly could have, but I’m happy with my Toyota RAV4.

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