Trade-In Tips: What You Should Know Before Trading In Your Car

Here’s how trading in your car can be a good deal.

Steven Lang | 
Aug 17, 2020 | 6 min read

Capital One

Originally published on March 19, 2019

Your car’s transmission is jerky, the engine drinks oil and spews smoke, and the body’s held together with duct tape and crossed fingers. Some cars are worth more dead than alive.

Trading it in at a dealership might be your best bet. It’s also easier, less time-consuming, and can even be less stressful than selling it to someone you’ve never met.

Don’t be ashamed if you hate the idea of meeting strangers and dealing with the onslaught of car questions and fake smiles that comes with selling privately. Selling anything is tough. Sometimes, it’s not even a good option.

There’s nothing wrong with taking a car that’s as rough as a worn out mop, tossing the keys and walking away forever.

If you need a new car and you’re upside down on your loan, stuck in a pricey lease or afraid that the rolling rust heap on your driveway is going to make the next owner unhappy, trading it in to a dealership could very well make sense for you.

Before you do, follow these basic steps to make it as nice as possible so you get the best price:

How to Maximize Your Car’s Trade-In Value

Follow the 10% rule

It doesn’t make sense to spend $500 in new tires if your car is worth $2,000. But two tires may be a healthy investment on a car that has a $2,500 average value. As a car dealer and remarketing manager over the past twenty years, I have found that most vehicles are worth keeping “as/is” once their repairs and maintenance go at or above the 10% line.

Make sure it’s a rolling cream puff

Nothing—nothing!—is worth more to a smart buyer than a handful of records that prove your car was maintained exactly on schedule. You can easily get a 5% to 15% premium on your car’s value just by gathering the records that will show the next owner how well you invested in your cherished chariot. The cost? No more than an email address to send the information and a few phone calls. As for effort, guess what? You don’t even have to get off your couch!

The inside matters. A lot.

Some cars have, ahem, nostalgia issues. Interior stains that may remind you of that overheated cup of coffee you had last month or your little tykes’ spaghetti-flinging fits are nothing more than rotten stains and stench to anyone else. Either pay a professional to remove those stains (which could run as high as a hundred bucks), or buy a few bottles of stain remover and do it yourself.* You could see as high as a 5% to 15% premium and, even better, no more food fight flashbacks!

*Note: You can get excellent advice from enthusiast forums for your next car’s interior upkeep by Googling the name of your model and “stain remover.”

Dress it up in its Sunday best

Take a super slow walk around your car and see whether your smile reflects on each and every body panel. Are the trees and clouds in the reflection clear, or does it look fuzzy and dull? It’s easy to make dull paint look bright. A car wash. A quick dry with a terry cloth towel and quality spray wax—or a few quick sprays of a high-gloss paint sealant. Done in an hour! Your total return? Another 5% to 10% premium, and even better, now you can see yourself!

Don’t get dinged for dents

Have a dent or two that range from a small supermarket ding to a doublewide “”? You are not alone. Even if you park in the furthest reaches of a desolate parking lot, eventually some careless commuter is going to park right next to you and give it an almighty whack. The solution comes with three heavenly words: Paintless Dent Repair. Have an estimate or two drawn up and see if the money makes sense according to the 10% rule.

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How to Keep Your Car Looking Like New Without Ever Waxing It

How to Get the Most from the Dealer

Sometimes fixing up your car requires more time and money than it’s worth. If you have a car that looks like it just got into a fight and lost—or if you just don’t want to go through the hassle of selling it yourself—here are four healthy strategies to getting that extra value from your trade-in:

Trade it in at a dealership that sells the same brand

If you have a Volkswagen, get a quote from a Volkswagen dealer. They don’t sell many Buicks, but they do sell a ton of VWs. Better yet, all those nagging issues aren’t as big a deal to them, since they can be dealt with by their own service department before they put the car on the front line.

Watch for “conquest” and “loyalty” incentives

I once had a $100 Kia that magically became a $2,000 car even though it had no engine, no hood, no transmission and no seats. Seriously. And it was all thanks to Mazda. The maker of everything from Miatas to CX-9s wanted to attract more Kia owners, so it arranged for a $2,000 “trade-in allowance” on every Kia, Saturn and Suzuki. In the business, , and automakers offer them fairly regularly. They also have the inverse, the “loyalty” incentive, to encourage you to stay within the same brand.

Cross-shop dealers

A lot of dealers will up the price of your trade-in to close a deal. This is especially true if you’re buying an unpopular car or a model year closeout, a.k.a. a “leftover” car. When they ask about your trade-in, keep your negotiations separate: mention what the same brand dealership was offering, but do it only after the dust settles on the purchase price negotiation. Nine times out of ten, the dealership will match the trade-in offer to try to keep the deal.


Go online (and stay there)

If your car has moderate to major issues, online sites like and offer trade-in values that aren’t rooted in the sobering reality of a long test drive and thorough inspection. These can be done in less than five minutes and—provided you’re honest and up-front about the issues—are often higher than other dealerships for rough cars.

Written by humans.
Edited by humans.

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