Should I Trade In My Car Or Sell It Privately?

Illustration for article titled Should I Trade In My Car Or Sell It Privately?

When it’s time to upgrade your current ride, you’re faced with the choice of trading it in to the dealership or selling it elsewhere. While a private sale can be a hassle, it often means getting more money for your car. However, it really depends on what you have and your local tax rates that determine the most lucrative path.

Do The Sales Tax Math

A lot of car buyers don’t realize that in most states they get a break on their sales tax when they trade in a car. For example, if your tax rate is 8 percent and you are buying a $30,000 car, you will pay about $2,400 in taxes.


However, if you have a trade worth $15,000, in many states you would only pay the sales tax on the difference between the two. In this case it would be about $1,200. Therefore, if you plan on selling that $15k car in the private market, you would want to get more than $16,200 for it to make up for the tax difference. Also realize that if you sell your used car to another dealer like CarMax you won’t be able to take advantage of this tax difference. So if the dealership offers you $15,000, but CarMax offers you $16,000, you are still better off trading to the dealer.

Be sure to check your local tax code to see how your trade will impact your taxable purchase.

When To Sell Privately

If there is no sales tax in your area (lucky you!), the trade-tax advantage is out of the equation. If you are trading something lightly used, chances are you will make more money if you sell it private party, via Craigslist or eBay or some other method. Just keep in mind that you will most likely deal with tire-kickers and low ball offers from people who aren’t really serious buyers. I suggest you get a number from your dealership first so you can decide whether or not those private party offers are worth your time.


If you don’t have a low mile cream puff to hand over to the dealer, but rather something that has seen some wear and is maybe only worth a few grand at best, private sale may be your best bet. Also, if you have a car that has a following or is “in-demand” private sellers may offer top dollar, while dealerships are just going to run it through their “trade evaluator” and spit out a number.

Of course if your ride isn’t worth a lot of money you don’t want to spend a fortune marketing it only to make a few hundred dollars. Craigslist is the go-to for listings like these, but you would be surprised how cheap some of the other third party listing sites can be. will give you a free 30 day listing with five photos. Autotrader has a basic four-week, three photo package for $25; you can upgrade and add nine photos for an extra $10. eBay Motors is around $60 for a 7-day listing, and final value fees may apply if you’re not a regular seller.


When To Trade

In addition to that tax benefit, trading your car to the dealership has two big advantages. First, it is convenient you drop one car off and pick another car up. Many folks don’t have the luxury of holding on to a car to sell after they have already bought something, and they may not be able to sell a car before picking up their next ride.


Also, if a buyer is upside-down on their loan, this makes it almost impossible to sell privately. Dealerships have the ability to roll that balance into the next loan or lease.

The key thing here is to be realistic regarding your trade value. Have a look at the private and dealership listings for your same car, see what the numbers are. Use tools like, Kelley Blue Book, and Edmund’s True Market Value to get a “ballpark” number on what you can expect.


Keep in mind most dealers offer “wholesale auction price” and often the demand for your particular vehicle in a certain area will impact your value. Also, remember that if you have been in an accident no matter how minor, if it is on the vehicle history report you’re going to take a hit in your resale value.

If you have a question, a tip, or something you would like to to share about car-buying, drop me a line at and be sure to include your Kinja handle.


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I opted to trade mine because I didn't want someone to inherit my headache. Misfire on cylinder 4 that I couldn't figure out the cause of, burned out A/C compressor, cracked high pressure A/C line, knocking rear differential, it was a mess. Let a dealer send it to "wholesale heaven" where it will go to the highest bidder and then let them deal with the problems and not have some private buyer blowing up your phone complaining about this, that, or the other on the car you just sold them.