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These days, you can sit on your couch and get a pretty accurate answer to the age-old question: "What’s my trade-in worth?"
As online used car retailers streamline the buying process, they’re creating more convenient ways to handle car-buying’s Achilles' heel, the trade-in. And, with the current used car shortage caused by the pandemic, you might get a surprisingly high price selling your car to them rather than trading it in.
You don’t have to sell, of course; you’re just finding out what your trade-in is worth in the most accurate way possible — the price someone will actually pay.
Here's what the process looks like, and how you can use the results.
Places to get a quote online
Although there may be other places in your area to trade in or sell your car, there are currently three companies dominating online used car sales: Carvana, Shift and Vroom. These companies allow you to self-appraise your car and get a quote to either sell your car or trade it in for one of theirs. The transaction and paperwork are touchless.
Not all these companies are nationwide, and your vehicle will be inspected by a company representative — and the offer possibly adjusted — before you get your money.
Another way to sell or trade your car is through CarMax, a used car superstore with outlets in 40 states and an in-person appraisal process that takes about 45 minutes. It may be easier to look up your car’s value on Edmunds.com, where you can get a CarMax quote without even having to go to one of its car lots.
A real-world comparison test
Before starting the appraisal process, I checked pricing guide Kelley Blue Book, known as KBB, to get an idea of my cars’ trade-in values at a dealer, then collected online offers from CarMax, Carvana, Vroom and Shift.
On these sites, you can fill in information manually or supply your car’s license plate number or 17-digit vehicle identification number to fetch precise year, make, model and trim. They’ll ask you about options on the car, color, if the car has been smoked in, and any warning lights or body damage. You’ll typically get an offer in minutes.
Here are the results for my 2014 Volkswagen SportWagen TDI with 41,000 miles:
KBB trade-in estimate: $10,213.
Lowest purchase offer (CarMax): $8,700.
Best purchase offer (Carvana): $13,067.
I ran the same numbers for my son’s 2016 Mazda3 Sport with 72,732 miles:
KBB trade-in estimate: $10,085.
Lowest purchase offer (Vroom): $7,750.
Best purchase offer (Shift): $9,100.
And a friend let me run his 2019 Honda Civic Si with 4,200 miles:
KBB trade-in estimate: $22,225.
Lowest purchase offer (CarMax): $21,700.
Best purchase offer (Carvana): $23,077.
As you can see, pricing is highly variable. The more sources you contact, the better.
Do you really get that much?
These companies promise a no-haggle, fair price for your trade-in. But does the price change when the company’s representative shows up and goes over your car with a fine-toothed comb?
Sometimes, sellers omit important aspects of their car’s condition such as frame damage from an accident or rust, says Toby Russell, co-CEO of Shift. In these cases, after a physical inspection, the price is reduced. However, there are times when a customer gets more for a car because market conditions have changed.
If a customer is transparent when describing a vehicle’s condition, "we don't anticipate having to make adjustments to our offers," says Carvana spokesperson Amy O’Hara. "But we are prepared should the situation arise."
Online comments on sites such as Reddit support these statements. Most consumers found the trade-in or sales process at these companies to be fast, transparent and convenient.
Don’t forget the sales tax
With these figures in hand, you are in a position of strength when you visit an actual dealer.
In most states, if you trade in your car, you pay sales tax only on the difference between the cost of the new car and your old one. If your new car is $30,000 and you are getting $20,000 for your trade-in, you pay sales tax on the difference: $10,000. In a state with a 10% sales tax, you saved $2,000 by trading in.
That should be a consideration if a dealer’s offer doesn’t quite measure up to the offers you get online or through CarMax.
Let the dealer make you its best offer. Tell the used car manager, the internet sales office or the salesperson that you’ve already appraised your car on pricing guides and gotten quotes from online retailers. You don’t need to share the offers you have — just ask for their best price.
Factor in the sales tax before you reject anything, but with backup offers it’s easy to walk away, sell the car independently and return with cash to strike a better deal.