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In the end, the real price of your car is what someone else is willing to pay for it.
Maybe you’ve decided to sell your car and you wonder how to set a competitive price. Or you may be thinking about refinancing your auto loan and are worried you might owe more than the car is worth.
Fortunately, there are many other tools to help you estimate your car’s value — and now, many of them will offer to write you a check.
But first, here’s a quick overview of the process.
Consult pricing guides. Enter as much information about your car, the mileage and condition level as you can into one or more vehicle-pricing estimators.
Pick the car value you need. Are you trading in? Selling to a private party? Decide which price you need so you’ll know which amount to look for.
Look for comparable vehicles for sale in your area by searching online classifieds like AutoTrader. Note the asking price and number of similar cars for sale locally.
Adjust your car’s value for depreciation by comparing the pricing guides with real-world data from the online classifieds and offers from online purchasers such as Carvana or CarMax.
Consider other factors that might influence the price, such as the time of year, local popularity of the vehicle and any modifications you’ve made to the car.
Car value estimators and pricing guides
Your first stop for pricing information should be free online pricing guides. Since none of them is writing a check for your car, take them for what they are: a data-driven estimate based on recent sales. Here’s a breakdown of the major pricing guides.
Edmunds pioneered the concept of “true market value” pricing, based on real-world dealership transactions, to show the average price paid for a car in your area. Providing this impartial information helped consumers to negotiate based on real-world data. Originally, it was created to help consumers and offered prices that were considered impartial.
Kelley Blue Book offers an easy-to-use car value calculator that shows trade-in, private party and even certified pre-owned car pricing. Kelley has sometimes been criticized for presenting prices that favor car sellers — low numbers for trade-ins and high prices for dealer sales.
NADA guides, created by the National Automobile Dealer’s Association, use data on millions of car transactions to get an approximate value. This pricing estimator is also backed by car sellers although it is considered accurate by experts.
You’ll probably notice some variation in pricing among the guides. That’s because each uses different data and unique algorithms. However, the car values should be within several hundred dollars of each other.
Information you'll need to estimate your car's value
Pricing guides are just that — guides that help you estimate your car’s value. You won’t be able to follow any of them to the penny. Even so, you’ll typically need to provide the following information to get the most accurate price:
Year, make and model. Say you have a 2015 Nissan Sentra SL. "Sentra" is the model, and “SL” is the trim level. To find your trim level, look for the chrome letters on the back of the car. You can also find this in your owner’s manual or on your vehicle’s title.
Color and optional equipment. Some colors, such as silver and white, are more popular and will command a higher price. Optional equipment includes any features that don’t come standard with the model. Examples are heated seats, a sunroof or leather upholstery. Sometimes, optional equipment is grouped in a package and given a fancy name, such as the sport or convenience package.
Vehicle condition. Different pricing guides use different ways of describing the condition of the vehicle. For example, Edmunds uses Outstanding, Clean, Average, Rough and Damaged. Whichever words they use, read the description of the condition level carefully and be honest when evaluating what matches your car — people tend to overestimate their car’s condition. Unless the car is showroom fresh, it is unlikely to be "outstanding," for example.
Mileage. Every mile you drive reduces your car’s value. If you’ve driven more than the average amount of about 12,000 to 15,000 miles a year, the value of your car is reduced. If you’ve kept your car in the garage and it has fewer miles than the average, your car is worth more.
Understand car values
Once you’ve input all of your vehicle information, you may see several different prices.
Trade-in value: This is the lowest amount you could be offered for your car, sometimes called the wholesale price. This tells you about what you should get if you trade in your car at a dealership when you buy a new car. In most states, you'll need to consider the tax savings that may make a trade offer much more attractive.
Private party resale value: This is the price for selling your car to anyone other than a dealer. If you advertised and sold your car yourself, this is about what you should expect to get after negotiations.
Dealer retail value: This is even higher than the trade-in or the private party price. It’s about what the asking price would be if your car were being sold by a dealer.
Certified pre-owned value: Some used cars are inspected and sold along with a bumper-to-bumper warranty. These certified pre-owned cars command a higher price as indicated by some pricing guides.
Research prices in your local market
When selling a house, a good real estate agent estimates its value by looking at “comps,” or comparable properties. You should follow the same general practice when determining your car’s resale value. A four-wheel-drive pickup truck will bring more in a New England winter, relatively, than a two-wheel-drive.
Go to online used car listing sites such as Autotrader, CarGurus or Cars.com and enter your car’s information, as if you were searching to buy your own car. When you see the results, find cars that closely match yours. Pay attention not only to the asking prices — what the seller would like to be paid — but also to how many similar cars are for sale.
It’s also worth doing searches for cars similar to yours on both Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, which are localized, and eBay Motors, which can reach buyers across the country.
Lastly, get cash offers to sell your car online from major online dealers such as CarMax, Carvana and Vroom. You'll need basic information such as the 17-digit vehicle identification number or license plate, mileage, model and options details. There's no obligation.
What they offer you, versus what they ask for that same model online, represents the cost of reconditioning your car, shipping it to a lot and making a profit.