How Much is My Car Worth?

Selling your car can be a pretty stressful experience. You want to know how much your car is worth, what is a reasonable price. You also don’t want to get taken advantage of by accepting a lowball offer.

Fortunately, there are ways that you can access this information. Some sites do most of the legwork for you. However, a lot goes into how a car’s value is determined. Before you put a price on your car, let our guide take you through the car valuation process of helping you determine how much your car is worth. Discover what things you can do to increase your car’s curb appeal and how you can get the most for your vehicle.

Table of Contents:

  1. Understanding market value
  2. Gather the basic information
  3. Geographical region makes a difference
  4. Increasing your car’s curb appeal
  5. Assessing the condition of your car
  6. The truth about aftermarket accessories
  7. A car's history affects its value
  8. “Best Of” lists boost value
  9. Issues that decrease a car’s value
  10. A guide to pricing guides
  11. Types of automobile appraisals
  12. What if your car isn’t paid off?

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Understanding market value

Market value is what you want to know when it comes to selling your car and it is often misunderstood. Many people use retail value and market value interchangeably, but they are very different.

A car’s retail value is typically higher than its market value. It is the average price that the car would go for on a dealer’s lot.

Market value is usually lower than retail value and is usually the price that you would sell it for if you sold it privately. There are a number of factors that are taken into account when determining market value. The condition of the vehicle, mileage, accident reports, and service history play a part, but there is much more.

This guide will walk you through some of the most common areas that affect a vehicle’s value.

Gather the basic information

When you consult a price guide to find the value of your car, there is certain information that they require. This basic information is a very good place to start. Yes, there is more to it, but gathering this information is a solid starting point. The more precise information you can provide from this list, the more accurate the valuation will be.

  • Year – A car’s model year is important for several reasons. While it is part of the identifying information, it also is a means for quickly referencing “best of” and “top” lists to see if the vehicle has any of those distinctions. The lists are usually categorized by model year.
  • Make – This is the carmaker, the company that produced the vehicle, such as Ford, Chevrolet, Honda, and so on.
  • Model – The model identifies the specific car produced by the carmaker, such as Taurus (Ford), Tahoe (Chevrolet), Accord (Honda), and so on.
  • Trim – The trim level, or grade, of a car identifies the different versions of a specific model. Some common trim levels include LX, XLE, GT, EX, and so on, but they often vary from one carmaker to another. Trim levels also affect the car’s value. Certain trim levels, such as luxury editions, can greatly increase the price tag.
  • Style – This is another specific distinction for a vehicle: coupe, sedan, and convertible. It is possible for the same model and trim level to have more than one style, particularly sports cars which may come in coupe and convertible styles.
  • Color – The color of a car can be important. Some models have a higher value if they are a certain color, but it also helps with identification.
  • Mileage – Mileage is very important when it comes to placing value on a car. As a general rule, cars with higher mileage tend to have a lower value than cars with lower mileage. This is because it is a major indicator of the wear and tear that has already been put on the car, specifically the engine.
  • Zip Code – You will often see this as an option on many online car valuation tools. This is because the zip code where the car sits is used to calculate its local value. Just like most other things, car values vary geographically.

Geographical region makes a difference

Determing how much a car is worth is different regions can be tricky. Location is important for a car’s valuation for several reasons, local value among them. However, it can also factor into the condition of the car and even give an indication of its lifespan. This is simply because different geographical regions in the United States have different climates.

Areas that have severe conditions such as a lot of snow and ice, or excessive rain, or even excessive lack of rain can all contribute to the condition of the car. A car that endures the harsh elements of, say, a New England winter, or a Gulf Coast rainy season may have more rust on the body and have a little more wear and tear than a car that spent its days in sunny Arizona where the moisture content is low. Then again, in that case it may be the interior that suffers due to the dry air and excessive heat.

No, you don’t have to change your zip code or location, but you should be aware that, based on where the car is, you may have to do a little extra work to show it has not succumbed to any harsh weather patterns or other difficulties that are associated with the region.

Increasing your car’s “curb appeal”

Whether you are selling your car privately or are taking it to a dealer for a trade-in, you want to make sure that you get the best possible price for it. In any case, you want to increase your car’s “curb appeal” to make it more attractive to buyers (even dealers if you are trading it in).

Here are a few things you can do to spruce up your vehicle and make it more attractive and desirable.

  • Clean it inside and out – Start by cleaning your car. Wash and wax it, not just the surface, but really get in there. Clean the inside as well. Pay careful attention to detail, cleaning the inside of the doors, inside cup holders, and your instrument panel. If your car has a touch screen for any installed devices, wipe down the screens as well to remove finger smudges.
  • Repair any dings or dents – You can fix many minor dents and dings yourself. But even if you can’t do it yourself, it is worth getting dings and dents fixed to improve the look of the car. If you do it yourself, avoid using body putty if you can, or at least try to avoid using a lot of body putty. It should be ¼ to 1/8 inch thick if possible. If it’s too much thicker than that, it becomes more noticeable and, more importantly, a lot less stable. If you have scratches in the paint, you may be able to fix it, buff it out, but if they are too deep or would require a new paint job, let it go. It usually won’t bring the price up enough to justify a new paint job.
  • Do not remove your personal effects – yet – Yes, at some point you will want to clean out your personal items, papers, and belongings, but don’t do it just yet. When the person who is interested in buying your car (even a dealer – especially a dealer), if they see that you’ve completely cleaned out your car it shows you are ready to get rid of your car. It also sends the unspoken message that you can be bargained down from your asking price. This gives the buyer the upper hand. Leaving a few items in the car sends the message that you are still thinking about selling or trading in, but you haven’t yet made your decision. Now you have the upper hand in the negotiation.
  • Take care of small issues – There are some minor things on your car that you have become accustomed to, like a sagging headliner or a window that gets stuck when you try to roll it down. However, a car buyer probably doesn’t want to deal with those things in their new car and a dealer will have to pay to have them fixed if you trade your car in. Either way, those little things can add up to a significant reduction in your car’s value. Set a small budget and tackle those little things so they are fixed before you put it up for sale.
  • Tidy up your tires (or replace them) – It is not advisable to go out and purchase a new set of tires just so you can sell your car. It usually won’t affect the price enough to justify the purchase. However, if you have a tire that is on its last leg, with no tread, you may want to consider replacing it with something inexpensive. Buyers can use bad tires as a negotiating point to drive down your asking price. Dealers are notorious for doing this in an effort to decrease your trade-in value. Also, if your car has wheel curb rash you probably want to fix that too.

Assessing the condition of your car

The way you see your car and the way a buyer sees your car may be two entirely different things. It is very common for the owner to overestimate their car’s value, but this can cause problems when selling it. The buyer may have unrealistic expectations and it could kill the sale. Yes, to you the car may be in like new condition. It may “drive like a champ” and be in “showroom condition,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is.

When you are preparing to sell your car, take a step back emotionally and look it over with a critical eye. You need to assess both the appearance and performance since both factor into determining how much your car is worth to you and what the sale price should be.

Look over the body closely. Do you see any dents, dings, or scratches? Do you see any rust? Check the underside of the quarter panel under the wheel wells and under the door to see if there is any rust. If you can get under the car, check for rusting floorboards as well. You most often see rust on cars that are in humid climates such as along the coast, in the southeast, and in areas that get a lot of snow and ice. However, you should check the body for rust regardless, especially if you aren’t sure of the car’s history prior to your ownership.

It wouldn’t hurt to have a mechanic give your car a good once-over. There are a couple of reasons for this. The most obvious is that problems can be identified, such as engine issues, as well as smaller things like a broken tail light. If you used your car as a tow vehicle for any amount of time, over-towing can put stress on your drive train and engine so that the wear and tear is greater than normal.

A mechanic inspection can protect you so when you talk to a potential buyer you can fully disclose any potential problems. This helps you maintain the upper hand in the negotiation.

If the buyer sees that you already had an inspection done, they may be more inclined to move forward with the purchase instead of trying to schedule an inspection of their own.

Whatever the case, an inspection puts you in a favorable light because you provide full disclosure on any problems. This instills trust which is very good for closing the sale.

Keep in mind though, a used car is a used car. You may have taken exceptional care of it, but it still has some miles on it. It still has some wear and tear that come with regular use, so be realistic about the condition and set the price accordingly.

The truth about aftermarket accessories

Another common pitfall for people when they sell their car is aftermarket accessories. Many people just automatically assume that their buyer will be willing to pay for the $4000 stereo system they installed in the car. All too often, the buyer does not share their enthusiasm and the sale is lost. Generally speaking, it isn’t likely that you will recoup the costs of aftermarket accessories that you’ve had installed.

On the other hand, practical accessories can and do drive the price up. Bed liners for pick up trucks are such a product. The liners protect the bed of the truck from scratches, dents, and dings. This can prove very valuable to the customer and could increase the value of your car.

A car’s history affects its value

The history of a car is very important and can definitely drive the price up or down. Two identical cars can be thousands of dollars apart in price because of each one’s history. Take the time to learn your car’s history so if there are any issues that would affect the sale price you can address them.

These are the four main areas of a car’s history that you want to know:

  • Previous owners – Multiple owners can bring the price down which is great if you are a buyer, but not so great as a seller. The average car will go through 2.4 hands in its lifespan. Usually, the more often a car changes hands, the lower the price it. This is not always true but is often the case.
  • Accidents – It is a good idea to disclose any accidents that the car has been involved in, but it doesn’t always have to drive down the price. If the car was properly repaired, it will have a higher value than if it has not been repaired. The truth is, one in five cars that are for sale have been involved in at least one accident, but it can be considered “clean” if it was repaired with factory parts.
  • Open recalls – Before you put your car up for sale, make sure there is not an open recall on it. If it does have a recall, make sure that you get it fixed. Around 20% of pre-owned cars that are currently for sale have a recall that has not yet been fixed. There are several websites that allow you to check for vehicle recalls. allows you to look up your car by the VIN to see if there is a recall on it. The good news is, if there is a recall on a car that you own, the dealership will typically repair it for free.
  • Maintenance – If you do regular maintenance on your car, you are ahead of the game. Keep good maintenance records and change the oil regularly to boost the value. Buyers are looking for cars that are well maintained. In an incredible 20% of car accidents poor or insufficient maintenance plays a part.

“Best Of” lists boost value

There are several organizations that publish their own versions of “Best Of” or “Top Pick” lists. When you are preparing to sell your vehicle, do a little research and see if it made it on any of the lists. Some like J.D. Powers and IIHS carry a great deal of weight and can influence the price. In fact, any of the lists here could influence the price, even if it is minimal.

  • Consumer Reports -This highly respected publication annually releases their top picks for the Best Cars of the Year. Criteria include a road test, reliability, owner satisfaction, and safety.
  • U.S. News and World Report – This is another annual list of the publication’s top picks for cars and trucks. They have lists for new cars, used cars, best cars for the money, best cars for families, and best vehicle brands.
  • Kelley Blue Book – A standard in vehicle valuation, Kelley Blue Book also published their own lists for staff favorites and category standouts. Most are less formal, but the lists still carry weight just because of the trusted Kelley name.
  • Edmunds – Another popular car site, Edmunds is well known for its reviews on vehicles. They have an extensive library of “best of” lists on everything from the best luxury SUVs to the best used cars for 2014.
  • Car and Driver – Each year Car and Driver publishes its 10 best cars for that year. They have become a respected resource for car buyers and sellers.
  • J.D. Power – Few best of lists carry the weight that a J.D. Power award does. Their annual awards seek out the best of the best when it comes to vehicles. If your car makes it on this prestigious list it will certainly help boost the price.
  • IIHS Top Safety Pick - The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) publishes its annual list of top picks for the safest cars on the road. They look at crash avoidance and crash avoidance and mitigation when making their decisions.
  • NHTSA Ratings – The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) also releases an annual list of its picks for safest and best cars.

Issues that decrease a car’s value

There are a number of things that will decrease a car’s value and they may vary from car to car. However, there are several things that are pretty consistent. These are the most common issues that will drive your car’s value down.

  • High mileage – Cars with fewer miles can command a higher price tag. High mileage puts a lot of wear and tear on the vehicle. If you are thinking of selling or trading in your car down the road, start now making a conscious effort to keep your miles low.
  • Lack of or irregular maintenance – Neglect is not easy to hide. It tends to show up, especially when it comes to your car. Change the filters, fluids, and belts regularly and get regular tune-ups. Take good care of your car and you can maintain some of its value.
  • Dirty inside or out – Dirty cars look unkempt and that will decrease the value. Take a little time to wash and wax your car. It’s worth the extra effort.
  • No maintenance records – You can perform maintenance on your car like clockwork, but it doesn’t have the price driving impact if you don’t keep good records. Keep your records for all work that is done on your vehicle, both routine and when addressing an issue.
  • Smelly inside – Do your best to deodorize your car to remove any smells. Smelly cars just don’t sell well. Smoke is one of the worst odors to eliminate and it can turn a buyer off. It is best if you don’t let anyone smoke in your vehicle.
  • Modifications using aftermarket components – The truth about aftermarket components like underbody spoilers, unconventional paintjobs, running lights and others may seem very valuable to you, but they are often worthless to buyers. The can even make your car harder to sell.
  • Small scratches, dings, and dents – Small imperfections can really lower your car’s sale price. Scratches, dings, and dents can make your car look like it hasn’t been cared for and most car buyers are looking for near perfection. They could even make it harder to sell.

A guide to pricing guides

There are several car pricing tools that will walk you through determining your car’s value. You may notice some discrepancy among sites though because each uses some different criteria. Each collects basic information and allows you to rate your car’s condition. Once you input all the information, they will tell you what your car is worth. These tools should be used as a guide, but they may not be spot on. Do your homework and research on your own so you use all valuation sources to arrive at a good price for your car.

The main car valuation tools include:

Types of automobile appraisals

When you use a pricing tool, you may see that there are several different types of car values that show up in the returns. Each is dependent upon how you plan to sell your vehicle.

  • Trade in – This is usually the lowest price for your car. It may also be listed as the wholesale price. If you are planning to go to a dealership and trade in your car, this is the price you are likely to get.
  • Private party – If you are selling your car to an individual without including a dealer, this is the price you will get. This is the price you would be aiming for in negotiations if you have advertised it for sale.
  • Dealer retail – This is usually the highest price of the three. This is the price that a dealer would be asking if they were selling the car.

What if your car isn’t paid off?

If your car is still under finance you may still be able to sell it. However, there are two obstacles that you will need to overcome. The first is that most buyers are hesitant to buy a car when the seller still owes money on it. The second is that you cannot legally sell the car until the loan is paid in full.

Ideally, you need to pay off your loan before you sell your car, but sometimes that just isn’t feasible.

These steps will walk you through what you need to do to sell a car you still owe money on:

  1. Find out how much it is to pay off the loan. The pay off amount may not be what shows on your statement so you need to call your lender to find out what it will cost to close out or pay off the loan.
  2. Determine how you will pay off the loan. If you have the money to pay off the loan prior to selling it, this would be ideal, but remember to factor in any repayment fees and other costs that come with paying off the loan. Alternatively, you can sell the car and use that money to pay off the loan, but that could be difficult.
  3. Paying off the loan with the sale money. In order to do this, the buyer would have to trust you. Most buyers will balk at purchasing a car that is not paid off. You will have to convince them that you are going to use the sale money to pay off the loan. You may also offer to have them accompany you when you clear the debt, so they will know it has been done.
  4. If your car is collateral for a loan. If you have a secured loan and the car is collateral then you cannot sell it until you have paid off the loan in full.

You may be able to use a credit card or even take out another loan to pay off your car loan. If you owe more than you are selling it for, you will have to come up with the entire amount to pay it off.

If you go to a dealership and use your car as a trade in, the dealer can usually help you find the best way to handle your outstanding loan. For instance, if you upgrade your vehicle, the dealer may be willing to include the loan terms into the trade in deal.

Determining your car’s value is the first step in selling it or trading it in. Don’t go into such an important transaction unarmed. Know what to expect and get a good idea of what your car is worth ahead of time, so you can make sure you get a fair deal.

Are you selling or trading in your car? Get all the information you need right here. Our pricing tool will let you know how much your car is worth and the price we'll pay for it. Don’t sell your car without it.