How to prepare your car for sale

Whether you are planning to sell privately or trade in to a dealer, it will be an advantage to have the vehicle presented in the best condition possible.


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Whether you are planning to sell privately or trade in to a dealer, the vehicle you are selling will ultimately become somebody else’s new car and it is to your advantage to have it presented in the best condition possible.

A car’s condition affects price and industry guides show that poorly looked after models are worth significantly less than pristine ones – which is why it pays to look after your car. If the bodywork is damaged, the interior marked or equipment doesn’t work, any buyer will want to haggle strongly against the price you are asking. And making your car more appealing than similar vehicles on the market can be the difference between a sale or not.

Cars exterior condition

First impressions count. So before a potential buyer has seen a car’s full service history or the cleanliness of its interior, if it is dirty and there are marks on the bodywork, it can be enough to turn him or her away.

If the car is older, it might be expected to carry the odd mark here or there. Expectations are usually higher with newer or prestige models and so it can make sense to have minor damage repaired. Bodywork is notoriously difficult to repair at home and any significant dents and scrapes are best left to the professionals.

However, there are some minor blemishes which can be greatly reduced with the right products. You will have to make a judgement on how much to spend on professional repairs or car care products based on the value of the car.

  • Any minor chips – and we mean minor - can be touched-in with a suitable paint kit, usually a small bottle with a tiny brush. These are available from dealers or car accessory outlets. Ideally chips should be touched-in soon after appearing to prevent corrosion. They may not be perfect but even if spotted they show a car has been cared for. Larger scrapes and dents will need to be dealt with by a specialist.
  • Very light scratches and scuffs can sometimes be polished out. Some polishes – such as Autoglym’s Resin Polish - are lightly abrasive and will reduce micro-scratches. For deeper scratches (which still haven’t gone all the way through the lacquer or paint), a light application of a cutting paste such as T-Cut can remove or lessen their appearance.
  • Chips or cracks on the windscreen can often be addressed at no cost (or limited charge) via your insurance company.
  • Wheels often carry damage from being nudged against kerbs. Expect to pay about £100 per corner (more for laser-cut alloy wheels) to have them refurbished.
  • Any other specific damage such as cracked lights or missing trim should be made good. Consider parts from a vehicle dismantler; not only will they be cheaper, they will also have aged in line with the rest of your car and won’t stand out as a replaced part.

Once you have addressed any damage, it’s time to clean and prepare your car’s exterior. If you are short on time, paying for a professional valet can make good sense.

If you have a couple of hours to spare, here is a check list with basic tips to enhance the appeal of your car.

  • Start by giving the car a good wash with a proper car shampoo (NOT washing up liquid!).
  • Ensure you hose off any mud and stones from under the wheel arches.
  • An old toothbrush is ideal to shift mould or mildew along window rubbers.
  • A dedicated brush (and alloy wheel cleaner) can work wonders on the wheels, especially intricate alloys.
  • If the paint is in good condition, an application of a wet wax (such as Autoglym’s Aqua Wax) while the car is being dried will add welcome shine.
  • Make sure you clean door and boot edges and seals.
  • Clean windows inside and out.
  • If the paint looks flat and dull, a full wax once the car is dry will help restore its looks.
  • For faded paint, consider a colour wax such as Turtle Wax Colour Magic.
  • Faded black plastic bumpers and rubbing strips can be brought back to life with products such as Back to Black.
  • Tyres can be made to look like new with a simple spray such as Autoglym Instant Tyre Dressing.
  • Look for any specific features on the car to improve. For example, if it has chromed exhaust pipe finishers, make sure they shine.

Cars interior condition

A potential new owner will be imagining life behind the wheel of the car you are aiming to sell. So if it is filthy, smelly or marked, it isn’t going to seem so attractive to any buyer. Time spent giving the interior a deep clean will pay dividends and is usually more about effort than cost. Here is our top ten list of what to focus on when preparing the interior of your car for sale.

  • Remove all your personal belongings. An uncluttered car is always more attractive and will improve its appearance for any advertising photos. It is easier to clean, too.
  • Start the cleaning activities with a comprehensive vacuum. Clean the upholstery, carpeting and boot, then use a smaller nozzle to remove dirt from hard-to-reach places like the bottom of cup holders and door pockets.
  • Get the mats out and either give rubber ones a good wash or the fabric type a shampoo. Consider a new set if they are heavily soiled or damaged.
  • If the seats are marked, use an upholstery shampoo (doesn’t have to be a car one) and then ensure the car is aired properly to dry them.
  • A leather cleaner and nourisher will improve any grubby or tired leather seats.
  • Clean the windows. There are many dedicated car products but household window cleaning brands are fine.
  • Use a damp cloth over all the plastic areas such as the dashboard, central console and door panels.
  • Pay special attention if you have carried children in the car, looking for feet marks on the backs of the front seats, sticky finger marks and sweets or toys jammed between cushions.
  • If the car has been smoked-in, it will carry this odour with it for some time. Shampooing the headlining and door panels can help. An air freshener may partly mask it too.
  • If there is damage to seat fabric or even the dashboard, there are specialists who can repair these.

Spare car key

What we term a car key might be anything from a flat piece of metal to a complex miniature computer which can display information about a vehicle and even manoeuvre a car remotely. While most modern keys sit somewhere between these extremes, they still can be costly to replace and therefore it is desirable to have them present and working.

Cars are usually sold from new with two keys and these should both be available for inspection by a potential buyer. If you only have one key for the car, a buyer will be considering the cost of replacing the missing one and of course it will always raise the question of who has the other one. If you have purchased an additional key, for example for a family member, you should also make this available. (But don’t leave them lying around as there are some unscrupulous individuals who might try and take one at an opportune moment.)

Cars mechanic and electrics

While it might be up to a buyer to check all the individual features of a car are in fully working order, if you are selling a car as roadworthy, it should be. And remember that if a potential buyer finds something wrong, it gives them an immediate opportunity to start haggling your price down.

So when preparing a car for sale, check all the basics. This is especially important if you are advertising the car privately. Any new owner is unlikely to want to fork out for repairs as soon as they have bought your car.

Check everything from lights and tyres to the wear on the brakes and state of the exhaust. A savvy buyer will also check things like air conditioning and electric windows - so you should too. If there is a problem with something more major, consider whether it is cost-effective to mend. At the very least you should get a quote for the work so if challenged on price, you can agree to drop the amount you are asking by a realistic sum if necessary. Of course if you can get niggles sorted and larger issues fixed, this will look good for any buyer especially if you show receipts.

Spare tyre

While not fundamental to the basic operation of a car, there are certain items any buyer will expect to be present. So ensuring everything is correct and in its place will add to the appeal and help show a vehicle has been well looked-after.

Unless the car has run-flat tyres, it will have been supplied with an inflation kit, space-saver spare wheel or full-sized spare wheel. The inflation kit should have a compressor and an unused can of sealant; any spare wheel must have at least the legal minimum tread depth (1.6mm in the UK).

The car should have a suitable jack and winder if it has a spare wheel. Some cars also come with a basic tool kit, first aid kit and emergency triangle. Remember to have any locking wheel nut key available too.

The car’s folder should contain an instruction manual and service history (check out our sections on car documents).

Some cars included special items when new. Examples are a bottle opener which sits in the cup holder on certain Volkswagen models and an ice scraper on some Škodas, clipped into the inside of the fuel filler lid. While not essential, it is a pleasing touch to have all these original pieces of equipment present for a subsequent owner.