Fundamentals of buying a car in America: Selling

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February 3, 2021

Buying a vehicle in America opens the door to incredible adventures.  You can go where you want, do what you want, for how long you want.  But if you don't plan on future visits, you'll want to make a plan to sell your vehicle when your visit is finished.

From purchase to registration to insurance to sale, there are quite few details to sort when buying a vehicle in the US.  That's why we're putting together this series, called Fundamentals of Buying a Car in America, to help road-trippers, business travelers, and everyone in between understand the process.

This fourth article in our Fundamentals series focuses on the fundamentals of selling your vehicle. This step follows ownership transfer, registration and titling, and insurance.

I sold my pickup truck last month, and I'm going to show you exactly how I did it.

Winter is approaching in Montana, and there are few vehicles worse in the snow than a two-wheel-drive pickup truck.  All the weight is at the front of the vehicle, and all the power goes to the back two wheels, which leads to some white-knuckle grocery store runs.

So, on a recent Thursday, I set myself a goal: sell my truck in one week.

Before jumping into the details of my sale, it's worth taking a minute to talk about how vehicles are valued in the US.

  • Retail Value: this is the price of a vehicle on a dealer's showroom floor.  The dealer most likely acquired the vehicle wholesale (taking it as a trade-in to sell another vehicle on the lot, or buying it from a another wholesale channel, such as an auction), before marking it up to cover overheads and profit.
  • Private Party Value: this is the price of a vehicle sold by a non-dealer, usually on a classified site such as Craigslist (the biggest classifieds site in America).  The private party value is usually lower than retail because individuals don't offer the same services that dealers provide: private sales are almost always "as-is," with no warranty protection for the buyer; and banks often won't finance private party sales, so buyers have to come up with the entire purchase price in cash.
  • Wholesale Value: this is the price that a dealer will pay to acquire a vehicle, and it comes in two flavors: trade-in and auction.  Trade-in is the value a dealer will offer when you're buying another vehicle from them.  Auction is the value a dealer will pay for a vehicle at a wholesale auction.  Wholesale values generally fall at the lower end of the spectrum, as dealers often need to invest money to make the vehicle "retail-ready," and they expect to turn a profit on the vehicle.

With that cleared up, here's the steps I followed to sell my truck in one week.

Step 1: Get a Feel for the Market

Kelley Blue Book is the most trusted valuation service in the US, so they were my first stop.  These were the values that pulled for a truck of my year, make, and mileage.

The Typical Listing Price and Fair Purchase Price are what a truck like mine might sell for at a dealership.

Notice I said "a truck like mine."  Kelley Blue Book doesn't incorporate vehicle history reports into their valuations.

I hit a doe (a deer, a female deer) last year, and the accident is listed on the truck's vehicle history report (the most common one in the US is Carfax).  This rules out values in the Excellent and Very Good (and usually, Good) categories.

So, I'm realistically looking at wholesale values in the $18,500 - $20,500 range and private party values in the $20,000 - $22,500 range.

This is great information, but until I get an actual offer, these values are hypothetical.

Step 2: Generate Wholesale Options

The next step in my process was to generate options for myself: get an offer or two to work with.

Selling a vehicle in America is easier than ever.  A number of companies provide cash offers on your vehicle through an app.  The best of these are Carvana, Vroom, and The Appraisal Lane.

I downloaded the apps, and here's what I found.

Carvana

I was excited about Carvana.  They don't have stores (just vending machines) and are the leading virtual dealership in America at the moment.

And they didn't need any pictures of my truck!  Carvana's process is super quick - they just ask for your VIN or license and state, your vehicle's mileage, and a note for anything that may impact the value.  I had an offer in less than five minutes.

A closer look at the offer reveals that Carvana reserves the right to adjust their payout if the vehicle is worse than you described it.  But it sounds like they're generally being cool about it.

Vroom

Vroom is another leading virtual dealership in the US, so I downloaded their app as well.

Like Carvana, Vroom didn't need any pictures of my truck.  Their process was also easy and fast.

Vroom's offer was about $1,000 better than Carvana's, but it came with a catch: Vroom's offer was only good for two days, while Carvana's was good for seven.  But I resubmitted my truck to Vroom after the initial offer expired, and they offered me a price within $50 of their original offer.

The Appraisal Lane

Next, I turned to The Appraisal Lane.  While Carvana and Vroom price vehicles via algorithm, The Appraisal Lane uses a more human process.  Their team of appraisers makes an offer on the vehicle, then sends it to their network of dealer buyers.  So instead of schlepping your car around to a dozen dealers, The Appraisal Lane does it for you.

The Appraisal Lane requires about ten pictures of your vehicle, so the process takes a bit longer - about 15 minutes - than Carvana's or Vroom's.

Great.  This is what I wanted: options.

My highest offer ($19,400 from The Appraisal Lane) fell squarely in the middle of the range of Wholesale Values that I was expecting ($18,500 - $20,500).

Having these offers in my back pocket gave me the confidence to be a bit more aggressive with my next step.

Step 3: Generate Private Party Options

Now that I had three hard wholesale offers, it was time to list my truck with private sellers.

Tred

My first stop was Tred, which promises to get you a price closer to the Private Party Value, without the hassle of dealing with the general public.

Tred lists your vehicle on markets like cars.com, TrueCar, AutoTrader, and Facebook Marketplace, then vets respondents, so you don't have to.

For the privilege, Tred charges $99 or 0.99% of the vehicle's value, whichever is greater.  Since the Private Party Value on my truck was a couple thousand dollars higher than the Wholesale Value, this fee felt pretty reasonable.

I provided my vehicle's information, uploaded photos, and verified my identity, then Tred suggested a listing price.

This is where Tred seemed to miss the mark.  They suggested a price, $23,429, that fell in the middle of Kelley Blue Book's “Very Good” Private Party valuation.  Given the accident on my truck's vehicle history, this just wasn't realistic.

But Tred gave me the flexibility to adjust my listing price, which I dialed right down to the middle of Kelley Blue Book's “Fair” Private Party value ($20,000 - $22,500).

With Tred's listing in play, I turned to the old standby: Craigslist.

Craigslist

Craigslist is the largest classifieds site in the US - millions of people buy and sell cars though Craigslist every year.

The listing process was straightforward: provide pics, a description, a price, and a general location.

Selling a vehicle to a private party is a hassle during normal times.  A dozen people will test drive your vehicle and tell you it's the wrong color, or try to lowball you, or commit to buying then flake out.

Covid makes this process even less attractive.

Having a cash offer for $19,400 in my pocket, and a Tred listing of $21,400, I decided to list my truck on Craigslist at the top end of Kelley Blue Book's Fair Private Party Value: $22,400.  I just didn't want to deal with the general public during Covid unless it was worth substantially more to me.

Step 4: Work the Options

Almost immediately after posting my truck on Craigslist, I got inquiries from dealers.  This is where the cash wholesale offers came in handy.

Dealer: "Hey Matt - I love your truck, but with an accident on its record, the highest I can go is $19,000."

Me: "That's great, but I have a cash offer for $19,400."

Dealer: "Well, I can do $19,500, but that's as high as I can go."

Me: "Ok, I've got your number.  I'll call you back"

This went on for a couple of days, and by the end of the weekend, four days after listing my truck, I made my decision.

Step 5: Pull the Trigger on the Best Option

I listed my truck on on Thursday, and by Sunday I had only gotten a handful of private inquiries.  None of these turned into test drives, and during Covid, I'm not dissapointed.  I wasn't looking forward to having a bunch of people in and out of my truck.  Selling wholesale made that problem disappear.

So I pulled the trigger on The Appraisal Lane's offer of $19,500 (less a $100 transaction fee).

Each of these services (i.e., Carvana, Vroom, The Appraisal Lane, Tred, etc.) has a different "disposition model," or way to take your vehicle off your hands.

Tred arranges for you to meet up with the buyer, while Carvana and Vroom will send a truck to pick your vehicle.

My offers from Carvana and Vroom were a bit fluffy about pickup: someone would come by in a few days.

The Appraisal Lane works a bit differently: once you accept their offer, they tell you where to leave the vehicle - usually at a dealership.  I had my dropoff location in about one business day.

Step 6: Cross the T's and Dot the j's

Since I sold my truck to The Appraisal Lane, not to the dropoff dealer, the paperwork is handled separately.

The Appraisal Lane asked me to assign my Montana title to them, and send it to their title processing center.

Each of the 50 states (plus D.C.) has its own process for assigning a title from a seller to a buyer.

Montana's process requires the seller's signature to be notarized - basically, witnessed by a person appointed to attest that signers are who they say they are.

I brought mine into a UPS Store, where I was able to have my title notarized before shipping it off to The Appraisal Lane.

(Best practice: call ahead to make sure a notary is available, and whether documents can be notarized with non-US identification - UPS Stores can be funny about this, for instance.)

Step 7: Receive Funds

The Appraisal Lane emailed me when they received my title, and wired $19,400 into my bank account a few days later.

Most of the apps, including The Appraisal Lane, use Automated Clearing House (ACH) to send funds.  They're not set up to send payments via SWIFT or IBAN.

If you don't have an American bank account, this shouldn't be a problem.  Opening a Transferwise account lets you open bank accounts in USD, EUR, GBP, AUD, NZD, and more - and with that account, you can transfer funds back to your home currency with fees that are a fraction of traditional bank transfer fees.

So if you sell your vehicle through one of the apps, be sure to have a Transferwise (or another US bank)  account ready, so you can accept your payout via ACH.

Wrapping Up

So if you're at the end of your visit, you've got a bunch of options to sell your vehicle.

If you want to sell your vehicle in a few days, I'd recommend The Appraisal Lane, as at the end of a visit, dropping off a vehicle is often easier than waiting for someone to pick one up.

Give all the apps a go, though.  Our friends over at Your Auto Advisor found Carvana to be their best option.  For more about that process, read Your Auto Advisor's account of their Carvana experience.

visitor.us is an auto broker, insurance agent, and registration agent focused exclusively on international visitors to the US.  We've helped hundreds of non-residents buy, register, insure, and sell vehicles in America.

If you're planning a visit to the US and want to buy a vehicle, get in touch with visitor.us today!

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