How to Safely Sell Your Car

selling car

Picture the scene, you have just resolved to sell your car privately and maximize the amount of money you will make on the sale. It’s a smart move and will see you earn more money, cut out the middlemen and retain control over the sale. Suddenly, however, you come across a news story in which a horror story is recounted of someone selling his car privately only to realize they were paid in counterfeit money, or with a bouncing check, or simply that the car was stolen and the owner even attacked to get at it. 

OK, these stories do happen, we won’t deny it, but they represent such a minuscule and irrelevant minority of cases that it’s barely worth registering. They make good news stories, that’s what people in the media know. They should never put you off getting the most out of your car sale, and there’s plenty you can do to make sure that happens.

1. Screen Potential Buyers

If you’re worried that among your list of inquiring buyers there may be some unsavory characters, then you should do everything you can to vet them before you meet with them. 

First, establish the buyer’s identity and their purpose for buying a new car. This helps to weed out not only the unsavory characters, but also the car flippers, who are not dangerous but who you’ll also want to avoid if you want to get the best-possible selling price. A genuine buyer should be fine with giving you their reasons for buying:

  • We’re having a second child, so need a bigger car
  • Our kids have moved away, so we’re downsizing
  • Our last car was a real gas-guzzler, so we’re looking for something more economical
  • And so on…

People who are cagey and defensive about their reasons for being interested in your car can be taken as a red flag. We mentioned car flippers further above. These are people who want to buy your car as cheaply as possible so that they can then flip it for a profit. Remember when you resolved to sell privately to maximize your income on the sale? Car flippers are trying to take that away from you by tempting you with convenience.

Car flippers will push you for your absolute bottom line and possibly then offer it to you in cash immediately. Be wary of any potential buyer who seems overly keen just to talk price and to get you down to the cheapest and fastest deal. You can simply ignore their tactics and stick to your previous ideas on price. Other buyers will come.

Finally, as a final screening measure, inform any prospective buyers who want to test drive the vehicle that you want them to show their driving license or other ID before they do so. Genuine buyers won’t be put off by this, but those with ill intent might just be deterred.

2. Meet in Public and Share Plans with Others

parking lot

When it comes time to meet with your buyers, it’s always best to choose a time during the day, and a location somewhere public with other people around. It might be a supermarket parking lot or a downtown location with plenty of foot traffic all around.

When they show you their driver’s license, take a photo of it and send it to a friend. You should also inform your friends and family of your plans that day for the test drive in case anything happens. Ideally, you might even bring someone along with you to accompany you on the test drive.

You should really go with the buyer on your test drive. There are many practical reasons for this beyond safety, such as giving the buyer directions if they are unfamiliar with the area, and to help out if there are some quirks or tricks needed to manage the controls properly in the car. Furthermore, you can be sure that the buyer doesn’t simply take the car for a joy ride and abandon it somewhere.

If for some reason you are unable to accompany them on the test drive, then first try to find a friend or family member who can go, or at the very least don’t give them your only key to the vehicle. Keep a spare so that if the vehicle is abandoned you can go and get it. If you have their license photographed then you can still report them for their behavior.

Finally, keep the test drive short and stick to populated roads. Any serious buyer should be able to tell whether they like the feel of the car in quite a short time driving, so there’s no need to let the test go on so long. You’re just adding more miles and using up more gas.

RELATED: How to Sell Your Lease Car & Turn it Into Cash

3. Beware of Financial Scams

It’s not just physical safety that we’re trying to protect in your car-selling journey, but also your financial safety. Some buyers can come across as completely affable, but in fact they are unscrupulous and deviously clever con artists. One common trick, for instance, is using fake cashier’s checks which may appear to come from a bank but are actually fake.

If the buyer asks you to drive them to a bank, and remain in the car while they go in to get the cashier’s check, then there’s a chance at least that you are being scammed with a phony check. You can verify the check by either calling the bank up to ask, or refusing to remain in your car, instead getting out and going with the buyer into the bank to witness a transaction.

If you are selling a car whose value is under $5,000, then you can accept cash as payment if you feel you can be confident in spotting counterfeit bills. The buyer may not be comfortable carrying more cash than that around, however, so that’s where a cashier’s check or alternative method of payment might come into play.

A neat solution is to determine which bank the buyer is using. Once you know, you can meet at a branch and arrange a transfer without having to carry any cash around very easily. You don’t even need to bank with the same organization. Arranging a domestic transfer in a branch is easy, or you could have them do via online or phone banking to your account. Transferring money electronically is a great way to avoid the risk of counterfeit bills.

One more thing you can do before getting to the money stage, and as another part of screening a buyer very thoroughly, is to check that they have purchased insurance for the car. They are required by just about every state law to purchase liability insurance before they take the car to be registered at the DMV. Therefore, if you have reached the point where money is about to change hands, you could ask to see that they‘ve done that, as a final precaution.

4. Don’t Sign the Title Transfer Until You Have Money

Negotiations should be firmly over and money exchanged hands before you even think of taking the title out, turning it over and filling in the information on the back. You may have shown the title as proof of ownership, but nothing needs writing on there until your transaction is agreed and completed.

When signing the documents, do it outside your home or once again in a public place. Don’t invite any buyers into your home, if you want to keep this process strictly safe and secure.

If you want to get things done very safely, quickly and officially all in one day, a great method is to first screen for very serious buyers who are likely to pay on the same day as testing. What you can do is test the car early in the morning, and if all is well, you could take payment electronically while you’re down at the DMV.

Once you’ve received payment, you can then sign the title and cancel your registration while you’re at the DMV. The buyer can register the vehicle at the same time. All you then have to do is remove the plates and cancel the insurance. The buyer will get their registration done and be ready to drive off.

Conclusion: Being Safe is Mostly Common Sense

The fact remains that staying safe when selling your car is essentially down to keeping your head and following your common sense. 

When buyers who sound too good to be true come along, treat them with suspicion. 

Follow the money, meaning never let the buyer conduct key financial steps out of your view or without your knowledge. 

Don’t get suckered by aggressive negotiations from car flippers.

Never let buyers into your house and don’t start signing or transferring titles until you have the money in-hand or in your account.

Meet buyers in a public and populated place, preferably not alone. And always inform friends and family what you are planning to do.

These steps and others we have described will definitely help to keep you safe while you are selling your car.

Written by:

Magnus is the owner and main author of MechanicBase. He has been working as a mechanic for over 10 years, and the majority of them specialized in advanced diagnostics and troubleshooting. He has also been a motorsport (drifting) driver for over 5 years.