9 steps to get the most out of your sale | How to sell a car: Part 3

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Classic Motorsports.]

Back in the day, it was relatively easy to sell a car: You placed an ad and waited for the phone to ring. Today the process is a lot more complicated, especially if you’re trying to cast the widest possible net to get the highest possible sale price.

Fortunately we have some experience in this area, so when this 1965 Sunbeam Tiger fell into our lap, we saw an opportunity–actually, several of them.

This was a dirty car filled with garbage and packed into a cramped, dark garage. It looked so unappealing that we knew we could buy it on the cheap, and we did. First opportunity realized.

Next we wanted to clean it up and get it running for a quick sale. That proved relatively cheap and easy.

Now we were ready to attain our final goal: selling our Tiger for a profit. A couple of bucks and a bit of time translated into a nice little monetary gain while putting a cool classic back in circulation. Here’s how we did it.

1. Take Good Photos

As we detailed last issue, after spending a weekend turning our barn find into a presentable car that actually ran, we were ready to start the sales process. What that means in today’s world is some proper photography. This is an absolute necessity, whether you’re selling on your local Craigslist or nationally on an online auction site like Bring a Trailer or eBay Motors.

Why so much emphasis on taking photos? Easy: Pictures sell cars. According to our friends at eBay Motors, listings with 40 or more photos are 70 percent more likely to sell. You don’t need to be an Ansel Adams, but if you follow these few simple steps, you’ll be much more likely to end up with photos that will get that vehicle sold.

  • Location, Location, Location: A clean, simple background always beats out a cluttered one. Easy backgrounds include brick walls, closed garage doors and wide-open parking lots. A garage full of junk is not the right answer.
  • Clean It Up: Take a few minutes to remove any trash, reattach any loose items, and present the car in a professional way.
  • Light Matters: Avoid dark garages, harsh midday sun and distracting shadows. Try to shoot the car outdoors on an overcast day or in the soft light of early evenings and mornings. If the sun is out, place it at your back–but watch out where your own shadow falls. A flash or shop light can help chase away shadows.


2. Shoot Away

Film is cheap–just kidding, we know you’re shooting digital–so go nuts and take a lot of photos. How many? A lot. Aim for 100 and don’t be bashful about taking too many. You want to show potential buyers everything about the car so they’re confident that it’s the right fit for them. So shoot generously.

Equipment-wise, a decent digital camera or even your phone set to its highest/finest setting should be fine. If the photos look fuzzy, dark or just horrible, stop what you’re doing and figure out why.

3. Know Your Car

The more you know about the car, the more confidence you can instill in your shoppers. Look at it from their point of view: Would you rather buy a car that is simply said to run great, or one that comes with a dyno-verified horsepower figure that nearly matches the factory spec? What if that’s accompanied by a video showing a humming engine, smooth gearbox and smoke-free exhaust?

Take the time to learn about the car that you are selling, or pay an expert to teach you. Extra testing and analysis–stuff like a dyno graph, used oil analysis or a report from a trusted third party–costs money, but can make for a more appetizing vehicle.

4. Get Your Paperwork Straight

We constantly see cars for sale with dodgy paperwork. While we don’t think these cars are stolen, it’s obvious someone is being lazy, disorganized or just cheap.

Open titles are one of the most common paperwork fails. A title is “open” when the current owner never titles the car in his or her name, instead using the title from the previous owner (who signed the title as “seller” without getting the required buyer’s signature on it). This saves registration fees and sales tax, but it’s not kosher. When you see “selling for a friend” on an eBay listing, what you are usually dealing with is an open title. What you probably aren’t dealing with is the legal owner. Having the proper title in the seller’s name certainly keeps things honest, straight and legal. So make sure you have the correct title to the car you’re selling.

5. Research Values

It’s hard to sell something if you don’t know what it’s worth. In today’s world, that information is usually easily available.

The guy who sold us our Tiger said that he didn’t use the internet, yet he “felt” that it was worth roughly $10,000. While that would have been true about 10 years ago for a Tiger in this condition, our seller had done no recent research to check his facts. This was a costly mistake.

Once we hopped online and looked at Hagerty’s online value guide–available free to anyone, not just Hagerty customers–we learned that a No. 4 condition Tiger is worth about $55,000. A No. 4 car runs and drives, but has visible scars. Our Tiger was obviously a few notches below that, but there was still a lot of room between that value and what the seller thought it was worth.

Past auction results, which are also available online, can provide useful data as well. Classic car values are dictated largely by rarity and condition, however, and you’ll also need to understand the harsh reality that an amateur restoration is not the same as the ones you’ll see fetching top dollar at auction.

If you don’t know the difference, get off the couch and go to a top auction or concours event and study what the best cars really look like. Then you can set your expectations accordingly. And if all else fails, you can contact marque experts. Yes, again, this research takes time.

6. Talk to Your Accountant

Selling a car can have tax implications. If you make a $10,000 profit on the sale of a car, but have to pay a third of that in taxes, would you have been better off just keeping the car? Do you have enough receipts to increase your cost basis in the car and reduce your tax obligation? Also, how public do you want that sale to be? Some transactions are more public than others, so if you’re looking to keep things on the DL, a big, public online auction may not be the right answer for you.

7. Organize the Back End

Figure out your end of the transaction before you even list the car for sale. How do you want to be paid? Do you prefer cash, certified check, wire transfer or PayPal? Are you set up and ready to accept all the forms of payment you’re willing to take? Are you willing to take trades? How long can the car be stored at your place? Will you help with shipping? Having these answers ready before someone asks will generally make for a smooth transaction.

8. Pick a Venue

Let’s say the car is ready, the paperwork is prepared, and the photos are shot. Now you need to pick a venue for your sale. Which one is right for you and your car? Good question, as today’s market offers so many options. Here are the big ones, with some of the points in their favor:

  • eBay Motors online auctions: Still the biggest auction house out there. They’ll take anything presented to them and, good or bad, anyone out there is free to bid.
  • Bring a Trailer online auctions: They only take cars that fit their demographic, but they offer a focused, passionate audience as well as marketing and concierge services.
  • Craigslist online ads: Placing an ad is free and easy, but each local market will require its own ad. Content aggregators like AutoTempest can help extend your ad’s reach.
  • Classic car dealers: The dealer is going to offer a wholesale value, but this can be a quick, easy way to get rid of a car.
  • Smaller, boutique auctions: The audience will be very vetted, but these houses will not accept every car brought their way–only the finest examples. Plus, you need to physically get the car there.
  • Larger auctions: You might wind up competing against a similar car, but in theory everyone in the audience is there to buy. Transportation to the auction site must again be considered.
  • Magazine or club publication ads: Longer lead times but very focused, knowledgeable audiences.
  • Club- and marque-specific message boards: Possibly a smaller audience, but a very passionate one.

The best way to offer a car for sale might be some combination of these techniques; that way you can make sure you reach the widest audience. You can place the car with Bring a Trailer, for example, and then post something on some club message boards.

You’ll also want to look at fees. An online or Craigslist ad can be free, while a top-tier auction–assuming they take your car–is going to charge a seller’s commission that could be 10 percent or more of the sales price. The other options fall somewhere between the two.

The best way to offer a car for sale might be some combination of these techniques; that way you can make sure you reach the widest audience. You can place the car with Bring a Trailer, for example, and then post something on some club message boards.

You’ll also want to look at fees. An online or Craigslist ad can be free, while a top-tier auction-assuming they take your car–is going to charge a seller’s commission that could be 10 percent or more of the sales price. The other options fall somewhere between the two.

9. List Your Car

You’ve done your homework and gotten your ducks in a row. Now it’s finally time to list the car for sale.

Timing is important here. Place the ad when you have time to answer questions and show the car as needed. Placing it the day before you leave on a long trip is usually not the hot ticket.

When you write your listing, be honest and open in your description of the car; include all of the good, clear photos you have. Continue that honesty in any interaction you have with potential buyers. Communication is key: No one wants to deal with a seller who is shifty and uncommunicative.

We listed our Tiger with Bring a Trailer. While this site started out as an online resource for sharing cool cars listed elsewhere for sale, they now offer their own online auctions. The fees are reasonable, too: It costs less than a hundred dollars to list a car, and there is a 5 percent buyer’s premium. The Bring a Trailer crew approves the cars offered on their site and writes the copy as well. Basically, they hold your hand through the entire process.

Bring a Trailer also has an active, involved fan base, so we felt it was the proper place to sell a unique car that we admit needed some work. That same audience can be a chatty one, too, so budget plenty of time to answer their questions. (On the plus side, you can argue that those questions, no matter how silly, help vet a sale.)

The actual listing process was easy: We uploaded about 50 photos, approved the ad copy, and waited for the auction to start.

The first bid, $500, was okay for a no-reserve auction. The comments and the bidding continued from there, and a week later the hammer fell at $19,500. Considering we had less than $10,000 and a few days’ worth of work in the car, that’s a nice profit. After receiving payment, we waited for the buyer to arrange shipping. Then we watched the Tiger go away.

What did we learn here? Buying and selling project cars can be as easy as you want to make it. As with most things, though, a little extra work can pay off in extra dollars.

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RustBeltSherpa New Reader
8/7/18 7:01 p.m.

I've been following this series of articles intently since it started earlier this year. Question: "Considering that we had less than $10,000...", so you got the Tiger AND the MG for less than 10 grand? Takeaways: 1) If you offer to buy multiple vehicles, you have greater bargaining leverage.  2) Affluent residential/resort areas (e.g.Traverse City, Mich.  area, Highlands, N.C area). may be prime areas to find undervalued classics  for sale.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
12/25/19 9:21 p.m.

I think buying anything in bulk can work to your advantage. (Note that I said "can.") Earlier today I saw someone selling a lot of wheels cheap--something like nine wheels for $50. These weren't prime mags, but to me the ad said, Get this stuff out of my life. 

No, I didn't call on the ad. 

Bardan New Reader
10/3/22 12:31 p.m.

On the pictures, I've seen too many where the seller is so lazy they don't pull the car out into the sunlight. They open the garage door, they stand in the sun and take a picture of a car in a dark garage. Also they take 5 pictures of the same thing, maybe the left door and none of the right side. 
Also the open title stuff, some states will not recognize the notary if the notary stamp has expired. Now you have to find the real owner and get it re notarized and hope that in the interim time, he hasn't applied for a replacement title that supersedes what is in your hand. He could say "where's my car, I'm calling the police"

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