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How much is the used car really worth?

Know the car's cash value before you negotiate

Last updated: May 2014

Whether you are buying from a dealership or a private party, it’s important to know a car’s current cash value. This depends on a number of factors, including the vehicle’s age, mileage, condition, trim level, optional equipment, and even the region where it’s being sold. For any used car there are two prices: retail and wholesale.

Retail price. This is the higher of the two prices, and is what you would expect to pay for the car if you were buying a car at a dealership. If you are buying it from a private seller, you can usually expect to pay a somewhat lower price. Retail is also considerably higher than the price you’ll receive for your trade-in because it includes a profit margin for the dealership.

Wholesale price/trade-in value. This is essentially a car’s trade-in value to a dealer, who will likely sell it to someone else for profit. Understandably, the trade-in price is much lower than the retail price, and it is unlikely that you will be able to buy a used car for this price.

But it’s a figure you should know if you’re trying to decide whether to trade in your current vehicle or sell it yourself.

In the wholesale end of the business, a car can actually command several prices. One is what the dealer offers a customer as a trade-in. Then there’s a dealer-to-dealer price when one dealer sells that car to another. If the car goes to a wholesale auction, which many do, then there is an auction price. Dealers and brokers may buy auction cars for resale. Every step of the way, the middlemen take a markup and the car acquires a new “value.”

Find the car's book value

The first step in assessing a used vehi­cle’s true worth is to check its book value. This is the figure you’ll find in pricing guides and used-car pricing websites, which lists a vehicle’s base retail value. To get a more accurate figure, you must factor in any options as well as mileage and con­dition. Most web­sites let you do this online and then give you adjusted figures.

Or, you can check websites or printed pricing guides including those from Consumer Reports, as well as Kelley Blue Book, the National Automobile Dealers Association, and VMR. Printed guides can often be found in libraries. Checking several sources will give you more pricing information when you begin haggling with potential buyers.

What are the sellers asking?

While printed pricing guides and website estimates can give you a general idea, you can often get a better fix on a car’s worth in your region by localizing your search, whether it is by checking the classified and dealer ads publications, and some of the online used-car selling sites. Sometimes it’s difficult to sort out the private sellers from the hidden dealer ads, but it’s a good place to start. Look for vehicles that are similar to the one you are considering in terms of model year, mileage, trim level, options, and condition.

You can also check online used-car selling sites like Autobytel, UsedCars.com, Auto­Trader.com, or eBay Motors. Onnline, you can limit your search to your general geographic area and instantly get a listing of the cars for sale and the prices. Prices in other regions may vary from those in your area.

Knowing what other sellers are asking for sim­ilar vehicles can provide ammu­nition for you to bid lower on the car you want to buy. Keep in mind that the listed prices are the asking prices, not what people are paying. Assume that all such prices are negotiable. One advantage to eBay is that you can check completed auctions for the actual sale prices.

Used car buying guide

Learn more about choosing a used car, avoiding a lemon, buying and selling a used car, pricing and financing, and more in our used car buying guide.


   

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