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How to Trade in Your Car: Get the Most Value for Your Vehicle

How to Trade In Your Car
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updated: July 4, 2024
edited by Wendy Connett

Trading in a car could make sense if you plan to buy a new or used vehicle. When you trade in a car, the dealership gives you credit toward the vehicle's value that's applied to the purchase price of the one you're buying.

If you're considering a trade-in, getting the most value for your vehicle is usually the end goal. Here's a closer look at how to trade in a car, and the pros and cons of doing so.

4 Steps for trading in your car

Trading in a car takes some planning and research. You'll need to be prepared to negotiate with the dealer when it's time to buy.

1. Estimate your vehicle's value

Trade-in value is the amount a dealer would offer you for your current vehicle against the purchase price of a new one. Estimating your car's trade-in value can give you a starting point for negotiations.

Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds are two online resources for estimating trade-in value. You enter some details about your car's make, model, and specifications to get a quote.

Keep in mind that your vehicle's condition, as well as market demand, can influence what it's worth as a trade.

2. Get trade-in quotes

Once you have a number in mind, it's time to start contacting dealers to ask for a trade-in quote. Many dealers allow you to request a quote online by providing some details about the vehicle, including:

  • Make and model.
  • Mileage.
  • Condition.
  • Remaining loan balance, if you still have an outstanding car loan.

You should be able to get an initial quote without bringing the car to the dealer. If you know where you plan to buy your next car, an in-person quote is the next step.

3. Prep the vehicle

Maxing out trade-in value starts with making a good impression. You'll want to get your car ready before taking it to a dealer.

  • Clean the vehicle thoroughly inside and out, removing any personal belongings.
  • Consider getting the upholstery and carpeting deep-cleaned to remove noticeable stains.
  • Visually check the exterior and interior for signs of damage and consider making repairs if it's reasonable to do so.

If you've kept maintenance records for oil changes or repairs, you can bring those with you to the dealership. You'll also need a copy of your title and registration, proof of insurance, and any keys or key fobs for the car.

4. Meet with the dealer and be ready to negotiate

Once your car is in good condition you can meet with a dealer to discuss trade-in terms. The dealer may want to have the vehicle professionally appraised. If so, ask if you can be present for that.

After the appraisal, the dealer will make an offer if they're interested in accepting the trade. Don't be surprised if the offer is lower than the estimated trade-in value you came up with in your research.

You can make a counteroffer, which might trigger a counter-counteroffer from the dealer, or walk away. Keep in mind that negotiating trade-in value is just the first step. You may also want to bargain with the dealer on the purchase price of the car you plan to buy.

Options for trading in a car

If you're ready to trade in your current car for a new one, there are a few ways to do it. Here are some of the possibilities for trading in a vehicle.

Dealership trade-ins

The first and most obvious choice for vehicle trades is a dealership. You might trade your vehicle back to the same dealership from which you bought it or to one that's selling the car you want to buy.

Trading in a car at your existing dealership can give you an advantage since they're already familiar with the vehicle and with you as a customer. They may be willing to offer more trade-in value to keep your business.

Online trade-in marketplaces

Online marketplaces allow you to enter your vehicle's information, get a trade-in quote, and sell your car in one place. The most popular vehicle trade-in sites include Carvana, Autotrader, and Kelley Blue Book.

You can get a trade-in quote and if you decide to accept it, take your car to a participating dealer. The dealer will either give you cash for the vehicle or trade-in credit.

The upside of trade-in marketplaces is that they're convenient since you can easily compare quotes online. The downside is that they leave virtually no room to negotiate.

How to get an offer for a trade-in

It's helpful to get at least three trade-in offers so you have some numbers to compare. Getting offers is a fairly simple process. You can do it online or offline.

Request an online quote from a dealer

The first way to get a trade-in offer is to ask a dealer for a quote online. This saves you time since you don't have to go in person with your vehicle and it can give you an idea of how much a dealer is willing to pay for your vehicle.

When requesting online quotes, provide as much detail as the dealer asks for. And make sure all of your vehicle information is correct to get an accurate quote.

Visit a dealer in person

If you've cleaned up your car and it's ready to trade, you might head to a dealer in person to get a quote. Keep in mind that some dealers may require you to schedule an appointment for a trade-in quote.

Going to the dealer could make sense if it's the same one that sold the car to you. They're already familiar with the vehicle and may be attuned to what comparable cars are selling for.

Get an online trade-in quote

It's relatively simple to get trade-in quotes through online marketplaces and it doesn't take a lot of time. You don't have to go to a dealer for an in-person inspection and your trade-in offer might be guaranteed for a set period.

Again, the main thing to remember is that these trade-in offers are typically non-negotiable. If you're trying to get the best possible price for your car, you may fare better by negotiating directly with a dealer.

Pros and cons of trading in a car

Trading in a vehicle can have advantages and disadvantages. Here's how they compare.

Pros:

  • Trade-in value can reduce the amount you have to finance when buying a new car. 
  • It may be easier to trade a car in than to sell it privately. 
  • Trading in a car with negative equity could make your loan payments more manageable if you're buying a less expensive vehicle.

Cons:

  • Dealerships are usually motivated to pay you the least amount possible for a trade. 
  • Trade-in values can fluctuate based on market demand.

Benefits of trading in your car

Trading in your car can have some upsides and it's helpful to consider how much you stand to gain. Here are some of the best reasons to trade in a car compared to selling it privately.

Reduce the amount you finance

If you're financing a car purchase, trading in a vehicle can reduce the amount you need to borrow. For example, if you're buying a $35,000 car but trading in your current one for $10,000, you'd only need to finance $25,000 (or less, if you're putting down a significant amount).

A smaller loan means lower monthly payments and less stress on your budget.

Save time

Trading in a car can be simpler than selling it privately. You don't have to deal with tire-kickers who aren't serious about buying or spend time answering phone calls, texts, or emails from potential buyers.

Your dealer may handle all of the paperwork on the back end as well. That includes transferring your vehicle registration over to the new car or paying off a loan if you're trading in a financed vehicle.

Change your loan terms

If you are still making payments on a car, you could trade it in to get a better loan term (and a new vehicle). This is similar to how vehicle refinancing works since you're essentially replacing an old loan with a new one.

Whether this works in your favor can depend on whether you have positive or negative equity in the car. Positive equity means that it's worth more than you owe. Negative equity means that it's worth less.

If you have negative equity, meaning you're upside down, part of the remaining loan balance may be rolled into the new loan. But if you're getting a longer term or lower rate, that could make your payments more manageable.

Considerations when trading in your car

Negotiating a trade-in could help you get a lower purchase price on your next car. These tips can help you approach a trade-in from the strongest position possible.

Be realistic about your car's trade-in value

What you think your car is worth and what a dealer is willing to pay for it are two different things.

If you're using online tools to research your car's value, don't assume that the highest estimate is the one you'll get. It may be more realistic to get three or more quotes and calculate the average of them to use as a guide for negotiations.

Also, consider the market. Is the type of car you want to trade particularly sought-after? What are trade-in values looking like in your local area overall?

Weighing these kinds of questions can help you decide if the time is right to trade.

Ask yourself when it makes sense to walk away

Car dealerships are in business to make money and they don't do that by being overly generous with trades. If you're sitting down to negotiate, you should be prepared to walk away if the offer you're getting feels too low.

Setting a target number for trade-in value can give you a framework for knowing when to call negotiations off. For example, if you're hoping to get $8,000 for your car but the dealer won't go above $5,000, then that's a sign you may need to go elsewhere.

Know what you'll pay if you're trading in a financed vehicle

Trading in a financed car is one way to get out of an expensive loan and replace your vehicle with something more affordable.

Just remember to calculate what your new loan payments will be to ensure they're a good fit for your budget. Also, consider any fees you might have to pay, such as a prepayment penalty, if you're using a new car loan to pay off an existing one.

When should you trade in your vehicle

To trade or not to trade? Evaluating your situation can help you decide if it's something to pursue.

Your car is paid off

Trading in a car that you own outright means you don't have to worry about rolling over an outstanding loan balance. You can move from one vehicle to another without taking any excess debt with you.

Trade-in values are high

Trading in a car usually makes the most sense when you're able to command the highest value. Again, this can depend on the state of the market.

If demand for used vehicles is high but inventory is low, dealers may be willing to pay more for your car. On the other hand, if the market for used cars is sluggish you might end up with a lower trade-in quote.

Your car is in good condition

After many miles or some damage, a car may become untradeable. That is to say, a dealer may not be willing to offer you much at all for it.

Ideally, dealers are looking for cars that have:

  • Low to moderate mileage.
  • Been properly maintained, with records to back it up.
  • Minimal to no damage.
  • No history of recalls or safety issues.

If your car checks off all those boxes then it may be in prime condition for a trade.

When should you not trade in your car

Trading in a car doesn't always work out in the owner's favor. There are a few scenarios where you may be better off choosing a different option.

You're upside down

Trading a car with negative equity could set you up for a longer loan payoff if you're rolling over an existing balance. You may not get much money for the trade, if anything, and be left with a larger amount to repay on the new car.

Demand is low

Supply and demand can drive trade-in values and again, if demand is slow, you may not get the best deal for your car.

Waiting until demand picks up could help you get a better trade-in offer. The drawback, however, is that if supply lags behind you could find yourself paying a higher price to buy your next car.

You'd need an expensive loan to buy a new car

There's nothing wrong with financing a new or used car purchase. The key is being able to afford the payments.

Trading in your car may not be the best move if you're driving off the lot with a new car and an expensive car loan. Setting a firm budget for car buying and shopping around to find the best auto loan rates can help you avoid that scenario.

Alternatives to trading in your car

If you're not getting the trade-in offer you want from a dealer, you could take a different route. There are some alternatives to trading in a car that might be more suited to your situation.

Sell it privately

If you're ready to unload your car you could try to find a private buyer. You can advertise your car for sale online or offline through Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, or word of mouth.

Selling privately means you can get cash in hand to buy a car from the dealer of your choice. You may be able to get a better price for it if you're savvy at negotiating and know the temperature of the local market.

Get an instant cash offer

Online trade-in marketplaces can give you quotes or make a cash offer for your car. Again, you'd just need to take it to a participating dealership to get the cash and hand over your vehicle.

Instant cash offers might appeal to you if you want to get rid of your car quickly, without having to deal with private buyers.

Donate or junk it

If your car is in poor condition and you can't get a trade-in offer for it, you might consider donating it to charity or selling it to a salvage yard.

Donating your car could help you snag an extra tax deduction if you itemize. If you'd rather get a little cash for your vehicle you could sell it to a scrapyard or salvage dealer. You won't get rich from junking a car but you could pick up a few hundred dollars.

TIME Stamp: Do your research to get the most trade-in value

Trading in a car shouldn't be a hassle. Doing the proper research beforehand can help you prepare for the process. That starts with estimating your car's value and getting multiple quotes to help you narrow down which offer to accept.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

How do I know if my car is eligible for a trade-in?

Your car is generally eligible to trade if it's in good condition with no major issues. Getting an online estimate of your trade-in value can give you an idea of what it might be worth. You can compare those estimates to offers from dealers to verify that your car is eligible for trade.

Can I trade in my car if I still owe money on it?

You can trade in a financed vehicle without an outstanding loan balance. Any remaining amount due on the loan after the trade-in value is deducted may be rolled over to the new loan. If the dealer won't roll the unpaid amount over it you'd have to pay it off to finalize the trade.

Can I trade in a leased car?

You can trade in a leased car for another leased car or use the equity value as a down payment toward the purchase of a new vehicle. Note that the leasing company may charge a penalty fee for breaking the lease agreement early, along with any other applicable fees that are spelled out in your contract.

Will trading in a car affect my credit score?

Trading in a car can affect your credit score if you're applying for a loan to buy a new car. Lenders can perform a hard credit check when you apply for a car loan, which would show up on your credit reports. Hard credit inquiries can trim a few points off your credit scores temporarily.

The information presented here is created independently from the TIME editorial staff. To learn more, see our About page.

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