10 top tips to prepare your car for trade-in

October 30, 2023 by

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We explain the key factors dealers look for when you trade-in your car – and how to get the best price

More than 3.6m used cars changed hands in the UK in the first six months of 2023* – up 4.1% on the same period in 2022. British motorists clearly love swapping wheels, and trading in your existing car is usually the fastest way of shifting it, because dealers need stock to fill up their forecourts.

There is always the question of how much a dealer will offer when you trade-in your car, and even if it’s immaculate, sparkling paintwork alone does not guarantee a strong price. Multiple factors go into a dealer’s decision when they make a valuation. Our guide explains what they care about the most, and you can prepare your car for the best possible offer.

1. Condition is king

The single biggest thing that affects a used car’s value is its condition. Dealers love a car that’s free from damage and wear because they don’t need to do any pricey or time-consuming preparation, and it can head straight to the forecourt for an immediate sale.

Any minor repair or blemish that you can easily fix before trade-in time is absolutely worth doing. This could be anything from polishing out small scratches to refitting a loose piece of trim. For bumps and dents, check out smart repair services, which could get the car looking pristine for not a lot of money. You don’t want to spend ages or a fortune on this stuff, but a little bit often goes a long way.

Equally, if your car is rough around the edges and you just want a quick sale, then accept that it won’t make top dollar when you trade it in.

2. Does everything work?

It’s an obvious one, but check that all the car’s functions – windows, lights, wipers, the audio system etc – work as they should. If they don’t, it’s an instant bartering point for the dealer and, as with small repairs, if it’s something that can be put right quickly, for a nominal sum, then it’s worth doing to get the car tip-top.

3. Check the fluids

Dealers see cars day-in, day-out, and if one turns up low on a key fluid, that rings alarm bells. Your window washer reservoir doesn’t have to be topped up to the brim, but if a dealer notices it’s running dry, it doesn’t scream ‘one careful owner’. Pop the bonnet and have quick look at all the levels – oil, radiator coolant, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, brake fluid, and washer fluid – to make sure they’re where they should be.

4. Give it a wash

It sounds painfully simple, but a mucky used car just doesn’t look as a good as a squeaky clean one. Spending a bit of time cleaning the car inside out and before you head to the dealership or stopping at a car wash on the way, will get it looking presentable when the dealer casts their eye over it. It’s also easier to assess a clean car than one that’s caked in dirt, which makes the appraisal process faster and more transparent.

5. Understand its value

Taking some time to understand roughly what your car is worth will help you know what is and isn’t a good price. The best way to do that is to search for cars that are as close to yours as possible – the same make and model, and a similar year, mileage, and specification – which you can do right here on carwow.

Remember that dealers will offer you a lower figure than what they intend to sell the car for, because that’s how the trade-in business model works, but an understanding of the market for your type of car can help you spot the difference between a sensible offer and a bad one.

6. Service history

A comprehensive service history is one of the first things a dealer will look for and, if it’s missing, it will take a huge a chunk off the car’s value, so don’t be shy about showing traders all the car’s paperwork. An incomplete service history is not ideal, but it’s better than none, so gather and present whatever you have.

Some manufacturers store service histories digitally for more recent cars, and if that applies to yours, then download it before you contact or visit the dealer.

7. Point out the car’s qualities

Dealers will home in on the car’s trim level and equipment, so don’t be shy about pointing out what it has. It can be hard even for them to spot individual bits of optional equipment, so if you know your car has an extra piece of kit – tell them about it.

Equally, don’t be afraid to mention things like the specification level or if the car has an option pack, which bundles multiple items of equipment into one. Those things are easier for a dealer to spot, but it doesn’t hurt to let them know that you know they’re there – and that they’re valuable.

8. Testing times

Draw the dealer’s attention to the MOT if the car has recently passed one. The thick end of a year’s MOT is a selling point, and while it might not necessarily inflate the car’s value, it is certainly not a bartering opportunity.

The opposite applies to cars imminently due an MOT – expect this to knock a little off their trade-in value.

9. Seasonal changes

The time of year can affect how much a car is worth, in certain cases. Convertibles, for example, tend to be worth a little more in summer because people love dropping the roof in the sunshine. The same goes for four-wheel drive cars in winter – they’re better prepared to handle to icy roads and therefore draw more buyers to dealers’ forecourts. Timing your trade-in accordingly could bag you a better price.

10. Overall market

If there’s one factor that’s out of an owner’s control, it’s the wider used car market. You could have a spotless, low-mileage car with a full service history and, although it will be worth more than an equivalent without those qualities, if the market doesn’t fancy it, then don’t expect top dollar for your trade-in.

The used car market is all about supply and demand, so if a lot of similar cars are sold at the same time, it dilutes their values and vice versa. Generally, lower-than-average availability since Covid has pushed values up, but they can always flex and change.

* source: SMMT