Prepping A Car For Sale At Your Car Dealership

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Not long after moving to Arizona I was shopping for a Jeep Cherokee as a fun second car. I figured, being in Arizona, I should have something I could off road in. I was shopping on-line and found one that seemed right, good miles, right price, 4WD and a stick. Checked off all my boxes. I pulled up to the dealership and noticed that all the cars on the lot were coated in a nice layer of mud. It’s not entirely uncommon to see in Arizona because we have our monsoons here, which are usually preceded by a dust storm. Dust + rain = muddy cars. Problem was, it had been over a week since our last monsoon. This did not bode well for this dealership. It made them seem careless. The car seemed right on paper though, so I decided to proceed. I walked up to the car on the lot and noticed instantly that it would probably be needing new tires within the next year. The tread was definitely low. Another negative, but I thought I’d give the car one more try. I walked in to the office, introduced myself and said I’d like to take the car for a test drive. The employees there were very nice and helpful, got me the keys, and we headed out to the car. I got in, sat down and started the car. The car shuddered a bit as it started. I looked down at the instrument cluster and noticed the check engine light was on. That was the last nail in the coffin. In Arizona a car can’t be registered with the check engine light on. I turned the car off, said thanks but no thanks, and walked off.

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This car was clearly not in the condition to be sold, and that experience made me not want to talk to that dealer any more about other cars on the lot or about what they could do to fix it. Let’s talk about preparing a car for sale at a dealership.

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Wash the car

Sometimes I feel like I’m beating a dead horse with this point, but it’s really that important. Wash your cars on your lot. When you first intake the car, get it detailed, and get it detailed well. On the must side of detailing, make sure the car gets washed, polished and waxed. Make sure the carpets and upholstery are vacuumed. Make sure the engine bay is cleaned and degreased. Make sure all interior surface are wiped down. And finally, make sure the car is completely deodorized. Beyond that there are some things that you may or may not want to do, depending on the condition. If the paint is starting to oxidize or fade, a good buffing might be in order. It may cost a bit to have this done, but removing oxidation can increase a car’s condition from fair to good. Same goes for the interior, if the carpets or seats are stained, steam clean them. Steam cleaning the interior will also help with odor removal, especially if it was a smoker car. Also when detailing, make sure to pay attention to cup holders and other small but visible areas that attract gunk.

Beyond detailing a car when you first bring it in, keep your cars washed regularly, especially exterior. Dust and water spots can accumulate quickly, especially in areas with a lot of weather. Do a quick exterior wash at least once a week. If anyone has tracked mud or other things in to your car on a test drive, be sure to vacuum those out as well.

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Minor cosmetic repairs

Along with washing the car, these kinds of cosmetic things can pay back in dividends. Replace chipped or heavily pitted windshields. For many older and lower end cars non-OEM windshields can be found for around $100. It’s a simple fix that can really make your car stand above the crowd. Another cheap and easy fix that can really make your car stand out is paintless dent repair. I don’t think it’s necessary or realistic to remove every little dent or ding on a cheaper older car, but dents that are eligible for painless repair are a no brainer. Same goes for defogging headlights. Plastic headlight lenses, especially in desert states, tend to get cloudy over time, all it generally takes is a simple buffing to make them (albeit temporarily) shine again.

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Consumable parts

I’ll start with tires. If a vehicle on your lot has less than 40% or so of the tread left on the tires, you should probably replace them. Most people comparison shop when they’re car shopping. If someone is looking at a car with next to new tires vs. a car that’s tires will need to be replaced within the next year, which one do you think they will buy? When buying a car, people generally aren’t too excited about seeing a $400+ tire bill in the near future. On top of that, many places will buy back partially worn tires so the expense to your dealership may not be as bad as it seems. Along with tires, brakes should be paid attention to as well. Realistically, someone is not going to want to measure how much is left on the pad, but if your brakes are squealing, you might want to replace them before sending someone on a test drive in your car (This has happened to me on a test drive from a dealer, and no, I did not buy the car). Finally, make sure the battery is in good shape. Replace old or corroded batteries and make sure someone starts all the cars on your lot  regularly. Nothing worse than handing a customer the keys and the car not starting when they go to start it.

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Running shape

I feel like this should go without saying, but clearly in the case of that Jeep Cherokee, it does not; make sure the car is in good running order and that there are no warning lights on the dash. An airbag light is a dead giveaway that the car was in a pretty decent accident. A vehicle with a check engine light on won’t pass emissions and thus can’t be registered in many states and is often an easy fix. Basically, make sure the car starts and runs decently, and if it doesn’t, be honest with your customer about it’s non-visible flaws.

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Now, I want to introduce a topic that I’ll go into a lot more depth in a later post. That is the concept of cost vs. time. All of the items above take time and/or money to take care of. As the owner of a car lot this is something to think about. How much would it cost you to hire someone part or full time (depending on how many cars you have) to wash and detail cars? How much does it cost you to pay someone hourly to do that job vs. hiring a car washing company to come in once a week? Would it be cost effective to hire a part-time mechanic, or would it be better to work out a deal with a local garage to bring all your cars there in exchange for a discounted rate. These are all questions to consider when looking at prepping your car for sale.

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June 13, 2014 - Written by

2 comments


  • […] it is in near perfect condition (think I’m kidding? see the pictures.)  We’ve already had an article giving an overview of prepping a car for sale. Today let’s get down to specifics. Let’s talk […]

  • […] far we’ve talked about some general rules for prepping a car for sale generally and gone into some specifics about consumable parts. Today […]

  • Car-Care says:

    The best way to get your interior looking good is by hiring or doing the detailing yourself, and only after that there is another vendor most people don’t realize who fix leather tears and rips along with adding a non-oily product that makes it shine like new! They dye carpets and seats, fix seat and carpet burns or rips, making the interior look brand new without reupholstering! They also do other various things like add plastic to the floor mats, paint truck tows and driving pedals back to their black original color if needed. They completely deodorize the interior using two different products that promise the car to stay smelling fresh and clean. Some do pin stripes and other varies things as well and charge per car! These vendors get over-looked and car dealerships think a detail department does all of this. They do not! This is my husbands job and I’ve watched him take an old dirty, smelling, stained car with tons of holes in the seats and floors and he make it look brand new again. What these vendors do is AMAZING!

    • My first job! From 14-17. Didn’t have anywhere near the skills of your husband though ;). What’s a ballpark cost per vehicle to take it from old to new, or even just an average across all jobs? Washbay dealer costs are min wage for workers, fixed costs with building and variable costs with supplies, water, etc.

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