A third-party appraisal is one that starts on a non-dealership website. In some cases, you'll need to bring the vehicle to a participating dealership to complete the transaction. These appraisals are quick and often give you an upfront price. But they are highly dependent on the honesty of the seller in disclosing the condition level. The dealership will still have to inspect the vehicle to make sure it matches up with the report, and if it doesn't, the price will be adjusted accordingly. In other words, be honest about your car's condition. Read the condition descriptions carefully, and if your car has been in an accident, make sure to note that in the form.
Here's a round-up of third-party trade-in alternatives for consumers, listed in alphabetical order:
Autotrader: Long known for used car classifieds, the Autotrader website now offers an "instant cash offer" via its partnership with Kelley Blue Book. Input a few details about the car online and then a few minutes later you'll get an estimated value. These offers are free and good for three days at participating dealerships, which will either give you a check for your car or apply the value toward the purchase of a new car. You'll have to give your contact information to get the offer, which means you'll likely get a few calls and emails from dealers interested in buying your vehicle.
As we previously noted, make sure you answer the questions about the car's condition level honestly because the offer is subject to change when the dealership sees the car. While it is nice to get an instant offer, the "instant" part only applies to the email you get — it can take longer at the dealership than a typical trade-in appraisal. There's more time involved because the dealership will conduct its inspection and then has to input its findings in the Autotrader tool to verify the figures.
CarMax: This used car superstore has over 215 stores around the country and promises to pay for your car "even if you don't buy ours." Edmunds has used this service many times when selling long-term test cars, and we've often been pleased with the service and prices CarMax offered. Sometimes the used car chain offered us less than we expected, but it at least gave us a guaranteed backup plan and we could decide whether it was worth our time to try to improve on the offer. As one CarMax salesman once told us, "Our checks don't bounce."
For now, the free inspection has to be done in-store, and we recommend making an appointment. The inspection itself takes about 30 minutes and the trade-in offer is good for seven days. Some customers have found that the best way to dispose of their old cars is to negotiate a deal for a new car elsewhere, then sell their old one to CarMax, where the prices can be better than at a traditional dealership.
Edmunds: A new feature on Edmunds lets sellers generate an instant cash offer for their used cars online. You can get a confirmed offer for your car in minutes by providing your VIN or license plate number and answering a few basic questions. It's free, no vehicle photos are needed, and the best part is you don't have to provide any personal information to get the offer. The offer can be redeemed at participating dealerships and is good for seven days — four days longer than Autotrader's offer. Follow this link to learn more.
The Edmunds instant offer gives you a zero-pressure way to determine your vehicle's value and get an actual price for it. You then have the freedom to choose to redeem the offer quickly for convenience or use it as a baseline to improve upon in a private sale. Another effective strategy is to get the Edmunds estimate and list the vehicle for about $1,000 over the offer on a free online classified site such as Facebook Marketplace. If the vehicle doesn't sell in six days, you can still redeem the Edmunds offer at a participating dealership before it expires.
As with most of these offers, your vehicle's condition will need to be verified by the dealership, but the ones we've partnered with are experts and should take roughly 30 minutes to evaluate your vehicle provided you have an appointment.
Kelley Blue Book: Similar to Edmunds, Kelley Blue Book or KBB offers new and used car pricing information and offers a free "instant cash offer." It is the same as the Autotrader offering, which means that the price is good for three days and needs to be verified at the dealership. You'll also need to input your contact information, so be prepared to field a few calls from the dealership.