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Give Your Used Car Curb Appeal

(updated February 2nd, 2010)

When people come to look at your used car, they will probably make up their minds whether to buy it within the initial few seconds. Since this decision is based on first impressions, you want your car to have "curb appeal." Say a potential buyer is coming to look at your used car in an hour. What can you do between now and then to boost the selling price of your car and ensure a quick sale?

Sellers often think they have to have their car detailed. But that can cost more than $100 and take hours. You can deliver most of the impact of a professional detailing job at a fraction of the time and cost. Here's a triage of tweaks, fixes and cleaning tricks.

If you have a scratch in a very visible place, like right by the driver's door handle, you should try to touch it up before showing it to a potential buyer.

If you have a scratch in a very visible place, like right by the driver's door handle, you should try to touch it up before showing it to a potential buyer.

Wash your car
For expediency's sake, run your car through a coin-operated car wash. Use the foaming brush to scrub off dirt and make absolutely sure to use a spot-free rinse so there are no drying marks left on the paint. If you want to make it look even better, dry all the glass surfaces, especially the windshield. You can also use a spray detailer such as Meguiar's Supreme Shine Protectant to give it an extra shine.

Vacuum the interior
It's cheap, essential and will make a great impression when the prospect opens the driver-side door. Remember to vacuum the front and rear seats (get in all the cracks and cupholders) and also clean the trunk.

Wipe down the interior
You can use a damp rag or a product such as Ice Interior Care Wipes from Turtle Wax. These products will usually improve the interior smell of your car, too, but please, don't go too heavy on the air fresheners. Be especially sure to clean all those things around the driver seat that the buyer will see.

Get the junk out of the trunk
And more importantly, get all your personal items out of the car. You don't want the interior to look like an unmade bed, and you want the prospective buyer to picture the car as his or her own.

See Edmunds pricing data

Has Your Car's Value Changed?

Used car values are constantly changing. Edmunds lets you track your vehicle's value over time so you can decide when to sell or trade in.

Price history graph example

Clean the engine
Most modern cars have plastic covers over the engine. These surfaces gather grease and road dirt and can look pretty nasty. You can use a spray detailer or any cleaner. This is a good time to check the fluids too, such as oil and coolant levels.

Blacken the tires
Tire black or tire shine is sold by many car care companies. Cleaning off the brake dust and putting some kind of treatment on the tires will sharpen up the look of your car more than anything else you can do. And take a rag to the rims before you spruce up the tires. Especially with the front wheels, brake dust will coat surfaces that should be shiny.

Touch up glaring scratches
If there is an ugly scratch in a noticeable place, it might be easier to fix than you think. Sometimes, the scratch is only in the clearcoat, the protective outer paint layer that is basically clear plastic. If you get a clearcoat pen, you can make the scratch nearly invisible.

Give it the curb appeal test
Now, clear your mind and look at your used car with fresh eyes. What jumps out at you? Is there anything else that needs to be touched up or cleaned? Or does it look so good you are going to raise your asking price?

There are a number of other things you need to do to sell your car, including locating the title and having the service records ready to show the buyer. A complete description of the process can be found in "10 Steps to Selling Your Car." However, the items listed above are specifically for producing a positive first impression. After all, you want their very first thought when they see your car to be: "Nice!"