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Selling your own car during the pandemic: What you need to know

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Selling a car is usually a trade-off between maximizing the money you get and maintaining personal safety. A pandemic like COVID-19 adds to those concerns.

Your two main choices are to trade your car in to a dealer or sell it yourself to a private party. A dealer typically pays less for a trade-in than a private-party buyer does.

But the risk of encountering criminal activity is more probable when dealing with private parties—for example, strangers, that is—than with established dealerships. And providing test-drives to potential buyers isn’t exactly conducive to maintaining social distance.

Not to worry—there are several options for disposing of your old car, some of which are better for your fiscal and physical health. Here’s a quick look:

1. Sell your car directly to a private party

Newspaper classified ads used to be the favored venue. Today, selling a car on Craigslist or other online sites, such as Autotrader, Facebook Marketplace, and Offer Up, is how it’s done. The cost is minimal.

But beware: It takes time and effort to field responses, show your car, handle paperwork, and arrange for payment. You’ll have to deal face-to-face with strangers—risky business in the coronavirus era. You must avoid shenanigans such as fake checks, phony escrow services, or a buyer who neglects to register the car in his or her name and is later involved in an accident.

2. Give your car away

If you can afford to, give the car to your driving-age kid or a friend. Or donate it to a worthy cause. Many charities will pick up the car, roadworthy or not, and handle the transaction with minimal contact and effort on your part. You might also get a tax deduction.

3. Auction your car

Most live auctions are for high-end classic cars, but some include affordable daily drivers, too. Do an Internet search under “live auto auctions.” You’ll typically pay an entry fee plus a commission if the car sells.

As for online auctions, the 800-pound gorilla is eBay Motors, which gives your car nationwide exposure for as little as $25. The trouble is, a winning bidder can back out without penalty. At online classic-car auctioneer Bring a Trailer, the winner must pay a 5 percent bidder’s fee, which discourages unserious buyers. Sellers pay as little as $99, whether the car sells or not.

4. Consign your car

An advantage of using a consignment dealer instead of selling to a private party is that consignment dealers sometimes accept trade-ins from prospective buyers and offer them financing and warranties.

5. Sell your car to a dealer

Apart from donating your car, this is the easiest and quickest option—and you won’t have to contend with possible virus-shedding strangers test-driving your car.

Plenty of dealers, from CarMax to Carvana, will write you a check on the spot even if you’re not buying a car from them. But don’t expect a high price, because dealers usually shoulder the costs of obtaining a smog certificate, repairing safety components, and otherwise making the car retail-ready.

A couple of caveats before selling your car...

  • If your car’s title isn’t clear—that is, if there’s still a loan on it—most private-party buyers won’t want the hassle of dealing with your lender. 
  • If your car is such a clunker that it can’t pass a smog check, your only options may be donating it or selling to a dealer—if one will take it.

AAA Automotive Correspondent Peter Bohr has been writing about cars for more than four decades.

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