Should You Trade In Your Car or Sell It Yourself?

How to drive up the price with tune-ups and effective promotion.

Closeup view of blank red and white paper for sale sign in window of white car.
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For many car owners looking to sell their vehicle, a dealership is their first and last stop. But experts say those who are determined, patient and willing to take initiative can get a better offer by bypassing the dealership and selling their own automobile.

While selling a used car on your own can prove profitable, it can also be challenging. Here are tips from the pros on how to determine your car's retail value, highlight its best features and lock in a prospective buyer:

Pinpoint your asking price. Start with a website like KelleyBlueBook.com to get a rough estimate of how much your car is worth. Plug in as many details as possible, such as a built-in navigation system, CD player, premium sound and leather upholstery, since they may increase the value of your vehicle. The website will then estimate your car's private party value (a price KBB projects you can get in a sale from consumer to consumer). David Weliver, a former car salesman and publisher of the Money Under 30 blog, says although KBB puts a specific dollar value on a car's worth, it's best to use the calculation to figure out a range for the vehicle's retail value rather than making it your asking price.

To narrow down the range, compare your car to other vehicles of the same year and model with similar mileage. Check out websites such as AutoTrader.com, Craigslist.org and eBay.com/motors, which host thousands of advertisements for used cars from private parties. It can also help to get quotes from several local dealerships.

[Read Avoid These Car-Dealership Sales Tricks.]

Adam Goldfein, host of the TV show "AutoScoop" on CW69 in Atlanta, says sellers should generally stay within 5 percent of what they think is a fair asking price. Setting the price too high can make buyers automatically disregard your advertisement, while pricing the car too low can raise a red flag. "If everyone is selling your Honda model for $20,000 and you're asking for $16,000, I'd be skeptical," Goldfein says.

Take the time for a tune-up. Simply giving the car a wash and hanging a new air freshener won't cut it. Fixing low-maintenance items like worn brake pads, weathered tires and rusted rotors requires little time and shows buyers you take good care of the car. "People want ready-to-drive cars," Weliver says, "not something they have to take to the shop."

Joe Wiesenfelder, executive editor of cars.com, recommends removing all personal items, including political bumper stickers. "Do you want to sell to someone who has the same political views as you, or do you just want to sell the car?" Wiesenfelder says. Some decals can be hard to remove without damaging the paint, so it may be worth paying for a professional detailing, which starts around $100 and includes cleaning, waxing and polishing of both the interior and exterior.

It's also crucial to take your vehicle to a mechanic to make sure there are no major problems. Many consumers will want to have the car inspected anyway, so taking the initiative can save time and establish trust with the buyer. Present the buyer a copy of the mechanic's summary and, if possible, your vehicle's history report.

[Read: Is Your Car Worth Repairing?]

If you choose to commission repairs, pay close attention to the driver-side door, window and handle, as people see those parts before they take a test drive, says Phil Reed, senior consumer advice editor at Edmunds.com. While at the shop, you can ask your mechanic for recommendations on buyers; he or she may know if any customers are in the market for a used car. Some mechanics may even decide to buy the car from you, Wiesenfelder says, since they can fix it and then try to "flip it" for a profit.

Promote effectively. Consider advertising on AutoTrader, CraigsList and eBayMotors (the sites useful for preliminary research). Goldfein offers these recommendations on how to take high-quality photographs for your listing:

• Make sure nothing in the background matches the color of your car.