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How to Sell Your Car in a Private-Party Transaction

Are you in the market for a new or used car? You might want to get rid of your old one first.

It’s nice to have a backup ride in the driveway. But older cars are notorious money pits: registration renewal fees, wheelage taxes, loan payments, and routine maintenance all add up, not to mention increasingly burdensome outlays for unexpected repairs. At some point, you’re throwing good money after bad.

When that point comes, it’s time to sell. But how you sell your car makes all the difference. Compared with dealer trade-ins, private-party sales almost always result in a higher net sales price. But it’s easy to leave money on the table unless you take pains to earn more.

How to Sell Your Car Privately and Earn More

Selling your car is an excellent way to raise extra cash. But how you sell it makes all the difference. Compared with dealer trade-ins, private-party sales almost always result in a higher net sales price.

According to a 2014 Los Angeles Times article, a vehicle that used-car valuation service Kelley Blue Book estimated could go for around $14,500 on the private market would only garner about $13,000 from a dealer. That’s a difference of $1,500.

The gap is comparatively wider at the lower end of the market. My wife and I recently took a car worth $3,300 to $3,500 on the private market to dealerships in our area. Our highest trade-in offer: $1,800. We opted to nearly double our money and sell privately.

Selling your car privately isn’t a walk in the park. It’s much more labor-intensive than trading it in at the dealership. But it’s likely to pay off financially if you follow these steps to get the maximum return on your used car.

1. Prepare Your Car for Sale

Before you list your vehicle for sale, you need to know what you’re working with. Then, you need to get it ready for its close-up.

Assess Your Car’s Condition

First things first: Assess your car’s general condition. Take it to a trusted mechanic for a thorough inspection. You’ll likely have to pay extra for a thorough multipoint inspection — perhaps over $100. But it’s well worth the peace of mind.

Ask your mechanic to check any systems or components you’re particularly worried about. For instance, if the brakes are squeaky, ask the mechanic to inspect them.

Weigh the results of this assessment objectively. An honest mechanic shouldn’t be too aggressive in diagnosing potential problems, but ask directly which problems are serious and which you can fix later.

Some potentially serious (and costly) problems include:

  • Brake troubles (disc and hydraulic issues are more expensive than worn pads)
  • Suspension problems
  • Transmission issues
  • Emissions system failures
  • Electrical issues
  • Electronic problems (more common in newer cars)
  • Engine problems

With the exception of electronic problems, these issues are more likely to occur in older, higher-mileage, and seldomly driven vehicles. A 20-year-old car under a tarp in your yard is probably going to be more problematic than the three-year-old commuter car you drive to work each day.

If the pressing problems are numerous, costly, or both, think carefully about your plan to sell your car on the private market.

You have two options: Pay out of pocket to make the fixes before you sell or list your car in shaky mechanical condition and prepare to accept a lower selling price. In both cases, you must accept lower net earnings from the sale.

When you know you’re going to get less, it’s natural to ask whether it’s worthwhile to go through the hassle of a private-party sale at all.

This question turns on a simple mathematical calculation: Will you earn more selling your problematic car to a private buyer or trading it in?

Take your vehicle to two or three local dealers to get a sense of what it’s worth on the trade-in market. Then, visit at least one other mechanic for a repair quote.

Cut your losses and trade the vehicle in if:

  • The out-of-pocket cost of repairs would push your likely net earnings below what you’d make on the trade-in
  • The vehicle’s fair private-party value without repairs is lower than its trade-in value without repairs
  • You need to sell fast, and you can’t wait to make repairs or work through the private sale process

If the private-party value is close to the trade-in value or a wash, the meager extra earnings might not be worth the hassle of selling the car yourself, but that’s more of a judgment call.

If repair costs don’t wipe out the difference between your expected private-party earnings and the vehicle’s trade-in value, stick with the plan to sell to another individual.

Get Your Car Ready

Once you’ve checked out the car and decided to sell it privately, use this checklist to get it ready to list.

Your exact presale to-do list depends on your car’s overall condition and the type of buyer you’re hoping to attract. But overall, it involves making it attractive to buyers.

1. Run a Carfax Report

Before doing anything else, run a Carfax report on your car. A single report is well worth the $40 price tag.

It shows key details buyers want to know, including odometer readings, accident history, repair and service history, number of previous owners, and prior uses (which can identify former taxis or police cars, for example).

Review your report for inaccuracies, such as an accident or repair you don’t recognize, and correct them before listing your car for sale. Mention the report in your ad listings, as many buyers will appreciate the courtesy.

2. Get a Copy of Your Title

If you own your car free and clear, you should have a copy of your title on hand. If you don’t, order one from your state’s motor vehicle registry (you may be able to do this online).

If you’re still paying off your car’s financing, it’s best to pay off the loan before listing the car for sale. Even if your lender agrees to transfer the lien to the new buyer, most buyers are understandably reluctant to do so when so many used cars are available with clear titles.

3. Take Everything Out of the Interior and Trunk

Unless you use your old car to drive for a ridesharing app like Uber or Lyft, its interior is probably less tidy than you’d like.

Go through the cabin, including hidden places like the glove box and seatback pouches, and remove everything that isn’t tied down. Yes, even the manual.

If you plan to drive the car again before you sell it, leave only its registration documents, proof of insurance, and anything essential for daily operation (such as a GPS device).

4. Thoroughly Clean Soft Interior Surfaces

Next, deep-clean the upholstery. Beat and vacuum floor mats. Vacuum the car’s flooring and upholstery, including seams and spaces under the seats.

Use soap and water and a gentle brush to remove upholstery stains. Attack tougher stains with a special carpet or upholstery cleaner (around $10 per bottle).

5. Thoroughly Clean Hard Interior Surfaces

Wipe down hard surfaces with a wet, soapy rag, taking special care to remove ground-in dirt. Use glass cleaner on both sides of every window (inside and out).

If you don’t have the time or patience to do all this on your own, splurge on an auto detailing package, which includes the upholstery and flooring in addition to a thorough exterior work-over.

Depending on options, the packages cost anywhere from about $115 to $215 in the U.S., according to Mobile Tech RX.

6. Change the Oil

Next up, change the oil, even if the car isn’t due for a change.

To find discounted basic oil changes in your area, search for “oil change prices near me” and check out the paid offers at the top of the search results page.

You should see dealerships, repair shops, and rapid oil-change chains offering conventional oil changes priced between $15 and $30 after discounts. (Expect some upselling at the shop, but hold firm, and you can walk out without paying more.)

Synthetic oil changes cost more — $65 to $125, according to KBB.

7. Consider a Coolant Flush or Winterization Package

Price out a coolant flush or winterization package, especially if you live in a very cold or hot climate. Expect to pay $100 for one of those, depending on options, according to RepairPal.

8. Top Off All Accessible Fluids

Even if you don’t change the oil, top it off to the upper end of the normal range. Do the same with your windshield wiper fluid, coolant (antifreeze), and brake fluid.

You can find all these fluids at your local auto parts store or the automotive section of your go-to warehouse club or big-box discount store.

Wiper fluid costs as little as $2 or $3 per gallon, engine oil and brake fluid as little as $3 to $5 per quart, and coolant as little as $5 to $10 per gallon.

9. Neutralize Interior Odors

Noticeable odors turn off prospective buyers, adversely impacting demand, time to sale, and final selling price.

If bad smells persist after a thorough cleaning, liberally sprinkle baking soda on every porous surface. Rub it in thoroughly, roll up the windows, and let the car sit for a few hours. Then, vacuum everything up.

If that doesn’t do the trick, invest in an odor neutralizer spray ($10 to $20 per bottle, depending on size and brand). Don’t bother with air freshener spray or hanging air fresheners — though cheaper, they’re only suitable for masking odors temporarily.

10. Gather Maintenance Records and Receipts

Gather all service and maintenance receipts and work orders, preferably itemized, and place them in a folder.

Go as far back in time as you can — the goal here is to show skittish buyers you’ve been taking good care of your car for as long as you’ve had it in your possession. Be ready to hand the receipts (or copies) over to prospective buyers upon request.

If you haven’t been keeping records, make a point to start with your next car. The increased buyer interest and higher selling price more than make up for the inconvenience.

11. Return All Manuals and Other Informational Material to the Car

Return the car’s owners manual and any other relevant informational material to the cabin before you list. The buyer will want them.

12. Go Through the Car Wash

Take your vehicle through the car wash. Price out an add-on buff and shine package, which should cost about as much as a synthetic oil change. It’s not worth it for everyday tooling around, but it can make all the difference when you’re trying to sell.


2. List Your Car for Maximum Exposure

Now that your car is ready to list for sale, you need to create and promote a killer ad.

Create a Compelling Listing

Your listing’s format and content will vary by medium. The print classified version will look very different from the eBay Motors version, and that’s OK. But to prepare an effective advertisement, you need to cover all your bases.

Follow these steps before writing any listing for your vehicle.

1. Take Lots of Exterior Photos

Most online classifieds and car marketplaces have gallery features with ample storage space. Take full advantage by snapping loads of exterior photos — at least eight — from various angles.

Zoom in on any exterior features you want to highlight, such as fancy headlights, aftermarket rims, and spoilers. Also zoom in on dents, scratches, and other areas of body damage a keen-eyed buyer is likely to notice anyway.

Use a photo-editing tool that lets you blur out your license plate.

2. Snap a Few Interior Shots

You don’t have to go overboard with interior photos, but you definitely want to create a sense of the space (and show off how nicely you’ve cleaned it up).

Focus on noteworthy features, such as leather upholstery and in-cabin entertainment.

3. Set a Price

Use the results of your mechanic’s checkup to determine your car’s overall condition (honestly).

Reputable car valuation services like Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds can help you arrive at a fair private-party value. It takes at least 10 to 15 minutes to provide a comprehensive overview of your car’s features and options, some of which you won’t know off the top of your head.

To arrive at the final value of your car, you need the vehicle identification number, or VIN, which should be visible inside the driver’s side door or through the driver’s side windshield on the dash.

You don’t need to set your car’s initial selling price at the price the valuation service gives you, especially if you’re trying to sell fast or get the best price, but it’s a reasonable starting point.

4. Decide What to Highlight

Put yourself in the buyer’s shoes. What features stand out? What attributes appeal to you? What’s the car’s ideal use case? Why is this the right car for this particular moment in time? Make sure those answers end up in your ad.

For example, if gas is expensive at the moment, play up the car’s excellent mileage. If its trunk is roomier than average for its category, highlight all the storage possibilities. If you’ve just made a big investment in repairs, mention those (without implying that the car is in bad shape).

5. Draft a Template Ad

Draft a template ad that includes all these selling points in brief, compelling language.

Include a phrase or sentence that underscores a specific use case: “great commuter car,” or “perfect for active families.” Work in the more mundane attributes too, like transmission type and mileage.

Most online marketplaces have sophisticated listing templates that incorporate features and options outside the body text. But you’ll need this language to list your car on Craigslist and for print classifieds.

6. Customize Accordingly

Customize your listing’s language according to the ad type. You have different options for print ads than Craigslist or social media. Evaluate the available options to focus on the best features to push for that ad type.

7. Buy a For-Sale Sign

Don’t forget to buy a for-sale sign to place in your car’s window. Standard 9-inch-by-12-inch signs cost as little as $4 on Amazon and may cost even less at your local home improvement or hardware store.

Either way, that’s a bargain to tell the world your ride is for sale.

8. Time Your Entry

If you need to sell your car ASAP, ignore this step. If you can wait to part with your vehicle, time your entry to maximize the likelihood of a quick, favorably priced sale.

According to iSeeCars data analyzed by Insider, used cars tend to sell at lower-than-average prices from November through March, with January and February the most bargain-rich months.

Since what’s good for buyers isn’t as good for sellers, wait until pricing power is on your side in April through October.

This is doubly true for certain types of cars — trying to sell a convertible when there’s snow on the ground is a fool’s errand. Wait until summer to list specialty rides.

Where to Advertise

There’s no shortage of places to list a used car for sale, but these are among the most common and effective. Depending on the type of car you’re selling and the type of buyer you’re looking for, some might not be appropriate for your purposes.

Free or Low-Cost Online Classifieds

There’s no shortage of reputable places to list cars for sale online. Craigslist and CarGurus offer listing arrangements friendly to individual sellers, including free listings for private parties (dealers generally have to pay fees for listing).

Craigslist is a barebones classifieds site that’s perfect for the lower end of the used-car market. A well-priced vehicle is likely to attract interest on Craigslist, regardless of condition.

Sites like CarGurus are a little more hands-on. A basic CarGurus listing costs about $5. It includes useful features like an automated vehicle valuation (CarGurus Instant Market Value) that helps you price your car fairly and buyer ID verification that can reduce your risk of being scammed.

For about $20 more, you can turn your listing into a featured listing, which sticks near the top of local CarGurus vehicles for sale for 14 days.

CarGurus is ideal for sellers of low-range to midrange cars looking to cast a wide net. But realistically, you’re only likely to attract buyers in your immediate geographic area.

No matter how or where you list, remember to specify your preferred mode of contact: email, call, text, or something else. Mention your active hours while you’re at it. The last thing you want is random prospects calling you out of the blue late at night.

Social Media

Unless you want to pay to promote your ad, which isn’t practical for run-of-the-mill private-party transactions, social media is also free.

If you don’t want strangers to see you’re selling a car, don’t post publicly: Share a Facebook post only within your friends network or send a quick snap to Snapchat followers you know well.

Social media works best as a supplement to other listing options. Use it to boost your Craigslist or CarGurus ad’s visibility, for instance.

Local Media Classifieds

Place a short classified ad with local newspapers and community magazines. Most local print publications also post classifieds online, so this option caters to more than just the people who read the paper while your ad’s running.

Print classified pricing is complicated, but the most significant determinant is the publication’s circulation. More readers mean more eyeballs on your ad, and publishers charge accordingly.

Space, measured in column inches, is another crucial variable. The smaller your ad, the less you pay. When every word quite literally counts, you need to be as sparse with your prose as possible.

Flip to your local paper’s classifieds section to get a sense of how this looks in practice. Note useful abbreviations — they can come in handy.

Online Marketplaces

Online marketplaces, such as Autotrader (affiliated with Kelley Blue Book) and eBay Motors, are higher-end versions of online classified options. They’re ideal for used cars at any price point, save for super-specialized models.

In theory, these online marketplaces charge you a premium to draw more traffic and serious buyer interest to your listing. In practice, their quality and value vary widely.

For instance, Autotrader’s basic listing option unquestionably delivers less value than CarGurus’ basic option, which costs 10 times less. But eBay Motors, which has more versatile and value-rich ads than Autotrader, charges low-volume sellers as little as $25 per listing.

Sign in the Window

Another low-cost listing option is still going strong in the digital age: the old-fashioned sign in the car window. Turning your car into a moving ad for itself is an excellent way to draw casual — and perhaps serious — interest in the vehicle.

I found plain-vanilla for-sale signs on Amazon for around $4. You might pay even less at your local hardware store. To put your sign to work, write your phone number, email address, and the car’s price (optional) in black marker. Then, wait for buyers to come to you.


3. Deal With Potential Buyers

A well-crafted, high-visibility ad should attract interest in short order. But there are a few things you need to know about vetting, communicating with, and meeting prospective buyers.

How to Communicate With Prospective Buyers (and Avoid Scams)

These days, it’s more common for potential buyers to email or text sellers than call them. Respond to each buyer’s initial outreach at your convenience, preferably in written form (text or email) so there’s a record of your communications.

During the initial exchange, ask the buyer:

Are You Licensed to Drive in the United States?

This is obviously a must. Depending on the laws in your home state, you could face fines or even jail time if you’re caught allowing an unlicensed driver to operate your car. Your car insurance premiums could increase as a result of the incident too.

If the buyer is licensed but doesn’t have valid car insurance, check with your insurer before allowing them behind the wheel. Many insurance companies are OK with policyholders supervising uninsured drivers, but you shouldn’t assume yours is.

What Kind of Car Are You Looking For?

You don’t have to ask the buyer why they’re interested in your car, and they certainly don’t have to tell you, but you should ask what they’re looking for in general terms.

It’s possible they’re not experienced enough to know they’re not interested in the right vehicle or they’ve misunderstood something important in your listing’s content.

Are You Buying for Yourself or Someone Else?

Be wary of inquiries from representatives of purported buyers, especially when the relationship isn’t as clear as, for example, the parent of a teen driver.

Think twice about moving ahead with the transaction if the representative doesn’t allow you to speak with the purported buyer. The buyer might not exist and could be a pretext for a scam or robbery.

How Soon Are You Looking to Buy?

If you aren’t able to part with your car right away, such as those who are still looking for a new vehicle, don’t sell to someone who isn’t willing to wait until then.

Likewise, if you want to sell sooner rather than later, don’t offer to hold the vehicle for a buyer who isn’t ready to pull the trigger — especially if other would-be buyers have shown interest.

Will You Need a Loan?

Loan underwriting takes time, particularly for buyers with bad or questionable credit. It also involves a third party (the lender) who may decide not to issue the loan at the last minute.

Since they can theoretically come up with the money at any time and don’t need loan approval, cash buyers are preferable to borrowers.

Can You Meet in Person?

This is another must. One of the oldest and most common Craigslist scams involves “car buyers” (scammers) who are purportedly based overseas due to work or military service.

These anonymous folks typically insist on paying for the car by wire transfer, then having a local intermediary pick it up. By the time you realize the wire transfer is phony, it’s too late — you’ve parted with your car.

How Will You Pay?

Get them on the record about their preferred payment method. If they try to change the terms of the deal at the last minute, you’ll have them on record stating otherwise.

How to Meet With Prospective Buyers (and Stay Safe)

Finding a used-car buyer willing to make an offer without taking a test drive is only slightly more likely than stumbling across a unicorn on a hike through the woods.

The idea of inviting a stranger behind the wheel is a deeply uncomfortable one for many people. And rightly so — it’s the most vulnerable part of the selling process.

But since you won’t get an offer otherwise, you must take reasonable steps to protect your physical safety and personal finances before, during, and after it’s happening. Use this checklist as a guide and take additional precautions as necessary:

  • Take Valuables and Personal Items Out of the Car. Don’t be an easy target for crimes of opportunity. Take valuables and personal possessions out of the car’s cabin and trunk before you meet your first prospect.
  • Meet in a Busy Public Place. Always meet in public places, like a busy grocery store or shopping mall parking lot with plenty of traffic and good sightlines. Just be sure to avoid areas where you’ll impede traffic flow, which could draw the attention of law enforcement or private security and cause more problems.
  • Travel Light. Leave extra cash and credit cards at home. You don’t need them, and you’ll avoid a hefty loss if things do go south with the prospect.
  • Bring Backup. Don’t go to the meeting alone. Take someone you trust — a friend, relative, or your significant other — to lend a second pair of eyes in case anything seems amiss. Crimes of opportunity are much less likely with multiple sellers involved too.
  • Tell Someone Where You’ll Be. Tell another person — not your test drive companion — where and when you plan to meet your potential buyer. Share the expected test drive route with them, if possible.
  • Take and Confirm the Prospective Buyer’s Personal Details. Before the test drive, take a picture of the buyer’s driver’s license, make sure it’s valid (checking with your state’s DMV), and make sure it actually belongs to the buyer. You should also ensure the license isn’t expired before letting the would-be buyer take the wheel.
  • Only Allow One Driver. Avoid allowing multiple strangers into the car at once. In fact, test drive with only one driver at a time, preferably the individual you’ve been communicating with the whole time (after confirming their identity from their driver’s license). If the “buyer” pulls a bait-and-switch at your first meeting, something funny could be brewing, and you should walk away from the deal.
  • Limit Time Behind the Wheel. Don’t let your prospect linger at the wheel. Set a time limit for the test drive — say, 30 minutes. You don’t have to tell the potential buyer you’re limiting the drive. Just stick to a prescribed route that incorporates a range of speeds and driving situations.
  • Arrange a Follow-Up. If the buyer is still interested after the drive, hash out your next steps: when you’ll touch base again and to what end. A serious buyer may want to negotiate a selling price at this point as well. You can respond to that as you see fit, but don’t consummate the sale yet.
  • Trust Your Gut. Keep your wits about you at all times and trust your intuition. Selling your car a little faster isn’t worth compromising your physical or financial security. And if you feel yourself getting cold feet about letting strangers test drive your car, you may want to rethink your decision to sell privately. Concern for your personal safety is a valid reason to delegate private buyer communication to a dealer and accept a bit less in return.

4. Complete the Transaction

Sooner or later, those tire-kickers are going to bite. But there’s still a lot to do once the offers start rolling in.

Negotiate a Final Sale Price

It’s your right to set a firm selling price and rebuff any attempts to negotiate a better deal. But that won’t help you sell your car quickly. To get rid of your old ride faster, you need to be willing to accept less than your first asking price.

Once you’ve decided to negotiate, the trick is setting a bottom dollar — the absolute lowest you’ll accept for the car.

Your bottom dollar depends on factors including the asking price, fair market value, buyer demand, and your motivation level and sense of urgency. Your bottom dollar shouldn’t be too far below the car’s fair market value, adjusted for condition.

Don’t let sellers push you below your bottom dollar. Some would-be buyers negotiate more aggressively than others, and you have to know when you’re getting pushed around — and when it’s better to walk away.

One way to avoid getting suckered is to set your asking price higher than it should be and above what you’re willing to accept. Depending on the vehicle’s sale price, that buffer might be anywhere from $100 to $1,000 or more.

Getting Paid and Transfer of Ownership

Completing the sale of a used car is typically much more straightforward than closing on a house. But you still need to tick the necessary boxes. Follow these steps to finalize the sale.

1. Set Up a Time to Meet With the Buyer

If you haven’t done so already, arrange a mutually convenient time and location to meet with the buyer.

The fact that you’re about to sell a car to them doesn’t make this person your friend, so follow the same safety precautions as at previous meetings with prospective buyers: meet in public, tell someone where you’re going, and bring a friend.

2. Confirm Payment

At the meeting’s outset, confirm that the buyer has payment in the correct (negotiated) amount and method.

Think twice before accepting a personal check, especially an out-of-town check. A bank-certified instrument like a cashier’s check or money’s order is infinitely less likely to bounce.

If the buyer insists on paying with a personal check, insist on holding the car until it clears. Walk away from the transaction if they refuse.

3. Prepare the Title for Transfer

Procedures for title transfer, popularly known as “signing over title,” vary by jurisdiction.

Before you meet the buyer, complete the seller section on the reverse side of your motor vehicle title. Don’t sign it until you’ve received payment — if you do and the title falls into the wrong hands, someone could sign your car over to themselves without compensating you.

4. Go to the Motor Vehicle Registry (Department of Motor Vehicles).

While not mandatory, visiting the closest motor vehicle registry with the buyer to formally sign over the title can save a lot of grief down the line. The idea here is to ensure that the buyer completes the transfer and doesn’t leave you hanging liability-wise.

Check with your local motor vehicle registry or secretary of state to learn what the law requires of buyers and sellers in your area.

5. Deposit Your Payment

Deposit your payment as soon as possible. If you’re carrying a bank check from the buyer, it’s highly unlikely to bounce, as banks honor those in all but the rarest of circumstances — even if the buyer tries to stop payment.

6. Notify the Appropriate State Authorities

Separately from the title transfer and somewhat redundantly, you must notify your state motor vehicle registry or secretary of state that you no longer legally own the car.

This step also varies by jurisdiction, but in most cases, you simply need to fill out a form with the DMV that identifies the new owner. Most state motor vehicle registries let you do so online — my home state, Minnesota, has a super-simple form that takes all of two minutes to complete.

Check with your local motor vehicle registry.

7. Notify Your Insurance Company

Don’t forget to tell your insurance company you’ve sold your car. Taking the vehicle off your policy will immediately lower your premiums and add new flexibility to your monthly budget.

If you prepay your policy, you’ll likely get a prorated reduction on your next payment.


Final Word

Selling your car in a private transaction should net you more than trading it in. But not always. There’s no guarantee you can sell your car at all — and certainly not for what you (or automated car valuation algorithms) think it’s worth.

If you’re having trouble selling your vehicle or getting a reasonable value for it, look into donating it to charity instead. It could net you a nice income tax deduction, even if the vehicle is in rough shape — even if it won’t start.

And if your car isn’t a junker? You’re liable to net an even bigger tax deduction. It might not reduce your tax burden by the private-party price you thought it deserved, but something is better than nothing.

Brian Martucci
Brian Martucci writes about credit cards, banking, insurance, travel, and more. When he's not investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, you can find him exploring his favorite trails or sampling a new cuisine. Reach him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.

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