When it’s time to turn in the old reliable runner you’ve driven for years in exchange for a nice, shiny new car, you’re going to want to get the best possible return on your investment. However, this return can’t be done retroactively. You really need to start thinking about the eventual resale value of your car before you buy it.
Buy a well-known make
First off, you need a car with recognizable marketability. If you’re looking at two similar vehicles from two different manufacturers and one is cheaper than the other, it might be a good idea to compare the resale values of the two makes. If you save something now, you might lose it all plus some more when it comes time to dispose of the car.
Don't wait too long to sell
Just about everyone knows that mileage is an important differentiator in the market, so try not to keep a vehicle too long unless you plan to run it into the ground. There are a few exceptions to this rule. Check out Toyotas and Hondas in the used car ads. They still command respectable prices even when flaunting large odometer numbers. This is perhaps less true of their upscale brethren in the Acura and Lexus camps (though they aren’t bad either), because luxury vehicles are more expensive to repair.
Check under the hood
Then there’s mechanical condition. A car that’s been serviced regularly and can demonstrate that it’s technically sound when test driven will be given priority over some rattly old wreck. In the same vein, a comprehensive record of maintenance and repair work is a great way to prove the careful and regular attention the car has enjoyed while in your possession.
Keep it clean
Never underestimate the effect of appearance. The first thing used-car lots do is spruce up the vehicle. They steam clean the engine bay, shampoo the carpets, wash and polish the paintwork, clean the seats and controls, and deodorize the interior. Nobody wants to buy a dirty, beaten up old hack, so try to keep the car’s appearance clean and shiny from the start. It’s easier than the remedial stuff you’ll need to do if it’s ratty looking at the end.
The interior is critical. Scuffed and dirty upholstery, stained carpets, sticky controls—these are a big turn off. A well maintained vehicle speaks for itself, and it helps suggest that the owner was a mature and responsible vehicle operator. The kind of person you would like to do business with.
Don't over-personalize it
There are other considerations for resale in the public marketplace. Pick a popular color. A purple car doesn’t appeal to many people. Avoid lurid aftermarket add-ons like louvers and sills and spoilers. Even aftermarket wheels can be a turnoff to someone for whom they suggest a boyracer former owner; a hooligan who liked to tear up the roads.
Finally, try to balance the deal you’re looking for. A sale to a private party is likely to net more money than you’ll get as a trade in. But the dealer may be keen to get the sale, and might throw in some options that make the deal comparable. You never know.
Bottom line: Look after your car and it will look after you (and your money).