Monday, July 20, 2015

Nobody Knows What Your Trade-in Is Really Worth

A lot of people think that all used cars have a specific value and they can learn this by looking it up in the “Blue Book” or some other used car wholesale book. Nothing could be further from the truth. The wholesale books that dealers use and those that are available online to consumers have varying degrees of accuracy, but you can’t rely on a book tell you the best price at which you can sell or trade in your car. The most accurate book is the Manheim Auto Guide because it’s based on the latest wholesale auctions nationwide and it’s updated weekly and daily online. The least accurate book is the NADA guide which relies solely on surveys sent to dealers. The dealers exaggerate the wholesale value of their make to make it easier to take in trades.

All of the wholesale books, except NADA, are based on prices of cars sold at auction. However, you must understand that those prices don’t give you an accurate price that you should expect for your trade. A car sells at an auction for the price offered by the highest bidder if the seller chooses to accept that bid. I often don’t sell my used cars to the highest bidder that week because I might get a much higher price the next week. Lots of things affect the level of prices at a car auction…the weather, holidays, bribing the auctioneer and bribing the buyers. On a cold, rainy day when few dealers show up to buy or sell cars, prices are lower as well as shortly before and after holidays. Sometimes it happens that a buyer “greases the palm“ of the auctioneer so that he “doesn’t hear” (fast gavel) the higher bid from another dealer who bids higher than the dealer who has let the auctioneer know the price at which he wants to buy the car. Sometimes the sellers pay the buyers cash under the table to bid an unrealistically high price for their car. A car doesn’t even have to go through the auction block for the owner to believe it was “sold at the auction”. Buyers and sellers can make a deal before it goes “through the block”…very cozy, only one bidder. Why would they do that? Often the buyers and sellers are employed by the dealer who actually owns the car. The used car manager or wholesale buyer employed by the dealer might pay $2,000 too much for a car if he can earn $500 cash in his pocket from the seller. His boss, the dealer, is never the wiser. Let me hasten to add that the Manheim auctions are very careful to police these kinds of shenanigans and never encourage them. However, as in every large organization (Manheim is the auto auction in the world), there are a few rotten apples.

OK, then if the books are wrong and the auctions are wrong, then surely the car dealer must know the value of my trade-in….WRONG AGAIN. I have a little “test” on used car appraisal knowledge that I administer to my sales managers from time to time. By the way, my managers are among the most knowledgeable and competent anywhere. This isn’t just my opinion but that of all of their peers in this market. My test goes like this. Without prior notice I randomly select a car from among the 100 or so that come into my service department each day. I ask each of my 8 mangers individually to appraise this car for what they think the current wholesale market value is. They keep their appraisal secret from the others and write it down on a piece of paper and hand it to me. I’ve been doing this for 30 or more years and I’ve never had a variance in appraisals of less than $3,000. Some have been greater than $10,000! The reason I do this is to remind all of my mangers of exactly what I’m explaining in this article….Nobody knows the exact value of a used car. That’s important to my managers because under appraising a used car can cost us a sale. Over appraising a used car can cost us a wholesale loss at the auto auction. Therefore we always check and recheck our appraisals and go so far as to call other dealers and even put cars on Ebay. Another good reason not to accept only one dealer’s appraisal is that dealers will often knowingly undervalue your trade-ink, especially if you’ve negotiated a very low price for your new car. The dealer vernacular for his is “stealing the trade”.

Now that we’ve established that nobody has any idea what your trade-in is worth, what does that mean to you? It means you should stop worrying about getting an accurate appraisal because there’s no such thing. However, what you should positively insist on is getting the highest appraisal. In fact, you should hope that the guy who gave you the highest appraisal was very inaccurate and made a huge mistake that will cost his dealership a large wholesale loss at the auction. You accomplish this by never accepting only the appraisal by the car dealer from whom you’re buying your next car. Before you allow him to appraise your car, you should get at least two other bids from dealers of the make of car you are buying. For example, a Ford dealer will usually appraise a Ford for more than a Honda dealer because more people wanting to buy a used Ford will shop the larger selection at a Ford dealer. Deal directly with the used car department at these other dealerships. Tell the used car manager that you need to sell your car for cash and that you’re getting two more bids from two other dealers. If you have the time to get more than two more bids it’s even better. Another good place to get a bid on your used car is from CarMax, the largest retailer of used cars in the world. They buy lots of cars directly from owners even when they don’t buy a car from CarMax. Their prices are sometimes higher than dealers will offer you.

After you determine the highest bidder, if it’s not the dealer from whom you’re buying, give him the right of last refusal. If he can match the price from his competitor, you save the sales tax on the price of your trade.


  1. I don't know if this went through so I will retype from memory... I'm curious about something, Earl. I've read your article about Carmax (which I found in researching to decide if I wanted to take my car there) and now this article. How much should I try/expect to get for my 2015 Nissan Versa SV with 5,300 miles? I'm looking to pay off my loan and take out a smaller to equal sized loan for a 1970-1994 Corvette. Also, which Corvettes would you recommend and how much should I expect to pay for said car in good condition?

    1. Hi Shawn,

      It is the opinion of my Used Car Manager that your 2015 Versa SV with 5,300 is worth approx. $11500 with an Automatic transmission. The Average Manheim Auction price for your vehicle is $11,150. I would definitely recommend bringing the Versa to Carmax, another auto buying service and possible a dealership in order to compare numbers. The Corvette had quite a few changes between 1970 and 1994 but I will try and help you narrow down your choices. Your first choice will be body style. The Stingray body was introduced in 1968 and carried through 1982. The C4 body style was introduced in 1984 and carried through 1996. The Stingray (C3) body style corvettes appear to be significantly more expensive than the C4 body. Another question is how important is performance to you? After 1971 the horsepower was drastically reduced in these vehicles. In 1975 Catalytic Converters were used on the Corvettes and the horsepower dropped to 165. The 4 + 3 manual transmissions that were used from 1984 to 1988 are known to have problems. There is a lot of information out there on these Corvettes. If you haven’t already done so you should take a look at Wikipedia for more information on these changes There are some Corvette sights out there that have vehicles for listed for sale. One example is Of course the prices are always dependent on Condition.

  2. Mr. Stewart, thank you for your valuable insights. I am interested in purchasing a used Maserati Quattroporte in the 2005-2006 Years. I have found 3 candidates so far; a 2006 one owner with nearly 100,000 miles at a marginal dealership which bought it at auction(prelim inspection shows significant money/ work might need to be put into this one. Price is 14,000. Second car at High end Independent dealership- car is local trade in with very well documented maintenance history,superficially seems in great shape and has many extra options , Executive GT, 2 owners;mileage 51,000,Price is 19,000. The third and last one, also 2 owners, local at the local Maserati dealership with 40,000 miles for 20,000 $. As the PPI is around 400.$, have not decided which one to inspect or if to inspect all. I am well aware of the very expensive maintenance repairs of this vehicle(F1 transmission,pump,suspension). The plan is to finance 80 percent of the cost over 4 yrs and keep a substantial reserve for repairs.??? Which would be the better choice and how much should be the Maximum to pay ? (Mannheim, KBB,NADA). Thank you for your time and interest.

    1. David, thanks for reading my blog column and for the compliments. I consider myself an "expert on cars", but to be honest, I'm no expert on exotic cars. I will say that you've done a great job of finding and researching the Maserati's you're interested in. Obviously one of the challenges in establishing the value of a Maserati Quattroporte is the scarcity. With very few buyers for even fewer cars, the prices will vary considerably. The only advice I can give you is to be sure your mechanic or one you trust carefully checks the car. I know you've probably already checked CarFax or AutoCheck. I would place more emphasis on being sure the car is pristine inside and out than on price. It's like buying a rare painting...even if you overpay a little, 5 years from now it will be worth more IF THE PAINTING IS GENUINE AS REPRESENTED.


Earl Stewart On Cars welcomes comments from everyone - supporters and critics alike. We'd like to keep the language and content "PG Rated" so please refrain from vulgarity and inappropriate language. We will delete any comment that violates these guidelines. Oh yeah - one more thing: no commercials! Other than that, comment-away!