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Turn your piece of junk car into a pile of money

WE'VE all been through it. You drag the old clunkbucket into the dealership, only to find that the trade-in value isn't even a fistful of magic beans.

WE'VE all been through it.

You drag the old clunkbucket into the dealership, only to find that the trade-in value isn't even a fistful of magic beans. The used car Manager takes one look at your creaking, leaking, sagging hulk and smiles apologetically, "It's only worth a couple hundred bucks."

Gadzooks! The thieving scoundrels! Thar's gold in them thar rusty, faded-paint hills. Why, this car's been to Hell and back, and never issued a complaint, nor broken down, nor ever needed its oil changed. Er, wait, nobody heard that last part, right?

Well, maybe your car's not quite that bad, but when you measure the gap between retail and wholesale, it's always around or above the $2,000 mark, meaning the theoretical tax-savings don't begin to make financial sense until you're getting at least $15,000 as a trade-in value. Should your car be worth less than ten thousand bucks as a trade, you're better off selling it yourself, as long as you have the time and patience. Lots of patience.

So here's a brief guide to getting the most moolah out of oul' Betsy, when even the guys at the glue factory have turned up their noses and said, "No thanks!" Step 1: Assessing the market

Now, it's no good just pasting a "4 Sale 10 thou dollers" (sic) sign on your 1991 Ford Tempo with 300,000 kilometres and a crafted-from-duct-tape rear window. When one is hocking a jalopy on the used market, one must dip one's toe in the water to find out what the true value is. In other words, you need to know your competition.

One way to get a quick sense of things is to check out prices in your local newspaper and online to see what similar cars are going for in your area. Yes, your car may have a rare antique hula-girl glued to the dashboard and macrame headrests, but it's probably not going to fetch more than the similar-condition car down the road.

It's not a bad idea to use manufacturer websites here as well. Many companies have links on their websites that allow you to enter the pertinent details (mileage, year, model, options, ironic bumper stickers) and then spit out your car's wholesale value, based on the Canadian Black Book.

A warning here: while the Black Book is a useful tool, it can be high or low by hundreds if not thousands of dollars. What's more, at this end of the country, used cars are often worth considerably more than East of the Rockies. Without exposure to salt and harsh winters, cars have longer expected lifespans out here, and are often worth more. This is particularly true in Victoria, probably the most expensive place to buy a used car in Canada.

So you've got a range of retail prices, and an approximate wholesale value: how best to determine what you're going to sell the blasted thing for? Good news! The market will determine that for you, all you can do is set a middle-of-the-road selling price and start fishing. But how best to bait the hook?

Step 2: Staging your car

As an automotive term, "staging" is most often used to refer to properly lining up a car at the lights prior to a drag race.

Don't worry, we both know your decrepit wreck is no more capable of competing in a drag race than it is of taking flight like Harry Potter's Ford Anglia. In fact, just mentioning "racing" around your car is apt to make the doors fall off in exhaustion.

But that's not what we're up to here. In a sea of 1991 Ford Tempos, we need to make yours a standout, and that's why we need to stage it, much as you would your home if you were having an open house.

That means a good washing, a topping up of oil and other fluids, a vacuuming out of the centuries of Dorito crumbs and other detritus that have gradually turned your car into some kind of rolling compost heap. Once you've got the old girl spic-and-span (careful not to scrub too hard, lest you put an arm through a rotting quarter-panel), it's just about time to take some pictures for your ad.

This is apparently the hardest task for many private sellers, and I have perused hundreds of ads where the car for sale was blurry and unfocussed, or only partially in the shot, or was being recovered from a ditch at the time, or was accidentally a Christmas portrait of the family dog. Remember, take the shots on a slightly overcast day, shoot from a low angle, and try not to take a close-up of the post-Stanley-Cup-Riot boot prints on the roof.

Step 3 (optional): Mechanical inspection

Depending just how well priced you've pitched your car, this may be a good point to get a pre-emptive mechanical inspection. In today's market, you can rest assured that a savvy buyer isn't just going to kick the tires and cough up the cash: they're going to want a mechanic to look this horse in the mouth.

Much like visiting the dermatologist, there's always work to be done. That seeping valve-cover gasket might be the equivalent of an innocuous mole that will give no trouble for years, but you'd better believe a BCAA inspection is going to show it up on a clipboard. In which case, you're better off forewarned and forearmed.

Better yet, having your own mechanical inspection allows you to better prepare for negotiations. If you know the car is going to need a $1,000 brake job in the next year or so, you're best off knocking $500 off to do the quick deal.

Step 4: Where and how to advertise

You need to advertise, either in print, online or both. Make sure you include keywords in your advertising copy that will draw people in: if you're selling a Civic, make sure you compare it to a Corolla or some other similar sized and popular alternative.

Secondly, make sure your ad copy is just that: good advertising copy. Heck, we've all watched enough Mad Men to know how to pull it off. You need to include as much favourable information as you can about your car; making it stand out is key, so itemize recent servicing, extra items that come with the car (i.e. the hula girl) and your reason for selling.

Lastly, don't discount the old-fashioned neighbourhood sale. The for sale sign in the car when parked at Safeway works just as well as the Internet in some ways, though you're best to have a specially created email address written on it to avoid spam. Park the car in a high-traffic area if you can, and see if you can get any leads there.

Step 5: Don't get scammed!

Don't accept offers to take cheques. Don't accept instant offers from folks who haven't seen the car. Don't even bother replying to emails that run along the lines of, "Dear SIR OR MADAM, I am interested in your ITEM. I would like to pay you for your ITEM with a draft that I will mail you and then you can pay me the difference."

When you and the seller agree on a price, meet at the bank so that the funds can go directly into your account. It's your responsibility to provide them with a signed copy of your registration and a filled-out transfer form, but it's their responsibility to pay the taxes when they register the vehicle.

So before you throw in the towel and take whatever piddling amount the dealer's going to give you for your well-used, previously-thoroughly-enjoyed lump of semi-fatigued machinery, why not give it a go at selling it yourself? And even with all these tips, the oldest one in the book still applies: if it doesn't sell, keep dropping the price until it does.

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at mcaleeronwheels@ Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer.

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