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How to sell your car in California

Are you selling a car in California but not sure how to get started? The process can be challenging to navigate, but you can lighten the load with a little guidance and proper preparation.

Prepare to sell your car

The amount of effort you spend preparing your car to sell depends on the kind of car you have and how you want to sell it. Selling or trading it to a dealership might be a little less hassle than selling it privately, but it can also be a little (or a lot) less money. You don't want to waste too much time or cash on prep work if the car isn't worth much, but following some simple steps can help you sell it quickly and for more money. Use these tips to learn how to sell a car in California.

Collect your documentation

It's a good idea to gather all your documentation and information first so it’s ready for the bureaucratic portion of selling a car in California. Having your documents prepared before potential buyers come around could save you from blowing a sale.

Clean your vehicle

Present your vehicle in its best condition by thoroughly cleaning it inside and out. Taking a trip to your local car wash for a detailed vacuum, wash, and wax could make all the difference in how long it takes to sell it and for how much. And don't forget to deodorize.

Get an inspection 

Depending on your car's value, you might want to consider getting an inspection by a licensed technician before putting it up for sale, even though the state doesn't require it. A certified inspection report could go a long way in establishing trust with potential buyers and ultimately increase the offer a buyer is willing to make. Make a budget and complete any recommended maintenance if it makes sense financially. 

What documents do you need to sell your car in California?

Every state has varying requirements but selling a used car in California may take a few extra steps than in some other states. You’ll need to:

  • Fill out the official Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) transfer forms.
  • Get a smog certification.
  • Submit transfer forms.
  • Complete the California certificate of title.
  • Odometer reading
  • Any valid warranties or as-is documents
  • Maintenance records

Fill out official transfer forms 

When selling a used car in California — whether sold, inherited, or gifted — the DMV requires the seller to complete a Notice of Transfer and Release of Liability (NRL). The paperwork informs the DMV of the change in ownership. It releases you from liability for any parking or traffic violations and any civil or criminal actions associated with the vehicle after the date of sale. To complete the form, you'll need the:

  • New owner's name and address
  • License plate number
  • Vehicle identification number

The good news is that you can fill out the NRL online. Once you complete the form, print a copy for your records. The DMV allows you up to five days from the date of purchase to file the transfer. After your sale is complete, fill out the title transfer with the buyer and remove your license plate, then fill out the online NRL right away.

Disclose odometer reading 

The number of miles on a car can affect its monetary value, so the state requires you to record the odometer reading on the title. Falsifying the record, failing to disclose it, or tampering with the odometer is a crime, so have the buyer confirm the mileage when filling out the title. The California DMV requires you to record the odometer reading on the day of the sale, so it isn't something you can do ahead of time. 

Get a smog check

In most cases, any time an automobile changes ownership, the California DMV requires a smog certificate from an authorized test station. Smog testing sites are located throughout the state, and certifications are valid for 90 days. Exceptions to the smog check requirement consist of:

  • Vehicles manufactured before 1975
  • Automobiles powered by natural gas
  • Diesel-run cars over 14,000 pounds
  • Diesel-run cars made before 1998
  • Electric-powered vehicles
  • Autos less than eight years old

Forms needed for special circumstances

For the majority of car sales, the NRL and smog certification is sufficient. However, some situations call for extra documentation. If any of the following circumstances apply to you, complete the corresponding forms:

  • Commercial vehicles: Form REG-4008
  • Family member transfers: Form REG-256
  • Error on your car title: Form REG-101
  • Cars with lienholders: Form REG-166
  • Missing license plate or sticker: Form REG-156
  • Missing title: Form REG-227

Find a buyer

Now that you have all the paperwork in order and the car is clean and in tip-top shape, it's time to advertise it for sale. Run through a buyer checklist to anticipate a shopper’s needs and use it when you create your ad. Classified ads are still a popular way to advertise, but some other options are:

  • Online car forum message boards
  • Social media marketplaces
  • Online auto dealerships

Take pictures

Buyers depend on photos to determine whether they want to spend their time with a test drive. You can garner more interest by taking as many well-lit pictures as allowed by your advertiser. Take photos from every angle inside and out, and don't forget about the engine. Highlight the unique qualities and any damages as well. Showing the flaws builds trust with buyers.

Write a listing

When you create a car listing, try to give as much information as possible. Include details about the engine, transmission, and any options or modifications on the vehicle. Also, make note of the year, make and model, mileage, and vehicle identification number. Report any issues or accidents, so potential buyers know what to expect before coming for a test drive. 

Get help selling a used car in California

If you get stuck anywhere along the way or find you need additional help with selling your car, you may want to go to a local dealer.

It might be worth a trip to the dealership to get a baseline offer or see what kind of deal you could get on a trade-in.

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