Step 2: Get a CarMax Estimate or a Dealership Quote
We recommend taking your vehicle to CarMax for its first appraisal. Show up early and you can get in and out in about 30 minutes. CarMax will give your vehicle a detailed inspection, along with a written appraisal that's good for up to seven days.
At this point, you can either take the CarMax offer or go to other dealerships to see if they'll make a better offer. In our experience, we've found that CarMax offers more for your trade-in.
If you are "upside down" or "under water" on your car loan, however, you'll have to pay CarMax the difference between what you owe and what the vehicle appraised for. If you're not prepared to do that, trading in at a dealership might be a better option.
Don't have a CarMax nearby? Call the used-car manager of your local dealership to set an appointment for an appraisal on your vehicle. Timing is critical here. Whereas CarMax might have at least two appraisers, most dealerships will only have one person appraising potential trade-ins. If you show up on a Saturday afternoon, you could be waiting for a while. Try to schedule the appraisal for a weekday in the morning, when things are less hectic.
Keep in mind that the trade-in price you're offered at the dealership (or CarMax, for that matter) can vary depending on a number of factors, including the car's condition level, the dealer's current inventory and how likely it is that the car will sell. There may also be special promotions around trade-ins. More about that later.
If you have a CarMax appraisal, you will already have a reference point to compare the dealer's offer. If not, you may want to try to get two dealers' appraisals.
Here's a good strategy you could try: Take your car to a dealer other than one that sells your car's brand. For example, take your Toyota Camry to a Chevrolet dealer. This way, your car won't be competing with six other Camrys on the lot. A non-Toyota dealer (which is very likely to sell used cars of other brands) may offer you more for the Camry than the Toyota dealer would.
by Ronald Montoya, Senior Consumer Advice Editor at edmunds.com