How to Prep a Hooptie for Sale

The countershaft bearing in my 1998 Honda Civic sounded like a rain stick full of rusted lug nuts, and the clutch was starting to slip.  Despite having spent only $760 to buy the black sedan, I had already injected hundreds more into a new exhaust header, aluminum radiator, stereo, and a dump bed full of other parts that hadn’t held up to 200,000 miles and almost 20 years of hard labor.  And frankly, I didn’t feel like pulling the transmission out. People think that to prep a car for sale it will take a lot of time and likely a good amount of money, but I was not willing to give up either of those thing.  It was time to sell the beast, awful paint and all.  Here’s how I got it ready.

Basics to Prep a Car for Sale

There are whole servers stuffed with ideas for how to prep a car for sale, but my process was focused in three areas: cosmetic repair, cleaning, and honest advertisement.  Above all of this was that overarching staple of all car sales: don’t put more time or money into it than will help sell it.

old grille | prep a car for sale: cosmetic repair

This can be tricky to define sometimes, and the rarity of the car factors in heavily.  Some cars are so special they can be winched out of a swamp bed and buyers will snatch them up anyway, no prep work required.  But EK Civic sedans with high miles are not particularly desirable, and so common that you probably saw one today.  To make mine stand out, when it already had points against it for major mechanical issues, I needed to make it look nice.

lights | prep a car for sale: cosmetic repair

Cosmetic Repair

So I started with cosmetic repair.  The Civic’s paint had been long gone by the time I got it.  Sometime during the Bush years, a drunken ex had keyed it to smithereens, and what paint he or she didn’t harm had oxidized since, especially on the plastic bumper covers.  A large, rusted scab decorated the trunk lid, and a few minor door dings were visible in the right light.  The headlights were basically two snowballs frequented by competing dogs.

new light | prep a car for sale: cosmetic repair

I had ordered the headlights previously, with plans to eventually install them when I replaced the bumper covers.  I’d spent about $60 on the pair, and another $15 on a reproduction Si grille, which was already black in bare plastic.  After pulling off the front bumper cover, I removed from it the old, ugly, plastichrome grille and attached the new hotness of the Si grille.  With the bumper cover still off, I bolted up my new headlight housings, careful to leave the packing plastic in place while I did.  I didn’t want to worry about scratching them up before I could even get a few shots of them for my ad.

After removing the front bumper cover, I moved around to the back, carefully turning out every bolt and releasing the few plastic clips.  This can be tricky without breaking them, especially in cold weather, but it’s worth the time.

sanded bumper cover | prep a car for sale: cosmetic repair

I had thought to replace the sun-bleached bumper covers, since new ones were only about $35 each, but paint was even cheaper, and black was easy.  They didn’t have to look perfect, just better.  I used a handheld vibrating sander and some very fine grit sandpaper to rough them up, then washed them off, let them dry, and began to spray them down with several coats of indoor/outdoor enamel.  To make a long story short, I still don’t understand clearcoat, and I ended up with an acceptable matte finish.

bumper cover | prep a car for sale: cosmetic repair

Next up was the rust patch on the trunk.  This wasn’t going to be perfect.  If I had a forte, bodywork would not be it.  With the rear bumper cover still off, I taped a wide mask around the scab, then fell to with a sanding wheel on my angle grinder, intent on smoothing out the metal as much as possible.  The bare surface I ended up with beneath the paint was pitted, but free of rust, and paint smoothed over the surface sufficiently.

rust fixed | prep a car for sale: cosmetic repair

Sufficient.  Everything needed to be sufficient.  Up close, you could tell, but from 15 feet away, it was fine.


Cosmetic repairs handled, I moved on to cleaning.  This wasn’t nearly as interesting.  I vacuumed every inch of cloth in the interior, seat cracks to floor mats.  Every non-fabric surface I wiped down or scrubbed with car cleaning wipes.  Except the glass.  I knew I had to be really careful with the glass, because ammonia-based cleaners can ruin tint, even factory tint.  I used specialized glass cleaning wipes.

As for the outside, I could have spent hours trying to restore the paint and detailing everything, but I just ran it through the car wash.  There was no saving the paint, anyway, and time is money.  Finally, I hit the car with a dose of Biocide.  I can’t really describe the smell the Civic had acquired over the years.  It was a bit…earthy.  Not particularly gross, just old, like the space under your deck.  The Biocide treatment made short work of that.

Honest Advertisement

Finally, I wrote an extensive and honest advertisement for Craigslist.  This is easy.  You use Craigslist the same way I do: to look for great deals on cars you can’t afford or house.  You know all the annoying things people do on Craigslist?  Don’t do them.  It’s that simple!

Don’t “forget” to mention major problems with the car, such as the need for a new transmission.  Don’t post pictures taken with the world’s first digital camera.  Don’t neglect to post a price, even if you’re hoping some idiot will offer you five figures for a ’98 Civic.

CraigsList Ad Photo | prep a car for sale: honest advertisement

I started with the best pictures I could take of the car, at a nice location, in good light, and from every angle.

I then listed every single problem with the car, from the gearbox issue down to the 1-inch tear in the driver’s seat.  You might think this would scare away potential customers, but it also gives you the opportunity to outshine the existing problems with a very detailed list of new parts, fresh services, and other benefits.

People appreciate honest, detailed advertisements, and though it took me a bit longer to write mine, when the buyer met me (near the police station) to check out my car, he was surprised by nothing.  He didn’t even haggle me down from my $1000 asking price.  He looked it over, test drove it, and handed me a wad of cash, smiling.  (I highly recommend specifying cash only terms in the ad.  Checks from strangers can go wrong so easily.  If the car is expensive enough to make a cash transaction dangerous, a direct digital transfer can be arranged though your bank.)

With all the parts I put into the car before I decided to sell it, I didn’t make a profit.  And since I only had it for a handful of months, I probably didn’t even get my money’s worth out of it.  But I was able to get it out of my very limited parking space in relatively short order, and I made far more than I would have selling it to Joe Towtruck.

What are your favorite ways to prep a car for sale?

1998 Honda Civic | prep a car for sale: honest advertisement

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