I’ve owned 4 cars in my life (an ’86 Celica, a ’91 Toyota pickup, an ’01 Ford Escape, and an ’06 Escape, if you’re curious), so the idea of buying and selling cars is a little intimidating since I do it so infrequently.
But there’s a unique side hustle opportunity in used car flipping. It’s similar to other “buy low, sell high” business models we’ve talked about, but the potential profit per flip is quite high.
Jeremy Fisher is a car-flipping pro, and runs 3HourFlip.com to help others get started in this business. He put together this VERY detailed guide to get your gears turning on the dollars that could be lurking in driveways in your town.
Years ago when I became interested in buying and selling cars on the side I had no idea where to start. All I knew was that I wanted these three things:
- To add an additional stream of income
- To invest the minimum amount of time possible – ideally just a few hours per week
- To do something fun and interesting that also put money in my pocket
When I started flipping cars I knew very little about buying and selling cars and I made a bunch of mistakes that cost a lot of time and money. Along the way I’ve learned a lot and in this post I’d love to share some of those learnings with you.
Block Off a Few Hours
Buying and selling cars can be an excellent source of income that doesn’t require a huge time investment on your part.
I typically try to spend only 3 hours for the entire finding and buying, preparing for sale, and selling process, which is why I named my blog the 3HourFlip.com. Not all deals work out that way – in fact most of them don’t – but 3 hours is a great benchmark to make sure you’re maximizing your time while flipping.
The trick is to learn how to make deals come to you so you can spend less time searching and more time selling.
Before We Start, A Couple Warnings
If you’re like me, you won’t get everything right on your first few car flips, and even seasoned car flippers still make bad purchases from time to time. It happens. Cars have a lot of moving pieces and problems can pop up even if you’ve done all your due diligence up front.
Don’t let that discourage you – car flipping doesn’t have to be that complicated. In this article you’ll learn how to flip cars the simple way.
Many states in the US have regulations on how many cars one person can own in one year. For example, if your goal is to flip 10 cars in one year but your state limits you to owning 5, you might want to think about putting a few cars in your friend or spouse’s name. Just make sure that you’re very familiar with your country and state’s regulations regarding buying and selling cars BEFORE you start car flipping.
Nick’s Notes: For example, in California individuals can only sell 5 cars a year. Beyond that you’re considered a “dealer” and that requires special licensing.
Set Aside Some Cash
Before your first purchase, you’ll need to decide how much money you want to put toward seeding your flipping business. I wouldn’t recommend going to a bank to borrow money in order to buy cars to sell. Stick with money you already have.
In my opinion, the smaller you start the better; $500-$2000 should be plenty. Not only does starting small lower your risk, it also takes some of the pressure off your first flip which usually translates to better decision making and less fear.
Nick’s Notes: This business is no different from any of the other “buy low, sell high” businesses we’ve covered on Side Hustle Nation, but the starting buy-in is usually going to be higher than going to the clearance section of Walmart on an FBA sourcing trip. As always, don’t make a bet you can’t afford to lose.
Become a Used Car Pricing Expert
Shopping for cars is much easier if you can quickly compare good deals versus bad deals. Begin studying car prices online and with pricing guides to get a feel for what typical car prices are in your area.
I also recommend downloading the free KBB app to your smartphone so you can always lookup car values quickly and easily when you’re on the go.
What Most People Don’t Know About Used Car Values
The truth is, there is no actual way to get an exact value on one particular vehicle.
Each automobile has many different qualities and features than the next. Pricing guides are only used to help determine the ballpark value of a car. The real value of a vehicle is only determined by what someone else is willing to pay for it.
What you’re hoping to do when you study price guides is determine the most likely price that the car would sell for, and that is rarely the exact same number that you see in a price guide.
Use the Guide Your Buyers Use
I have found that most potential buyers use Kelly Blue Book to determine the value of a vehicle which is why KBB is my primary pricing guide. If your buyer is using KBB as a reference, it’s very helpful as a seller to do the same so that you both will be on the same page.
Finding and Buying Cars to Flip
I mentioned earlier that I typically try to spend just one hour finding and buying cars that I flip.
Finding and buying a great deal in 1 hour might seem very difficult – and it is. The trick is to learn how to attract deals that help you spend less time looking and more time buying.
In this section we’ll learn how to do just that.
If you plan to flip your first car quickly, you’ll probably want to stay away from rare, uncommon, exotic, or specialty vehicles like limos, buses, sports cars, and classic cars. Specialty vehicles have a lower number of potential buyers, which means they may take much longer to sell.
That being said, if you don’t mind waiting a little longer for the sale, you may find that specialty vehicles can be very profitable, often making more profit per car than common vehicles. Some people flip or restore just a few classic or exotic cars per year, but earn up to $30,000 per vehicle in profit alone. It doesn’t take long to earn a big income with those types of numbers.
The Sweet Spot: Lower Priced Common Cars
With rare exception, I typically target vehicles within the $500-$4500 price range.
Here are a few reasons why I like to flip cars in that range:
- It is much easier to attract cash buyers in a lower price range. Since most people don’t have over $4000 in cash to spend on a vehicle, they are more likely to require financing, which takes more time and adds more steps for you, the seller.
- Buyers of a lower priced vehicle usually don’t spend time as much time obsessing over small imperfections, which often means lower priced cars are easier to sell. In contrast, if a person decides to fork over $30,000 for a vehicle, they are much more likely to expect the vehicle to be in perfect condition.
- Purchasing in this price range limits the risk that you place into each vehicle. If you purchase a $500 vehicle that has a bad engine you can scrap the car, cut your losses and move on. However, if you spend $5000 on a vehicle with a bad engine you’ll be tempted to sink an additional $2000 into it to fix the engine and recoup your $5000 investment.
- Your profit potential can be higher. If you have $6000 in total investment capital and you use all of it on one vehicle, your potential profit is limited to that one item. If you split the investment into 3 vehicles at $2000 each, your potential profit has tripled.
3 Ways to Get Craigslist Deals to Come to You
1. Create the “Don’t Trade Your Car In” Wanted Ad
A great way to get deals to come to you is to post wanted ads. An example of wanted ad that I’ve used is below.
Don’t trade your car in, sell it to me for cash!
If you are thinking about trading your car in, don’t do it! Automotive dealers will offer you trade-in value, which is often way under what it’s worth. Sell your car to me instead. I will pay over trade-in value for any vehicle under $4000 with 150,000 miles or less. Email me the make, mileage, and condition of your vehicle and I’ll send you a cash offer that will beat a dealer’s trade-in price. This is not a scam; I buy cars.
After you receive emails in response to the ad, copy a link to the KBB trade-in value of the vehicle and send it to the seller with an offer above the trade-in price.
Here’s an actual email that I’ve used (don’t forget to include the KBB link in the bottom of the email):
“Thanks for replying to my ad. I’ve posted the KBB trade-in value for your car below. Click on the link and check it out. Based on this, your trade-in value is $3000. I’ll offer you $3200 cash and I can buy it today!”
Sellers are happy to receive more than what their dealer would have paid and I’m happy to purchase a car for less than I could sell it for. You‘ll be surprised how many vehicles you can purchase that would have been trade-ins sold at a dealership that you now own under KBB private sale value.
2. Set Up Instant Alerts
Download the CPro app to your smartphone and set up notifications when used cars in your price range are listed on Craigslist. This third-party tool is WAY better than the official Craigslist app.
Note: Unfortunately the CPro app appears to be discontinued. Readers have recommended the CPlus app for iOS and Android as an alternative.
For example, you can set the app to send you an instant notification when any car is listed under $3000, is for sale by owner (not dealer), and has “must sell” in the description.
Nick’s Notes: This is really cool and will be fun to play around with different filters. I also recently read some Craigslist search recommendations to include words like “moving”, “divorce”, or “end of lease” which may signify someone in a hurry to sell. You could also use this for specific searches in non-car Craigslist flipping businesses.
I’ve been shopping off and on for a new used car, and will definitely take advantage of this feature if/when I get serious about it.
Getting instant notifications will keep deals coming to you and help you get to deals before other Craigslist car shoppers.
3. Hire Spotters
Just about everyone knows someone who is thinking about buying or selling a car. Look to your sphere of influence to help you in this business. Offer to pay anyone that helps you find a car that you can purchase to flip for profit. Working personal referrals can be one of the best ways to find leads on vehicles before anyone else does.
Print business cards and hand them out. On the front, mine say, “I buy cars.” On the back they say, “I’ll pay $50 for your help!” and lists my phone number.
This is one of the ways you can start having deals come to you and the more eyeballs that you have working for you, the better.
Inspecting the Car for Purchase
Once you have found a vehicle that you’re interested in, and the seller has agreed to meet with you, your attention to detail becomes extremely important.
You’ll want to look the car over inside and out and check for any indication that the car has problems. There’s no way to totally eliminate any possibility of buying cars with problems, but you can certainly lower your risk by spending a lot of time checking it out before buying.
If You Don’t Know Anything About Cars
If you know nothing about vehicles, don’t worry, there’s still hope for you. The more you know about cars the better off you will be but you don’t have to be an ASE certified technician to make good car purchases.
If you know absolutely nothing about cars just plan to spend a little extra money getting the car checked out by a mechanic before you buy it, and know that you may lose out on a couple deals as a result of that extra step.
Do Your Due Diligence
If you are feeling confident, that’s great! Just don’t let the allure of a good deal make you skip the proper due diligence.
- Want to make sure the car isn’t stolen? Check the VIN at the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
- Want to make sure the car has never been part of a recall? Check the VIN at SaferCar.gov.
Don’t just assume that the seller’s words are facts. Do your own research.
I’m not advocating being less trusting of people. Though you might run into someone that IS trying to rip you off, I’ve found that most people just want to sell their car and don’t have any malicious intent.
Major problems usually don’t occur because the seller is lying to you about car problems. In my experience the majority of problems occur because the seller just didn’t know about everything.
Though you should make sure you ask as many questions as possible of the seller, it’s ultimately your job to do all of the research and make sure you’re buying a good car. After all, when you sell a bad car it will be your reputation on the line, not the person’s that you bought it from.
Finalizing the Purchase
If you’ve made it this far, money has changed hands, you have the title, and the car is yours.
Great job. You’ve made a purchase and hopefully you have a great deal!
The hard work isn’t over, but you have accomplished the most important part of the car buying and selling process. After all, before you can make any money, you have to some inventory to offer. You should feel happy about that.
Now let’s get it ready to sell!
Getting Ready to Sell
Low Cost Repairs
Your vehicle may be in need of minor repair before you list it to sell. If you haven’t already had the car inspected for repairs, consider getting a reputable ASE® certified technician to take a look at your vehicle and make sure there aren’t any mechanical problems.
Spending $100-$300 on repairs could result in another $400-$1000 on the sale of the vehicle and the fewer the amount of problems that your buyer sees, the more they are going to be willing to pay for your vehicle.
Often you can find private automotive technicians that work from home and offer discounted rates. They will often place an ad in your local newspaper classifieds.
For example, I found a retired mechanic on Craigslist who charges $30 for a basic mechanical reliability check on any vehicles and I get a huge discount on any repairs that need to be done.
Some car flippers elect to make repairs themselves which definitely increases the overall profit margin on the flip. Personally I’d rather pay someone to make repairs so I can keep my car re-sell preparation time under an hour.
Maximize Your Profits with a Clean Car
Cleaning your vehicle is one step that you never want to leave out of the selling preparation process. Even if the vehicle isn’t very dirty when you purchase it, clean it anyway. Because this is your buyer’s first impression and people tend to judge a book by its cover, this can have a big impact on the price you can ultimately sell the car for!
Some people choose to hire an auto detail company to clean their vehicles. This can cost up to $200 per car, depending on the vehicle and most detail shops can make a car look like it just came off of the showroom floor. Using detailers helps to keep your invested time under our 1 hour goal for sale preparation.
If you’re willing to invest more than 1 hour, you may consider cleaning the car yourself. That requires a little more work, but does keep your margins higher. Whether you clean it or have someone else clean it, don’t skip this step!
Pricing the Car
Initially I usually price a vehicle just over KBB® value to provide a little bit of negotiating margin. For example, if I plan to sell a vehicle for $3500 I will list the price of the vehicle as $3900. A buyer may offer $3200 and I can counter with $3500.
Always leave negotiating room in your prices. Buyers typically like to feel like they’ve gotten a deal, and if they’re forced to pay your full asking price, they won’t be as excited to make a purchase.
That’s not to say that some buyers won’t offer full price, because some do. I love those kinds of buyers, but they’re rare.
Top 3 Places to Flip Your Car
Millions of people use Craigslist to search for their next vehicle, and it’s probably no surprise that I recommend using it to sell your car. It is by far the fastest way to sell a vehicle. I’ve even purchased a car from Craigslist, prepared it for sale, listed it on Craigslist again, and sold it on the same day.
Nick’s Notes: That’s pretty awesome.
With Craigslist your ad is free and visible to buyers within minutes.
I recommend that you list basic information about your vehicle in the ad. Don’t try to write a sales page because that will turn buyers off. Just list all of the features with great pictures.
I also like to list my telephone number in the ad. Many people are more comfortable texting when they have questions or want to set up a time to see the vehicle. It also helps to weed out flaky buyers. A buyer that calls you is probably more serious than a buyer that sends you an email.
Since there is a large volume of sellers on Craigslist, make sure to renew your ad at least every other day. Posts that are older than 2 days usually don’t get read, unless someone does a search for a specific model. Craigslist has a policy that prohibits identical re-posts so only use the “renew” option to refresh a post.
2. Empty Lots
Often a local business owner that is located on a busy highway will be willing to rent lot space to someone selling vehicles.
I personally love to have agreements with storage facility owners located at the intersection of two very busy streets. They rent cheap and are happy to maximize their unused real estate. The common price I’ve paid is $50 per month, per car.
Because of the volume of traffic, most cars sell within a week.
If you already live on a busy street simply park the vehicles in front of your house with a for sale sign in the window. You may be surprised the amount of attention your vehicle gets if it is priced correctly.
3. Bulletin Boards
Target the type of customer that would purchase your vehicle and find out where those types of people hangout. Once you know where they are, post a flyer for your vehicle on a bulletin board.
For example, if you purchase a small vehicle that would be perfect for a college student, post a flyer on a local college bulletin board. If you have a large vehicle designed for comfort, post a flyer on your local retirement community bulletin board.
Target marketing bulletin boards can be a very effective and inexpensive selling strategy.
Selling Without Selling
If you’ve made it this far, it’s likely that someone has called or emailed about a vehicle that you have for sale and they would like to come see it. To keep your time invested in this step low make sure you try to gauge how serious the buyer actually is.
THE most important tip that I can give regarding selling is this: Don’t try to be a salesperson.
I do not consider myself to be a good salesperson, though I’ve sold a lot of cars. However, I do consider myself a good marketer. Being a good marketer is VERY different than being a good salesperson.
I make cars easy to find and buy – period.
It’s likely that the person interested in buying your vehicle has chosen to purchase it from a private seller like yourself rather than an automotive dealership because they don’t like being pressured into a purchase or being “sold to.” If you try to be pushy or use cheesy salesperson lines like “what can I do to get you in this car today?” you are likely to put the buyer off.
Just be yourself, be honest about everything and let the buyer make the decision about purchasing. If you’ve prepared the car for sale properly you shouldn’t have any problems finding a buyer.
Negotiate for Profits
Negotiating price while selling is very similar to negotiating price when buying. Pick a number in your mind that is the lowest price you would be willing to accept, and stick to that number. Let’s look the dialogue of how most pricing negotiations happen.
In this scenario the car’s KBB Private Party Value is $4200 and it’s listed for $4000. You have $2500 total invested in the vehicle and the lowest price that you’ll take is $3500.
Buyer: “So you are asking $4000. Is that negotiable?”
You: “Would you be paying with cash?”
You: “I would be willing to accept less. What would you offer?”
Buyer: “Would you go $3300?”
You: “That’s well under KBB® value and the car is in great shape. Not perfect, but still great shape.”
Buyer: “Could you do $3700?”
You: “You have a deal”
The buyer gets the car under it’s KBB value and feels like he/she got a good deal by talking you down $300. Meanwhile you’ve secured a price higher than you would have been willing to accept. A win-win!
Finalizing the Sale
Once a deal has been made make sure that you receive the cash in hand before signing ownership over to the buyer and make sure you are very familiar with your country or state’s regulations on vehicle ownership transfers.
You can find most US state-specific forms at USLegalForms.com.
Snowballing Your Profits
If you’ve followed the steps above you’ve bought a car, prepared it for sale, and sold it for a profit – GREAT JOB!
So what’s next? Doing it again of course! Snowballing profits is the best way to gain momentum flipping cars, especially if you aren’t starting with a lot of operating capital.
I began with $850.
I used that $850 to buy a car that I sold for $1300.
I then used $1300 to buy the next one and so on. That’s how you snowball your profits. Once you reach a point where you can buy and sell enough cars to recapture your initial investment, all of the profits from the sales go directly into your pocket.
Final Words from Jeremy
I truly hope you’ve enjoyed this article as much as I enjoyed writing it for you, and I hope that you feel the confidence to start buying and selling cars for profit today.
I’ve created a page on my site just for Side Hustle readers. Visit me at 3HourFlip.com/sidehustle to receive a free car flipping gift!
Thanks again, and I wish you the absolute best!
Ever sold a car for more than you paid for it? Conventional wisdom says cars are depreciating assets, but the system that Jeremy’s laid out gives an interesting alternative.