Selling Cars in California: Here's How
  • Buying Guides

Selling Cars in California: Here's How

By Autolist Editorial | July 25, 2019

Are you wondering how to sell your car in California? You have a few options to do so, some of which are better than others. If you want to get the most money out of your vehicle, then a private sale is typically the best way to go. But if you need to get rid of it quickly and aren't concerned about the money, then you can either sell to a dealership, trade it in, sell to CarMax or have We Buy Cars come pick it up.

Selling Cars in California

If you're selling a used car privately in California, there are a few different laws to know. A few such rules include the smog certificate, release of liability and the California pink slip. Otherwise, selling cars in California is similar to selling vehicles in any other state. You'll need to list your car for sale on a relevant site, prepare your vehicle for sale and communicate with prospective buyers.

The California Smog Certificate

The smog certificate is something you're required to have in most cases when turning the title over to a new owner. The California DMV will require you to have this as long as your car is not a hybrid, built before 1975, powered by diesel, electric or natural gas, or has a GVW over 14,000 pounds. To get a smog certificate, you will need to go to a shop that provides the service. Most shops that do will post the signage prominently. The important thing to remember is that the seller has the responsibility to give the smog certificate, not the buyer.

California Release of Liability

The second important piece of paperwork is the release of liability. It informs the DMV that you are no longer the party responsible for any tickets, fees or penalties incurred by the operation of the vehicle. If you don't file this, then you could be held accountable for any trouble the new owner gets into with your former car. You can file this form by downloading it from the DMV and then mailing it back. To fill it out, you will need the license plate number, the last five digits of the vehicle identification number (VIN), and the name and address of the new owner.

California Legal Release

This part requires the seller's signature to legally release ownership of the vehicle and transfer it to someone else. After the transfer, you have five days to complete the release of liability to finalize the sale and remove all responsibility from the vehicle.

California Certificate of Title

This is also known as a pink slip. The state of California does not recognize a difference between the lienholder of a vehicle and the legal owner. A change of ownership in California includes any sale, gift or donation, adding or deleting the name of an owner, inheritance, or lien satisfaction (such as paying off a car loan). In any sale, the original registered owner is the seller, even if the person is gifting the car to someone else. If the title is missing, then you and the buyer will have to fill out a REG 227 form to complete the transfer. If there's a lienholder release, then it must be notarized to be valid.

Find Out Your Vehicle's Market Value

Before you list your vehicle for sale, you'll want to find out what it's worth. Start by looking up its base worth on Kelley Blue Book or NADA. These resources will give you a basic idea of what your vehicle is worth, but it's not the final word. Your market will also help you determine a reasonable price. Check out local listings and find out what similar vehicles are selling for. Be sure to notice how many vehicles are listed. If the market is heavily saturated, you may want to set a lower price to get attention.

Collect Your Documentation

It's a good idea to have all your documentation collected and ready to go so that you're not frantically searching for it when a buyer comes along.

Some things to collect include:

  • The title
  • Maintenance records if you have them
  • Release of ownership
  • Release of liability
  • Valid smog certificate
  • Odometer reading if the car is under 10 years old
  • Bill of sale
  • Any warranties that are still valid
  • As-is documents confirming that the new owner is responsible for all repairs

Clean Your Vehicle

To represent your vehicle in its best condition, it's essential to thoroughly clean it on the inside and outside before taking any pictures. A clean vehicle and plenty of photos showing that condition will help it sell more quickly.

Take Pictures

Some car sellers take a few simple pictures and then post their car. However, buyers want to make informed decisions. You can get more interest and waste less time by taking thorough pictures in good lighting. Take a side profile picture for the main image, and then take photos of the back, front and engine for the exterior. For the interior, open all the doors and take pictures of the front seat and back seat if available. All of this will show the buyer how clean the vehicle is and if the upholstery is in good repair.

List Your Vehicle

There are multiple places to list your vehicle for sale on the internet.

Some popular ones include:

  • Autotrader
  • Craigslist
  • Facebook marketplace

When you write up your listing, try to give out as much information as possible. Mention all the options your car has as well as the engine, transmission, year, make and model, mileage, VIN and any modifications. If your vehicle has any issues, you should also put that in the listing so that the car buyer knows up front what they're getting. If your car was in an accident, you should mention that and provide any repair documentation.

Screening Buyers

If you get a wave of responses from your ad, then you'll want to narrow down the buyers who sound the most serious. Typically, serious buyers will ask specific questions about the vehicle or immediately offer you a price. If you like the price, you can respond to that type of buyer first. It's a good idea to start with a higher price and negotiate down if necessary. The only exception to this is if the market is saturated with your vehicle and you want a quick response.


In general, you should only accept cash for a private party sale as there are many ways to offer fraudulent payment outside of cash. Even if you do take cash though, it's not a bad idea to have a counterfeit money pen on hand to make sure that the cash itself is good.