Gas prices and inflation have you down? Here's how to sell your car to Carvana, Autonation

Carvana's Car Vending Machine in Atlanta is the tallest in the U.S. at 12 stories high. It has a 43-vehicle capacity.
Craig Harris
USA TODAY

With inflation and high gas prices making it more difficult to make ends meet, here's a way to quickly make some big bucks.

Sell your car.

While conventional wisdom says vehicles – especially if bought new – rapidly depreciate in value, the current economy is turning that belief upside down with the average used car selling for 30% more than a year ago and dealers having low inventory.

With that high demand and low supply, your car, like mine, is similar to a share of stock with an all-time value.

Five years ago, when I was commuting into downtown Phoenix to The Arizona Republic, I bought a new 2017 Honda Fit LX for $16,900 (pre-sales tax).

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I was thrilled to get an economical vehicle with 36 miles to the gallon, and it was bright yellow – one of the colors of my alma mater, the University of Oregon. I even tricked it out with Oregon Duck stickers, floor mats, car seat head coverings and tire air caps. 

I drove my prior Honda for a decade, and I thought I'd be driving the "Duckmobile" for at least 10 years.

How much is your car worth?

Yet, after some unexpected expenses and with my car essentially being unused as I now work from home for USA TODAY, I was curious as to how much I could get for my vehicle.

With rising used car prices and low inventory, your used car could be worth a fortune. I'm selling my 2017 Honda Fit for nearly what I paid for it five years ago.

It also helped that my wife has her own (paid off) car to commute to work, and we are empty nesters.

So, I did a "how much is my car worth" on Google, and began inputting data on sites ranging from Carvana, Edmunds and Autonation, to local dealerships in San Diego.

I was shocked.

The online offers ranged from $12,070 to $16,575.

So, in taking the highest offer from Carvana, I essentially drove my car for free for the past five years. 

How to sell your car online

The process for each website was relatively the same. And easy.

You type in your license plate or vehicle identification number, which can be found on your car registration or typically in the upper left corner on your dashboard.

Then you add details such as the mileage and any enhanced features on the car, as well as if the car has been in an accident and whether repair work was done.

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You then will get a preliminary offer.

If you decide to make the deal, you need to download a picture of your driver's license, registration, car title or payoff information from your lender.

Within a few days, a representative from the company will come to inspect the vehicle. 

If everything is copacetic, the car is taken away, you get the money in either a check or direct deposit to your bank, and you no longer have to pay car insurance or rising gas prices.

You also could try Google Marketplace, but the prices for similar vehicles to mine were only a bit higher than what I was offered online.

The costs of selling your car 

While getting thousands of dollars for your used car may sound tempting, my editor reminded me this may not work if you have kids who need to be ferried to soccer practice or piano lessons or to a friend's home.

If you live in an area that has Uber or Lyft, you may be able to still sell your vehicle and use those services to get the kids around town.

I'm selling my 2017 Honda Fit because buyers are paying top dollar, and we no longer need two cars. However, there are other costs to selling.

However, if there are at least four trips to kids' events a week and it's $20 a round trip, that comes to $80. 

Multiply that by four weeks, and you are spending $320 a month.

In my situation, that would be $40 more than my monthly car payment.

So, it likely would not have been worth the cost to rely on a stranger to transport my kids. (In fact, we had three cars when my kids were teenagers because my wife and I commuted to work, and the kids couldn't always get rides.)

Is there a catch?

As a journalist for 31 years, I've learned there always seems to be a catch.

If you own your car free and clear, there should be no problem in selling it online.

 And even if you have a monthly payment, there should be few issues in getting the car title transferred from your bank to the prospective buyer.

Unless you happen to move from another state to California.

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In California, its Department of Motor Vehicles places a "Goldenrod" notification on your car registration until the title is officially transferred from another state.

This prohibits companies like Caravan, and even local dealers, from buying your car until that designation is lifted. 

To get a car title transferred in California, you need to contact your lender who will then contact the other state's DMV. The title must then be printed and mailed to your lender who then must mail it to a DMV branch where you registered your car.

California's DMV will not accept an electronic title transfer. (I tried three different times to no avail with lengthy waits each time).

This process can take up to six weeks.

The waiting game 

And, here's the rub.

Though I love living 20 minutes from the beach, the San Diego Zoo, and SeaWorld, the more miles I tack on, the less valuable my car becomes as I wait for my paperwork to get done. 

Further, there's always a risk of getting in an accident, which will significantly devalue an offer.

So, if you are ready to sell, make sure all of your paperwork is in order.

Or hold off registering your car if you are moving to California.  

Have a tip on business or investigative stories? Reach the reporter at craig.harris@usatoday.com or 602-509-3613 or on Twitter @CraigHarrisUSAT or linkedin.com/in/craig-harris-70024030/