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Q: Should I get my car fixed before I trade it in?

I have about a year to go before I trade in my 2014 Mazda3, and there are a few repairs needed. There’s a small cosmetic scrape, and the brakes probably need to be replaced before too long. Is it wise to fix these things before trying to sell it, or should I just trade it in as-is? – Jenn, Halifax

Fixing your car before you take it to the dealer might sound like a trick of the trade-in, but you could end up spending more money than you save.

“I would not recommend spending very much money on fixing up your trade,” Brian Murphy, vice-president of editorial and research at Canadian Black Book (CBB) said in an e-mail. “The advantage the dealer has is that they can recondition or repair your car for a lot less money than you can.”

When dealers are figuring out the trade-in value of your car, they deduct what they think it will cost them to recondition your car.

“Reconditioning is really about fixing what is wrong with your car that would make it difficult to sell,” Murphy said. “It would be about fixing anything mechanically or cosmetically wrong with it.”

It might also cost the dealership half of what it costs you to get your car into showroom shape, said George Iny, president of the Automobile Protection Association (APA).

“Sometimes [it costs them] even less, if there is a workaround,” Iny said in an e-mail. “For example, they might put on two used tires that match the ones in the car instead of four new ones.”

So how do they know how much to charge you? They might be guessing.

Typically, dealerships don’t do a detailed inspection of trade-ins – they’ll just do a walk-around of your car and ask you a few questions, Iny said.

“There often are safety issues like tires, brakes and lights that are missed,” Iny said. “These would be addressed during reconditioning – the dealer makes allowances for that in the trade-in appraisal.”

So even if you’ve spent a small fortune on fixing scuffs and paint chips, the dealership will likely deduct cash for reconditioning anyway, just so they’re ready for surprises.

“A bad surprise for the dealer would be non-functioning AC, which the owner did not report and wasn’t checked because it was out of season,” Iny said.

Trade secret?

Doing minor repairs yourself – say, buying a paint pen to fix chips and scratches – might seem like a way to save money. But if DIY repairs aren’t done properly, they could actually lower your car’s trade-in value, Iny said.

“They will attract a professional's attention to that area of the vehicle,” Iny said. “There will be a cost for undoing the work you did.”

So, instead of spending money to make your car look brand new, there are simple things to do that will help you get a better deal on a trade-in, Iny said.

First, if you have your maintenance records, put them into chronological order and bring them with you to show that you’ve been taking care of the car.

“Recent maintenance records provide the dealer some certainty when making their appraisal, so they might be able to offer a little more,” he said.

And, while you don’t need to spring for a pricey professional detailing, you should get the car washed – or do it yourself – and “take your junk out of it,” Iny said.

Also, make sure that you have everything that came with your car – floor mats, that extra set of keys – in the car, and not sitting at home or in your garage. If you have winter tires, bring them with you.

“In many parts of Canada, winter tires can help with the sale,” Iny said.

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