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Options that boost resale value: 15 tips

Want to get the most for your car at resale? Stick with classic options and forgo the purple paint job.

No matter what options you install -- or how much you baby it -- owning a car is a losing proposition. Depreciation takes its toll not only on the car, but on the options as well. And today's hot accessory is tomorrow's white elephant. Remember the cassette deck?

"A car is not an investment," says Bob Kurilko, vice president of marketing and industry communication for Edmunds.com, an online resource for industry information. "You won't get a return on your investment."

Instead, he advises buyers to get the most value by selecting the features that will enhance their enjoyment of the car.

Despite what you might hear on a car lot, loading up a car with options won't necessarily translate to a bigger check at trade-in time. But with a little planning, you can outfit a car to suit your needs and keep from making mistakes that cost you extra money down the road.

Here are some tips from the pros:

1. Stick with the classics. There are a handful of options that give you the edge -- especially if your car is sitting next to an identical make and model. The selection can vary, but the basics are: sun or moon roof, leather seats and a nice stereo.

"The more desirable the options, the more desirable the car as a resale item," says Mark Perleberg, lead automotive expert for the National Automobile Dealers Association Appraisal Guides.

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2. Keep it up. Keep everything polished and maintained, and your car will have the edge.

"If you have a car with crummy leather seats, it can be worse than a car with no leather seats at all," says Charlie Vogelheim, executive editor of the Kelley Blue Book, a digest for determining vehicle value.

3. Forget the funky colors. "Wacky colors" can kill the resale value of a car, says Kurilko. Depending on the model, mistakes include yellow, purple and "the wrong brown," he says.

Even more-conventional colors, such as bright red or black, look great on sport models and SUVs but tend to be less popular for mid-size sedans, according to resale experts.

But on some vehicles, the "wrong" color looks just right, says Vogelheim, who cites the Volkswagen Beetle, the Mini Cooper and the Chrysler PT Cruiser as prime examples of models that can break out of neutral colors without sacrificing resale value. "Boutique cars can do boutique colors," he says.

4. Think about safety. Even the experts disagree on whether resale buyers place much importance on safety features. But having the latest air bags and accident avoidance technology is good for you -- and it can't hurt when it comes time to sell.

While buyers won't likely be shopping particular safety items, they will look at the overall rating of your car, says Vogelheim. "The fact that the vehicle comes rated so highly makes it more desirable," he says.

Some things to consider: anti-lock brakes, electronic stability, traction and rollover control systems, side and curtain air bags.

5. Choose the electronics for you. Like that computer you purchased last year, an auto sound system could be obsolete by the time you sell the vehicle. Ten years ago, cassette decks were state of the art. Today, "they've gone the way of the 8-track," says Perleberg.

Best bet? Pick the features that give you pleasure when you drive. One expert's tip: If you want to keep your car current without investing in expensive sound equipment, look for a car that anticipates changingl technologies.

"If you have a system that's adaptable, you're better off," says Vogelheim.

6. Select the options that buyers come to expect. The baseline varies from car to car. "Obviously, when you start out at the compact level, you're going to get the bare bones," says John Tews, spokesman for J.D. Power and Associates. But as buyers look at purchasing used luxury cars, "they expect a brand-name or upgraded stereo and leather seats," he says.

As you shop, determine the norm. Whatever the average buyer is likely to picture on that car. In most cars, that includes air conditioning and -- except for certain sport models -- an automatic transmission. Other common expectations are: power windows, locks and mirrors, keyless entry, leather seats and heated seats.

In some cases, it's just a case of fighting diminishing returns. Sometimes having a certain option doesn't mean the car is worth more, says Perleberg. "It's just that it's worth less if you don't have it."

Expectations can change during the years you own the car, according to remarketing analysts with the Power Information Network LLC, an affiliate of J.D. Power and Associates.

7. No flames. Face it, the more you personalize a car with special paint, spoilers, customized suspension or wheels, the more you remove it from the realm of what the average person wants to drive. Just like a house, if you want to have the largest audience for a resale, stick with the basics.

And beware of after-market customization. "When you start modifying your car away from factory, you start taking greater and greater risk," Kurilko says, adding that in some cases the work could also nullify a manufacturer's warranty.

8. Sometimes, different is good. Sound contradictory? Not really -- just think subtle differences and keep it in character for the particular make and model.

Rental car companies -- which deal in fleets of identical vehicles -- will sometimes dress one up with pin stripes, styled wheels or spoilers in the hopes of making it stand out from the pack, says Tom Webb, chief economist with Manheim Auctions, a leading dealer-to-dealer auction wholesaler. "It breaks up the monotony."

The key is to remember your potential buyer and stick to changes that are in character for the car. You want to spiff it up, not try to make it look like a different car. And while an economy compact might get a boost from the treatment, a family sedan or luxury model is a different story.

9. Remember your region. Never try to sell a black car in Arizona. And realize that four-wheel models aren't as popular in Southern California. What's hot -- and what's not -- in the way of options and colors varies by locality.

In the north, heated seats and traction control are "certainly something that people are going to look for," says Vogelheim. In the Sunbelt, look for more white and lighter colored cars.

On the plus side: if you're not getting what your vehicle is worth -- or having a tough time moving it -- shipping it into a better market could solve your problem. While Perleberg notes that four-wheel drive vehicles don't have as big a market in southern California, the vehicles do well at auctions. Why?

"People fly here from Colorado and Utah to swallow up those nice California 4x4s," he says.

10. Bigger is better? Contrary to reason -- and fuel economy -- buyers seem to prefer bigger engines. "Despite the energy cost, a large engine will hold its value more," says Webb. "The perception, right or wrong, is that a larger engine is more durable."

11. Go for an upscale trim package. Most models have several levels or "packages" of trim options. Go for the top of the line and you'll have a bit of an advantage come resale time. "Higher trim line vehicles tend to hold their price longer," says David Champion, director of automobile testing for Consumer Reports. End result: They are easier to sell, he says.

12. Be wary of going first. "As with anything, when you get the latest, greatest thing, you get it at a premium," says Kurilko. Whether it's special paints, navigation systems or sound systems, the price of cutting-edge will likely drop during the years you own the car. So get them to make yourself happy, not because you think they will add value at resale.

13. Even the experts don't always agree. Don't be surprised if two auto pros give you honest but conflicting opinions on the value of your car's options.

Two areas where you're likely to get conflicting information on resale value: four-wheel drive and navigation systems.

Lack of consensus in some areas is one more reason to get the options you value -- and be prepared to shop around when you are ready to get rid of the car.

14. Beware of options that require monthly payments. Navigation and in-car communication systems are popular. But resale buyers have to pony up the monthly subscription fees to keep the services working.

"One of the question marks we wrestle with are anything with monthly payments," says Perleberg, who adds that, while the services might be great for a trip, few people get lost on the way to and from the office. "They can be a $3,000 option and I don't know that these have a real big resale value."

15. Look at resale, but buy for your needs. Resale is a bigger factor if you plan to trade or sell your car in three to five years. But even so, getting a good value means getting the car that's right for you in the meantime. Especially since depreciation will hit you regardless.

"You certainly want to buy a vehicle that you're comfortable with," says Tews. "If you buy a vehicle for resale alone, you may not be comfortable with it while you drive it."

Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

-- Posted: Dec. 9, 2003

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