Not long ago, optioning out a new car was straightforward. If you wanted to add some extra value, comfort and convenience to your ride, you opted for an automatic transmission, cruise control, air conditioning, power steering, power brakes and a decent AM/FM stereo with cassette. If you lived north of the Mason-Dixon Line, you added a rear-window defogger, intermittent wipers, a bigger battery and an engine-block heater to the mix.

Although these options remain popular with consumers, today’s car buyers also have a dizzying array of aftermarket accessories to consider such as:

  • Multi-gigabyte in-car navigation.
  • DVD entertainment systems.
  • Back-up cameras.
  • Heated or air-conditioned leather seats.
  • Performance suspension packages.
  • Alloy wheels.
  • Satellite radio.
  • Intelligent keys.
  • In-vehicle Bluetooth technology.

All of this equipment has the potential to make life with a new car safer and a lot more fun. But which of these pricey add-ons can help maintain your car’s value — or even increase it and which ones can actually diminish the value, making your car less appealing and harder to sell?

Reason to personalize “The whole notion behind vehicle personalization or customization is to make your vehicle fit you, its owner, like a glove, and to really make it meet your individual needs,” says Peter MacGillivray, vice president of events and communications at the Specialty Equipment Market Association, or SEMA. MacGillivray says the average U.S. consumer spends about $2,000 on optioning or modifying their vehicle within the first year of purchase.

“Rims (custom wheels) are probably the most popular, easiest and best aftermarket upgrade,” says Adam Simms, general manager of Toyota Sunnyvale in Sunnyvale, Calif. “They’re an option that not only positively impacts the performance and handling of any vehicle, but they immediately add value as well.”

Consumers are also spending increasing sums on mobile electronics that garner a return on investment at selling time.

Aftermarket GPS navigation systems, for example, are very popular with today’s drivers because they are more flexible and better designed than the systems installed by carmakers, says MacGillivray. Not only do these highly portable “stick-on” units afford you tremendous flexibility — you can use these units interchangeably among various vehicles — but they also generally come equipped with such built-in, state-of-the-art features as Bluetooth connectivity and other technologies that simply make them considerably easier to use and update.

“In a state like California and others where the law requires the use of a hands-free device when making a telephone call, a Bluetooth enabled GPS unit comes in real handy,” MacGillivray adds, noting that the majority of the GPS Systems that were factory installed last year lacked this functionality.

Aftermarket stereo systems are also desirable and value-enhancing options, provided they are installed professionally and don’t cause any problems with the vehicle’s electrical system, says Simms. The same goes for in-car DVD entertainment systems.

Add-ons that enhance

  • Appropriate-size alloy rims/wheels with lower-profile tires.
  • Navigation systems.
  • Mobile electronics, such as in-car DVD “infotainment” systems, satellite radio and premium stereo packages).
  • Factory-installed or vehicle-appropriate aftermarket leather seats/leather interiors.
  • Sunroofs/moon roofs.
  • Intelligent keys (free you from having to turn a physical switch to start a car, and they also automatically configure a car’s seats, mirrors and radio stations to the preference of the specific driver).
  • Appropriate body kits such as bed-liners, fascias, grilles, step-bars, running boards, brush-guards, fog lights, taillight treatments and legal window tinting.

“Leather has long been considered an option that would increase the value and desirability of almost any vehicle, and a sunroof is also something that will increase resale value for almost any car,” says Chris Voss, purchasing manager of the Schaumburg, Ill., franchise of national automotive retailer CarMax.


Don’t overdo it

Personalizing your car is a lot like improving real estate, says MacGillivray. Some modifications will go far in enhancing the value and desirability of your car, others won’t. When choosing accessories for your car, make sure the upgrades are appropriate to your vehicle type and that they will appeal to a large number of potential buyers.

Specific improvements are likely to add a greater value on specific makes and models. “For example, if you own a luxury car that doesn’t have a sunroof in it, that could actually hurt the resale value of that car more than it would a midsize family sedan like a Toyota Camry, because that kind of upgrade will be something buyers will be expecting to find installed on a luxury car,” says Voss.

But Simms warns that a vehicle can cross the line from properly optioned to extremely over-personalized.

You might gain the respect and admiration of a very select group of gear-heads if you lower the suspension on a typical late-model coupe or sedan and add 22-inch rims with ultra-low-profile tires, a stereo system with sheet-metal-rattling bass sound, Lamborghini scissor-style doors and other racy add-ons. You also might attract the attention of every radar cop and speed trap you travel past. But when you sell or trade-in that car it’s unlikely you would even get the wholesale or Kelley Blue Book value, despite spending thousands of dollars on so-called “improvements.”

Not only do you greatly limit the future marketability of such a car, but also you’ve likely voided its warranty, says Simms, adding that such alterations also imply that the vehicle was driven hard during its life. “In addition, when we accept a trade-in that has had a lot of intake and exhaust work done on it, there is a concern that it might not pass, in our case, stringent California emissions.”

“And with an overly modified car, for example, the way our business runs, we wouldn’t be able to retail such a car because we wouldn’t be able to offer an extended service warranty on it to our customers,” says Voss. “We just wouldn’t be able to sell that vehicle on our retail lot because modifying the suspension voids any manufacturer’s warranty. We also don’t have the ability or luxury to stick a ‘for sale’ sign on its window and then wait, wait, wait and wait.”

The point of diminishing returns varies because every vehicle is different and everybody’s taste is different, says MacGillivray. “You really need to do your homework. You need to talk with the installers and shops in your area to get an idea of what will work best and what won’t for your particular car — especially if you are concerned about optioning or modifying your car and then not getting a return on your investment.”

When more means less

  • Inappropriate-size alloy rims/wheels with low-profile tires.
  • Overpowered stereos, such as units with so-called “kicker-boxes” or enormous bass-speakers in the back of the trunk.
  • Aftermarket superchargers or turbochargers. This implies car was driven hard or aggressively.
  • Loud aftermarket exhaust systems.
  • Lowering/modifying suspensions. This is especially hurtful to late-model vehicles and often voids the manufacturer’s warranty.
  • Low quality or vibrant-colored leather/vinyl/cloth interiors.
  • Repainting the car in an unusual, non-factory color or a “mystic” finish. This limits the vehicle’s appeal, causes problems related to matching paint color/finish at the time of future repairs and can raise questions in a future buyer’s mind about why the car had to be entirely repainted)
  • Poorly-installed sunroofs/moon roofs. These raise serious concerns about warranties, leaks and corrosion.
  • Illegal window-tinting.

Simms and Voss agree that upgrades that provide the greatest value are those that are appropriate to your class of vehicle and that are commonly installed as part of factory option packages offered by your vehicle’s manufacturer.

Such extras afford the comfort, convenience and value that you can enjoy as an owner — and which your car’s future buyers will likely be looking for.

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