No, Options Won’t Get You More Money When It’s Time To Sell Your Car

I often get angry e-mails from readers – people just like you, except with more time on their hands – who complain about the fact that virtually everything I write is an outright lie. So today I'm going to employ an entirely different strategy: I'm going to tell the truth. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Our topic today is automotive options. You probably know all about options, because you have a few of them on your current car. What probably happened is, you went in to the local BMW dealer looking for a $35,000 328i, and you realized that – at that price point – the 328i is missing a few crucial items, such as heated seats, and leather upholstery, and doors. So you decided to add those features, and a few others, and then a few others,and in the end you drove away from the dealership in a $94,000 328i with 13-inch wheels. (You have to draw the line somewhere.)

Options have always been tricky like that. Of course, you want all of them. You want to be able to cruise along and listen to high definition radio while your seat both massages your back and cools your butt. You want to walk away from your car and just know that the doors will lock on their own, so you don't have to press the button like some poverty-stricken loser. You want that minivan vacuum cleaner thing, so that – with the simple push of a button – you can kill spiders in your garage.

But sometimes your budget doesn't allow such opulence. Here I'm reminded of a recent column I wrote after discovering that adding lane departure warning to the Infiniti something-or-other increases the car's base price by eleven grand. Interestingly, this might be a good thing, because it could stop you from going crazy with extras. Think about it! Maybe this sort of pricing will make you look at options prices, and look at your budget, and say: "No! Lane departure warning is not worth the same amount of money as a 1999 Porsche Boxster!"

The problem is that not enough car shoppers say this sort of thing. And that's because they justify their crazy option-adding antics by telling themselves not to worry, because they'll make the money back when it comes time to sell the car. Fortunately, I'm here to provide you with a simple reality of the automotive world: that just isn't true.

For proof, I suggest you turn to the classified listings over at AutoTrader.com. (Motto: "Helping car enthusiasts get through the work day since 1997!") Go check out the listings for your favorite car, or truck, or SUV. In fact, go peruse the listings for the reigning king of options, the Porsche 911, which offers everything from heated and cooled seats to distilled and expertly aged engine oil.

What you'll find is unfortunate for any driver who ever poured money into an options list. Oh, sure, in the first couple of years, some of the bigger options make a difference. You'll get a few grand more if you went with the spider-killing Honda Odyssey. And you'll get a few grand less if you got talked into one of those stripped-down base models they put on the grass in front of the dealership with huge writing on the side – especially if you can still see the outline of the "$" in "BIG $AVINGS".

But after a while, none of this stuff matters. Go look at cars that are four or five years old, and you'll discover that nobody cares what options they have. As an example, the going rate for a 2009 Buick Enclave appears to be something like $22,000. That means it doesn't matter what features your 2009 Buick Enclave has: it's still worth $22,000. You installed a rock garden in back? $22,000. You converted the second row into a gymnasium for ferrets? $22,000. God himself comes in through the gauge cluster every time you start the car to give you daily guidance? None of these things will increase your value. OK, maybe you'd get $22,500 for the God thing.

It's important to note that all of this is also true for trim levels. When you go to sell your 2004 Mercury Monterey, nobody will care that you have the XLE Anniversary Edition instead of the LE Normal Weekday Edition. Instead, used car buyers will be far more eager to get the answers to other, more pressing questions, such as: "Does it run?" and "What are all those stains in the back?"

The reason for all this is that options are far more important on a new car level, where each vehicle is otherwise identical, since they all have a full warranty and zero miles on the odometer. Drivers looking for used cars are less picky, because they have to be. For example: most used car buyers would probably choose a car with an excellent service history, low miles, and few options over one with high miles and no records, even if the high-mileage car has – in the words of most Craigslist sellers – TV'S IN THE SEATS!!!!

So if you're about to head into a dealership and start wildly checking options boxes, just remember: don't go crazy, because you probably won't see of that money back. Even if you have the best ferret gymnasium in the world.

@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.