The Best Way to Sell Your Stocks

The Orders, Methods, and Numbers Behind the Sale

Men is suits talking on the floor of the NYSE

Andrew Theodorakis / Getty Images

So, the time has come for you to unload that investment. Regardless of whether it’s a dud, a stud, or hitting the ground with a thud, selling stock breaks down to a simple procedure that need not intimidate the neophyte investor. The modern world of app-fueled investing makes selling a stock nearly as easy as streaming songs on a smartphone. If you’re more the flesh-and-blood type, working with a trusted financial advisor can be equally stress-free.

Key Takeaways

  • There are three types of sell orders to choose from when selling your stock.
  • It helps to work with a financial advisor to understand your stocks' values better if you’re unsure.
  • There are many techniques for helping you decide when to sell a stock, but the best one is to set a target price and sell the stock when it hits that level.

Types of Sell Orders

The most basic way to sell a stock comes through what’s called a "sell order." Once you know you're going to place a sell order, you've got to decide what type of sell order you'd like to place. The main types of sales-related orders include:

  • Market orders: These orders are sold nearly instantaneously at the current market price. The benefit is that orders are executed as quickly as possible. The downside is that you'll have to accept the lowest buying price currently offered on the market.
  • Limit orders: These orders set a minimum acceptable price, and the stocks will only sell if a buyer's offer meets that price (or goes higher). The benefit is that a seller has more of a guarantee as to the price they'll receive. The downside is that your order could languish in a long line of pending orders.
  • Stop orders: These orders will only sell a stock if the price drops to a seller's chosen level. The benefit is that it's a kind of insurance policy against a stock plummeting in value—you'll automatically sell your position once it hits the stop price, executing into a market order. The downside is that these orders are usually placed with a worst-case scenario in mind, so if the stop order triggers, you'll receive the next available price when the stock might be heavily volatile. A stop-limit executes a limit order once the stop price is reached, but it doesn't guarantee execution if the prices drops below your limit.

Using an App

If you're already comfortable using phone apps (and if you're reading this on your phone right now), a trading app might be the best way for you to sell a stock. First-time traders are particularly fond of playing the market this way, as many investment apps do not charge commissions on trades. Some apps are offered by relatively new financial companies, such as Robinhood, while traditional brokerage firms also offer their take on trading apps. Each app functions slightly differently, but the simplest layouts will allow you to sell a stock in just three taps. Betterment has also enjoyed success as an app-based way to buy and sell a pre-selected portfolio of stocks.

Working With a Financial Advisor

Assuming that you bought your stock through a financial advisor, either in person or on the phone, you can also sell your stock this way. Financial advisors will typically execute a sell order within 24 hours. Note that, in this case, you must either speak directly to your broker or put your request in writing. As Investopedia notes, “Financial institutions will not accept email or voicemail trade requests as they can be easily missed.”

The Untimeliness of Market Timing

Knowing how to sell a stock is one thing, but how do you know when it’s time to sell a stock? Sound answers to this question vary, but let’s start with the most frowned-upon technique regarding a stock sale: market timing.

Simply put, market timing rests on the theory that you can successfully buy and sell a stock by predicting its future movements. In some ways, it’s akin to the guesswork of watching interest rates on mortgages and betting on the ideal time to lock in a rate.

Most experts contend that market timing is simply a bet because, even in the numerical world of investing, no set of calculations exists that can tell you when to get in and when to get out of a certain stock. Tea leaves, it turns out, may be nearly as precise in predicting market movements.

If you hoped to get in at the right time and succeeded, good for you! However, think carefully before you sell on similar hopes for good luck. Many sellers find that it's better to set a dollar target rather than a timing target. You don't have to formalize it in a sell order—it could be as simple as jotting down your thoughts on a sticky note at your work desk. For example, you may have bought a stock at $20 per share, and you may set a goal to sell when the stock hits $30 per share.

A Magic Selling Number: 16.5

This figure doesn't refer to any actual magic, nor does it refer to any secret backroom rules on Wall Street. Rather, it pertains to something known as a "GAAP forward multiple." "GAAP" stands for "generally accepted accounting principles," and it's a financial standard that public companies use.

The 16.5 strategy goes like this: If you take the earnings per share (EPS) of a company, as determined by GAAP, and multiply it by 16.5, you will have a target price for your sale. So if Carlozo Motors has an EPS of $10, your target sell price would be $160.50.

This formula is based on a 40-year average for equities, and since the late 1800s, the best points to sell a stock have fallen roughly along the lines of this equation.

The Bottom Line

With all of the different ways to buy and sell a stock, the barriers to entry for the investment world have never been lower. If you're nervous about whether you should sell a stock, or if you aren't sure when to sell it, you can always choose to sit and wait. You should never feel an obligation to sell a stock, and holding on to a position for the long term can be a great investment strategy. This is known as “buy and hold,” and it's favored by billionaires like Warren Buffett and Charles Brandes. When you finally decide to sell, you'll know how to execute the order with just a couple of taps, clicks, or conversations.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

When should you sell a stock at a loss?

Traders may decide to sell stock at a loss when they feel that a support level has broken. Where they draw their support line will determine their strategy, and once that support line breaks, a trader's idea may have been invalidated, and it could be time to cut their losses. Of course, those using a "buy and hold" strategy will hold, regardless of any support levels that have broken.

How can you sell stocks without a broker?

The easiest and most common way to buy and sell stocks is through a brokerage, but that isn't necessarily the only way. You can trade stocks without a broker through direct stock purchase plans with companies. For example, rather than buying Home Depot's stock through a brokerage, you can do so directly from the company itself. These direct plans can come with extra fees that brokerages don't charge, so be sure you understand the fee structure before opting for a brokerage alternative.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. “Types of Orders.”

  2. “Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP).”

  3. Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. “Comparing Price-to-Earnings Ratios: The S&P 500 Forward P/E and the CAPE.”

  4. The Home Depot. "Direct Stock Purchase Plan."

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