To probably most people, the thought of cleaning a car in great detail sounds really tedious and boring. To me, I love it. I love doing something as simple as cleaning something to add value to something or restore it. You’d be surprised at what a difference such a simple thing as spending time cleaning your car before you sell it will pay off.
Spending just 2 hours cleaning your car could easily ad hundreds of dollars of value when selling it. If you got an extra $400 because your car looked great and you only spent 2 hours cleaning it, that’s like working for $200 an hour. So why not?
What Does Detailing a Car Mean?
First, let’s just quickly discuss what we’re doing. When you detail a car, you’re cleaning beyond what’s normally done at a car wash. Think about it… you’re out there driving on the road, which is dirty and small specs of dirt come off the road and onto your car all the time. There’s also dust and rain that play a part. Instead of just getting the main parts clean, you’re going after the parts that usually get a light cleaning or get skipped over with a normal car wash. You’re going into more detail.
When you detail clean a car, you’re goal is to get it looking its best – the best that you can – and as close to new as you can. You may choose to go beyond what you can do and have a local body shop do some touch up work to the body of the vehicle. That’s up to you and we’re not going into that here – I’ll mainly talk about what to detail and how to do it so that you get every area that’s important, which should be time well invested.
How to Get Ready
First, you have to dedicate the time. Make sure you are able to spend maybe 2-3 hours on a good cleaning. Before you get started on the detail work, here are some things to have ready or things to do before you start detailing your car:
- Get it clean. This means take it to a car wash first – one that will do a good job and most of them use environmentally friendly ways of reusing their water. You have the option to clean it yourself, of course.
- Get some rags and dry cloths – ones you can throw away or dedicate to washing the car. Old t-shirts are good.
- Get a vacuum cleaner that has thin attachments that let you get into tough places.
- Get some cleaning supplies – you’ll need:
- Soap – get car shampoo, not dish soap.
- A bucket.
- A sponge.
- A brush – the kind with a wood handle.
- Armor All Protectant (spray)
- Tire wax – the kind that foams up.
- Chrome cleaner for the wheels if they need it.
- A scrubbie sponge – the green ones that are a bit abrasive.
- A brush or upholstery brush
- Window cleaner and paper towels.
- Carpet and upholstery cleaner – there’s one called “Tuff Stuff Multi-Purpose Foam Cleaner” that works excellent. Make sure you get some of this.
Wash the Car
You got a normal car wash first because what you’re doing is detailing your car – not just a normal washing. You’re going beyond what a local car wash place will normally do.
Find a Place to Start Detailing
Get all your stuff together and set yourself up in a good place to work. For most people, this is their garage or driveway. If you live in an apartment or condo or some place where you can’t clean your car there, then go to one of the self-serve car washes in the area. You can clean your car there and then pull to the side somewhere and start your detailing.
Made in the Shade
If possible, work out of the sunlight, in the shade. This is especially important when you’re waxing the car or truck. Also, it’ll keep you cooler while you’re working. Of course, it can’t be too cold while you’re doing this either. If you’re washing your vehicle yourself, then you always want to do that in the shade so that you don’t get water spots.
One good tip is get someone to help you. They can do one thing while you do another. Have the radio on and be sure to get them something to drink and maybe share a pizza when you’re all done!
Get Started Doing Your Detailing
Since working on the carpets (getting stains out) is going to take the longest to dry, you’re going to do everything else first and save that for last.
Before everything gets wet from cleaning with a sponge, do your detail vacuuming. Get under the seats and everywhere you can. Watch for loose change and don’t forget to keep it. Pull back seats if you can and get all those crumbs out. Doing this will help the car smell better, too. Vacuum out the trunk.
Try different attachments with your vacuum cleaner so that you do the best with your time that you can getting under the seats and working on cloth areas.
Get your bucket full of warm water with soap in it and get a sponge and a dry towel. You’re going to go around to each door and clean out all the corner areas really good. Go into where the hinges are and carefully clean in there. Clean the rubber and everything that you can. Leave the door hinges greased up so that they open and close easily.
Hood and Trunk
Next, go into the hood and trunk and do the same. Clean everything.
Under the hood, you can clean most parts. Don’t get anything electrical wet. I like to use some Armor All on the hoses and anything plastic. Cleaning under the hood will make it look like the car was well cared for when you sell it. Do a good job on it and you’ll see some amazing results.
Tackle the Tires and Wheels
When a vehicle has nice looking tires and wheels, it makes a huge, huge difference! Here are two pictures showing the before and after when I did some detailing of my brother’s 1999 Nissan Pathfinder (which I got looking super sharp!)
Start with some clean water and soap in the bucket and get the green scrubbie sponge out. Get into all the corners of the wheels and clean those babies! It might take some elbow grease (muscle).
Next, get the chrome cleaner out if you have chrome wheels and spray it on. Let it sit 2 minutes and then spray a bit more on and then towel them dry with maybe a light scrub first.
If your car has wheel covers instead of alloy wheels, you have some options. First, you could just go buy some new wheel covers – that will pay for itself for sure. Second, you can clean and then carefully spray paint (black) the steel wheels to make them look better even though they are behind the wheel covers. Use some tape and tape off the tires so that you don’t get spray paint on the tires – you don’t want that.
Next, use the tire foam wax on all 4 tires. Spray it on and then I wipe if off. Make sure you spray it evenly and go to the edge of the tire.
Now your wheels and tires should look awesome!
Armor All the Inside
Get the Armor All protectant out and clean all the plastic. Use a clean rag. I like to spray it on the rag, outside the car and then use the rag to put it on the part I’m shining up. This makes sure you’re not getting it on places you don’t want it. They also make some Armor All wipes, which are good, too.
Where you don’t want to use Armor All is on the pedals, steering wheel (the wheel itself – the steering column is ok… you just don’t want a steering wheel that’s slippery) or windows.
Armour All the Outside
Your car may have some areas that you can shine up with Armor All. Don’t get it on the painted areas of the car, of course, but maybe things like mud flaps or trim or mirrors.
There’s this stuff called “Wipe New” which you can order that works really well. You have to be careful when using it but it does wonders. It works great and is more permanent than Armor All.
Clean the Windows
Use some window cleaner and clean both sides of the windows. Don’t leave streaks.
I think cleaning the windows good is huge! This is what people are looking through when they are test driving the car. A dirty windshield can make the whole car seem dirty.
If you’re in a warm climate or it’s summer out and you’re one of those people that don’t crack their windows when the car sits outside, the chemicals from the seats or dirt or whatever you have sitting in your car is going to get into the air and then create a film on the windows. It might take washing the windows 2-3 times to get all of that off.
Now that most of the inside work is done, you can tackle the carpets. Cleaning the carpets gets out stains and will help the car smell cleaner and fresher. You can have a car wash place do a steam cleaning if you like or you can do that yourself, too. At least get some baking soda based carpet cleaner and use it on the inside.
If you have stains on light colored carpet, don’t worry – you can get them out. This Tuff Stuff that I mentioned basically performs miracles. What you do is spray it on an area until it foams up. Let it sit for at least 2 minutes – maybe wait up until 4-5. Then, get your wood handled brush or upholstery brush and scrub the area. You might scrub for 30 seconds or so but the stain will usually come out or get much better. If there’s still some stain there, then do this whole process 1-2 more times and that should take care of it.
Once you’ve taken care of all the spots on the carpet and if you’ve followed all the steps here so far, you might start thinking that your car looks awesome and you might not even want to sell it now. Thinking that is normal.
You’ll want the car to air out, so have it somewhere that has a breeze and leave the windows and sunroof open so that it can dry. It might take 1-2 hours.
The last step (and probably only thing left to do) is wax your car. Doing this will really make it shine and give your car the “wow” factor when someone sees it.
You’ll first use rubbing compound on tough areas. This is explained in the video below. If you have a car that’s red, then you might need to first use rubbing compound on the whole car to get rid of the dead layer of paint. This is mainly a problem with red cars.
Get some Turtle Wax or similar kind and get to it. You’ll do a small area at a time. Put some on, let it dry and then wipe it off with a clean towel. Borrow or buy a car buffer if you want.
Here’s a good video on how to wax a car. Watch this before you even start this process:
Some Cheats / Extra Stuff
What I explained here is if you want to do all this work yourself. You could, of course, hire someone to do this for you and still come out ahead. You will need to leave your car with them for several hours. Find a local car wash or search for an auto detailer in your areas. Sometimes Groupon will have some deals.
Use Febreeze in your car. You don’t want some air freshener that’s too strong or it’ll seem like you’re covering something up. Get a neutral type of air fresher or upholstery spray and put it on.
Getting new car mats makes a pretty big difference. Spending $30 on some is worth it if your car needs new ones.
Visit a local junkyard and try to find some replacement interior parts. You might spend $5-10 on a bunch of things and you can easily fix some stuff. This will pay for itself, too. There are also websites that sell OEM replacement parts, so check those out, too.
Hopefully, as I kind of mentioned already, you’re now looking at your car in a new way. It should look so good that you want to keep it maybe. Your main goal with a good cleaning and detailing is to go for that “wow” factor. You also want to make feel good emotionally about the car. If it looks clean and cared for, you’ll fetch a better price for sure. People are trying to imagine themselves in the car when they are looking it over. Try to give them a good of a feeling about that as you can.
Here are some pictures of the work I did on my brother’s Nissan Pathfinder – a before and after picture. The interior actually took a lot of work and was an ever bigger transformation but I don’t have pictures of that.
If there’s something else you think I missed, leave some comments for us below. And don’t forget to share this article with your friends!