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How to Detail an Automobile Before Selling

Posted on December 13th, 2023

"Cleanliness is next to Godliness” - Ancient Hebrew proverb

There is nothing worse than live cockroaches scurrying across the dashboard of a car you are about to enter. Another big turn-off is the body odor in a car. Whether you are trading in your vehicle or selling it to an individual, it must make a good first impression.

Wash the Exterior of the Car

Knock that coat of dust off of ol’ Betsy. In case you have been off-road with her, hose off all of the mud. Most full-service car washes have under-cargo cleaning as well as the regular wash.

  • If you are a “do it yourself” hands-on person, use car soap, not dish soap. The clue should be "dish.”. Dish soap has a tendency to leave a residue on the paint and windows.
  • Use an adjustable spray-nozzle head. It helps to be able to knock off the heavy dirt and adjust to rinse off the soap suds. Use a soft cloth, sponge, or soft bristle brush when washing ol’ Betsy. Stiff brushes will scratch her finish.
  • You may be tempted to wash that dirty engine with that high-pressure washer. STOP! Unless you are a professional detail person, do not attempt to clean the engine with any type of high-pressure hose or regular hose. There are more electronic components under the hood of these cars than ever before. Blasting that engine can shorten the life of many vital components and modules. Unless you’re stupid, excessively wealthy, or both, don’t do it! Instead, use a fine brush or wipes for the tough stuff. You can use an air hose for the light stuff. If you insist on pressure washing the engine compartment, ensure that all electronic components are securely wrapped in plastic. Duct tape and a garbage bag should suffice.
  • Note: Some buyers like that shiny new car look under the hood. You know that look. So much Armorall that you think you’re at a steroid-induced beach body contest. Do not overdo it. A lot of old-timers do not like all that shine. They want to look for imperfections. Mainly, fluid leaks around gaskets and seals. With all that foo-foo shine, they have a tendency to think something is being covered up.

Clean the Tires and Wheels

Some people like cleaning tires and wheels first, but find that they generally have more dirt and grime than the rest of the car. It is a matter of personal preference. Once again, be careful with the finish on the wheels. Abrasive cleaners and stiff brushes could scratch the surface of those soon-to be shiny wheels.

There is a difference between wheels and tires. Tires are those black things with tread. Well, some of them have tread. Wheels are those things inside the tire. Wheels have those little nuts on them. Tires = black things with tread, and wheels = things with nuts. Be careful now; do not take that too far!

Dry, Dry, Dry and This is Not About Martinis or Sense of Humor

If you do not have a chamois, buy one. Chamois is French, as in a piece of leather, used for washing windows or cars. In this case, dry them. Letting your car air dry is fine if you do not mind all of the water spots. Do yourself a favor and spend $5 bucks and 15 minutes to dry off your car. Ol’ Betsy will never look better!

The Next Step Depends on the weather conditions and Where You Are Detailing Your Car

If it is a cloudy day or you are in a shaded area, apply a thin coat of wax. Wax brings out the shine. It’s also great for beading up the raindrops. You know that downpour that always occurs fifteen minutes after you finish detailing your car? Yeah, that one. Back to the topic. If you are in a shaded area or it’s nice and cloudy, put a thin coat of wax on the car and start working on the interior. If you are out in the sun, then you might want to find a shaded area or only do a couple of body panels at a time. Baked on wax is a pain to get off. It is completely up to you. If you skipped out on your exercise for the past week, by all means go for it. Leave buffer use to professionals unless you have experience. Improper buffer usage will burn the paint and mar the finish.

Try to keep from getting wax on all those nice black plastic areas. Over time, the wax buildup turns those nice black plastic areas into white, pasty eye sores. If you are into white, pasty eyesores, wax your heart out.

Begin Detailing the Interior With the Headliner

When the buyer sits down in the driver’s seat, he or she instinctively looks up. It may be to play with the sunvisor or vanity mirror. It may be fun to play with the sunroof or moonroof if your car has one. Therefore, wipe off the headliner. Use a damp cloth and a mild cleaning agent. Do not go overboard. Too much moisture may cause the headliner to separate. Do not use any agents that may stain or bleach the headliner material.

Now to the Dash and Gauge Area

A lint-free cloth will do fine. Once again, do not use anything abrasive on the gauges or instrument clusters. These are generally soft, clear plastics that have the tendency to scratch easily.

If you are one of those Armorall freaks who likes everything really shiny, do not get Armorall on the gauges or instrument clusters. This will create a cloudy area. Also, you can use a q-tip or a small, fine brush for the crevices. Canned air that you buy to clean your computer key board does wonders.

Clean the Upholstery and Carpets

Vacuum the entire interior. In the cracks of the seats, under the seats, and in between the seats. You never know what you may have lost. Sometimes it may be rewarding to find that long-lost, cherished item and sometimes what may be found is not for strangers to see. So vacuum thoroughly.

  • Make sure that the seats are free of stains. This is a big turn-off for the prospective buyer. There are many brands of upholstery cleaners on the market. Wool, etc., even soap and water. This is where a wet vac (shop vac) comes in handy. You want to soak up all the moisture after cleaning the interior. Improper suckification (a new word for the day) will cause the car to smell like mildew in a short period of time. If that happens, you will be spending countless hours explaining that the car has never been under water and that you didn’t use proper "suckification.”. Do it right the first time.
  • As for the carpets,. The same goes. Stains are a distraction. Some stains can be shampooed. Others may need a mild de-greaser to lift them out. Red stains are the worst. In this case, you may need to dye the carpet.
  • If your floor mats are stained or worn out, buy new ones. You can buy a nice, color-keyed set at your local Wal-Mart, Target, or Kmart for less than twenty bucks. A brand new set of floor mats does wonders for a car’s interior appearance.

Remove All Trash and Personal Effects From Consoles, Glove Boxes, and the Trunk Area

The same goes for all the storage compartments in the trunk area. You do not want any of your private and personal information to be left in the car.

Make Sure All Windows Are Clean, Including the Sunroof and Moonroof Glass.

Inside and outside. The newspaper and Windex will do the job. Be careful with aftermarket tints. Some manufacturers have different recommendations in regards to types of cleaners. As for old tint, if it is peeling, you may want to go ahead and remove it.

Be Aware of How Your Car Smells Inside

Certain car smells can turn customers off completely. Try selling a smoker’s car to a non-smoker. That is a tough sell. In this case, you will need to use a combination of an ozone machine and an anti-bacterial spray. A combination of these will neutralize the bacteria that cause the smoke smell. As for all other odors, there are alternatives. A sliced apple placed under the seats and in the ashtray will help to absorb odors. Another idea would be to use Bounce dryer sheets. A combination of the two will make the prospective buyer salivate while snuggling up to your car’s interior. For body odor, spray some Febreeze. It will help with that smell.


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