One thing you can still do yourself is wash your car.
And just as you used to be able to save a lot of money by working on your car, it’s possible to save money and more than you might think by cleaning your car yourself.
It typically costs about $12 to run through a basic automated car wash; if you opt for the wheel/tire cleaner and a spritz of wax which isn’t worth much the tab can sail to $20 or more.
That’s a couple hundred bucks a year—assuming you like to keep your car clean—which you should, for self-interested reasons (more coming).
You can keep your car clean yourself, better, a dozen times for the price of one full-service car wash. A jug of high-quality car wash soap, some wheel/tire cleaner (and a brush, to scrub the tires) shouldn’t cost you more than about $20 and less if you watch for sales. You probably already have a bucket and a soft cloth, such as an old bathroom hand towel you can use for free.
Keeping your car looking good will also help maintain its value looking good, which will save you big money by not losing it. A tired-looking car with blotchy paint, glaucomic headlights, and permanently stained wheels won’t sell or trade for as much as one that still looks great.
You could, of course, have it professionally detailed before trade-in or sale, but that will cost you a lot more than $20. A detailing job usually costs $75-$100 or more.
And if you let it go too long, even a professional detailer can only do so much. It’s analogous to not working out until you’re 50 and then expecting a trainer to give you six pack abs in a weekend.
Keeping your car clean can also keep it from rusting which can cost you a fortune in repair costs as well as kill its resale/trade-in value. Vehicles that aren’t kept clean tend to rust faster because moisture, which accelerates rust, doesn’t drain or dry out as well or as quickly (and maybe not at all) when drainage holes are blocked by accumulated dirt.
Also, it’s easy to overlook minor paint scratches when a car is dirty.
It’s essential not to overlook them because paint is like skin; the purpose isn’t just to look pretty—it’s to protect what’s underneath. If the pain chips and the metal underneath is exposed to air and moisture, it will begin to rust. And once it begins to rust, it’s hard to stop the rust.
And not easy or cheap to fix. You can’t buff out rust.
But it’s more than just a matter of aesthetics.
Or saving money.
Or even time savings (and sometimes, the line at the automated car wash is so long you could have washed your car yourself faster and never had to drive anywhere to do it, either).
It’s good exercise and it’s a pleasant way to spend some time with your car. It might even get you interested in trying to work on it!
Some Car Wash Do’s and Don’ts
Never spray water on a hot car or in direct sunlight.
This risks damaging the paint and, in particular, the translucent clearcoat that gives a modern car’s finish its shine. If you damage the clearcoat, the paint will never shine again, no matter how much you buff it out.
This maybe is the best reason never to let high school kids wash your car during their annual fundraiser. They usually have these fundraising car washes on hot summer days in a parking lot where there’s no shade. If you want to support the kids, give them some money, but keep them away from your car.
Use Lots of Water and Keep the Car Wet
Don’t wipe/scrub anything until you’ve thoroughly hit it with lots of water to remove the dirt (grit), which will act like sandpaper if you rub it into the finish while you’re washing the car.
Do this with the finish cold (per above) and in the shade so the water won’t immediately evaporate and will have time to soak into the dirt; your object is to use water pressure to wash away most of the accumulated grit before you go at it with elbow grease and your wash cloth (use soft/clean towels, obviously) or sponge.
Use the hose to clean the washcloth sponge off often and make sure the soapy water in your bucket isn’t dirty. Change if necessary.
Wash from the roof down.
Do the wheels first — so that water doesn’t have a chance to dry on the finish while you’re working on the wheels.
Use a fresh/clean towel to wipe down the car once you’re finished washing. Be sure to avoid letting the water evap-dry on the finish. Then — in the shade — use a spray detailer to get at any bug splotches, etc. that didn’t come off in the wash.
Yellowing plastic headlight lenses can be brought back to non-glaucomic using buffing compound and an old rag.
And don’t forget to vacuum the interior!