Best Way to Clean Your Car Before Selling it and What to Use

how to clean car before selling it

So you’re getting ready to sell your car and crunching the numbers, but the sight and smell of your car might have a bigger impact on those numbers than you expect. If you don’t make sure you have a clean car before selling it, you’ll likely end up handing off some of the equity you’ve worked for. 

There are the obvious things to tackle, like the funk your dog leaves behind after stretching out across the backseat after a day at the park, the wrappers you tucked away before school pickup so you wouldn’t have to share with the kids, and the items you’ve stuffed deep in your center console that you were going to deal with “later”. 

Those obvious items to tackle are easy, but we’re going to take you further into the cosmetic aspect of getting your car into pristine condition. If you want to walk away with a hefty check, you want this car to be so clean the dealers won’t want to get their fingerprints on it.

As we continue to unfold below, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see that it’s not nearly as difficult as it all sounds.

Why You Should Clean a Car Before Selling It 

Whether you’re selling your car to a private buyer or trading it in at a dealership, the condition of your vehicle will make an impact on how much money you’ll walk away with.

Buyers want to see that your car has been cared for and properly maintained. While a private buyer wants to feel confident in their purchase, a dealer wants to make sure they don’t have to put too much money into the car to turn a profit. 

When you’re able to show a clean vehicle, you’re able to hold onto more negotiating power. Dealerships have evaluators who will examine the car and dock you for any problems that they would need to resolve to get the car ready for the showroom floor. With every item a dealer has to invest in, the car becomes less valuable, and your payout begins to shrink.

How To Clean a Car Before Selling It: Tips From The Pros

Something else to consider is how much money you’ll spend getting your car ready to sell or trade. While it’s important to get your car in pristine condition, you also don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars doing it. Here we’ll break down the necessities, then tell you how to manage each one to limit the amount of muscle and money needed. 

Cleaning and Protecting Car Exterior 

Cleaning the exterior of your vehicle will likely be the easiest part. First off, do not go through a drive-thru car wash. We recommend that you hand wash your car. While drive-thru car washes seem convenient, they don’t clean that well, and they create swirls in your paintwork, which adds another thing you’d need to repair. 

Move your car out of direct sunlight to prevent cleaning solutions from self-drying. This step is important in preventing streaking on your paintwork and auto glass. Start with an auto-cleaning solution. They are inexpensive and will not wear down your top coat the way most dish soaps do.

Once your car is washed and rinsed, take the time to dry it. If you have a blower, this step will take only moments. However, if you need to use towels, start with the hood, lay your drying towel flat, and drag it to pull any sitting water off of the car. Continue this method until your car is dry.

While you may think this sounds silly and you’d rather let it sun dry, the point in drying your car manually is to prevent corrosive water spots. Once your car is fully dried, use a dedicated auto glass cleaner on all of the exterior windows and mirrors.

The final step in cleaning and protecting your car’s exterior is a simple wax. Not only will waxing the vehicle prevent it from re-collecting contaminates before you make it to the dealer, but it will also make the car shiny and bring back some of the vibrance in dull paintwork. If you opt to use a spray-on wax, all you need to do is spray one panel at a time, buff it out with a clean microfiber cloth, and continue until each desired surface is protected.

Cleaning and Protecting Car Interior

Here is a simple car interior cleaning guide. Your first and most obvious step is to remove everything from your vehicle. Once the car is empty, thoroughly vacuum all of the carpets (including the trunk), underneath the seats, and in any crevices where dirt may have accumulated. 

Your next step is to use an auto interior cleaner to wipe down all of the plastic and vinyl panels, steering wheel, all buttons, and handles, making sure to get into the bottom edges of cupholders. If you don’t have cleaning putty for crevices like air vents, you can use a small sponge paint applicator from the craft section of almost any large retailer, which will cost you less than $1. 

You’ll need to know how to clean car seats depending on whether they are fabric or leather. If you’re lucky enough to have leather or vinyl car seats, simply wipe them down with a leather cleaner and conditioner. 

However, if you have fabric seats, you’ll need to put in a bit more elbow grease. Start with a drill brush attachment to loosen up all the compacted debris from the fabric. Use your fabric cleaner as directed by the manufacturer.

The key part of properly cleaning fabric seats is extraction. If you don’t own an extraction tool, you can use a shop vac. Move-in steady straight lines to ensure you’re pulling out all of the liquid you put into the seats. 

The final step in cleaning your car’s interior is to use a dedicated auto glass cleaner on every interior window, sunroof, interior mirror, and screen. If you don’t have a dedicated auto glass cleaner, make sure that whatever product you choose does not contain ammonia, as ammonia will likely cause streaks and is damaging to window tints.

Cleaning Engine Bay

Unless you’re a car enthusiast, you’ve probably never cleaned or even thought about cleaning your engine bay. The fact of the matter is that everything under your hood is dirty and greasy, and this is normal. When a dealer pops open your hood to take a look underneath, they will judge how well the car has been maintained by how clean or unclean the engine bay is.

A clean engine bay looks like a highly cared for car and will leave a dealer impressed. Impressing the dealer means more money in your pocket. 

While this might sound like a daunting task, it’s surprisingly simple, and I’m happy to walk you through the steps. If you’re going to take this extra step, do it before you clean the rest of your car’s exterior.

First, cover your battery with a microfiber towel. Once your battery is covered, you can use a pressure washer or garden hose on a low setting to rinse away the majority of the grime from under your hood. 

Next, you’ll use a cleaning solution that is dedicated to cleaning under the hood. If you think you’ll only ever do this once, my recommendation is Purple Power due to how cheap it is. However, if you want a high-quality product go with Nexgen Wheel and Engine Cleaner. Nexgen’s product will cost you more, but it’s truly made for people who are serious about keeping their cars fresh and clean.

Spray the components, then agitate the cleaning solution with a flexible brush. To get into smaller hard-to-reach areas, use a detailing brush. Once you’ve agitated the solution over each surface, gently rinse the solution away. 

Don’t worry, we’re not going to leave the battery covered in soot. Remove the microfiber cloth from the top of the battery and spray the cleaning solution directly onto a clean, dry microfiber towel. Then gently wipe away the grime. The final step is to use another microfiber cloth to dry your engine bay.

It’s important not to let your car self-dry, even under the hood, as the water will likely leave blotches that you’d later need to clean off.

Fixing Scratches and Swirl Marks

This is an easy step to add on prior to waxing the car. If you’ve never removed light to moderate scratches or swirls, you might be thinking this part is too advanced to take on alone. However, this process is as simple as exfoliating your face. A swirl and scratch remover is typically made up of exfoliating particles and smoothing agents. All you have to do is apply it with an applicator pad. No special equipment is needed. This is another relatively inexpensive item you can get at almost any auto shop or online. 

I should mention that the results will vary based on the condition of your car. While scratch and swirl removers are incredibly useful products, they aren’t miracle workers.

You might not be able to remove every single scratch or swirl mark, and it won’t remove deep scratches. At the bare minimum, you will be left with a much fresher-looking paint job. 

Restoring Faded Plastics

Faded plastics and trim give the appearance of something being “old” or “worn down”. Restoring the faded plastics on your car is something that is commonly overlooked but makes a large impact on the overall appearance of a vehicle. Several inexpensive products on the market will quickly moisturize and darken your plastic and trim. 

This is a step that an auto detailer would use when getting a car ready for a dealer. A restorative solution and a sponge applicator pad could cost you about $10-$20 at your local auto shop and only takes minutes to apply.

Meguiar’s Ultimate Black Plastic Restorer is an easy choice based on how cheap yet effective it is. It comes in a gel and an aerosol, so you can grab whichever option you’re more comfortable with.

Meguiar’s Ultimate Black Plastic Restorer
•CAR PLASTIC RESTORER: One 12 oz bottle of Meguiar’s Ultimate Black Plastic Restorer brings new life to all non-painted exterior plastic, vinyl and rubber trim

•VERSATILE CAR CARE: Hand-applied cream that works on non-painted bumpers, moldings, door handles, rearview mirror housings and windshield cowlings

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are some frequently asked questions with point-blank answers. The fact of the matter is that these questions are asked so frequently because it can be difficult to find solid answers to each. Most answers won’t be 100% clear and will nudge you toward a specific company or product. If you’re going to take the time to read a full blog post or article it had better provide you with actual knowledge, right?

Does it matter if your car is clean when you trade it in?

A clean car will be worth more when you go to sell or trade it, as it gives the appearance of a vehicle that has been well cared for and properly maintained, giving the buyer more confidence in their purchase.

What brings down car value?

Damage like rust, scratches, dents, and damaged auto glass will bring down the value at first glance. Smokey and dirty interiors will also drag the value down. If the buyer or dealer feels that they will need to immediately invest money into the vehicle, they will not be willing to pay as much.

Does a dirty car affect trade-in value?

From a dealer’s perspective, a dirty car looks like a series of bills. You wouldn’t pay full price for something that you have to put a lot of work into. If I were to buy your car knowing that I needed to put about $1k of work into professional detailing, replacing a cracked windshield, getting a light fixed, etc.., I’m probably going to offer you $1k less plus a buffer of say an additional $500 to ensure my expenses are met. Keep in mind that a dealer can’t risk breaking even on your car. They have to purchase it in a way that enables them to make a profit. An educated private-party buyer will do the same. If the buyer isn’t looking to turn around and resell the car, they still want to make sure they have some equity in it.

How much do scratches lower the value of a car?

Dealers will have to determine what it will cost them to have the scratches repaired by a professional and will lower the amount they’re willing to pay you to ensure that the cost is covered. This can lower your value anywhere from 5%-15%!

Should I fix scratches before selling the car?

Absolutely! Here’s the thing, you’re going to pay for the work either way, whether that’s on your own or the dealer deducting the amount they pay you to more than cover the cost. By repairing scratches yourself, or choosing your professional to do it for you, you can spend less than what a car dealer would have withheld from your check. To put it into perspective, if you’re expecting $15k and the dealer deducts 15% for scratched paint, you’re walking away with $2,250 less than you’d wanted. It doesn’t cost anywhere near that amount to fix the scratches yourself.

What adds the most value to a car?

At the end of the day, your car’s value is in its physical condition. If you want to add value to your car, clean it properly, eliminate lingering smells, and fix your auto glass and paintwork if necessary.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is that you need to have a clean car before selling it. If you want to skip the work and accept a smaller payment, be aware that the amount you’re walking away from is higher than what you would have spent detailing your vehicle. 

If you take any skills away from this article and apply them to your next vehicle, you’d have a great start to maintaining the value of your vehicle over time, rather than rushing to get everything done when you’re at the end of ownership.


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