Car Detailing Tips To Keep Your Used Car Looking New

Is your vehicle in need of a little TLC? These car detailing tips will help restore its original beauty and shine so you can keep your used vehicle looking and smelling like new.

car detailing tips

Everyone agrees that regular maintenance (oil changes, belts, and filters, etc.) is important to the health and resale value of your car; but, taking care of the cosmetic features can also add hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars to the worth of your vehicle when it comes time to sell it or trade it in. 

A car is a major purchase, so isn't it worth the time and elbow grease necessary to protect your investment? Not only will you drive with a sense of pride, but you can also be assured that the shiny paint and meticulously kept interior will have huge returns in the long-run. For example, according to Motor Trend Magazine (, a clean 2010 Ford Focus can be worth up to $1,000 more than the same car in fair condition, and $2,000 more than one in rough condition. 

Unfortunately, even diligent car owners who faithfully wash and clean their vehicles can actually cause damage to the paint, upholstery, or moldings because they don't use the proper products. 

By following these simple detailing tips, you can keep your car in excellent condition so it looks like  new for years to come.

Car Detailing Supplies You Will Need

To get the best results and protect your car from possible scratches or damage, it is important that you use the proper tools and products. For complete detailing, you will need:

  • Carpet/upholstery shampoo
  • Fabric protector or leather cleaner and protector
  • Terry cloth towel and/or soft bristle brush
  • Vacuum
  • Vinyl/plastic protector
  • Small air compressor (optional) and/or car vent cleaner
  • Two buckets
  • Car-washing soap
  • Lamb's wool wash mitts, chamois, and/or microfiber cloths ( rags, old clothing, or towels are not absorbent so dirt may stick to their surface, causing scratches or other damage to the exterior of your car)
  • Hose
  • Polish
  • Wax
  • Orbital polisher (optional). Polish and wax may be applied by hand using light pressure; however, most people find they get better results in less time when using an electric polisher.
  • Tire dressing
  • Headlight restoration cleaner/kit
  • Non-ammonia glass cleaner

Inside and Out Car Detailing Tips

Step #1 - Cleaning the Interior

Most experts suggest cleaning the interior of your vehicle first because you can often transfer dust and dirt from carpets and upholstery to the exterior. 

detailing car seatsVacuuming Car Interior
  • Seats: Leather gives your car a rich, elegant look, but it can also be difficult to keep clean, especially if it is a lighter color. Apply special leather cleaner to a soft bristle brush or terry cloth towel and work over the upholstery to remove any stains. Follow with a protective cream, and buff to a dry finish.

    For a cloth interior, vacuum upholstery and shampoo or spot treat where necessary. Spray with a fabric protector to prevent any future stains or spills from setting.

  • Carpet: Vacuum carpets regularly and clean any spills immediately. Use a regular  household rug cleaner or spray foam to shampoo carpets. 

  • Vinyl: Vinyl, plastic, or rubber surfaces can fade, dry, or crack over time. Protect these areas by using a spray-on product specifically designed for your car's dashboard,steering wheel, and consoles. 

TIP: A cotton swab is a great way to work products into those little seams and hard to reach crevices like the areas around the gear shift, vents, or door handles.

  • Smells: Some smells cannot be eliminated with air fresheners or deodorizers. Since air is recirculated within your vehicle, odors can get trapped in the air ducts or cabin filter. Remove the filter and either change or clean it. Use a small portable air compressor to blow the dirt out of your heating and air conditioning vents, or use an air vent cleaner. 

  • Door jambs: A lot of dirt and grime can collect around your car's door jambs. Since the doors are closed during an exterior wash, this area often gets overlooked. 

Step # 2 - Washing

You have probably seen the commercials with the happy family working together in the bright sunlight to wash their car, using a single bucket and a couple of household sponges. This might create some warm, fuzzy feelings, but it would make any true car detailer cringe. 

spray washing carPre-Soaking Car Exterior with a Gentle Spray

Hand washing is the best way to clean your car, but there are a few important tips you need to consider. 

  • Always wash your car in the shade. The sun can cause soap or wax to dry too quickly, leaving water spots, streaks, or stains.

  • Use a two-bucket system. Fill one bucket with soapy water and the other with clear water. Dirt and debris can collect on your cloths and cause permanent scratches to the paint. So, make sure to rinse your mitt or cloth in the clean water before re-immersing it into the soap bucket. Empty and refill your buckets as needed. 

TIP: When you empty your soap bucket, there should be very little dirt in the water. Too much dirt means that you are not rinsing your cloth or mitt well enough.

  • Use a proper car-wash solution. Do not use dishwashing soap because it can strip your car's protective coating and make it more susceptible to scratches or other surface damage.

  • Use microfiber mitts or cloths. Regular household sponges can be abrasive and everyday rags may  hold dirt and grime, leaving light scratches on your vehicle's paint.

  • Pre-soak using a hose with gentle spray. Removing as much loose dirt as possible will reduce the risk of debris collecting in your cloths.

  • Start at the top. Divide your car into sections and  thoroughly clean each area moving from top to bottom: roof, hood, trunk, sides, bumper and grille, tires.

  • Rinse thoroughly. Using a gentle stream from a hose, start at the top and work your way to the bottom. Remember to spray underneath the car and in the wheel wells.

  • Dry by hand. Air drying leaves water spots and streaks. Use a chamois, car drying towel, or microfiber cloth to absorb the water. Avoid rubbing, but rather blot the surface dry. Again, start at the top and work down.

Step #3 - Clay Bar or Paint Cleaner

Over time, dirt, bird droppings, road grime, and other debris can bond to the surface of the car. In many cases, these contaminates cannot be removed with normal washing. When you run your hand over the paint, if it feels rough, then it needs some deeper cleaning. A specially formulated paint cleaner or a clay bar can remove these surface contaminates and leave behind a smoother finish.

This step may take some time, but it is recommended if you want that fresh from the factory look.

Step #4 - Polish and Wax

Many people skip this step, but it is one of the best ways to protect the exterior of your car and extend the life of your paint. 

waxing car with oscillating toolWaxing Car with Polishing Tool

Polishing your car will remove any clay residue and smooth out small scratches. These products can be applied by hand; however, most experts agree that you will get better results with an oscillating polish machine. With these tools, the polishing and waxing will be done much faster and there will be less risk of causing damage to the paint. 

Waxing is an important way to protect your car from future scratches and stains. You can use either a paste or a liquid – whatever you prefer. Like the polish, wax can be applied by hand or with an electric oscillating machine. Gently buff with a microfiber cloth or polisher. 

Since the wax coating will wear away within a few months, you should plan to re-wax your vehicle regularly. Some experts recommend scheduling a full wash, polish, and wax at the beginning of every season.

TIP: Be careful not to get the wax on plastic or rubber trim because it could stain these areas.

Step #5 - Headlights

Headlights are a safety feature. When they are cloudy, you don't see as well. In fact, some studies show that hazy lenses can reduce the effectiveness of your headlights by up to 80%. With a good quality headlight restoration kit, it will only take a few minutes to clean your lenses, which will improve both your visibility as well as the appearance of your vehicle. 

Step #6 - Clean Tires

Tires are important to the overall appearance of your vehicle. You don't want to spend the time polishing and shining the body of your car and then leave the wheels dirty and discolored. 

washing car tireCleaning Car Tire with a Wash Mitt

Over time, brake dust can accumulate on your wheels; so, about once a month, you should scrub off this build up using a wash mitt and soapy water. You will want to use a separate mitt or cloth for this task. 

Use a tire dressing to shine your wheels and keep them looking clean and new. A good quality product will also protect your tires from cracking, discoloration, and fading. 

TIP: To protect easily damaged areas, it is recommended that you designate separate cloths specifically for tires, windows, and the body of your vehicle. 

Step #7 - Clean Windows

You should save this job for last since windows can easily collect the dust and dirt from the previous steps. While you may be tempted to grab the Windex bottle – don't! Household window cleaners contain ammonia, which can scratch tinted car windows. Ammonia can also damage vinyl upholstery, instrument panels, and rubber trim. For best results, it it recommended that you use a automotive glass cleaner that will give you a streak free finish without harming your vehicle.

A microfiber cloth works best, but make sure it's not the same one used to clean your tires or exterior paint.

well maintained used carPre-Owned Vehicle After Detailing

When it comes to selling a vehicle, everyone wants to get top dollar. But, the highest valued cars are those that are well-maintained and kept in great condition. By regularly applying these car detailing tips, you can protect your investment, drive with pride, and keep your used car looking like new.

Detailing your car isn't difficult or expensive; but, it does require time and patience. If you don't want to do it yourself, call a professional to do it for you. It will likely mean spending more money than the DIY method, but the benefits will definitely outweigh the costs.