Car cleaning tips: How to get your car ready to sell

October 12, 2020

Learn how to get your car ready to sell with these car cleaning tips!

Father and son cleaning a car

You might have heard that cars start losing value as soon as they are driven off the lot, but that doesn't mean that you have to give your car away when it's time to sell it. If you detail your car prior to selling it, you'll find yourself in a much better bargaining position. Whether you are heading back to the dealer to turn your car in as part of negotiations or you are selling it on your own, having a clean car is critical to getting the best possible price for your vehicle. So get your vacuum, some towels, and supplies - today, we'll show you how you can get your car ready to sell with these car cleaning tips!

Tidy up the interior

The first step toward getting your car ready to sell is a relatively simple one — you need to tidy up. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for cars to become mobile garbage cans over time. Now is the best time to pick up leftover bottles of water, throw out empty fruit snack wrappers and pick up the odds and ends that have been left in your car. Once you have eliminated the trash and clutter from your car, you can really begin the process of getting your car ready to sell.

Clean the smallest spaces inside your car

As you've probably learned over the years, vehicles of all shapes and sizes have a lot of places for dirt to hide. Simply picking up the bulk is the first stage, but as you get your car ready for the market, it's important to focus on the details, too. To truly clean the interior of your car, make sure to attend to the following places:

Air vents. These get very dusty over time, and are often ignored by most car owners. To begin, blow air through the intake vents, which are located below your windshield wipers. With an air compressor, or a can of vent and duct cleaner, blow into these vents with the AC system running. 

You can then take a good vacuum to the vents in the cabin to suck up all the dirt you've knocked loose. You can easily swipe the dust away from the vent slots with a standard static duster, a specially-made vent duster, or even a makeup brush.

Lastly, change the air filter. Over time, this collects all kinds of dust, grit, and grime, and should be replace every 15,000-25,000 miles. However, if you're getting your car ready to sell, replacing it is always a good bet. 

Dashboard. Your dashboard is prone to collecting dirt and grime. A wet cloth is often all you need to wipe away the grime, but sometimes using a purpose-made dash cleaner is required to get that spotless look. Depending on the material your dash is made from, many of these can also protect it from harmful UV light. Alternatively, if you're looking for something more natural, olive oil can be a great solution (believe it or not). Of course, with any treatment, natural or otherwise, it's always a good idea to perform a spot test before wiping the entire dash down.

Seats. The upholstery on your car seats can get particularly messy. However, the best method for cleaning them will depend on what material they are made out of, so make sure to you know before you apply a cleaning solution.

For cloth seats, begin with a good, deep vacuuming treatment and make sure to get into all the nooks and crannies. Then, treat spots and stains with a standard spray-on upholstery cleaner and scrub with a bristle brush to really get the dirt out. If you have a wet-dry vacuum, you can use it to suck away the excess dirt and solution. If not, simply wait for it to dry. 

For leather seats, it's important to be careful. Using a microfiber cloth with a standard leather interior cleaner is great for mild dirt. However, when things get really dirty, you may need a leather bristle brush. While sponges like the famous "Magic Eraser" are certainly great for cutting through grease and grime, they are known to be mildly abrasive, which damage the coating that many leather seats have. For this reason, many professional detailers caution against their use. 

Neutralize the smell of your car

The way that the interior of your car smells is going to have a significant impact on its resale value. It is important to neutralize any odors that exist in your car, as any foul smell will be a big turn off to a car dealership or a private buyer.

Smells come from all different sources: mildew, spilled food, smoke, and so on. Most of the time, smells are temporary, but depending on what it is and how it sticks to the inside of your car, they can linger for a while. Usually, a thoroughly cleaning of the ventilation system, replacing the air filter, and cleaning the seats will take care of most of unpleasant scents.

However, if you find that the odor still persists, you may consider cleaning the floor mats, carpeted floorboards, and even the interior roof. Like cleaning cloth seats, this can usually be done with a little upholstery or fabric cleaner, a brush, and a vacuum. If you do wet any fabric or carpet surfaces, it's important to let them dry in a well-ventilated area or in the sun to avoid mildew. This is also another place where a wet/dry vacuum can come in handy! 

Vacuum the floors

Even if your car is odor-free, thoroughly vacuuming the floor is a must. It's amazing how quickly dirt, crumbs, leaves, grass, and all manner of riff-raff manage to accumulate between the the various cracks and crevices of your car. In order to get to those hard-to-reach places (especially around the seats), you may need a flexible hose or a special attachment for your vacuum.

If you have cloth floor mats, take them out so you can clean beneath them and so that you can clean them individually. If you have rubber or plastic floor mats, remove them and scrub them down with some soap and water. For tough stains and grime on plastic or rubber, your standard household scouring powder can be incredibly useful. Of course, check first to see if the cleaner is safe to use on your specific floor mat. Any type of tough bristle brush can be used for the broad, surfaces, but a toothbrush can help you get into the smaller grooves. Lastly, don't forget to clean the opposite side of your floor mats, too! They often have a series of little teeth used to hold onto the carpet beneath, and they can hold clumps of dirt and hair, too.

Clean the engine

It may be easy to ignore the engine as you are cleaning your car, but it's important to remember that many car buyers will want to take a peek under the hood before they seal the deal. Over time, your engine is sure to collect dirt, brake dust, engine oil, and all the grit and the grime from the road. Here are a few steps you should take when cleaning your engine:

Get it warm, not hot. Grease and oil are easier to remove when the engine is slightly warm. That's why it's often helpful to start your vehicle before cleaning and let it run for five minutes or so and then let it cool. When you can safely touch the exhaust manifold, you should be good to go.

However, while a little warmth isn't bad, a hot engine can be. If it's too hot when you spray down the engine, the sudden change in temperature can cause metal to crack. Furthermore, it's easy to burn yourself when the engine is hot!

Protect the electrical system. For safety and a more thorough cleaning, you'll want to disconnect your car battery before cleaning the engine. While you only have to disconnect the negative terminal for safety, if you want to clean beneath the battery, you'll want to remove it entirely. 

You'll also want to protect your vehicle's alternator before spraying the engine down. Simply covering it with a plastic bag should be adequate - just make sure to remove it when you're done. 

Remove clutter. Before you thoroughly wash the engine, do your best to remove any loose clutter, such as leaves and sticks that might have gotten stuck beneath the hood. While you can do this with a large duster or brush, it's much easier if you have a shop vac or an air compressor to give it a quick dusting. 

Put down a drip pan or mat. When you're at the auto parts store purchasing supplies to clean your vehicle, make sure to pick up several large drip pans or absorbent mats to place beneath the engine before cleaning. While many engine cleaning products advertise themselves as safe or biodegradable, the oil, fluids, and dust that it removes are not safe for the environment. 

After collecting the runoff, make sure to dispose of it in accordance with local laws and regulations. Many auto parts stores will take automotive waste and either recycle it or dispose of it properly. Contact your local auto parts store or waste management service for specific instructions before simply throwing it in the garbage. 

Use engine cleaner and/or degreaser. When it comes to finding an engine cleaning solution, you have a lot of options. A standard degreasing spray is usually adequate, but you'll want to ensure that it is appropriate for your engine before using it. Some cleaners may be abrasive to the plastics and rubbers, causing them to crack over time. Once you've sprayed down every inch of your engine with the solution, give it a moment to work its magic. Then, scrub areas with extra grime with a synthetic bristle brush or a cloth.

Rinse it thoroughly. After you've degreased and scrubbed, it's time to rinse it all away. Again, before going through this step, make sure you have some way to catch the runoff. While a simple garden hose should be enough to wash away the dirt and grease, a power washer can be quite helpful if you have one. 

Dry it off. Using a shop vacuum with an exhaust function, or an air compressor, blow off the excess water. If not, a simple shop cloth will do. 

Clean battery terminals. With the battery disconnected, now is the perfect time to clean the build up of corrosion around the terminals. Create a solution using 1 tbsp baking soda and 1 cup of hot water. Then, use a toothbrush to clean both the terminals on top of the battery as well as the clamps. 

Once clean, consider applying a special battery terminal protective spray to prevent corrosion in the future. 

Don't forget to wash and wax the outside

The exterior of your car should sparkle before you sell it. You can restore your car to its original beauty by giving the exterior a thorough cleaning. 

Body. Before you break out the soap and sponges, give your car a quick initial rinse with a hose. This ensures that the more bulky bits of dirt are removed before you start scrubbing. 

Next, you'll want to decide on a cleaning solution. Household soap and detergents can work in a pinch, but they may be harmful to the paint on your car. Fortunately, there are a number of sprays and cleaners designed specifically for automotive paint. If you already have a closet full of various auto cleaning agents, make sure to read the label carefully before using them - not all of them are all-purpose and may be harmful to your paint. 

Using a soft sponge or rag, thoroughly scrub the hood, roof, doors, and other panels. After every inch has been cleaned, you're ready to rinse! This can typically be done with a hose, but if you use a bucket of clean rinsing water, make sure to have one dedicated to the rinsing process - you don't want to reintroduce all the dirt you've just wiped away! It's also worth noting that some car cleaners are "rinse-free" and don't require this step. 

Windows. While standard household glass cleaners can be effective for cleaning your windows, some of them contain elements that can be harmful for your paint. That having been said, they can work just fine if you're careful. 

For cleaning windows, you'll want to use a microfiber cloth or some sort of cloth that won't leave behind bits of lint. It can be difficult to get a smudge-free surface, but using a rubber squeegee after you've wiped down your windows can be helpful. 

Wax. After your car is clean and dry, it's always a good idea to apply a coat of wax. This will protect your car's exterior and keep it looking shiny and new. There are a number of different wax types, such as spray, paste, and liquid wax solutions. A spray wax is going to be the fastest method, paste wax will be the most involved, and liquid is usually somewhere in the middle. 

Whichever method you choose, apply the wax and rub it in circles with one side of a clean microfiber towel, making sure to cover each surface evenly and completely. Then, you can use the other clean side of the towel to buff it by hand. While a wax buffer can help speed things up, they take practice to use correctly and may leave swirls and patterns in the wax coat if done incorrectly. 

Wheels, tires, and brakes

Last, but certainly not least, it's time to clean the wheels, tires, and brakes! Like your engine, these components quickly build up gunk from the road. Furthermore, using your brakes creates fine particles of dust, which can coat your wheels and tires as well. 

Brakes. While you can do some amount of cleaning with the wheel on, to truly clean your brakes, you'll need to remove it completely. Lift the car with a jack to remove the wheel, and set it aside to expose the brake system. 

Next, grab a can of brake cleaner and apply it thoroughly to both the brake rotor and the calipers. With a microfiber cloth, wipe them both down and be sure to get into all the cracks and crevices. 

When you've finished, there's usually no need to rinse the brake cleaner away. Most brake cleaners continue to work after you've replaced the wheel and begin to drive. 

Wheels and tires. You don't have to remove your wheels and tires to clean them, but if you already have them off in order to clean your brakes, you can knock both things out at once. 

If the wheel is still on the car, begin with the tire first. Starting with the wheel will double your work as the runoff from the tire will drip down onto the wheel you just cleaned. You can find all manner of purpose-made tire and wheel cleaners, but warm soap and water may work just fine. 

Using a medium bristle brush, scrub the solution on the tire thoroughly, and let it sit for a moment before rinsing it off. Once your tire is clean, you can move to the wheel itself following the same process. You may have to repeat this process to get the wheel sparkling clean. Once you're finished, simply give it a good rinse with a hose. 

As an optional finishing touch, you can apply a coat of wax to the wheels and a shine spray to the wheels for that sparkling finish. 

As with anything, making a good first impression counts when you are hoping to sell your car for the highest possible price. Most car buyers are particular when purchasing a vehicle that's new to them, and a car that is clean both inside and out will be more marketable. Even the most savvy car buyers will be impressed by the fact that the interior is spotless, the engine is clean and the outside shines. When you detail your car, it won't be for sale on the market for long.

A bucket with soap beside a car in the process of being cleaned

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Read more: A sparkling car isn't much use without a solid set of tires beneath it! Check out our blog for essential tire maintenance tips!

by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Specialist at Germania Insurance.