Professional Car Detailing: Is It Worth It?

Professional Car Detailing: Is It Worth It?

Washing the car is a chore that we often relegate to our kids as something to do on a Saturday to earn their allowance money. You can pay them what in the real world would be an unlivable pittance but they’ll be glad of the money and your car will still be clean. But what if we don’t have eager youngsters in our home or even in our neighborhood who might want to wash a car for a little pocket money? Further to that, what if we want a cleaning job done to a really high professional standard? To whom do we look?

The answer, of course, is the world of professional car detailing. When you look at the average price of a car detailing, however, which can start from around $50-60 and range all the way up to $200-300 for some services, you might wonder to yourself if it’s really worth all that money. In today’s blog, we are looking closely at the world of car detailing and asking ourselves if it’s really worth the money.

The Car Detailing Difference

Let’s first establish with clarity what we’re referring to when we use the term car “detailing.” This is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but what exactly is it? Why not just call it car washing? That’s certainly what it looks like, so what’s the exact difference that makes this “detailing” and not simply “washing”? There are three main differences of note:

  • The depth of cleaning when car detailing
  • The “restorative” and “protective” factors of car detailing
  • The ways that car detailers work to solve particular problems with cars

Depth of Cleaning

The first big difference is about the sheer depth of the clean that you get when you use car detailers as opposed to your common neighborhood teenage amateur car washer. Car detailers don’t just roll up to your house with two buckets, a hose and a bottle of car shampoo, along with a dust buster to vacuum the inside of the vehicle. Take a look at their stock of equipment and you’ll start to see that these detailers mean serious business.

Detailers don’t just clean dirt off your car and vacuum up dust from the carpet, they go to war against the dirt and contaminants that are residing on your car’s painted surface and in every nook and cranny of the interior. You would need the CSI forensics team to find even a remote trace of dirt or dust remaining in your car after it has been properly detailed. That’s what fans of detailing claim is what you really pay for and that’s the key difference.

Restoration and Protection

Above we mentioned the depth of the cleaning that goes on during detailing. There’s a bigger purpose behind all that fierce cleansing and rinsing. Car detailers don’t just want to get a car clean, but rather want to restore the car to something very close or exactly as it was when it was brand new. Their goal is to have their customer sit back in their car after it has been detailed and have their minds and senses cast back to that magical moment in the showroom when they first sat in the car and instantly fell in love with it.

Besides the restoration factor, there’s the protection factor, too. A car washer has the primary task of removing unsightly mud, bird droppings, dust and other contaminants from the outside and inside of your car. After doing so, they tend to offer services where your car can receive high levels of paint protection and color restoration, too. This could range from the application of carnauba wax to something more involved like using simpler spray-on ceramic coating products to offer really lasting protection.

Owners of cars that are detailed regularly will find themselves in a pretty advantageous position. With their car being restored to something like new every time it’s detailed, and the paint undergoing great protection every time, they are better able to make a great first impression when potential buyers come knocking.

Problem Solving

The final “detailer difference” comes in the problem-solving arena. Car detailers aren’t just cleaners, but also come up with great ways to solve annoying problems that you may be experiencing in your car.

We’re not talking mechanical problems here. Detailers won’t come around to wash and detail the car, vacuum and polish the interior, apply carnauba wax and then perform a full wheel alignment or anything like that. What they do offer, however, is solutions to lasting problems like stubborn stains in carpet, fading color in the upholstery and dash, the lingering smell of smoke and more.

The fact is that detailers can get pretty creative when it comes to fixing issues of cleanliness in your car.

The Case for Car Detailing: It’s Worth It

First, we’re going to make a positive case for car detailing and explain why it’s worth every single penny. In looking at the differences between detailers and regular car washers we’ve already touched on a few of these benefits, but let’s look at them closely and in more detail.

1. Detailers Do a Thorough Cleaning Inside and Out

What can we say? Detailers live up to their name. If they have done a high-quality job, then you should be able to inspect every single dark corner of the interior; every spot on the exterior, including the intricate lines and grooves of your alloy wheels and not find a single blemish anywhere.

Detailers do such a thorough job, that they even attack the dirt and contaminants that you can’t even see without getting up close and personal with a microscope. Using tools like detailing clay, they can attack the most deeply embedded dirt that no amount of pressure washing or hand-mitt washing would get to if you tried all day. Besides the detailing clay, the only other way to remove it might be to sand the paint down to the bare metal surface and repaint that section and apply clear coat. That’s how tough a job clay gets done.

The same is true inside. Move your seats forward or backwards, open up the vents, check all the storage cubbies and spaces, every single corner is spotless and dust/dirt free.

2. Detailers Know Cars Very Well

Professional detailers look at cars like the rest of us would a map of a familiar town. They know how all the various panels and sections fit together, both inside and out. When they attack a detailing job, they do so methodically and with a clear strategy. Each car is instantly divided into individual sections, each of which gets its own attention. The washing and drying are done carefully, neatly and evenly, section by section until the entire car has been transformed.

Beyond the geography of your car, detailers also know the materials that make up your car very well, in particular on the interior. They’re very familiar with all the plastics, carpets, soft-touch silicone materials, leather, cloth upholstery and more. They come prepared with product that is designed to restore different materials from different degrees of degradation, and they know exactly what’s best to apply in which spots.

3. It’s Like Getting a New Car

The restorative effect of detailing is hard to appreciate until you are actually there among the results enjoying its sights and smells. People often report driving away in a detailed car feeling as happy and satisfied as the day they bought the car in the first place. In fact, the effect can be so powerful that it actually helps to retain resale value on your car.

When buyers come to look at cars for sale, they are first bowled over (or not) by the way the car looks. If you have a car several years old but it has been well detailed several times a year, including paint protection, then the inevitable result of that is a “wow” factor that buyers will love, especially if they’ve looked at other cars too. It shows that buyers are typically willing to offer more money for cars that are well kept and detailed. The “like-new” impact is palpable, and it impresses.

4. Eliminate Irritating Problems Like Smoke Smell

If you have recently taken possession of your car and it previously belonged to a smoker, or someone who owned dogs, for instance, then lingering odors can be a problem. Imagine looking around for the perfect car and finding one that’s ideal in every way: color, powertrain, drivetrain, odometer reading, price, interior finish and more; only then to discover that in fact this car is infested with smoke or wet dog smell.

If carpets and upholstery are exposed to these smells frequently and over a long timeframe, they can actually become embedded in the vehicle and will linger indefinitely. The same thing happens in people’s houses with their sofas, armchairs, carpets and other furnishings. Detailers are well placed to help you solve this problem by removing the smoke and dog smell using their special techniques. How much is it worth to you to remove the one obstacle that’s holding you back from having the perfect pre-owned car? If you pay the money, the smells can disappear.

5. They Can Deal with Scratches and Swirl Marks

Next, not all scratches are put upon your paint by unfortunate collisions and the actions of mindless vandals and thus armed with nails and other implements. You can actually put micro-scratches and swirl marks on your car just by washing it incorrectly, such as using a single bucket for soapy water and rinsing the dirty sponge/mitt. These practices ensure that all you’re doing is spreading mud and grit all over the car’s surface.

Some people resign themselves to having these scratches, saying they’re just a normal part of a car getting older. This is nonsense. Detailers are worth it because they can buff the paint to the point where it shines like new. They have the tools that you otherwise wouldn’t think about buying and they bring all that benefit right to your car’s exterior. That has to be worth spending a little more money.

6. Paint Protection Gets Up-Close and Personal

We mentioned further above that part of the “detailer difference” compared to car washers is that detailers also deal in paint protection, not just paint cleanliness. They first prepare the surface with a clay bar, ensuring that their wax or sealant will be able to bond rigidly with the clearcoat surface.

After that, they wax on and create a new protective layer that no ordinary car washer would ever be able to achieve. The secret to paint protection is having an absolutely clean surface to ensure proper bonding between the surface and the wax. The idea is that you fill in clean holes in the clearcoat to reinforce the protection. Detailers know how to get the surface to that receptive state.

7. Services Are Often Mobile and Flexible

Detailers usually offer their services in package deals, starting with a basic deep clean inside and out, and then building up as they add different tools and techniques. Using an ozone machine to get rid of odors, for example, may be part of an advanced deodorizing package, or using more advanced sealants part of an advanced paint protection package.

The beauty is you can tailor your service to match what you need each time. One month you might have a rich detailing with protection and more, followed by two months of simple shampooing and vacuuming to keep things up. Detailing gives you that choice. Even better, they often are mobile and even come to your house or place of work to detail while you’re busy doing other things.

8. Detailing Lasts for a Long Time

Next, a thorough detailing with paint protection will last your car for a long time. If they apply certain protections that make the paint hydrophobic, for example, then it’s easier to keep the car clean, allowing you more time between detailing sessions. You might only get a thorough car detailing every other month, or even once every 3 months, with plain washing and drying in between to keep things neat enough before the next detailing.

9. Support Local Business

Finally, many detailing outfits are started by local entrepreneurs, and using car detailing services, especially mobile ones. It’s great to support local entrepreneurs in their endeavors, and if the business takes off thanks partially to your support, then the business can grow to employ more people. America is a land where everyone has cars and many people can afford detailing. The trouble is they don’t all have great local detailers to support and patronize.

The Case Against Car Detailing: It’s Not Worth It

Now, in the interests of balance, we’ll reveal some very good reasons to think again when it comes to car detailing. You might already be looking up your local detailers, but take a moment to reflect on the following first:

1. The Cost

You’ve read above about all the great things that detailing can do for your car, and none of them are false or overstated. Those are certainly all ways to benefit. However, we have to look at the first downside and that’s cost. According to data, the national average price for car detailing — that’s around the entire US — is $160.16. At the low end of that spectrum, people are paying $114.59. At the top end of that spectrum, people are paying $213.67 per session per car.

Geographical location has a lot of bearing on the cost of detailing. The same data source reveals that the state with the highest average cost is Oregon at $258, and the state with the lowest average is Hawaii at $90.50. That may be surprising to some, but it seems Hawaiians enjoy cheaper detailing prices in general. The table below lists the average price for each state with available data:

StateAverage Detailing Cost ($)StateAverage Detailing Cost ($)StateAverage Detailing Cost ($)
New Hamp.130.00New Mexico147.50New York150.00
North Car.144.75Ohio169.25Oklahoma117.33
Oregon258.00Pennsylvania147.00South Car.212.50

In terms of individual cities, the most expensive three are Portland, Oregon at $275.00; Wichita, Kansas at 245.00; and Charleston, South Carolina at $200.00.

The cheapest three cities are Memphis, Tennessee at $49.00; Miami, Florida at $85.00, and Indianapolis, Indiana at $90.00.

Even at the lower ends of this spectrum, the amounts can mean a lot to a family that otherwise struggles to make ends meet.

2. The Time

Besides costing you money, it also takes a great deal of time. The most basic car detailing typically takes 2 to 2.5 hours. These aren’t green-horns working on the car, either, that 2.5 hours will be when it’s done by the real professionals in the team. The more services you add, the longer it can take, sometimes as long as 4-5 hours. This is also part of the reason that car detailing is more expensive than a wash that if done by hand might take an hour or so, and if done at the automatic car wash would be done in 2-3 minutes.

Can you afford to be without your car for the entire afternoon? If you can’t afford to lose up to half your daytime hours of car use, then detailing has a big downside. Here’s an example of detailing job that took an astonishing 20 hours to complete.

3. You Can Learn the Techniques Yourself

The other downside is that many of the things you’re paying for when you employ a car detailer are things that you can do yourself, if you take the time to learn. The fact is that nobody who does car detailing holds a bachelor’s or master’s in detailing, nor did they attend any kind of institution of higher education. They may, however, have gotten a certification from the International Detailing Association, which is certainly worth a good amount of respect.

With the help of platforms like YouTube, not to mention the multitude of blogs and other information sources out there, and the help of the fact that cleaning products are easily sourced online via Amazon and similar platforms, do you really have a reason not to try and learn some car detailing skills yourself? You’re not going to make it into a career, but you could do a far better job of cleaning your car each time, and possibly save hundreds of dollars a year.

4. Encourages Bad Habits

Finally, following on from the third point, there’s an argument to be made that hiring car dealers might make you somewhat lazy with your car’s cleanliness. If you get very comfortable with the fact that for a certain amount of money, a team of professionals will take your car from pigsty to restored, germ-free and new-like car with a fresh coat of wax and paint protection, then you might just not take that good care of the car. Keeping at least some of the cleaning duties for yourself is a bit better than leaving everything to the detailers.

Best of Both Worlds: Home Car Detailing Tips

One good approach to car detailing is to handle some of the basic stuff yourself and then call the detailers in just to do the more complex but valuable services they offer. It brings costs down overall and leaves the trickier aspects in the hands of the professionals. Here are some tips for you when covering your parts of the detailing.

Invest in top-notch cleaning products designed for your car. It’s not necessarily a question of choosing specific brands, but those with a proven track record, rave customer reviews and a well-constructed cleaning formula are still worth your time to check out. Brands like Chemical Guys, Meguiar’s and others are successful for a reason.

Besides the detergents, shampoos and cleaning agents, also focus on the other cleaning gear you’ll need and favor quality over quantity or cheapness. If you want to prevent the kind of scratches and swirls that detailers will charge you so much to remove, then you need to avoid using cheap and nasty gear. Start with a sturdy set of buckets, perhaps even invest in ones with dirt filters or grit guards that can help better keep grit and other contaminants off your sponge when you rinse. You could also consider a soft-touch washing mitt instead of the humble sponge for better contact and cleaning effect.

For drying gear, we’ll deal with it further below. One final thing, don’t ever substitute car cleaning products for household cleaning products. However many people tell you it doesn’t make a difference, they’re wrong. Household cleaning agents may not all be harsh on your skin or eyes (though some still are), but they are still not designed to work on the paint of your car.

Shampoo the car at least once every two weeks. When you’ve invested in the right kinds of cleaning products you should shampoo and wash the car well at least once a fortnight to keep the paint as clean as possible. There are things the detailers can do to further enhance that when the time comes, but in the meantime, a thorough shampoo and wash done in the right way, and dried in the right way (see below) will keep things in good shape until the main detailing event.

Invest in quality microfiber towels or chamois cloths. These will serve you well when it comes to drying the car. The drying process is just as important as the washing part because if you fail to dry the surface of your car properly, you can end up with water marks on there. The sad irony of that would be that water marks are quite often more difficult to remove even than dirt and dust that’s stubbornly embedded there.

Microfiber towel cloths are the best tool for drying, but not the only option. Soft chamois cloths are a bit “old school” in the eyes of some, but they can get the job done very well indeed. The best way to dry is starting at the top and working down, rubbing your cloths in a figure-8 pattern. This should leave your paintwork looking stunning. It would still look better with a well-applied coat of carnauba wax, but this is just your “stop-gap” washing and drying cycle, so don’t worry too much.

Brush the carpet with a stiff-bristled brush before you vacuum. Many are too keen to go straight at the carpet with the vacuum set to its highest, most powerful suck settings. There are certain things that if left to their own devices can resist even the most powerful vacuum cleaners on the market today. The trick is to start the cleaning process with a good agitating from a stiff-bristled brush.

The bristles of the brush act first to loosen the embedded dirt from the carpet, but then through generation of static electricity they actually help to lift the dirt up to the surface of the carpet. The reason the vacuum isn’t working on it is that it’s too deep in the carpet to be reached. The agitation will bring everything up to the surface, allowing the vacuum to simply scoop up what’s there.

If you want to invest in some different hardware like a steam cleaner, then it can be very good on your carpets and seats, but it’s more money to spend and it’s hardly ever beneficial to the point where it warrants the additional expense. A well-placed brushing agitation and good, sturdy vacuum cleaner, possibly with the help of some carpet cleaning agents, should always be enough to lift up the dirt.

Park your vehicle in a shaded area to start your cleaning. When you are doing your shampooing and drying, remember to park the car in a shaded area to avoid the sun drying out the car’s surface before you have a chance to get at it with the microfiber cloth of the chamois cloth. Being in the shade will also likely make the whole task a lot more comfortable if it’s hot outside.

Use a “2-direction” approach to dry window surfaces. Here’s one more pro tip for when you’re cleaning your car’s windows. On one side of the window use a horizontal motion, and on the outside of the window, use a vertical motion. Why? If after cleaning you notice some streaks or imperfections in your glass, then from the direction of the streaks you’ll quickly be able to tell if the glass needs cleaning on the outside or the inside.

These tips and tricks can be used in the “downtime” between detailing sessions. When you call up the pros, you can have them apply wax or sealant, or work against odors in the car, or remove any particularly tricky stains, or condition the leather…the list goes on. If there are things you don’t feel confident doing yourself, then these are the things you can leave to the detailers. With this approach, you get the best of both worlds.

Conclusion: What’s the Verdict? Should I Have My Car Detailed?

In our view, the first consideration should be financial. If you are struggling to make the monthly payments on your car, or if you have to forgo meals to cover the insurance or maintenance bills, then you have to ask yourself quite seriously if you can afford the luxury of having professionals call on you at home to detail the car.

Money aside, the core question was whether or not it was worth the money to have your car detailed. The answer to this is a resounding and unequivocal yes. The restorative and protective effects, the sheer enjoyment you get and the fact that regular detailing can contribute to a better ultimate resale value for your car should be all the evidence that you need to get behind detailing 100 percent. When it’s done right, it is worth every single penny that you spend.

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