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Maximizing your car’s curb appeal

Do-it-yourself tips to make your vehicle shine

Last updated: February 2014

Making your vehicle look as good as possible can pay big dividends by improving both its value and sales appeal.

Depending on the vehicle’s condi­tion, you can do a lot or all of the work yourself. Or you can take it to a professional detailer, where prices can start around $100 but can be higher depending on the region, type of vehicle, and the amount of work to be done. You can sometimes find discount coupons for these services on the Internet or applications such as Groupon.

As with other do-it-yourself projects, the more elbow grease you invest, the less you’ll need to pay someone else to do it. Here are some tips on how to get the best results. (Most of the specialty products mentioned can be found at auto-parts stores or in dealerships that handle your car’s make.)

Spiff up the exterior. Give your vehicle a thorough cleaning with car-wash detergent and water. Alloy wheels should be scrubbed thoroughly to remove road film and grime. Use a stiff-bristled brush and a good nonabrasive detergent or wheel cleaner. If you use the latter, look for one that says it is safe for all wheels, as strong cleaners can eat away the protective coating on some wheels. Once everything is dry, apply a tire dressing to give your rubber a new-car look.

Then inspect the paint surface and assess any damage. Note scratches, stone chips, and dents in the sheet metal. If the paint is in good condition, a coat of wax may be all it needs. If it’s the original factory finish, it likely has a clear-coat outer layer. If so, make sure the wax you use is marked “safe for clear-coats.” Avoid abrasive products, which are meant for the removal of paint defects or to put a shine on a dull finish. On the other hand, if your paint finish is a little dull, look for a product that both polishes and protects. This could help put a shine back in the paint.

You can fix small scratches and chips yourself with touch-up paint, available for a few dollars from your dealership. Make sure you get an exact color match or your repair job will look worse than the original defect. Use the application brush or a small, pointed artist’s brush and fill in the scratch by going over it in tiny dabs. Let the paint dry for at least a day or two before polishing the car.

Fine surface scratches in the paint can be professionally buffed out at a body shop or professional car-wash center. This will greatly improve the car’s overall appearance, but will cost between $100 and $200. You can hand polish the car yourself using an appropriate polish and cotton cloths. If you know how to use an electric rotary buffer, you can borrow, rent, or buy one. If you don’t know what you’re doing, though, don’t attempt it because you can easily burn through the paint or leave permanent swirl marks.

Remove small dents. Having a body shop fix unsightly dents and dings can be costly. If there is no paint damage, you may be able to use a service called paint­less dent repair, sometimes franchised under names such as Dent Doctor (www.dentdoctor.com) or DentPro (www.dentpro.com). They use special tools to massage out small dents from the inside. Your local mechanic, body shop, or car dealer can help you find a dent fixer, or try using the Yellow Pages. Typical costs range from about $50 to $150 per dent.

Some do-it-yourself dent-removal kits have come on the market as well. They’re advertised on TV infomercials and cost about $20 to $30 (plus shipping and handling). Essentially, they work by hot-gluing a suction cup onto the dent and then pulling the dent out with a special tool. Two kits that Consumer Reports tested were by the Ding King (www.dingking.tv) and DentOut (www.dentout.net). Our testers found that they worked about equally well, but the results were not perfect. Generally, the more experience you have, the better the results. You have to be careful with the hot glue and should avoid pulling the metal out too far. The kits worked best on dents about 4 inches across.

Fix window-glass defects. It’s very common for a windshield to pick up “star” or “bull’s eye” damage from a flying stone. These dings can be filled by an auto-glass repair service so that they are less noticeable and don’t develop into larger cracks. Figure on spending about $50 to $60 to treat a small glass ding. For larger cracks, you’ll have to replace the entire windshield. Check your auto-insurance policy first. If you have glass coverage, the replacement is free, except for a possible deductible.

Clean the interior thoroughly. Clean the inside of the vehicle completely, looking at the results with the eye of a potential buyer. Remove all of your personal clutter from the glove box and other storage spaces, and empty any ashtrays. Check under the seats for lost toys, trash, and wayward french fries. Then go to work on the windows, dash, upholstery, and carpets.

You can buy special cleaners for up­hol­stery, carpet, vinyl, and leather. For hard plastic surfaces, use any general-purpose cleaner. Use a good glass cleaner to remove smudges and film from the inside of all win­dows, paying special attention to the windshield and rear window. Very dirty carpeted floor mats can be taken to a carpet-cleaning service and cleaned for about $15 to $20 a pair. Or just replace worn ones.

Getting rid of odors can be a challenge. First get all the interior fabrics clean with pet spot cleaner or another odor-fighting product. Don’t forget to wipe down the overhead fabric, or headliner. Be sure to clean inside the trunk and spare-tire well. To remove stale odors from the ventilation ducts, try spraying odor eliminator into the system’s air intake, which is usually located at the base of the windshield. Then run the air conditioner full blast for at least 10 minutes.

Clean the engine compartment. It can be a chore to clean the outside of the engine and other under-hood components, but a clean engine bay gives the impression that the mechanicals have been well maintained.

If battery terminals are corroded or caked with white powder, use an old toothbrush dipped in a mixture of water and baking soda to clean off the residue. Then coat the terminals with battery terminal grease. (Always wear eye protection and gloves when working around car batteries.)

You can certainly clean engine parts with old rags and plain soap and water, though you may have better luck with an aerosol engine degreaser. Be careful not to get electrical connections wet. Loosen dirt and rust from iron and steel parts with a soft-bristle brass wire brush and soft abrasive cleaner.

Perform any necessary repairs.  It just makes good sense to fix or replace broken or missing items. A missing wheel cover or a broken mirror are signals to buyers that your car has not been well maintained and that other repairs will probably be needed.

Major repairs are another matter. Most buyers probably won’t want to make a major one right after buying a vehicle.

Suppose, for instance, your air conditioner doesn’t work, and you have an estimate that it will cost $600 to repair. The air conditioner isn’t necessary for the proper operation of the vehicle, and if you’re selling the car yourself some buyers might not care as long as the price is adjusted accordingly. But most potential buyers will likely lose interest when they find out about it.

The big question is whether you can recoup the cost of the repair in your selling price. Most of the time you can’t—so be prepared to take a beating if you have major repair problems. You’ll have the same dilemma if you decide to go the trade-in route with your car.


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