This article is the archived version of a report that appeared in the May 2009 Consumer Reports Magazine.
Maintaining your car's appearance is a big part of optimizing its resale value, and the more elbow grease you're willing to invest, the less money you'll need to pay someone to do it. Here are some tips to help you:
Use a soap designed for cars, since it is less likely to strip wax. Wash in cool shade or when it's overcast; the surface should be cool so that it doesn't dry quickly. Work in sections, to keep the soap from drying before you rinse. Use a chamois or microfiber cloth to prevent scratching when drying.
Use window cleaner to keep your windshield wipers clean and keep them tight against your windshield. Replace the wipers twice a year.
Wax your car a few times a year, especially in the spring and fall, to protect the paint from the sun and elements. Liquid and paste car waxes are more durable and clean better than spray products, but they require more effort. Some inexpensive waxes, notably by Turtle Wax and Black Magic, perform as well or better in our tests as the pricey ones favored by enthusiasts, but preventing streaks might require some effort. Make sure the polish you use is safe for clearcoat finishes, now found on most cars.
Gently remove brake dust and tar by using a dedicated wheel cleaner and a sponge. Use a cleaner that's labeled safe for use on all wheels.
Fine scratches can often be polished out. Scratch removers are effective, but some create hazing; we've found that Quixx performs best. Try a remover in a hidden area first. Scratches that expose the primer or metal must be repainted. You can use touch-up paint, but a professional should give the best results.
Clearing trash and cleaning filmy windows tackles only part of the job. Less obvious tasks such as cleaning dusty air vents go a long way toward making your ride more pleasant. Also clean buttons and switches because excessive grit can cause them to fail. An all-purpose household cleaner is all you need for hard surfaces; automotive vinyl cleaners leave a glossy residue that can create glare on top of the dashboard and make the steering wheel slippery. Use a cotton swab and a small paintbrush to clean in seams, vents, and other tight areas.
Steam cleaners work best for carpets and cloth upholstery. Otherwise, use a stiff brush to work a spray-on cleaner into the carpet or a soft-bristled brush for seats and the trunk. Don't soak the fabric, which can cause mildew. Leather surfaces need a dedicated leather cleaner. Follow up with leather conditioner. Vacuum last, since cleaning other areas often dislodges dirt.
Wear gloves and eye protection, especially when working around the battery. Clean the battery with a stiff brush dipped in a mixture of water and baking soda, and pay special attention to corroded parts. Wash engine parts with soap and water or a degreasing cleaner. Keep water away from the air intake, fuse box, cable junctions, and any electrical connections.
Those steps won't turn back the clock for your vehicle, but they'll make it more pleasant to drive and perhaps fetch you a better price when it comes time to sell.