Does Cleaning Your Car Help Trade In Value Or Resale Value?

When I was younger, I used to love playing the Gran Turismo series of video games on Playstation (Gran Turismo 2 will always be my favourite and the best of the series … fight me if you don’t agree).

One thing that used to confuse the hell out of me as a kid was the ‘Car Wash’ feature in the games.

You could pay in-game money to get your car washed, which seemed like a total gimmick as it didn’t make your car faster or improve its sale value – and the graphics were sufficiently pixelated that it was very hard to discern any difference.

But what about in the “real world”?

We know that cleaning your car doesn’t make it faster – although some people do like to “tinker around the edges” with regards to excess dirt affecting the aerodynamics of a car.

But when it comes to trading in a car (or selling it on the private market) does a clean car help with value?

In this edition of Car Facts we are going to look at the extent to which cleaning your car prior to trading it in or selling it can enhance the value you get.

While some cars – classics like Toyota Supras, Nissan Skylines, Honda S2000s etc – have been climbing in value of late (which means that even if the car comes with a free footwell full of cheeseburger wrappers, you’re unlikely to lose value) for more “normal” cars when it comes to trade or sale time, what really matters is eliminating as many potential areas for the dealer or purchaser to haggle you down on price.

How Cleanliness Affects Trade In Value

When trading in a car, a dealer is going to be looking at your vehicle to try and identify any obvious defects that might affect their potential resale price (or require remediation before putting the car on the lot).

Speaking to a couple of car dealers/salespeople, they all indicated that when a customer presents with a dirty, untidy car that reflects on their perception of how that customer would have cared for their car – which affects trade value in turn as the dealer is going to be wary of taking a “lemon” with poor maintenance history in trade.

Having a clean and tidy trade in is more about value preservation than anything else. A dealer is unlikely to offer you thousands more for your trade (and if they do, it will be at the expense of any other discount they might have offered … we all know that dealers tend to use trade value as an offset to discounts, based on whether a customer is motivated by having a high trade value) but a clean car reduces the number of potential black marks against your trade, meaning you effectively lose less.

The truth is that most dealers will probably still put your car through their own detailing regimen – many dealers will do this in-house, while some smaller ones will use a third-party detailer – but by presenting your potential trade in a tidy, clean condition you are going to send a message that you’ve at least made some attempt to care for your car, and are less likely to be trying to trade a time-bomb.

What About Private Sale?

It’s clear that having a clean car does help trade value.

But what about when you are privately selling your car through eBay, Craigslist, or some other kind of classified site or system?

Once again, having a clean car is going to benefit you here in terms of extracting the best possible value from your sale.

In fact, you are probably going to get more value from a clean car when selling privately than you would from a trade in.

This is because a dealer is in the business of buying trades and turning a profit on them, so they need to acquire your vehicle for the best possible price – meaning there is less “wiggle room” on their end versus a private customer (not to mention the dealer will probably still clean and detail your car via their own routine system, before putting it on the lot).

On the other hand, a private individual is buying the car for their own use and benefit and not for resale (unless they are a car flipper) so there is the potential to extract more value by having a well-presented vehicle.

As bad as it sounds, private buyers are also usually less educated on cars than the average dealer, so they are more likely to be impressed by a clean car (and overlook any other potential issues with your vehicle).

On the other hand, having a dirty car is highly off-putting and also makes it seem that you don’t care about your car and looking after it, which will have a negative impact on resale value.

Therefore, it’s important to properly clean your car before it is inspected by a potential private buyer. In fact, make sure it is clean before taking any photos or listing it online!

Is It Worth Doing Yourself Or Paying For A Pro?

We’ve established that having a clean, tidy car definitely helps with both trade value and private resale value.

But is it worth the extra cost of paying a professional to detail your car, versus cleaning it yourself?

The answer to this question depends on a few factors:

  • Do you already have the necessary equipment for cleaning your car? If you’ve got to go out and spend a bunch of money on car detailing equipment, then you might be better just to pay someone else to do the job for you. On the other hand, if you’ve already got all the kit, then you are half way there. Products like car wax don’t really expire, so you can buy them and keep them for a long time and use for future cars under your ownership.
  • How much spare time do you have? How do you value your time? If you are short on time (or you have the potential to use your spare time to do additional work and turn that into money at a favourable rate) then you might be better to pay a professional. On the other hand, if you’ve got lots of time on your hands – and you don’t have the ability to use that time to earn a higher rate than it will cost you to pay for a pro detailing – then you are better to pay someone else to do it for you.
  • Are you looking to trade or privately sell? As mentioned above, a dealer isn’t going to offer as much additional value for a clean car as a private buyer might. If you’re looking to trade in a car (and particularly if it is a lower value trade, such as an older high-mileage car) then you want to get your car clean as cheaply as possible. A quick vacuum and wash at home is going to be the best option here, and shouldn’t take you more than 30-45 minutes. On the other hand, if you are selling your car privately – and especially if it is something like a classic car with a higher potential sale price – then having your car in the best possible condition could really enhance the sale price, and might warrant paying for a professional detailing.
  • How much will a pro detailing cost? If you’re paying hundreds of dollars for a super-comprehensive detailing, then you probably won’t make this back. However, if you’re able to get a quick hand wash and wax plus interior groom for $50 from one of those places in your local shopping mall carpark, then this is going to probably be returned to you (and then some).

Which leads us on to perhaps the most important consideration:

Consider The Point Of Diminishing Marginal Returns

One thing to bear in mind is that there is a point of diminishing marginal returns when it comes to cleaning your car prior to sale or trade.

Washing the exterior, vacuuming and wiping down the interior, and maybe a quick wax (using something like this Turtle Wax hybrid product) will give you the best bang-for-your-buck.

Always bear in mind the “Pareto Principle” or 80/20 rule, which dictates that 20% of the effort yields 80% of the results.

Washing the exterior of the car (and maybe a quick wax) along with vacuuming the interior and wiping down hard surfaces is that 20% of potential effort that yields 80% of the gains.

Unless you simply love detailing, or you have lots of spare time and want to get every possible cent out of your trade or private sale, then going overboard with extremely comprehensive pre-sale detailing of your car is unlikely to yield any real gain.

Basically, the additional effort is not worth the comparatively small additional gain.

The same goes if you are looking to pay a pro. A $500 comprehensive detailing is not going to return 10x as much value as a $50 ‘quick detail’ from one of those mall carpark places (where you can often find a discounted voucher online).

Conclusion – Does Cleaning Your Car Help Trade In Or Resale Value?

Long story short, cleaning your car can definitely improve the trade value or resale value of your car.

In fact, this is one of the easiest (and cheapest) things you can do to get the best value possible from your car you are looking to trade on a new vehicle, or which you are wanting to sell on the used market.

If you’re trading a car in, then having it cleaned will lessen the chances that the dealer perceives the car as a bad trade (as they will eagerly be looking for any imperfections that will affect their resale potential on the car) but there is also a limit to the “value preservation” you’re likely to experience when trading a car.

You’re more likely to see a greater impact when privately selling a used car. Having a well-presented vehicle that is ready to drive away in is going to impart a positive impression on a prospective buyer, and convey that you are someone who cares about their car.

From a buyer’s perspective, it is definitely off-putting to view a potential purchase only to find it full of rubbish on the inside, and caked in dirt on the outside.

What is important to remember is that there is a “trade off point” with cleaning your car prior to sale. A quick wash and wax, and then interior vacuum and wipe-down will get you 80% of the potential value gains with 20% of the effort.

Unless you LOVE detailing cars (or have lots of spare time) it probably isn’t worth bothering with things like paint correction, deep upholstery cleaning etc – you’ll spend more in terms of your time value and materials than you’ll make back on additional trade or sale value.

With regards to deciding whether you are better to clean your car yourself or pay a professional to do it, this depends on how much spare time you have, how much you value your time, whether or not you’ll need to buy materials to do the job, and what it’s going to cost you to get a clean/detailing done.

We would love to hear your take on this particular topic – just leave a comment below.

In particular, we’d like to hear from car dealers/sellers on the extent to which a clean and tidy trade affects what you’ll offer.

Also, don’t forget to check out our YouTube channel for a growing collection of original, detailed classic car documentaries.

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