Auto Laundry News - August 2012

Private Sell-Prep — Getting the Used Vehicle Ready

By Prentice St. Clair

The popularity of private car sales continues to increase as consumers search for ways to keep more dollars from the sale of their hard-earned investments. Many consumers are frustrated by the fact that they will receive one-half to one-third the value of their vehicle if it is simply traded in at the dealership. There is more information than ever available online about used vehicles — even specific information on many Vehicle Identification Numbers. The bottom line is that both buyers and sellers of privately used vehicles are becoming more and more savvy.

One of the impacts of this trend is that sellers are increasingly aware of the importance of “cleaning up” the car before showing it to potential buyers. This is where we come in.

Is your detailing operation looking for more vehicles to detail? Then consider the specific market of private vehicle sales. It’s simply a matter of promoting the value of pre-sale detailing and the fact that you can provide the service.


It is likely that your standard detail package already provides most of the service elements that you would perform for a sell-prep. Nonetheless, let’s go over some of the important elements of a sell-prep.

Many of us do not include the engine bay as part of a detail. I believe that sell-preps should include degreasing and rinsing the engine compartment because a clean engine bay helps to give the appearance of a well-maintained vehicle.

Depending on how the vehicle has been detailed before, the exterior paint may need an extra high-speed polish step and heavy use of detail clay to really bring back the shine before application of wax. Since the vehicle will exchange hands in a few days or weeks, it’s certainly not necessary to use a longer-lasting sealant for protection.

A good cleaning of the mats, carpets, and fabric seats will help bring the interior back to life. Of course, the only truly effective way to do this is to use a hot water extractor. Although I typically recommend using only water in the extractor’s clean water tank (i.e., spray the cleaner directly onto the carpeting), you may want to put some odor neutralizer into the clean water tank. An ounce or two per gallon should suffice. Then, as you hot-water rinse
the areas with your extractor, the odor neutralizer is being “infused” into the areas, killing any leftover odors. This is likely to help make the interior of the vehicle smell fresher and newer.

Speaking of deodorization, some vehicles may need special treatment. For example, if the current owner is a smoker, it will be important to eliminate as much of the smoke odor from the inside of the vehicle prior to putting it up for sale. Many potential buyers are put off by tobacco odors. This service will cost substantially more than a typical detail since it requires extra work (thorough cleaning of all interior surfaces to remove nicotine residue) and specialized equipment (e.g., ozone generator or fogger) to sufficiently cancel the odors.

A nice additional service that you can provide is what I call “clean-out service.” You simply pull everything out of the car that does not go with it. During years of ownership, the customer has likely left all kinds of stuff in every imaginable storage area in the car. Your job, as you vacuum out the vehicle, is to clean out all of these storage areas. Leave behind the owner’s manual and other vehicle information, current registration, and proof-of-insurance, and anything else that should stay with the vehicle (like tire-changing equipment and tools). Place everything that you find into a box or similar container for your customer.

Consider also some additional services that will improve the appearance of the car. These are similar to the services that are performed on cars to be re-sold at a dealership, and include such things as:

  • Repainting faded or chipped windshield wiper arms
  • Clarifying dull or yellowed plastic headlamp lenses
  • Decal removal
  • Window-tint removal (for faded or bubbling tint)
  • Minor touch-up for the painted surfaces

The customer is not likely to be using the vehicle intensively after you complete the job, and will probably not inspect the vehicle with as much scrutiny as he or she would if the vehicle was being detailed for the customer’s use and enjoyment. Thus, you may not have to be quite as thorough as you typically are for standard retail jobs. I call this approach “high-impact” detailing. It’s the type of detailing that is performed for wholesale or dealership accounts.

High-impact detailing involves the cleaning of the most noticeable surfaces and those that will have the greatest improvement in appearance. This is a different approach than traditional full-service retail detailing, which involves cleaning and conditioning every surface.

Nonetheless, “high-impact” detailing does not mean “sloppy” detailing. The object of your service is to make the vehicle look as new as possible, considering its age and the budget of the customer. For example, it would not be typical, practical, or desirable to perform a two-day, $1,000 sell-prep detail on a 10-year-old high-production domestic model that the consumer expects to sell for $3,000. But a couple of hundred dollars invested in “spiffing-up” the same vehicle will likely increase the offers and move the sale along.


The primary focus of a sell-prep marketing program is to create awareness that the service is valuable and available. Your current customer base is your starting point. Include in your promotional programs that your operation provides sell-prep service for private vehicle sales. You might also try calling the numbers listed for vehicles that are already for sale, either on the street or in the classifieds. Simply propose the idea of a quicker, more profitable sale through the use of the sell-prep service.

You can advertise in some of the same popular publications that offer used vehicle advertising. Use big bold letters with a simple message like “Want to sell your car faster and make more money?”

Another trick with sell-prep marketing is selling the service. The most likely objection is: “Why should I spend any money on this thing when I am about to sell it?” As you may have already determined from the previous paragraphs,
the answer is simple: A properly detailed vehicle is likely to sell faster and for more money.

You can explain it to your customer like this: What’s the first thing that you look at when examining a used vehicle for sale? The answer is almost always, “how it looks.” Doesn’t it make sense then to get this car looking great before putting it up for sale? When you consider that there are probably a few dozen other vehicles just like yours up for sale right now, you can ensure that yours stands apart from the rest by being the cleanest, newest looking option for the potential buyer. This is likely to cause your car to sell faster than the others out there. Moreover, you can bump up your asking price because the condition of your vehicle is much better.

My personal experience is that many customers who have allowed me to sell-prep their vehicles have either received offers for full asking price or have sold the vehicle very quickly. For example, one of my customers reported that a
potential buyer said, “I’ve looked at a dozen of these same models and this is by far the cleanest.” The buyer proceeded to pay full asking price with no negotiation. Of course, there’s no guarantee of such sales performance, but the investment in prep-sell detailing sure increases the chances of a better, more profitable sale.

In fact, you are likely to have the occasional sell-prep customer who, upon seeing his or her car completely reconditioned, falls in love with it again and decides to keep it. Be sure to capture this moment and ask the customer permission to use the story as a testimonial for potential new customers.


I believe that the potential benefits of a sell-prep make it a valuable service. I recommend charging at least your normal detailing rates for sell-preps, as opposed to the approach that some technicians take in offering a discounted sell-prep rate. My experience has been that the customer can increase the asking price by at least three times the value of the detail, thus making the service an investment instead of a cost.

You may want to have a special “sell-prep” package that includes the engine detail (if this is not part of your standard packages), minor deodorization, minor polishing, and other quickly performed services like wiper arm painting and lens buffing. The benefits of the package are simple: “makes your car look great so it sells faster for more money.”

Nonetheless, be flexible. Some customers may only want you to perform a portion of the detail, like “just the interior” or “just the engine bay.” I certainly don’t send these customers away. I will take a moment to explain the benefits of including all aspects of the detail, but if they insist on parsing it out, I’ll do what they ask. (Of course, the a la carte pricing on any one element of the detail will be quite a bit more than if it is included in a complete detail.)


Realize that preparing used vehicles for private sale is a valuable and necessary service. Get the word out that you can perform this service. Understand and explain to your customers the benefits of investing in a sell-prep service. Then, do a great job, price it accordingly, and follow-up with your customers on the success of their sale.

Prentice St. Clair is president of Detail in Progress, a San Diego-based automotive reconditioning consulting firm. To contact him, e-mail or call (619) 701-1100.

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