Ground Up — A Step-by-Step Guide to Build Your Car Wash Dream
Each month I look forward to the e-mail comments I receive from readers. Sometimes I get praise, occasionally criticism, and frequently I receive questions that I try to address in future articles. Recently I’ve had several requests for the step-by-step process to build a new wash, from the ground up, on a vacant lot. Some are from new investors looking to get into the business. Others are veteran operators that have either inherited, or purchased, existing locations, and are now exploring new construction.
For the new investor, building a wash is an exciting opportunity to inject ideas from other industries into proven wash models that work. For existing operators, it’s the chance to start with a clean slate, able to address all the things they wished were different at their existing locations. For both, I’ve decided to refresh the series of time-tested steps to building a new car wash location. Whether you’re looking to reinvent the wheel, or refine an existing model, it will serve you well to stay within the lines of this framework. Let’s take a look.
STEP 1: DEVELOP A CONCEPT
Your building and surroundings need to scream out to cars passing by at 40 mph that you deliver exceptionally clean cars, quickly, at a tremendous value. Start looking closely at buildings and compile a list of features you see that communicate those qualities. Look at as many successful car washes as you can. Talk to those operators.
Analyze what architectural features on buildings attract your
attention and have strong curb appeal. The clearer the picture of what would set your new wash apart from the competition, the easier it will be to work with your architect.
STEP 2: SELECT AN ARCHITECT
Look for architects with strong referrals who have built car washes or buildings that you have seen and like. Some general contractors offer design-build services, which means they will provide both the architect and building drawings. Using a design-build general contractor with an in-house architect will often provide a clearer cost of your building as you go forward — each step of the way. If you use an independent architect, realize that architecture is an art form. Make sure you clearly communicate your objectives, and budget, so that they do not design a building you cannot afford to build.
STEP 3: SELECT A GENERAL CONTRACTOR
Selecting a general contractor (GC) is similar in process to finding a good doctor. References are important. There are two basic ways to select a contractor. The first method is by negotiated contract. In this method, the contractor is selected at the design level and becomes a true member of the project team. The contractor’s fee may be based on a percent of the cost of construction, cost plus not to exceed, a lump sum, or as a construction management fee. The second method is by a lump sum sealed bid. In this method, contractors are invited to bid on your construction contract. You will normally limit it to three bidders so that better contractors (approved by your architect) in the market will be more interested in submitting bids.
STEP 4: SELECT A CIVIL ENGINEER
An independent civil engineer (with strong referrals) who can review the site engineering and layout of the property can be an invaluable asset. They will make sure the property lines are set and staked and that all retention issues are addressed.
Additionally, they will test the boring of the soil to make sure it can support a car wash. You may find problems that force you to move the building rather than hit costly solutions to rectify an unstable soil problem where you were planning to put your building. The civil engineer gives you a system of checks and balances to make sure you fix problems before going too far.
STEP 5: BEGIN THE PERMITTING PROCESS
Upon closing your loans and signing a contract, your GC will give you a precise bid for the entire project. This will include site work, grading, underground utilities, pavement, curbing, the building, and landscaping. Your GC will schedule meetings with the building department, fire department, department of transportation, water department, and sewer department. From the information gathered they can prepare and modify a complete set of plans for the initial permit application. It is common to wait 45 to 60 days for the municipality to review plans. The greater the town’s involvement prior to submitting the application, the quicker this process will go. Address any changes and comments from the municipality and re-submit as needed.
STEP 6: FINALIZE YOUR EQUIPMENT PACKAGE
At this point you should have finalized your equipment package and budgeted for all associated costs, including tax, shipping, installation, and training. Your equipment manufacturer or distributor will supply the GC with all necessary files to incorporate into the final architectural plans. Send a copy of your final approved construction prints to your equipment supplier for review. They, or the installer, will schedule a concrete trench inspection with your GC.
STEP 7: SCHEDULE A PRECONSTRUCTION MEETING
Once your GC has organized all subcontractors and provided you with a construction calendar, immediately schedule a pre-construction meeting. At this meeting you and your equipment supplier will meet with the GC and all subcontractors. The division of duties between the electrical, plumbing, and heating subcontractors, along with the installer, should be clearly outlined, agreed upon, and documented. This meeting is critical to avoid confusion and eliminate any miscommunication.
STEP 8: PLAN YOUR WORK
Construction will begin as soon as your permit application has been approved. Even with the most trusted GC, you will need to constantly make sure things are going according to plan. It is imperative to stay abreast of all bank drafts. Inspect that items the GC has requested money for are completed satisfactorily and that drafts are made in a timely fashion. Also, try to be present at all inspections by the building department. You need to know what, if any, issues must be rectified. That said; don’t forget that you’re not alone. Every operator you’ve met with a successful business faced most of the same issues you’re about to. Be active in the regional and national associations, online forums, and other resources, and you’ll likely discover help at every turn.
STEP 9: PLAN FOR DOWNTIME
At times during construction it will seem that things should be happening faster than they are. If a project falls behind schedule, you absolutely need to get things back on track. At the same time, be careful when trying to push a project already on, or ahead of schedule. Sometimes it works out, but more often it causes unexpected problems to occur that can devour your time, energy, and money. If you do find yourself with extra time managing the construction of your wash, below is my list of things to prepare.
- Schedule training for yourself and management on the maintenance, repair, and management of your wash.
- Establish your business and open your bank accounts.
- Design the color theme, logo, and signage for your wash.
- Prepare your menus, offerings, and promotional materials.
- Join your local association as well as the ICA.
- Subscribe to all trade journals.
- Research detergent suppliers and establish relationships with at least two.
- Plan your grand opening to happen several weeks after you are up and running.
- Outline your marketing plan and community involvement strategy.
- Plan to be present during your equipment installation.
- Plan to be present during your computer installation.
It’s an exciting time. Equipment and chemistry advances continue to produce cleaner, drier, shinier cars in smaller footprints than ever before. The shrinking land requirements are opening a new universe of potential car wash properties with a line of investors looking to grow the industry. Building a new car wash from the ground up is an exhilarating process. Just don’t forget it’s also a stable and predictable process, proven thousands of times over, provided you’re willing to plan your work, and work your plan, within the framework of a few simple steps.
Good luck, and good washing.
Washing cars for over 30 years, Anthony Analetto serves as president of SONNY’S The CarWash Factory, creator of the Original Xtreme-Xpress Mini-Tunnel, and the largest manufacturer of conveyorized car wash equipment, parts, and supplies in the world. He can be reached at Aanaletto@SonnysDirect.com or at (800) 327-8723 ext 104.