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How to start an Auto Detailing Business

How to start an Auto Detailing Business

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Several car ownership realities play into making car detailing a viable and growing business.

For example, new car prices continue to rise at an average of $1,000 per year. As a result, many car owners realize that maintaining their car is important.

The average road worthy vehicle is over 11 years old. This compares to just 5.5 years in 1970.

What’s going on?

  1. Modern cars are more reliable and durable. Paint, trim and interior finishes on new cars are also far superior to years past, but one must still keep appearances maintained.
  2. The tough economy itself makes it difficult to afford a brand-new car. Word is younger generations aren’t as keen on buying a new ride.

What does this all mean?

Detailing is an excellent business!


Cashing In

You don’t have to set up shop in a high-income, high-cost-of-living area to make a nice living as a detailer.

You can always increase revenue and attract new clients by adding special services to your detailing business.

Let’s talk pricing while we’re on the topic of services…

Typical charges are as follows:

  • Vacuum and hand wash, $25 – $45
  • Full detail, $100 – $150

Engine detail, $40 – $60

Add-on services create new profit centers and typically offer more income per unit of work:

  • Paint touch-up, $50 minor ($200 major)
  • Overspray or cement removal, $150
  • Black trim restoration, $25 – $110
  • Carpet dyeing, $75 – $150
  • Windshield repair, $25 – $100
  • Paintless dent repair, $90 – $120

These are very conservative quotes.

Further, professional detailing prices don’t really paint a complete picture.

Want to really understand the full potential?

Estimate jobs per day, as follows:

  • 1 detailing job per day @ $100 x 5 days = $500 per week
  • 2 detailing jobs per day @ $100 x 5 days = $1,000 per week
  • 3 detailing jobs per day @ $100 x 5 days = $1,500 per week

Likewise, you should estimate add-on services:

  • Windshield repair @ $50 x 3 jobs = $150 per week
  • Paint touch-up @ $75 x 3 jobs = $225 per week
  • Paintless dent repair @ $75 x 3 jobs = $225 per week

Professional detailing is one of those businesses where you can choose how busy you want to be.

How does that sound to you?

It’s easy to see that keeping a busy schedule of 3 jobs per day (with a few add-on services) will bring in $1,800 or more per week.

Working alone, that’s over $90,000 yearly! Add an assistant and revenue will be significantly higher.

Basically, there’s a tremendous money-making opportunity.

The question is: Are you up for the challenge?


Different Types of Detailing Businesses

Professional detailing is possible in many shapes and sizes.

You can categorize them into 3 basic groups:

  • Mobile
  • Fixed-site
  • Temporary location

Any professional detailing operation will have its pros and cons. These must be fully understood.

Mobile Detailing Business

Mobile detailers operate out of the back of a van, truck or trailer.

The benefits:

  • Low initial start-up cost
  • Small monthly fees
  • Higher rates from clients

No doubt, there are customers who prefer the convenience of having a car detailed at home (or at their job).

Outfitting a mobile detailing system is largely a matter of personal taste and pocketbook.

But realize this:

Your mobile rig will be your central work facility. It deserves significant thought.

You’ll be using it as your office, workshop, transportation and shelter for 8+ hours a day.

Creating an organized layout is a must. This will help the business run efficiently.

As far as investment goes…

Reliable used vans and trucks can be purchased for as little as $5,000. You’ll need another $3,000 to $4,000 to properly equip the van or truck.

Do you already own a truck or van that’s used for non-business use?

Then, a trailer is your best bet.



Here are some basic assumptions for a one-person mobile operation:

One-Time Start-Up Expenses

  • Incorporation fee (attorney) –  $1,000
  • Accountant or bookkeeper –  $800
  • Mobile office equip – $250
  • Turnkey mobile detailing system – $8,000
  • Miscellaneous tools – $300
  • Water reclamation system – $2,500
  • Initial stock of chemicals and supplies – $500
  • Initial promotion and marketing – $1,000
  • Merchant service – $300
  • Work clothes/uniform – $300
  • Licenses – $100
  • Start-up cash (always available) – $5,000

Total estimated start-up costs – $20,050

Monthly Expenses

  • Commercial van lease with no down payment – $400
  • Automobile insurance – $150
  • Cellular telephone service – $50 to $100
  • Accountant or bookkeeper – $80 to $125
  • Office supplies – $ 25
  • Miscellaneous tool maintenance – $25
  • Promotion and marketing – $100
  • Liability insurance – $75
  • Merchant service fees – $30
  • Chemicals – $300

Total estimated monthly costs = $1,235


Fixed-site Detailing Business

A fixed-site detailing business, or detailing shop, is a more expensive proposition.

You see, there are many hard costs incurred before opening the doors for business.

It’s easy to spend $100,000 or more.

That is, for a modest-sized shop with only a couple of detailing bays.

The benefit to this type of operation?

You can hire employees and locate the business in a natural traffic center. You’ll easily bring in customers.

With a good location and marketing plan, this kind of operation can generate annual revenues of $500,000 or more.

Still, you have 2 big decisions to make before going the fixed-site route.

  • Whether you want to be an independent owner/operator or buy into a franchise.
  • Whether you’ll start a business from scratch or buy out another detailing business.

Start-Up Expenses

  • Incorporation fee (attorney) –  $1,000
  • Accountant or bookkeeper –  $800
  • Lobby and office equipment – $2,500
  • Office supplies – $250
  • Detailing equipment – $4,500
  • Initial stock of detail supplies – $1,500
  • Air compressor – $1,000
  • Washer and dryer – $1,000
  • Miscellaneous hand tools – $300
  • Miscellaneous shop requirements – $1,500
  • Signage – $2,500
  • Initial promotion and advertising – $2,500
  • Merchant services –  $300
  • Licenses – $500
  • Start-up cash (always available) – $10,000

Total estimated start-up costs – $30,150

Monthly Expenses

  • Rent (existing 1,500 to 1,800 sq.  ft. building
    with 3 or 4 service bays, equipment room,
    restroom and small lobby area) – $2,500
  • Commercial van lease with no down payment – $400
  • Automobile insurance – $150
  • Telephone service – $100
  • Utilities – $400
  • Three employees – $6,210
  • Office supplies – $ 40
  • Miscellaneous tool maintenance – $50
  • Promotion and marketing – $100
  • Liability insurance – $75
  • Merchant services – $300
  • Uniform service – $250
  • Detailing chemicals/supplies – $1,000

Total estimated monthly expenses = $11,575


Temporary Location Detailing Business

Some professional detailers start out using temporary locations like a parking garage, gasoline station or portable awning in a shopping mall parking lot.

A detailer can build a steady business of drive-up customers with this concept.

I’ve personally used the services of a detailer in my parking garage. Every day he’d roll out his lights, hoses and power cords.

His office was a 10′ by 10′ utility closet. His overhead was extremely low.

Business was always brisk!

The equipment for a temporary location detailing shop is similar to a mobile business.

In fact, many temporary location operators simply pull their mobile rig on site. Some have agreements with parking garages or gasoline stations to draw more business.


Starting on a Shoestring Budget

Some expenses can be avoided in the first year, such as the attorney and accountant. Not that they aren’t important, but your needs are modest when starting small.

Likewise, you don’t have to invest in every tool or a brand-new van, truck or trailer. Where possible, buy used equipment.

The best way to get started is to offer a basic wash and vacuum, express detail service.

Advertise and promote the business by distributing flyers and business cards. Plan to do a lot of footwork, distributing handouts door-to-door or business-to-business.

You’ll need to send a direct mailing to everyone you know and then follow up with a phone call. Get listed in the Yellow Pages and put magnetic signs on your vehicle.

Never be shy about asking family and friends for referrals. 

Provide people who give referrals a discount if they bring you business.


Equipment and Supplies

You will need a basic set of tools and supplies.

Here’s a quick rundown on the essentials for every professional detailer.

Rotary Buffer 

Don’t skimp on a rotary buffer. It’s a tool you’ll use every day.

For a good air compressor, pneumatic buffers are much lighter and don’t generate heat like electric buffers. As a result, you won’t be quite so tired after buffing for an hour or two.

In either case, get a tool with variable speed control (from 600 to 2,400 RPM).

Also, make sure the rotary buffer you purchase has or will accept Velcro backing plates and pads. Velcro-backed pads are a huge time-saver!

Dual-Action Buffer 

You will also need a good dual-action (orbital) buffer.

The same rules apply as above.

Pneumatic is best if you are installing a good compressed-air system. If you don’t plan to use pneumatic tools, the best dual-action buffer is the Porter Cable 7424. Your dual-action buffer will also serve as your carpet and floor mat shampoo machine. By changing the attachment to a brush, you will be able to deep-clean even the worst carpets and floor mats.

Wet-Dry Vacuum

Don’t underestimate the value of a good wet-dry vacuum. Detailers need a vacuum with a lot of power. A wet-dry vacuum with less than 5 hp won’t do a good job. In addition to good power, select a quiet vacuum, and make sure the filters won’t cost a fortune or be difficult to find.


An extractor is a cleaning system for carpet and upholstery.

It forces hot, soapy water into carpet or upholstery. It also extracts the dirt and soapy water back into its canister.

High-end systems heat the water and make steam for removing tough stains.

This tool pays for itself in a very short period of time. Without an extractor, interior detailing is very laborious.

Air Compressor 

Be sure to size a compressor correctly.

A portable compressor may not have the power or tank capacity to run more than one tool at a time, or to run a rotary buffer for more than a few minutes at a time.

The last thing you’ll want to do is stand around waiting on your air compressor!

There are many detailing tasks for an air compressor other than running pneumatic tools, such as blowing water off a freshly detailed engine or blowing out dirty vents.

You can get by without an air compressor by using your wet-dry vacuum on blow. Many vacuums come with attachments made for blowing.

Brushes & Wash Tools 

Professional detailers use a wide assortment of brushes to detail cars.

You’ll need interior brushes, exterior brushes, tire and wheel brushes and engine brushes. For each of these areas you’ll need fine, medium and possibly even hard bristles.

A variety of wash sponges and mitts are required, as well.

You’ll have different grade wash mitts and sponges for different vehicles.

Your Ferrari, Porsche and Corvette clients will appreciate that you’re not using the same sponge on their car as you did on the Ford F350.


You’re going to be amazed at how many towels you use.

Your mainstay will be 100% cotton terry cloth. Buy quality detailing-grade towels by the bundle.

Also invest in mid-grade microfiber towels. For professional detailers, I recommend standardizing on a single towel that works for all tasks.


Detailing chemicals are your number one supply item.

Over time, you will spend more money on chemicals than all of your tools and other supplies put together.

Select your chemical provider wisely. Also, purchase in sufficient quantity to get a good discount.

At a minimum you’ll need:

  • Car wash shampoo
  • Tar, bug and sap remover
  • Spot remover
  • Concentrated tire and wheel cleaner (Buy it concentrated so you can mix the strength you need and pay less in shipping.)
  • Carpet and upholstery shampoo and extractor shampoo
  • Distilled white vinegar and ammonia
  • Penetrating oil (WD-40)
  • Odor killer/neutralizer
  • Leather and vinyl cleaner
  • Glass cleaner
  • Glass and chrome polish
  • Polish (heavy, medium and fine)
  • Detailing clay
  • Wax (carnauba and synthetic)
  • Quick detailing spray
  • Leather conditioner
  • Interior vinyl dressing
  • Exterior vinyl and rubber dressing
  • Rubber and black trim restorer

It’s a long list. Trust me, though, you’ll use everything on the chemicals list and more.

Detailing chemicals are the professional detailer’s lifeblood!

Special Services

The car care field has many aspects. Professional detailers can quickly add to their business by offering special services beyond traditional detailing.

Paint Touch-up

Paint touch-up, be it chip repair or bumper scratch repair, is an easy and lucrative add-on service for detailers.

There are many different paint touch-up systems available. Research thoroughly and seek qualified training.

Also, compare different equipment kits to determine what they contain. Some kits are designed for chip touch-up only, while others repair chips, bumper scuffs and scratches.

It’s important to properly set customer expectations when marketing paint repair services. Most people will wrongly assume that a paint touch-up repair will make the paint perfect.

It won’t.

You must explain that paint chip touch-up does not remove the chip; it simply makes it the same color as the vehicle.

Make it clear that your paint touch-up service is a quick and inexpensive alternative to a body shop.

Tinting & Windshield Repair 

Window tinting is a good volume builder in the Sunbelt states.

Be aware, though, window tinting is a tough trade to learn. Curved windows are difficult to master, and customers expect perfection.

Many detailers add tinting as an outsourced job. Your client schedules, and you schedule to have the tinting pro come to your location.

The time required to properly tint windows will vary. It depends on the technician’s skill and experience.

Most tinting jobs can be completed in 1 to 4 hours.

The best way to bill for tinting services is to base it on the size of the vehicle and the number of windows to be tinted. Add extra for complex rear windows.

Typical tinting jobs will go for $100 to $300.

Windshield repair is far easier and more lucrative than tinting.

Small cracks are repaired by injecting a resin into the damaged area of glass. The resin bonds the break and prevents further cracking.

To make a proper repair, you need a windshield repair tool kit (the cost is anywhere from $200 to nearly $2,000).

The kit price will determine the quality and durability of the tools. But it’s not necessary to buy the most expensive kit.

Windshield repair is a great add-on service.

One reason is most insurance companies will waive the deductibles for windshield repair. This is a great incentive for most customers.

The typical small star crack will charge out at $45 to $75 and will take less than 30 minutes to repair.

Vinyl and Leather Repair

Vinyl and leather repair services are an easy sale for detailers. Nothing looks worse than a torn seat, gouged dash or cigarette burn.

Most small repairs will charge out at $25 to $75 with material costs being less than $5.

It’s not as time-consuming to learn compared to paint touch-ups, but it does take some effort to learn vinyl and leather repair.

The repair process is basically the same for both leather and vinyl, although you’ll use different compounds.

Vinyl repair compounds will not stick to leather, so don’t even try!

The secret to a good repair is a heat gun and knowing how to match colors. You need a gun that allows you to pinpoint direct heat.

Color matching is mostly computerized, but you will need a small square of the material.

Planning to add vinyl and leather repair to your service offerings?

You might also consider carpet repair and carpet dyeing. This way you will cover all of the major interior services.

Paintless Dent Repair

A PDR technician uses a variety of instruments with different tips to work a dent from the back side of the panel. When massaged in the right areas with the right tool, the damaged metal can be made to conform to its original shape with near-perfect results. The PDR process requires a considerable amount of skill and patience, developed through many hours of education and practice.

Regardless of your skill level, there are dents that cannot be repaired with PDR techniques. These includes dents that are too large or are located in places where the sheet metal is reinforced. An experienced PDR technician learns to “read” dents that cannot be repaired before accepting the job.

Although there are situations that are problematic, PDR is an advantageous service to offer. Most PDR repairs can be completed within an hour, and cost much less than going to a body shop.

Getting into the PDR business is economical. The cost for PDR equipment ranges from several hundred dollars for a small starter set to $10,000 for a complete turnkey system with training. In terms of recovering your costs, PDR provides an excellent opportunity to generate revenue. The service is typically priced at $75 to $150 per dent, depending on the location, depth and size of the damage.


Legal Requirements

Every business has legal requirements it must meet to operate.

Business Permits 

Each city, county and state government body in the U.S. has different guidelines for operating a detailing business.

Some regions will require one or more licenses, while others require no licenses at all.

The best place to learn about obtaining a business license in your area is your local city hall, city administration or county administration office. Every town or county in the U.S. has an administration office. Look in your phone book for the telephone number and address.

Most professional detailers will be required to have a permit of one sort or another to conduct business. Business permits are very easy to obtain, as they are revenue generators for the local government. Usually all that’s required is the completion of a simple form and payment of a small fee.

Most administration offices will issue a temporary permit on the spot and send your permanent license or permit within a few weeks.

Air & Water Pollution Control

Many cities have a department that supervises the control of air and water.

Here in California, professional detailers must report to the Water Resources Department for wastewater disposal. When you apply for your city or county business permit, ask about water disposal requirements in your area.

Don’t get caught dumping wastewater in a controlled area. Fines can be harsh!

Sign Permits

Some cities and counties have strict sign ordinances that restrict the size, lighting and location of business signs.

Most landlords will be able to guide you on proper signage for your location. If you’re starting a mobile operation, there are very few restrictions.

Fire Department Permits 

Fire departments often require businesses to get a permit if they use flammable materials or if the premises will be occupied by customers.

Check with your local fire department if you are establishing a fixed-site business.

Zoning Ordinances

Zoning applies to business use of property in a residential area.

Zoning regulation will most likely not be a problem IF you’re locating the business in an existing facility.

However, in a new location (including your home) check zoning ordinances to make sure you’re in compliance.



You will most likely have to raise enough capital to finance getting off the ground.

Financing a detailing business is an exercise in debt management. You must evaluate your situation and a capacity to pay off debts as they come due.

There are 5 components to working capital:

  • Cash – Any liquid asset that is available to your business, including the income from the business itself.
  • Trade credit – Any credit extended to your business by suppliers is trade credit. This is a resource you must not abuse. Ask for trade credit and pay the bills on time.
  • Inventory – Detailing supplies are cash disbursements. Overstocking on supplies depletes your cash.
  • Debt – Monies you owe to banks, credit cards, family and friends is all debt that must be repaid on time.
  • Expenses and taxes – Employees, rent, utilities, insurance, banking fees, marketing and professional fees (accountant) are all examples of business expenses that must be met monthly. Taxes are obvious, and you must plan to pay all state, federal and local taxes on a quarterly basis. Expenses and taxes both require careful planning. You must make sure funds are available when the bills come due.

Watch your five working capital assets like a hawk. Take the time to understand each component.

Don’t wait until you’re in trouble to realize that you don’t have enough cash or a big enough line of credit.

Plan ahead for BOTH growth and slow periods.

Good Record Keeping

Why keep accurate records?

They’re an invaluable tool for managing your business. They are also required by law!

It’s necessary for basic day-to-day operations just from a management perspective.

Records help you track sales and measure your financial situation.

Again, records must also be kept determining tax liability. I suggest that you hire a bookkeeper and an accountant.


Advertising & Promotion

Want to start making plans regarding how to sell your detailing services?

First, understand one thing:

What motivates people to buy!

There are essentially 5 motivators that prompt folks give up hard-earned money for a product or service:

  • Pride – When you park your car and walk away, do you turn back to see how your car looks? Sure, you do! That’s because you have pride in your car. Pride is a strong motivator, especially for men. Most luxury and sports car owners fall into this category.
  • Protection  Some car owners use detailing services to maintain the cosmetic appearance of their vehicles. They are protecting their assets. I receive a lot of phone calls from customers with new cars asking how best to maintain their investment.
  • Pleasure – Some people buy things for the sheer pleasure of it. In the case of detailing, the pleasure customer is buying “kiss my feet” service.
  • Price – For most people, buying at the best price isn’t the top priority. Detailers should not cater to the best price buyer. There are plenty of bottom feeder detailers around. Let them have the guy who wants an all-day detail job for $75. Never allow a potential customer to talk you into losing money on a deal because they say they can find a service for less money.
  • Profit – When a client wants to sell a car, he or she will seek a detailer to make it look its best. They are motivated by higher profit from the sale.

For every reason people buy, there are an equal number of reasons they don’t:

  • No cash – Not much you can do here. No money, no service. Don’t waste your time.
  • No faith – Do you trust just anyone with your car? Of course you don’t, so don’t expect your clients to have faith in you immediately. You have to work at building trust.
  • No need – This is pretty easy to understand. If a person does it themselves, or if they do not care about their car, they don’t need your service.
  • No desire – If you can’t explain the benefits of your services, it will be very difficult to create a desire to purchase. Don’t expect that everyone understands what they need to do to maintain their car. Spend time educating your clients.
  • No rush – How many times have you said to a salesman, “Hey, let me think about it.” You may have some interest in the product, but there’s no urgency. Sometimes you will need to create the urgency.


How To Price & Promote

There’s a range of prices for goods and services in every line of business.

Service prices typically reflect the quality and professionalism provided to the customer. Successful detailers price appropriately and avoid competing with bottom feeders.

The truth is bottom feeders are forced to cut corners and deliver less than stellar service.

If they don’t, they will quickly be out of business. The demise of most bottom feeders is the lack of repeat business (what makes a truly professional detailer thrive).

Here’s something that’s overlooked:

As prices increase, so does the caliber of clientele. Clients with new, expensive cars will use your services regularly.

These are your loyal, repeat business customers. They are the customers you want to attract and keep.

Most detailers never figure this out. Instead, they try to compete with bottom feeders on price. Let them try.

You scoop up all of the high-end work!

Be careful, though…

Jack up your prices too high and you may lose customers you already have.

With each price increase you MUST also improve your image and service level.

The Bottom Line:

People purchase on quality, service and price. Each must be in balance.



What do customers expect from your detail business?

That’s simple: customers want convenience.

They expect work to be done quickly, correctly and at a reasonable price. Most of all, though, most customers want superior customer service.

Build your marketing and promotion plan around your customer’s buying motives.

Make sure your marketing plan outlines how to gain first-thought recognition, and to answer a simple question for customers: “What will it do for me?”

The name of your detailing business should pop into customers’ heads when their vehicles need detailing services.

Very few detailers formalize advertising and promotion plans. Many detailers stop with an online listing or a small ad in their local newspaper.

Take it from me…

Word of mouth is important. However, it only comes after you’ve built a successful business.

Do this:

Create a realistic marketing plan and aggressively work your plan!

Here are some forms of advertising and promotion a professional detailer should consider:

  • Direct mail – This allows you to target selected markets, such as certain types of cars, certain professions, specific neighborhoods, etc.
  • Radio – This only makes sense if your shop is located in a small town, where the cost of radio advertising is not prohibitive. Detail shops should advertise only on radio stations that reach the 35-to-60 age market.
  • Cable TV – Again, this only makes sense if it is not too costly.
  • Flyer stuffers – These can be inserted in local newspapers.
  • Handbill distribution – You can leave handbills on cars in your area.  However, you must get permission to do this in shopping centers.
  • Internet – Use pay-for-placement services like Google AdWords.

Mediums of a lesser extent:

  • Yellow Pages
  • Grocery shopping carts
  • Billboards
  • Church bulletins
  • Little League team sponsorship
  • Golf tournament sponsorships
  • Welcome Wagon participation
  • Public transportation (side/back of bus) advertising

Professional detailing is a great business opportunity.

That’s for sure. You can make a lot of money.

But, like any business, it requires careful planning and execution.

Be smart! Don’t stumble blindly into professional detailing.

Take the time to understand your market and build a strategy.

Then plan your business and work your plan!

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