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Detailing for Money

Part of the fun of being able to transform a car from Ďnastyí to Ďbling blingí is the fact that people will pay you to do that to their car.  If you are looking to make the skills that you have and your attention to detail work for you, then this section may be of some help to you.  It isnít as hard as you might think to join the ranks of the ĎWeekend Warriorsí out there. Even if you have a full time job, you can still find time to detail on the side.  Letís face it...  detailing is an expensive hobby and it is about time that it start paying off. When I first started detailing for money it was just to fund the hobby. Now it is a thriving business.

The fist thing you need to decide is if you want to make a lot of money or just break even.  That decision will determine your pricing structure.  You can do it a couple of different ways actually.  You can either charge by the hour or by the job. I prefer to do it by the hour. If you do it that way then you wonít get screwed nearly as often.  Now, if your goal is just to break even then you should probably charge at least $15 or $20 dollars an hour.  Your time needs to be worth something. I charge about $40 an hour because that is what I feel my time and effort is worth as well as being competitive in the area with other detail shops. 

To do a basic wash and interior detail is going to take at least an hour.  When I say Ďbasicí I am talking about the bare minimum.  If there is tar or sap on the exterior then you leave it. It is going to take extra time to clear that kind of thing off and its not time you are being paid for.  The same thing is true on the interior. A basic interior job is one where you vacuum the seats and floor and clean the consoles and dash. Leather conditioning, carpet stain removal, deep cleaning floor mats, and other such time intensive projects are for other packages. It is extremely difficult for me to leave things un-detailed.  I highly recommend that you try to sell a complete interior detail every chance you get.  It is frustrating to know that you are leaving the interior less than you would like to have it in your own car.

Basic exterior detailing is a little easier to cut corners with. Leaving the sap and tar on the car is easy because you know its going to take extra time to remove it. You could spend an extra hour or two on a car if you included a clay job with tar removal. If you are going to spend more than 30 minutes going the Ďextra mileí on a detail, then you need to charge for it.  If the tar is going to be a 30 second job to remove, then go for it. Donít break out the clay bar for the price of a basic detail.  Make sure you upsell that kind of thing.  Same thing goes for the interior. If you feel that you can remove stains and do more than just the basic job, then make sure you try to upsell that to the customer.

Once you have decided how you want to charge, now it is a matter of learning how to properly estimate how much time it is going to take you to do the job.  I am going to use myself as an example here.  It takes me about 3 hours to do a full detail on a normal size sedan. I add another hour on the job for Explorer sized vehicles and another hour for Excursion sized vehicles. Sometimes a small car can take as long as an Excursion depending on the condition and what you are trying to do.  If a red Geo has been sitting under a tree for the last 5 years with the windows down, then that is a job that is likely to take 5 or 6 hours.  Donít estimate 3 hours on a 6 hour job for a couple reasons.  For one thing, you are going to look really stupid when the customer comes back for their car and you are only half done. Secondly, you donít want to end up making like $5 bucks an hour. Detailing is fun, but when you are doing a job that is really difficult, you should expect to be paid for it.

Estimating is probably the part you arenít familiar with.  If you have experience with the tools you are using, then this part shouldnít be too hard. Time is money, so it is very important that you estimate with accuracy.  Donít estimate 6 hours for a 3 hour job.  However, you also donít want to estimate 3 hours for a 6 hour job.  It may be necessary to lose money or break even on a couple jobs until you find your comfortable speed level. Whatever you do, donít give an estimate over the phone unless you have seen the vehicle before.  I have been burned a number of times by doing that.  You can give them a rough idea of what it costs on average based on your experience with that type of car in the past, but donít give them an estimate written in stone until you see the car in person.

The areas to remember to consider in your estimate are as follows:

Paint Clean/Polish/Wax/Sealant
Console Cleaning
Glass Cleaning

Those are the areas that are going to take longer than an average detail job.  Just washing and drying the car takes hardly any time.  When you look at the car and see oxidation and tar all over it, then the time it takes to clean it is going to increase. Make sure you let the customer know what to expect for the price they are going to pay.  

This is how I estimate time on different jobs on different sizes...


Job Includes

Estimated Time

Estimated Cost

Full Interior Detail

Dash, Console, Seats, Floor Mats, Carpets, Door jambs, all other surfaces, Glass

1 - 2 hours

Generally I charge $35 minimum for interiors. $20 per 1/2 hour after 1 hour.

Full Exterior Detail

Wash, Tar/Bugs/Sap removal, Oxidation removal, Swirl removal, Wax/Sealant

2 - 3 hours

$80 - $120 based on a $40/hr rate.

Engine Detail

Degrease, underside of hood, all painted surfaces, dress hoses and plastic covers, polish chrome

.5 -1 hour

Usually an engine detail just adds another $35 onto the cost. They really donít take that long.

Basic Detail

Wash, Dry, Wheels, Tires,  Dash and Console wipe down, Vacuum, Windows

Usually 1 hour

$45 minimum for basic details. I upsell other services when possible.

Obviously your prices may vary depending on the area that you live in. For the area that I work, these prices are competitive without being low ball prices.  If you charge too little then people wonít feel like you have much confidence in your work  However, if you charge too much, then you have better be able to back up your work with professionalism and experience. I have never had anyone question my prices when they pay me at the end of the job. I feel that I am a bargain considering the quality of work that I always do.

People generally want the bare minimum.  That is why I love having the opportunity to have the customer present when I do my Ďwalk aroundí. I can point out areas that I can repair. They may not be aware of the orange rust dots all over their paint. They may not even be aware that their car doesnít have to feel so rough. Some things I think people just learn to accept as permanent simply because it didnít come out the last time they washed it. If you have a chance to even clay a portion of a fender in front of them, then you have an excellent chance of upselling another service.  That brings us to the next section...

I donít want to sound like everybody is cheap. However, the fact remains that you already may know more about what is possible to do with a car than the majority of the population. They donít know what can be done with their car, so they donít even look for places that can accomplish it. If they believe that the only way to brighten their paint again is to get it repainted, then they arenít going to look for a shop that can remove oxidation.  If you want to be a car washer instead of a detailer, then just keep taking those $35 dollar jobs and donít ever offer any services. If you want to make a couple hundred dollars a day, then you are going to have to learn how to sell your services with confidence.

Confidence is a big part of sales. You canít sell what you donít know. If you canít answer their questions and take the opportunities to sell higher dollar jobs, then you are going to be outbid by just about everybody else in town. Sales is part of the whole detailing job. If you work in a shop then it is easy. You just wait for the customers to show up. Even then there is a lot of upselling that needs to be done. Its kind of like the whole ďDo you want fries with that?Ē statement that you always here. Always offer to super size their detail. Youíll make more money that way and end up with a much higher customer satisfaction level overall.

My favorite sales tactic is the guilt tactic.  I know it sounds bad, but hear me out.  It really does work.  All you really have to do is get into a conversation about detailing with a person. Once people around your work get to know you, I am sure they will know how you are about cars and keeping them clean.  Hopefully you are able to keep your car clean so it is a good example.  This pitch wonít work if you are driving a wreck that is not well detailed. I am going to try something interesting right now. Iím going to try my pitch on you. Try to answer the following questions honestly.

How much did you pay for your car? $10,000? $15,000? $30,000? Now, that is a lot of money. Do you plan on keeping this car for the rest of your life? Probably not, right? So that means that you may want to sell it at some point in the future. Now, if you had a $30,000 suit of clothes, would you ever wear it in public dirty? Do you think that movie stars would appear at the Academy Awards in a $30,000 outfit that is stained or torn somewhere that it isnít supposed to be torn?  I think not. If you had a dress or suit that was worth that much money, how would you treat it? How do you treat a wedding dress or something else of high price or sentimental value? When you take it off, do you just wad it up and toss it in the bottom of the closet? I would assume that you would put it in a bag to protect it from dust or put it in a cedar chest to protect it from getting eaten by moths. It would be something that you wouldnít be caught dead in with a big red stain on the front. Now consider the amount of care that you would treat this outfit and think about the fact that you donít ever intend on selling this. Why would you treat something of high price like your car with less care than something that you donít ever plan on selling? Your car may only be worth $10,000, but think about that.... That is ten thousand dollars. That is quite a bit of money. It is possible that the only thing you have of sellable value that exceeds your car is your house. Some TVs cost more than $10,000 nowadays, but that is beside the point. The point is that the care you put into your car now could mean thousands of dollars in the long run that they can sell it for. It is a proven fact that a clean car will sell faster than a dirty car. Do they put cars with waterspots and oxidation on the show room floor? Do they display cars with bug splatters all over the grill at car shows? They donít do that because nobody wants to look at a dirty car. Your hot date on Friday night wonít be impressed and neither will the potential buyer of your car.

Now, does that sound like something you could get behind?  People need to understand that their car is a very valuable investment that they are going to want a return on someday. The care that they put into it today will pay off when they want to sell it. Not everybody is looking to sell their car right now, but it is a logic that they can certainly understand. They are slowing the depreciation of their car when they take care of it. The difference between a car in ĎExcellentí condition and one in ĎFairí condition could be several hundred dollars. That is the difference between something well detailed and something that needs work. Your potential customers will see that your work adds value to their car.

The big thing about selling your services is to sell what they need. They may call you to wash and wax their car, but once there you can upsell anything you want.  Upsell a polish job or an engine detail.  Tell them about your ability to remove some of those stains in the carpet.  Tell them about your paint touch up skills or how you may be able to pull a few of the dents in their car. Its all about the upsell once you get in sight of their car. That is where the confidence fits in again. You need to be able to confidently tell them what you can do and why they want you to do it. They have already called you to at least wash and wax. You lose nothing by telling them what else you are capable of.


Never underestimate the power of the almighty freebie. Sometimes you have to give them out just so you can get in the door.  If you are planning on picking up business at a nearby business complex then you might do well to offer a freebie to certain people. If you want to hang a flyer in the break room then it might be a good idea to offer one to the office manager.  You may be aware of someone who has a car that you would really like the chance to detail.  It may be possible to get your foot in the door if you offer them a deeply discounted price on one of their other vehicles just so they have a chance to see your work.  If nothing else, it may result in referrals. I still do business off of referrals I can track back to one freebie that I did 5 years ago. People talk. They tell their neighbors and family and co-workers. When your clients have other people in their cars, you had better believe that they ask who cleaned their car.  Leave a few business cards with them when you are done so they can pass them out.  Just remember that if you were going to try and advertise it would cost money. Word of mouth is absolutely free and far more effective.  It is more effective because people trust those who are referring you.  Its hard to trust a business card or a flashy flyer. When your friend comes up to you and tells you they just met an awesome detailer and you really should check them out... well, that is just a little more creditable.  If you donít remember anything else about marketing, remember not to underestimate the power of the almighty freebie.

Iím a detailer and not a marketing expert. However, I have tried a few things to market myself and my hobby and might be able to lend you some advice that could help you.  The first thing I learned is not to advertise anything unless you can handle the volume. I have a full time job and a family.  Detailing is a hobby for me.  I would like nothing more than to do this full time, but its just not in the plan right now. A couple of times, when I first started, I tried to advertise my services to pick up business. It actually worked out pretty well. I worked afternoons at the time and I only advertised to people in my office. I would try and target the daytime people so I could go in and do their cars while they were at work and before I had to be there for my shift. This only worked for me because my office was open from 6:00 in the morning till midnight. If you have a 9 to 5 office then you probably wonít get much business that way. However, advertising at offices with evening shifts could work out for you.

Business cards are a great idea. is a good place to check out some low cost business cards.  I have been getting mine from them for years now. On your business card you probably want to keep it simple. Tell them who you are, how to reach you, and what you do. I wouldnít suggest putting prices on the card. I have tried doing that and it is a disaster. People assume that is all it will cost and are surprised when you tell them that it is going to cost more.  There are so many ways of putting together prices that you just canít fit them onto a business card. I even tried putting ďPrices starting at $$Ē and that didnít work. Everybody assumed that $$ was the price for a full detail on their 15 year old black Suburban. Trust me... Donít put a price on the business card unless that is the only price you are going to charge.

Brochures are great. A trifold brochure is a great idea to pass out to offices and perspective clients. It gives them a way to see some of your work and you can put a lot more information on it than you can with a business card. The problem with brochures is that you canít just keep a stack of them in your pocket and drop them at restaurants and other places that you wait around and have time to pick up a card. Also, the problem with business cards and brochures is that you canít really control who gets them.  You could get a call from someone on the very opposite end of town from you.  It could make it difficult for you to fit them into your normal life schedule.

I wouldnít waste much time plastering the mall parking lot with flyers.  You can expect about 1% of the cars you plaster to call you back.  Most likely your flyers are going to end up blowing around on the ground and in the garbage. It is a costly way to get very little return. The best way still remains by word of mouth.  Focus on getting customers to spread the word.  If you want to pass out flyers, then pass them out at work where you know your potential clients and are available to answer questions. There is a trust factor there too. They will feel better about trusting you with their car than a stranger downtown.

Again, donít advertise anything that you canít back up and arenít prepared to handle.  Donít take out an add in the yellow pages unless you are able to commit 20 hours a week to detailing. If this is just going to be a hobby, then I doubt you want that kind of business.

Another good idea would be to target cars for sale.  When you see a car with a for sale sign in it, then it means that this person wants their car looking showroom perfect all the time.  It may not be a reality for them yet, but they sure wish that they could have it looking good all the time. Most cars I see with For Sale signs in them look like they have been sitting under a tree for the past 5 years.  The owners are always looking for a little loving for the car before they show it to somebody.  If you were trying to sell your house, then wouldnít you at least mow the lawn before potential buyers came over?  You want it to look your best.  Your car is in a beauty contest when a potential buyer comes looking at it. You wouldnít wear your grubby gardening clothes to a beauty contest, would you? Sellers just need a friendly push in the right direction.  Getting your card could be just what they are looking for. 

Something else that you can do if you are brave enough, is to call people in the paper who are selling their car. There isnít anything illegal about that. How many times do you get called at home by people asking about your long distance and insurance?  The only difference is that these people may be very happy to hear from you. Let them know up front that you arenít looking to buy their car, but you are a detailer who would love to help them sell it. Offer them a good price for the job. This kind of goes along with the section on freebies.  You may have to operate at a very discounted rate to get the job, but this person could be a source of referrals for you in the future.  Do what you have to do in order to get contacts with people.  If you do a good job on their car and they attribute the quick sale to the smooth detail, then it could get you in with someone who will refer you to their other friends who are trying to sell their cars. This also ties in with my guilt trip sales tactic. Just let them know that a clean car will get a much higher price simply because the buyer canít find anything to gripe about. If the car is covered in oxidation and looks like it is in need of a paint job then nobody is going to want to offer you a very good price. However, if you can transform it into a glossy show car, then they can easily ask full book value on it and expect to get very little resistance based on the appearance of the vehicle. Just beware... Before you try this sales route, make sure that you are confident in what you are selling. Selling over the phone is different than selling in person.  They canít see your facial expressions or look into your eyes to see if you can be trusted. If you sales skills are sharp and you have done stuff like this before, then it will be easy for you.

I donít claim to know everything about detailing or how to start a little backyard detailing shop. I do know what has worked and what has not worked for me and I hope some of that information can help you.  For more information on what I have written here, I highly suggest you search out detailing forums online. I have learned much from boards like and Also, keep checking the OCD University section of  More advice and articles are on the way. 

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