Would you like to make your old car shine again? Let’s guess, you probably have one of the following three reasons for doing this:

  1. You want to get the most out of your part exchange.
  2. Or perhaps you plan on keeping and driving your car for as long as possible.
  3. Or, you simply want to have a great looking car that you can enjoy.

In this article, we’ll focus on the first of these three points. But whatever your motivation, we have the solution for you: A four-step strategy for making your used car look as good as new.

Will you be able to afford it? Yes you will!

Because we all have different budgets and demands, this plan is divided up into four levels:

  1. The most important points you should absolutely take care of to make your car truly look like new again.
  2. Simply and cheap solutions that will get you far without breaking the bank.
  3. More expensive steps you can take to achieve optimal results for your used vehicle.
  4. Preventive measures to minimise the effects from wear and tear over the years.

Taken together, these measures add up to a comprehensive strategy for making even the most beaten-down automobile look great.

There is every chance that you’ll be able to sell your car on at a much better price – which is a great precondition for securing car finance at an excellent rate.

Detailing: General approach

The process of improving the look and condition of a car is called detailing. That word can sometimes be a bit confusing. As you’ll see in our guide, very often, it’s not so much about the details, after all. It’s actually all about the bigger picture!

That said, you can approach detailing from two different angles, from the inside and the outside.

Usually, most articles focus on the outside. It isn’t hard to understand, why: The exterior of a car shapes your first impression like nothing else. Also, detailing on the inside of a vehicle can be harder, since you’re operating within a smaller space.

You can also approach detailing on a more superficial or a deeper level. The deeper level mainly refers to the idea of

  • cleaning elements which aren’t usually visible to the driver (such as the engine itself),
  • spending more money to achieve above-average results.

Finally, you can regard detailing as a continuous, regular and recurring process.

This could, for example, involve washing your car once a month and cleaning it every so many months.

Alternatively, you could instead take care of these things in one big session right before selling it.

Let’s now dive right into the topic to show you the best ways to improve your car and make it look as good as new.

Step 1: The essentials

There are many things you can do to make your car look better. All of them will contribute to the key goal we mentioned in he opening paragraph: Making your used car look like new again.

Some of these are optional. Others, however, are essential.

Let’s focus on the essentials first.

The following concrete suggestions will achieve the most significant results and should be part of every detailing strategy. The good news is that they’re suited for (almost) every budget.

Washing and cleaning your car always needs to be the first step.

You can’t seriously think about getting a better part exchange price for your vehicle if it’s dirty. And it’s quite remarkable how many cars really do look quite grimey.

Don’t be too soft on yourself here. It will pay off to be strict and to invest some time into this aspect.

Even if your car is still looking pretty decent, that’s no reason for resting on your laurels. Giving your vehicle a good cleaning on the outside and a cleaning on the inside establishes a baseline. Do note: This is not the ultimate solution to detailing. It’s merely the starting point.

Cleaning a car is pretty straight-forward – although we’ll have one or two points to add to it a bit later.

A car wash, on the other hand, is a science.

Expert recommendations from Auto Express include the following:

  • Don’t clean the car in extreme hear or intense sunlight.
  • Always do a pre-wash.
  • Know which cleaning products to use for which parts of the car. There is an obvious difference between the outside and inside. But even your headlights will need different solutions than the body of the car.
  • Wheels and wheel arches deserve special attention. This is because they can catch a lot of undetected dirt.

We’ve also written a detailed blog post about car washing that will fill you in on all the important details.

Further Reading:
Car Wash Recommendations

Make sure tyres and windshield wipers are in top shape.

We don’t advocate replacing every single part of your vehicle before a part exchange. Not only would that never pay for itself. With the quality improvements of modern cars, it would also be plain unnecessary.

But there are two parts of a car which absolutely need to be in the best possible condition:

Tyres are the foundation of your car.

This is pretty obvious when it comes to driving: A set of perfect tyres can improve your experience, safety and petrol consumption.

But they’re absolutely vital, too, when it comes to the aesthetics of your automobile. It is quite remarkable how much our impression of a car’s condition is shaped by its wheels!

Use a new, dedicated toilet brush (yes, really!) for dusting the wheels off and removing smaller particles. Then, clean them using special cleaning solutions. They don’t need to be chemical-based.

There are smart solutions made of household products. Dish detergent combined with baking soda, for example, makes for a great cleaning product!

Windshield wipers experience severe wear and tear.

That’s why they’re always among the first products that you should replace.

In a way, our recommendation is to do this regularly, regardless of your part exchange plans. But if a part exchange is approaching, this is one of the items that you may want to replace before setting foot in a dealership.

Wipers are admittedly not exactly vital when it comes to making a car look like new. But they’re not very expensive and decidedly an essential component for a car’s safety.

By keeping them in great shape you’re showing responsibility and an understanding for what truly matters in a car.

Paint is the skin of your car. Make sure it’s healthy.

“When it comes to giving an old car a new look, its paint is the first exterior element to deal with. The car’s paint is its protective shield against all sorts of external factors and in time all sorts of scratches can appear,” Street Directory write.

That’s a good way of putting it. Just like the human skin is a marker of age – from wrinkles via brown spots to a gradual loss of sheen – so the paint of a car tells the story of the life of a car: the more worn it looks, the more stress it has experienced.

Many potential buyers can feel this means that the current owner did not take care of it enough.

Thankfully, you can turn that idea around: The more you can make the paint shine again, the more your car will sparkle in the eye of buyers.

Scratches and paint

Worn paint and visible scratches are serious issues if you’re looking to increase the value of your car. If your car suffers from these, you should definitely do something about it. The one big question in this regard is: Can you take care of this yourself? Or should you turn towards an expert?

In our opinion, the answer depends

  • on the degree of the imperfections and
  • your own standards – i.e. how close to perfection do you want to come?

There are plenty of easy tricks and tips if your car is still in a decent state and you don’t set the bar too high.

Something as simple as toothpaste can work miracles for smaller, superficial scratches, for example.

For deeper ones, get a basic scratch removal kit. If you have really deep scratches, you should play it safe and approach an expert.

Should you repaint your car yourself?

Repainting the entire car is a much bigger job. In fact, it’s one of the most time-consuming and challenging car-related tasks imaginable.

In itself, there is no big mystery or secret to share here. Painting a car means taking a spray can (a big one, obviously) and getting to work. As you can imagine, however, this is not entirely where things end.

To get the best – or even merely satisfying – results, you need to …

  • … find a paint that ideally resembles the original one as closely as possible and that is of an excellent quality.
  • … have access to a dry space with very little dust. If you work outside, there is a great risk of dust and other particles landing on your beautiful paint job and ruining it.
  • … have a firm and steady hand to apply the paint smoothly, and distribute it equally with no visible transitions or smudges.

The latter, as you can imagine, is the key part of the process. Even if you have access to a suitable garage space, it will be hard to make the finished vehicle look like it was done by a professional. Vice versa, the risk of it ending up looking like an amateur job is pretty high.

Since a full-fledged paint job is expensive, there are two simple rules:

  1. Only do it if you really have to.
  2. And don’t do it yourself.

Step 2: The cheapest and easiest options

Whereas repainting a car can have a tremendous effect on how it looks, it is also very expensive and complex. Usually, that’s a typical trade-off: The more you invest, the more rewarding the results will be.

This, however, is not always the case.

There a few options at your disposal that are simple, cheap and quite effective.

Interested? You should be. The following ideas are for everyone and every budget.

Replace the floormats

Paint and tyres dominate the outside of a car. Similarly, the upholstery and the floormats are the two key determinants shaping our impression of the passenger cabin.

Whereas the seats are obviously very important, they are also more time- and often money-intensive to take care of. In comparison, you can deal with the floormats without breaking the bank.

Don’t even think about cleaning or repairing them when you intend to sell your car. The results will never be fully satisfying and you’ll end up with something that’s neither fish nor foul.

Instead, simply buy a new, matching set of floormats. You can find these at very reasonable prices and the improvement they can make on the car interior is remarkable.

Look for mats which are easy to clean and trimmable, so you can adjust them exactly to the dimensions of your model.

Headlight cleaning: More light for a more beautiful car!

We already mentioned the importance of cleaning the car as a very first step. While a basic car wash can already take you pretty far, a few areas of the vehicle will probably need special attention.

The headlights are just such an area. And in terms of the overall impression of a car, they are pretty important.

For whatever reason, headlights tend to pick up dust and gue very readily. The residue also tends to come off only after intense scrubbing. Even car expert Kevin Malli had a hard time achieving truly great results.

Make it easy on yourself and buy a dedicated headlight spray. These are not expensive and are very easy to use. Usually, simply covering the area with the fluid is enough – no wiping or scrubbing required.

The use of chemicals may not be to everyone’s liking – it certainly isn’t to ours! But you don’t need to do this once a week. Simply do it on occasion and then one last time before going for the trade-in.

Wake up and smell the cleanness

We often talk about making a car look new again. There is ample indication that our visual impressions of an object are shaped by the way it smells.

Or, to put it bluntly: You won’t want to look at a car that stinks of old burger fat, sweat and wet dog hair.

Air purifiers are the most neutral solution: Often using charcoal, they simply clean the air of unpleasant odours. This can be a pretty good idea as long as the smell levels remains within an acceptable limit.

For heavier problems, you may want to look at air fresheners. Magic Trees can be okay, but their perfume can come off as artificial and overpowering.

Why not look at something more natural and even cheaper? Family Handyman has a great suggestion:

“Create a homemade car freshener with one cup of baking soda and five drops of your favorite essential oil. Place both the soda and oil in a sealable plastic bag or glass jar for 24 hours. Then shake it up, sprinkle on the car’s floor and let it sit for 20 minutes. When the time has passed, vacuum up the baking soda. The scent will linger, making your car smell fresh and clean!”

Shampooing the seats

We’re sure you’ve noticed that a couch essentially becomes worthless the moment you buy it. Their depreciation curve is even worse than that of vehicles.

Combine the two and you can see why car seats can be a real issue.

The reason for this immense depreciation is that upholstery that isn’t squeaky clean feels strangely dirty. Spots and stains can really reduce the perceived value of the interior of a car.

But you can do something about this!

Shampooing your car’s upholstery can get rid of even the most persistent stains. If you hover the seats prior to this, you’ve taken a significant step towards a far better part exchange.

Step 3: Options that are expensive but worth a thought

We’ve gone through the cheapest options at your disposal. Let’s now take a look at a few premium level solutions. These are things you can do which are more expensive but can potentially improve the looks and value of your car even more.

For all of these, you will have to do the maths: Does investing into one of these steps only cost you? Or will it lead to a trade-in price that is so much higher that you actually stand to make a profit in the end?

If your goal is not a part exchange but simply to keep the car in the best possible shape, ask yourself the same questions: Does it make sense to pay for a significant improvement or repair? Or has the time come to finally replace your current car with one in a better condition?

With that in mind, let’s now investigate the options at your disposal.

Reupholstering: Really stepping it up

Shampooing your seats can take you far. It is a simple and cheap option that requires next to no expertise and works on a small budget,

In some cases, however, you’ll need to take more drastic measures.

If you’ve used your car for transporting very heavy items, pets or kids, stains may be your smallest worry. Instead, the fabric may tear, leaving slashes or gaping holes. Whatever may be the case, it’s not going to leave a good impression on potential buyers.

Reupholstering is expensive. But it will completely transform the passenger cabin.

You’ll go from a discheveled and old look to a car that not just feels but actually is entirely new on the inside.

Is it worth it? That remains hard to say. Usually, it doesn’t pay for itself and the benefits of a better trade-in price do not offset the investment.

If, however, you want to keep your car for as long as possible, reupholstery may be a great way of not just extending a vehicle’s life expectancy, but also increasing the joy of using it.

Going really deep: Is cleaning your car’s engine worth it?

When it comes to aesthetics, the engine is probably the last place you’ll think of. Who cares how it looks, as long as it’s working, right?

Well, not quite. The look of an engine reveals a lot about its condition. Which means that there is a long-term benefit to keeping it clean:

“If you clean your car engine regularly, you can identify problems that can affect your vehicle’s performance.”

That said, as cars.com argues, there is no real mechanical benefit to taking things particularly far:

“Though it is true that while oily, greasy dirt that accumulates on an engine can trap some heat, it’s doubtful it would be enough to cause an engine to overheat or even run hotter than normal. There is no evidence to suggest that a cleaner engine runs better than one that is dirty. It is unlikely that something as simple as a little decreaser or cleaning spray could make a vehicle run better.”

No need to make that engine shimmer and shine, therefore!

However, they also agree that cleaning can improve the functionality of the vehicle.

“Because oil and grease can accelerate the wear of rubber hoses and plastic parts, using degreaser to clean off the gunk may save on repairs. And if you’re the type who likes to do some minor maintenance, such as checking the oil level or accessory belts, a clean engine means your hands and clothes are less likely to get dirty.”

Never hose down your engine or use water without an exact knowledge of where you can safely apply it. Leave this up to the pros.

A professional engine cleaning is costly and, depending on your budget, probably not really worth it.

Step 4: Prevention

Improving the look of your car makes complete sense. And as long as you don’t over do it, it pays off to spend a few Pounds on it. But wouldn’t it be even better if, instead of investing a lot of time into the cleaning process once a year, you instead kept it clean as part of your weekly or monthly routine?

Small steps tend to be easier and take very little time. They also keep the car in a good shape throughout, which has a positive effect on its longevity.

For this reason, we recommend preventive measures. Some of these are great as a regular routine. Some of the others can be done from time to time, whenever you have a moment to spare.

Here are the best suggestions to keep your car looking great all the time:

Empty out the garbage from time time

When leaving the lot, we all make a vow to keep our cars clean! Then, life happens and we forget all about them.

Bigger items are usually not a big deal. Most of us dispose of soda cans, packaging and the like pretty quickly.

It’s the smaller things which roll or fall underneath a seat that tend to linger. Also, stuff that falls between the cracks.

Make it a commitment to empty out the garbage containers every so often, just to keep them clean. For the other stuff, there are convenient solutions:

Seat gap fillers

These are a fantastic and strikingly obvious solution for keeping stuff from falling in between seats.

Essentially, this is just a piece of soft plastic (very similar to the upholstery and usually available in the very same colour) which closes the gap between seats.

So simple and so effective!

Dedicated vacuum cleaner

Always carry a dedicated hand vacuum cleaner in your car.

Why?

Because you will always have it handy and you won’t have to walk to your apartment and risk losing the motivation to clean things up again.

Also, it will serve as a constant reminder of your commitment to a cleaning routine.

Sealing Bags

Glove compartments quickly fill up. If it were only the required documentation and essential papers – it’s quite amazing what we try to cram in there!

Sealing bags can help you keep things organised and clean. Simply put each item in a separate bag, seal them and then find and remove them when the time has come.

Pet Protector Mats

Pets are wonderful. They’re our best friends, soulmates and companions. But they’re also our worst enemies when it comes to your intentions of keeping the car clean.

Hair in particular is an issue: It doesn’t politely fall onto nice heaps that you can dispose of. Instead, it spreads everywhere. Often, it will accumulates on the upholstery or in its crans and nooks.

Even hoovering them can be quite hard, as they tend to stick to the fabric.

There are vacuum cleaners which can deal with pet hairs. But why not reduce the issue to a minimum instead? Pet protector mats are a fantastic invention: These are simply mats that you can place on the seats before allowing your dog to enter the vehicle.

This way, the hair will stick to the mats, which you can then wash and clean far easier.