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Detail Your Car on the Cheap: 8 Simple Tips & Hacks

For some, detailing cars is a pricey passion. For others, an affordable D.I.Y. detail is just the ticket. With the right products and some useful hacks, you can detail your car or truck in a matter of minutes, on the relatively cheap.

After all, studies have shown that on average, 13.5 percent of cars held onto by their initial purchasers are at least a decade old. Seventy-eight percent of drivers say that they plan on keeping their cars for 10 or more years after purchase – putting the “Three Year Vehicle Purchase Cycle” in the ground. 

How long have you owned your car for? Research suggests that advanced technologies and new car detailing products are contributing to the extended lifespan of vehicle ownership.

Here are some useful tips, products and considerations that’ll save you time and money when detailing your car.

1. Be kind to yourself – find a cool, shady work area

Start by finding a cool, shady area to work – especially if you’re washing your car before detailing it. Working in the shade helps prevent water spots when drying your car, which saves you time and work. 

If you’re pulling out the hose and vacuum, be sure to route all cords and hoses safely and with plenty of room to move around the vehicle, to prevent subsequent snags.

2. An effective three-cent cleaning solution

If you’re not the type to make a big spend on detailing products, fear not: one of the most effective car interior cleaning solutions in existence costs about 3 cents to make, and you’ve got the ingredients in your kitchen.

Start with an empty pail, and add 1 to 2 drops of liquid dish-soap. Fill the pail with warm water, creating some suds and diluting the soap significantly. Remember, you literally need 2 drops.

The resulting liquid is warm and pleasant to work with, virtually odor-free, non-toxic, and diluted enough to be safe on any surface. Use it to clean your dashboard, windows, console, trim, and more. Use a separate wrung-out rag for each interior surface you’re cleaning for smudge-free results.

3. Swiffers and paint-brushes

Many modern vehicle interiors use high-gloss finishes, like piano-black or chrome. These surfaces gleam in the sun and have a high-end look and feel, though they’re also dust magnets, and easy to scratch.

To properly clean glossy trim without causing scratches that’ll dull the surface, you need to be gentle. Never rub or scrub at these surfaces harder than you need to, and consider using a Swiffer duster and some soft-bristle paint-brushes from your local craft store to safely and effectively remove irritating dust and dirt from glossy surfaces, nooks, crannies, and the like.

4. Chrome polish on the cheap

Got a soot-covered set of chrome tailpipes, or a chrome fuel-filler door that’s looking a bit dull? Though a dedicated chrome or metal polish is the best product for the job, a little blast of WD40 on a clean rag will wipe through baked-on dirt and soot, leaving a lustrous and slick shine behind.

5. Skip the dash protectant

Look, a lot of folks like the lustrous shine of a glistening dashboard, especially after a fresh slathering of protectant. Others prefer the vehicle’s more natural finishes. If you’re on the fence about dash protection, consider a few things.

First, a glossy dash can be harder on your eyes in bright sunlight, and some protectants wind up impregnated rapidly with dust and lint that builds up and needs to be cleaned. Second, dash protectants can be a real pain in the backside to clean from glass surfaces, instrument cluster lenses, and the like.

If you will apply dash protectant, apply it to a rag outside of the vehicle, rather than spraying directly onto the dashboard, to prevent greasy overspray. Do you use dash protectant on your leather seats? You shouldn’t – and experts say that these products can lead to dried-out leather and reduce lifespan of vehicle seating surfaces.

6. Go waterless

Though many folks prefer a sudsy pail and soapy sponge, a variety of waterless car-wash solutions have become popular in some circles for their ability to provide a quick and easy shine, with no need to break out the hose.

A waterless car-wash solution allows drivers to wash their cars indoors, since there’s virtually no dripping water, pre-wetting, or rinsing required. It’s a perfect solution for condo and apartment-dwellers, who use waterless car wash solutions to keep their rides clean, without leaving their parking space.

7. Use your household vacuum

Your household vacuum can be a powerful tool for cleaning your car, especially when it comes to floor-mats and carpeted surfaces where sand, dirt, debris and dog-hair like to take up residence. 

If your household vacuum has a roller brush and is light enough, lift it into the back of your crossover SUV to deep-clean the cargo area and fold-down carpeted seatbacks. The roller-brush of a household vacuum is often a quick and easy way to decontaminate hard-to-clean areas of ground-in dirt and hair.

Yank the carpeted floor mats out of your vehicle, and use the same roller brush attachment for a quick and easy deep-clean on the garage floor or driveway. 

8. Mind the screens

Many modern cars come with a central display screen for navigation and infotainment functions, as well as a digital screen that functions as an instrument cluster. In some applications, these screens can be easily damaged over time if they’re not treated with care, and cleaned properly.

In general, don’t touch or clean these surfaces with a dry paper-towel, your fingertip, or any strong cleaners. Always check your owner’s manual for specific instructions on how to care for your car’s screen surfaces, for a long life. Usually, specific cleaners and cloths are required, as well as specific cleaning instructions. Your owner’s manual has the scoop. 

By the way, being sure to block your sneeze from spraying on either screen surface can avoid irritating clean-ups.

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