Because of the low cost of entry, hand car washes and detailing businesses are easy to start – but creating a successful, lasting business is a different matter entirely. Starting an automotive-care business entails much more than purchasing a bucket and sponge and hanging out your shingle. Determine how to structure and protect the business, which services to offer and how to attract a mix of consumer and fleet accounts. With careful planning, a hand car wash or detail business can be started that stands the test of time and offers an attractive income.

Plan Your Business Concept

Decide on a business concept. Will you operate a car-care business from a fixed site, or will you offer mobile services? If planning to operate from a fixed site, make sure you have enough room to store and maneuver multiple cars. Spend time on research to make sure you know what will make for a good location that will bring in your customers.

If planning to operate a mobile service, remember that many communities have specific ordinances related to run-off water from car wash operations. The waste water may need to be trapped using a wash mat in order to prevent it from reaching storm drains.

Prepare a Business Plan

Write a business plan. It will build from your concept and will outline the steps of how you will get there and the anticipated costs of those steps. It will explain your plan for generating revenue, outline your market research and discuss a plan for how you will reach your target customers, as well as how you will overcome challenges in getting started. This will be essential if you need to find financing to get your business up and running.

Find a Location

Look for the right location for your base, with costs in line to what your business plan says you can afford. Location can be critical to a business's success, you need to make sure your customers can easily find you if you are operating from a fixed site. If you are going mobile, you need a location that will allow you to store all of your equipment and give you ready access to reach your customers.

Research and Purchase Supplies

Purchase supplies. Basic supplies are needed to perform wash and detail jobs on the first several cars. At a minimum, purchase a quality, concentrated car-wash soap; non-abrasive sponges; chamois for drying; a finishing wax or sealant; an orbital polisher for applying wax; a wet-dry vacuum for car interiors; shop towels; upholstery shampoo; leather and vinyl cleaner; and glass cleaner.

The list may grow based on the services being offered. If you plan to offer pain reconditioning services, a rotary buffer and polish are needed.

Obtain Liability Insurance

Get insured. Because it is relatively inexpensive to start a hand car wash or detail business, many proprietors skip the simple but important step of purchasing insurance. Big mistake. One accident with an expensive vehicle could leave you broke and out of business. Liability insurance may seem like just another expense or hassle, but it may turn out to be the best investment made.

Find Your Customers

Attract retail consumers. A thriving hand car wash or detail business attracts clients in the highly competitive consumer market. Consumers care deeply about their cars and are willing to pay a higher, retail cost to have them professionally cleaned and maintained. Consumers are often careful about entrusting their vehicles to new, unfamiliar car wash services, so you may need to offer coupons or other incentives to encourage them to give you a shot.

Craft a solid marketing plan. Develop loyalty programs to ensure consumers return, and provide coupons they can use to refer your car-wash business to their friends.

Build Fleet Business

Fleet customers can provide a steady source of revenue and even keep the business afloat during slow times. Any organization with a fleet of cars is a potential client. Focus on car dealerships, rental car companies, taxi and limousine fleets, and delivery or service trucks. Speak with the owners or general managers at these businesses, and learn whether they sub-contract the cleaning and maintenance of their vehicles.

If the companies are happy with their current vendor, offer to serve as a backup or to handle overflow business. You might end up outperforming their current vendor. Remember that fleet accounts often pay less than retail jobs, and you are expected to wash and detail cars quickly.

Things You Will Need
  • Business plan

  • Liability insurance

  • Vacuum

  • Exterior cleaning chemicals

  • Interior cleaning chemicals

  • Orbital polisher

  • Sponges

  • Chamois

  • Shop towels

  • Wash mat