So you’ve decided to hire a professional detailer. Whether this is your first time hiring a professional detailer or a regular occurrence, there are a few things you’ll want to know. The info in this article can help you to separate the good ones from the not-so-good ones.
Professional detailers are not really a “1 size fits all” type of thing. There are different categories that they’ll fall into, which aren’t often labeled or talked about.
Some of them would like you to believe that a detailer is a detailer, but that is 100% untrue. Figuring out where your detailer of choice lands in these categories is only half the job – you’ll also need to decide which type will suit you best.
Different categories of professional detailers
Car washers vs car detailers
I want to clear this one up right off the bat. Many car washes, dealerships, and auto body shops will claim to offer detailing services. A lot of the time, I think they’re confused about what detailing really is. Car washes are intended to clean the obvious dirt off your vehicle. Detailers spend hours going over, you guessed it, the intricate details of your vehicle.
A car washer might open up your engine bay and spray it down with a greasy product to make it look ridiculously shiny without even cleaning it. A detailer will take the time to touch every little part of your engine, removing as much dirt and grime as possible.
Then they’ll apply a natural looking dressing that will protect it, make it easier to clean in the future, and make your engine look like brand new. The same can be said for your interior.
Detailing is a job that needs to be done by someone who can really focus their attention on what they’re working on. A proper detailer will break your entire vehicle down into hundreds of tiny sections, then work on them one at a time until your car is cleaned, refinished, and protected.
This is why a detail will cost $100+ and a car wash is $15. Detailing is an industry where you will absolutely get what you pay for as long as you’ve hired the right person for the job. Keep that in mind before you try to haggle over someone’s price.
You might see those guys on Youtube that are polishing and coating Bugattis and think that’s what they do all day every day. While that might be the case for some people that have built huge reputations for themselves, it’s not how most professional detailers operate.
Even the most successful detailers don’t have people phoning them with a Bugatti to work on every day. There aren’t that many of those cars out there to provide a steady workload. Those jobs certainly pay well but they aren’t necessarily the biggest money makers out there.
For many detailers, their money is made doing far less glamorous work. Removing pet hair from SUVs, getting rid of cigarette smells from vehicles that are being sold, and simply making regular cars look shiny again is what pays their bills.
Fancy paint correction jobs might pay thousands of dollars at a time, but there is a huge abundance of this type of regular work available at any time – so stacking many of these other jobs up can often make them more consistant money in the long run.
This is what’s known as production detailing. It’s more of an assembly line style of work vs a bespoke service that caters to every specific need. Most production detailers will offer their services divided into at least 3 packages.
They’ll usually be referred to as “Gold, Silver, and Bronze” packages although some companies will use clever names instead. The fact that nearly every service based business (not just detailing) offers these 3 packages isn’t a coincidence.
I may be spilling a trade secret here, but oh well. The reason they use 3 packages is because it’s human nature to automatically settle on the middle one if we don’t have a specific need to meet. We don’t want to look like cheapskates, so we avoid the lower end package.
We also don’t see the point in spending a bunch of money on the high-end package, so we stick with the middle one. It’s the safe option that gets the job done without people judging us. That’s just the way our brains work. Of course there are many exceptions to that, but that’s basically the story behind these packages.
Having detailers offer these isn’t a bad thing at all. It allows them to combine their services into these well thought out packages so that you don’t have to figure out exactly which ones you need. You can simply ask them what the end result of a “number 3” package is, decide either yes or no, then pick your clean car up a few hours later. For most car owners, this is all they would ever want or need.
Production detailing is a volume based business model that counts on doing many lower paying jobs at a faster pace in order to earn money.
These high-end detailers typically have a lot of experience and specialize in paint correction, concourse level detailing, and protective products like ceramic coatings and paint protection films.
This is the top of the detailing totem pole. They offer the best work out there, but you’re going to pay for it. Many of these detailers will have beautiful, classy shops, while others will stay mobile and travel around the nation working on expensive jobs.
These specialists will often only use very high-end products not because cheaper ones don’t work, but because they want to provide you with a luxurious spa-like experience. Part of the reason their prices are so much higher is because of their level of experience and quality of their work.
The other part simply comes down to the amount of overhead their business has. Fancy shops aren’t cheap. Their costs to operate will be directly worked into the price you pay to have a job done.
Now that we have the different types of professional detailers sorted out, it’s time to decide which one you need and which category the one you’re considering falls into. I’m a big believer in educating yourself before you spend money on something, even if you won’t be doing the work yourself.
Feel free to check out my Detailing Dictionary to learn some of the industry terms as well as this post about common detailing mistakes. Now, on to the questions you’ll want to ask before hiring a professional detailer.
Questions to ask beforehand
Here are some things that you’ll want to think about before you begin searching for a professional detailer:
What type of car owner are you?
Before you can choose the right detailer, you need to take an honest look at how you treat your car and what you expect from it. Some car owners are incredibly picky about every little detail. So they’re going to want to hire someone that is extremely thorough when cleaning their interior and can wash their car safely without leaving a single swirl mark behind.
Other people just want their car clean. They don’t spend hours looking deep into their paint or threaten to kill anyone that dares to eat food in their car. For them, a clean car is one that isn’t noticeably dirty. Paying for a high end detailing service wouldn’t be worth it for these people because quite frankly, they won’t notice or enjoy all of the benefits.
If you tend to use automatic car washes to clean your car (especially ones with brushes) there’s no point in paying someone to take extreme care when working on your vehicle. Those car washes will quickly undo much of their hard work.
There’s nothing wrong with being this kind of person, but you might want to save the money you’d spend on a 2 step paint correction and stick with a quick paint enhancement instead. Don’t let them pressure you into buying a package that you don’t need or want.
Ask friends with nice cars who they use
You might have a friend or family member that seems to always have a clean and shiny car. It’s possible that they’re a DIY detailing enthusiast, but it might also mean that they’ve found a great detailer and have stuck with them. Word of mouth is still one of the best forms of advertising for detailers. That’s for good reason – most of the time their results speak for themselves.
Asking someone with a great looking car is one of the safest ways to choose a detailer because you’ve already seen the work they’re capable of first hand. Marketing in the detailing industry isn’t always the most honest thing, so seeing real-world results will give you an accurate idea of how your car will be handled.
Would you rather use a mobile service or take your car to a shop?
There are pros and cons to both. Mobile services are very convenient because they bring their services to you. You’ll need to schedule a time that you’ll be home, or in some cases, they can come to your workplace. Mobile detailers are highly effective but can also be limited to the types of services they provide.
Hardcore paint corrections, ceramic coating applications, and paint protection film installs need to be done indoors in proper lighting in order to do a great job. If your detailer is offering these services in your gravel driveway, that could be a red flag.
Taking your car to a detailing shop can be a bit more of a pain to schedule, but will offer a different experience. By controlling the environment they’re working in, they can produce the best results possible. They might also be able to work quicker in some cases because everything is set up as a system. There’s no time spent unpacking and tearing down a mobile setup.
Going to a shop might mean that you’ll pay more though because they have a higher overhead than a mobile detailer. Some shops will offer a pickup/dropoff service to make bringing your car to them easier.
Questions to ask your detailer
Now that you know what you’re looking for, you can try to find a detailer that will be a good match for you. Here are some questions you can ask them directly or through your own research:
How long will it take?
Most professionals have been doing the job long enough to be able to give you a rough estimate of how long it will take to detail your car. Certain specific things like odor/stain removal or scratch removal are harder to predict but if you’re inquiring about a Bronze level production detail they should be able to give you a good idea.
Do they use before/after shots to advertise?
This is something that is often manipulated, especially when it comes to polishing your paint. Before and after shots can show dramatic results if they’re done honestly and ethically. Unfortunately, there are people out there that try to make their work look better than it is.
The sun is one thing to look for. It doesn’t lie. If there are any scratches, swirl marks, or holograms in a paint job, the direct sunlight should reveal them. So if they’ve used the sun (or a direct spotlight) for the before picture, make sure they recreated the same conditions for the after shot.
Using the sun to show off scratches in the before shot, then using a cloudy day or diffused shop lighting for the after shot is unethical in my opinion. If their work is done properly, it’ll hold up in ANY lighting without having to cheat.
Do they offer paint correction services?
Even if you aren’t interested in having your car polished, this is still a good question to ask. This gives you a really good idea of what category of detailer they are. If they don’t do any type of machine polishing, that indicates they’re a production level detailer at best. That’s totally fine if you just want Little Billy’s vomit cleaned out of your back seat.
If a detailer answers with “I don’t normally do paint correction, but I could do yours”, shut it down then and there. You aren’t paying your hard earned money to allow someone to teach themselves new skills on your car. There are plenty of great detailers out there, just keep shopping!
If they do offer paint correction and ceramic coatings, ask them if they’re accredited with any coating companies. In most cases, they need to apply to a company to be allowed to sell and apply their professional level coatings.
They are required to prove what type of work they’re capable of in order for the company to give them the go ahead. Basically, someone with no clue how to properly polish a car won’t be able to use the professional line of these products.
What is their pricing model?
Some detailers will offer a flat rate and give you a quote without even seeing the condition of your car. This typically indicates either a very confident production detailer or a lower end one.
Most professional detailers (both shops and mobile) will quote you a price range for the job. They might say a complete interior detail costs between $200 and $315 or something like that.
There are a few things that can affect the price. The size of the vehicle is a big one. A full-size SUV or pickup truck will take much longer to detail than a 2 seat sports car. The condition also plays a big role, because an excessively dirty car will take longer to clean.
Other detailers will operate on more of an individual basis. The good news is that they’ll be catering to your specific needs. The bad news is that you’ll have to talk to them for a quote (and likely meet with them) because their pricing won’t be posted on their website.
You’ll also want to find out how they accept payment. Some detailers are cash-only, while others offer debit and credit card readers. I don’t see anything wrong with any of these forms of payment, you’ll just want to know ahead of time to make sure you can handle it properly when the job is completed.
Do they need access to your utilities?
This only applies to mobile detailers. Some of them will be fully self-sufficient and bring their own water tank and power generator. I’d say the majority of mobile detailers however, will need a source of water and electricity to get the job done. Most people don’t mind offering their utilities to the detailer, but if this is something that matters to you, you’ll want to find out what they need before you choose them.
What products and equipment will they be using on your car?
If you’re sensitive to chemicals, or you prefer to stay environmentally friendly, you’ll want to bring that up with your detailer. Most of the time, heavy duty cleaners and degreasers are the go-to options to get the job done. Some detailers will use steam cleaners in addition to or instead of these chemicals.
Carpet extractors can make quick work of cleaning and removing stains, but they might also leave your carpet and seats noticeably damp. Scrubbing these areas by hand will take longer but usually keeps them dry for the most part. Something to think about if you have to drive to a wedding the next morning.
Last but not least, let’s talk about rotary polishers. They are truly the scalpel of the detailing world. When in the hands of someone that knows how to use them, they can be very effective. They can also cause a lot of damage to your paint if they’re used by an inexperienced or lazy person.
If your detailer uses a rotary polisher rather than a dual action one, that can either mean that they’re a total hack or they’ve perfected their skills over the years. If they answer yes, you’ll want to do a bit more digging to find out if they know what they’re doing or not.
Do they seem willing to talk to you about your car?
Detailing is a job that is driven by passion for most people. You won’t often find a high-end detailer that isn’t also a real car guy. Detailers don’t get paid to talk to you about how awesome your car is, but they should at least show an interest in it. If you get the vibe that they’re just trying to sell you on a service and move on to the next customer, you might want to continue searching.
Detailers are busy people, so I’m not saying that you should go on and on about the entire story of your car. If they recognize certain stats about it though or even mention things like “wow, what a beautiful color!”, that’s a good sign you’ve found someone that will take pride in their work.
I’ve added a few “trick” questions you can ask to get a better idea of your detailer’s knowledge. The correct answers are included so that you’ll know them before you even ask. If they have different answers than these, you might want to reconsider hiring them to work on your pride and joy.
I’m not saying you should be trying to catch them in a lie or start an argument. But sometimes playing dumb and allowing them to teach you will reveal how honest they’re being.
How often should you clay bar your car?
Many detailers like to sell clay bar and wax packages. They can perform this job quickly and easily. This is fine for the average car that already has imperfect paint, but not a great idea for a vehicle that has been polished to perfection.
The argument for doing this is that using a clay bar removes bonded contaminants allowing your wax or sealant to bond to the paint better. That is true. The downside is that clay bars can also produce minor marring in your paint.
A quick machine polish will clear the paint back up but isn’t usually included. This is a bit controversial, but the detailers that truly value the condition of your paint will all agree that clay bars can create marring.
Wrong answer: You should clay bar your vehicle every 6 months regardless of its condition.
Correct answer: Clay bars should only be used as a necessary evil when they are needed rather than on a regular schedule.
How long does a wax, sealant, or ceramic coating last?
When it comes to protecting your paint, you have a few different options. Each individual product will vary, but I’ll give you a rough estimate for each. How the car is stored and/or is cared for will also affect how long these products last.
Wrong answer: Wax will last a year, or sealants are useless and only last for a month.
Correct answer: Carnauba waxes will last up to a few weeks, maybe more than a month in certain situations. Paint sealants (essentially man-made waxes) can last 6 months to a year.
Ceramic coatings have different lifespans depending on the product. Typically between 3-5 years, sometimes more for professional grade coatings. They are NOT permanent though, and will not last the lifetime of your car, despite some manufacturers claims. Make sure to read the fine print on any “lifetime” warranties.
Is your ceramic coating scratch, rock chip, or fire proof?
This is a claim that the less-than-ethical ceramic coating manufacturers make. It is completely false. Ceramic coatings can be scratch resistant and help to fend off minor swirl marks from washing, but they do not protect against scratches.
Wrong answer: After coating your car, you’ll never have to worry about scratches again.
Correct answer: No ceramic coating on the market is completely scratch, rock chip, or fire proof. Only vinyl paint protection films will protect against scratches and rock chips and even then, they aren’t 100%. There is no way that a thin wipe on coating can back up those silly claims.
Can you remove every single stain or scratch from my car?
We would all love to be able to bring vehicles back to perfection every time. In reality, a 100% flawless result is pretty rare. Usually we can get close, but not necessarily “good as new”.
There are often times where chasing a specific stain or scratch becomes unsafe for the vehicle. You could risk discoloring or tearing your fabric or leather seat. Or a scratch might be too deep into your clear coat to be safely removed. Minimizing these issues so that they aren’t as noticeable is one thing, but removing them entirely isn’t always possible.
Another thing to think about is the longevity of the car. A vehicle that will be around for many more decades will need as much clear coat left on the paint in order for it to survive. Even if it’s possible to remove every scratch without burning through it, removing that much clear coat could lead to failure later on down the road.
Remember, every time we sand, compound, or polish our paint, we’re removing a small amount of clear coat. It’s up to your detailer to weigh the risk vs reward of chasing perfection.
Some detailers will promise you the world and sometimes can even deliver on it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what’s best for the longevity of your car.
Wrong answer: “I can get every scratch out of your paint.”
Correct answer: Not always. Sometimes it’s no longer safe to polish a car any further without the risk of burning through the paint. The same goes for scrubbing stains on delicate materials.
Tips for having your car detailed
If this is your first time having your car detailed, I have a few tips to help you get the most out of the experience.
Wash your car first before they work on it
I know, that sounds crazy. But remember, you’re going to a detailer, not a car washer! If they have to spend hours washing the mud off your truck, that leaves them very little time to focus on the details. You’re paying them for the details, so getting the excessive dirt and grime off beforehand will allow them to spend less time on that and more time on the important stuff.
Remove all personal belongings from your interior beforehand
It’s not your detailer’s job to decide what’s trash and what’s a treasure in your neglected interior. Much like the tip above, if they have to dig through 2 feet of garbage to even find your carpet, they won’t have much time left to actually clean it!
The other reason for doing this is because you know where you’ve put your stuff. Your detailer has to remove everything in order to do their job, and they might not put things back exactly the way you had them.
Pulling everything out ahead of time means you won’t be searching for an hour to find your cell phone charger. It also means random strangers won’t be finding out that you’re a secret Wu-Tang or Britney Spears fan any time soon.
Remember, anything you can do to make their job EASIER means they’ll do their job BETTER.
Don’t micromanage them
It can be tempting to stick around and watch a detailer’s every move especially if they’re at your home. You’ve done your research and chosen a great detailer though, so you can trust them. They know what they’re doing. If they have to stop and explain everything they’re doing to you, it’s going to add a lot of time onto the job.
Nobody likes to work with someone breathing down their neck. It’s okay to check up on them once in a while or even offer them a bottle of water, but it’s best to just let them do their thing. Make sure you’re available and they know how to get a hold of you if they have any questions (quick text messages work great).
Tip your detailer
This one is completely optional. If you ask any respectable detailer, they’ll tell you that a tip is never expected. The thing is, detailing is time-consuming, back-breaking work. There’s a reason you’re not willing to do it yourself! You tip the pizza guy, your hair stylist, and your waiter. Don’t forget to tip your detailer to reward a job well done.
Some parting notes
If having your car detailed is something you plan on doing regularly, finding a great detailer and building a relationship with them is a great thing.
Many of them will even have maintenance programs which is essentially a subscription service for having your car automatically cared for on a regular basis. They’ll do an in-depth detail right off the bat, then keep coming back to touch it up so it never needs heavy work again.
Make sure you check any prospective detailers’ social media before contacting them. This is a great form of advertising for them and a lot of them love to show off their hard work. If they’re regularly posting work that’s worth bragging about, that’s a good sign. Just be careful with those before/after shots.
One last thing I want to mention is that detailing is 90% technique and 10% product choice. As consumers, it’s easy for us to get caught up in which product or brand is the best. A good detailer will be able to produce incredible results even with mediocre products.
So don’t pay too much attention to how expensive the buffer in his hand is. You’re hiring the person, not the machine. Once you’ve found the right person, you’ve cracked the code to an awesome looking car!
Tim is the creator of Canadian Gearhead. His experience with auto detailing and working for Toyota shows through all of the articles posted here. He runs the Canadian Gearhead site and YouTube channel full-time now and currently owns a 2007 4runner, 2006 Tacoma, and 1991 MR2. Read more about Tim: