I hear the term “full detail” thrown around pretty loosely, so I wanted to take a few quick moments to address the potential meanings of it.
Where the definition of the term comes into play is when we’re comparing prices. One detailer will say that he does a “full detail” for just $125, where another claims that his “full detail” sells for $300. Hmm, that’s a huge difference! And then what about the ones that go for $1K or $2K (and more)?
In a general term, a full detail implies that all (or most) areas of the vehicle are cleaned (detailed)…exterior wash, wheels and wheel wells cleaned and dressed, door jambs cleaned, windows, interior vacuumed, interior surfaces wiped down, etc. The engine bay is hit or miss in this definition because it can become a specialized service.
Now that we have the basic understanding of what areas are covered when calling it a full detail, let’s take a closer look at the services to see what areas will cause the pricing to vary so much.
- What washing method is used? Some volume-based places and many dealerships will use an automated tunnel wash…the ones with brushes or “soft cloths” that do the cleaning. These will typically be the least expensive types. You may get it at a cheaper price, but what is the real cost? You might as well be washing your car with rocks when you do this (and in many places you actually are!). A step up in the price category and you get a hand-wash, but then you have to ask what methods and tools they are using. In some cases the hand wash might as well be the tunnel wash because they’re running through many dirty cars, using just one bucket, and then same wash media all day long. And finally you have the one that takes the most time, costs the most, and is the most gentle on your vehicle…the two-bucket method with Grit Guards. So you can see that on one end of the spectrum you have a cheap and quick wash (but damaging), and on the other end you have a quite a bit more expensive job that takes upwards of an hour just for the wash portion of the detail, but is the most gentle (and thorough).
- Is any machine polishing used? This will be the biggest difference in the level of detail, the amount of time, and the final price involved. And when we’re talking about machine polishing, it can take just an extra 30 minutes, or it can take 20+ hours depending on what you want to achieve. I can spend an entire page just breaking down the different possibilities, combinations, and precautions on the machine polishing stage of a full detail…there’s that much involved! On the low end (quick time) you’re simply going to get a deep cleaning while adding gloss and protection. On the high end (long time) you’re going to get all of the swirls and most of the scratches permanently removed, and the paint will look like it did when the car was brand new. Where you need to be careful however is when the claim is made to “use a high speed buffer to remove swirls…in just a few hours”.
- How much interior detailing? Is it a quick vacuum and light wipedown of surfaces, are carpets being cleaned, is leather being treated, are all the cracks and crevices being tended to? The same term of “full detail” can represent a mere 15 minutes on the interior, or 2-3 hours worth of work.
So as you can see, there is a wide range of services that can fall under the category of “full detail”. I have a level that I can do in about an hour and a half, and then I have some that can take 20-30 hours. Technically speaking, both of them can be considered full details (but with huge differences in pricing).
If you’re a consumer looking to have your car detailed, be sure that you’re comparing services when you’re looking at pricing. Don’t just go to for the $125 detail because it’s “cheaper”. Look at what services are being performed, ask about the methods used, and ask yourself what your ultimate goal is. Do you just want an overall cleaning? Do you want to add some gloss and protection to the paint but are OK with swirls? Or do you want to rejuvenate and restore the finish to a true showroom condition? As you move up in level of detailing, your choice of qualified detailing professionals decreases exponentially (you’re typically not going to find the top levels of skilled detailer at the volume shop, at the dealership, or even at a body shop).
If you’re a detailer trying to sell your services, be sure to clearly educate your clients on exactly what services you offer at what prices. Ask them what level of detail it is they’re looking for, teach them about the different options that are available to them, and get them into the right level of service based on their wants and needs. Also be honest about what you are offering for the price (don’t advertise that their cars will “look like new” again with just a quick polish service).
With all things being equal, you get what you pay for. Please keep that in mind when you’re considering (or selling) a “full detail” because even though they can all fall under the same term, they are indeed far from being…the same.