$4.99 Shipping over $49 w/coupon DI499 | 3,000+ Products | 96 Brands | 12,000+ Reviews | 1,850+ Detailing Articles
Close Menu
Clean ⋅ Shine ⋅ Protect
Cookies are disabled in your web browser. To shop with Detailed Image, please turn cookies on and then refresh the page.

The Real Cost of a “Cheap” Car Wash


It is often all too easy to consider an automatic car wash, full service car wash, dealership car wash, or other types of ‘quick & easy’ washing services as a means of saving some time in your busy schedule.  These can be even more tempting when they are offered as a complimentary service like many dealerships will do when you’ve brought your vehicle in to them.  You might think “what harm can a car wash do?”  Unfortunately, the answer is A LOT!

This article will focus on the miserable experiences one person faced after a simple dealership wash.  I became familiar with this particular issue because the owner and I are both members of a common automotive forum and detailing forum where he sought advice on how to remedy this situation.  The owner is a detailing enthusiast who takes great pride in maintaining his vehicles to the highest standards.  Whether you work on your own vehicles, hire a professional, or you are a professional that has the pleasure of working on other people’s vehicles, you know it takes a lot of time, money, and dedication to keep the paint in nearly flawless condition.  It would truly be a shame to see all of that hard work destroyed by a simple wash, wouldn’t it?

With that being said, his story goes like this …

He made a trip to his local dealership to have a factory recall taken care of.  As usual, he made sure to remind the service consultant that he did not want his car to be washed, and made sure this was noted on the service work order.  In fact, I was told that he politely asked three different employees not to wash his car before he handed over the keys to his car and made his way to the waiting area.  Can you guess what happened next?  Yup – they washed his car anyways.

So you might be thinking, “What’s the big deal?  They just washed it.”  I will allow the photos to speak for themselves.

The following two photographs were taken by the owner immediately after his service appointment.

ATD | Dealership Damage

ATD | Dealership Damage

Pretty horrible wouldn’t you say?

The owner brought this to the attention of the service consultant right away.  The dealership kindly offered to “buff it out”, but this is never a good idea.  You can imagine that if it is too much trouble to follow proper washing processes, there is a very good chance they also do not practice proper polishing technique either.  The owner explained that he did not want his vehicle touched by the dealership employees, and an appointment was made to speak with the manager to discuss further options.  Long story short – the manager refused to acknowledge that their washing processes caused damage even though he was shown photos of the paint condition before the appointment compared to after the appointment, and the owner of the car was forced to escalate the situation to the corporate level.

The corporate representative agreed to pay a small sum of money for the damages, but was not willing to pay anywhere near the amount that the owner was quoted by a local professional to have the vehicle’s paint corrected.  After threatening legal action, they were a bit more inclined to increase their payout, but it was still significantly less than what was needed to restore the vehicle back to its previous condition.  The owner decided it was not worth the trouble to pursue the claim with Lexus any further.  He scheduled an appointment with the local detailer to have his car corrected and was forced to pay for the difference in cost out of his own pocket.

After some disappointments, delays, and many days of work at the detailer, his car was finally returned to him in the condition that he knew and loved.

ATD | Dealership Damage

So How Does That ‘Cheap’ Car Wash Sound Now?

I think the owner described it best when he told me “countless hours of work were destroyed in less than 10 minutes”.  Aside from the hard work that he dedicated to maintaining his paint before the dealership got a hold of it, he had to go through an immense amount of work just to be partially reimbursed for the damages.  That free or ‘cheap’ quick car wash could cost you hundreds of dollars, many headaches, and a long struggle when it is all said and done.

The unfortunate truth of the matter is that the majority of car owners that frequently visit these types of washing establishments are unaware of the damage that is being caused.  Be sure to educate those around you of the true cost of going to a “cheap” car wash.  If you really care about your vehicle, it is not difficult to maintain it on your own.  I refer most of my customers to this article to demonstrate proper maintenance washing and drying:  How To Properly Wash and Dry a Car.  If you do not wish to invest your own time into washing your vehicle, chances are there is a true detailing professional in your area that offers maintenance plans to help keep your vehicle looking great all the time.  Be sure to check out the Find a Detailer Map to help locate a professional in your area.

If you want to help avoid the same fate at your dealership, a visual reminder is a great idea.  The “Do Not Wash” Rear View Mirror Hang Tag is a great product to keep in your car.  Simply store it in your glove compartment and attach it to your rear view mirror when you visit your dealership or other service establishment to remind them not to touch your vehicle’s paint.

Thanks for reading!  Be sure to spread the word about the true damage that can come from a “simple car wash”.

Zach McGovern
Attention To Detailing Peoria
Peoria, IL

36 comments on The Real Cost of a “Cheap” Car Wash

  1. wendell jarvis says:

    Great reminder ….I try to educate my customers on this subject. ..but..ultimately it’s up to them…I hate that people have to go through things like this….great write up Zach. ..see ya on the forums

    • Thanks for reading Wendell! All you can do is try to educate those who are unaware of proper washing and drying methods and hope they take your words of wisdom to heart.

  2. Jim F says:

    I’m wondering if you’re better off either doing 1) careful two bucket washes on a regular basis (if you love your car), or 2) leave it alone and don’t touch it (if a clean car isn’t your thing). My wife is in category 2, and never washed or waxed her car in 12 years! I detailed about half the car so far, and it’s looking pretty good except for a couple of small rust spots and some deep scratches left behind by a snowshovel years ago. Notably, though, very few swirls or scratches. It looks sort of amazingly new now. Maybe the lesson is : your car paint, love it or leave it!

    • In my opinion, a vehicle should be washed at least twice a month regardless of if you “love your car” or not. It is just proper maintenance, like changing your oil at suggested intervals. Of course, proper technique is crucial, so it could be argued that someone may be causing more harm than good depending on their washing and/or drying habits. As far as your example of leaving the car alone all together, I do not agree with that approach. In many environments, simply leaving rain water on the car for extended periods of time will etch into the paint and cause damage. I have seen many instances in which these water spot etchings are so bad that they require sanding or are simply too deep to safely remove without jeopardizing the clear coat. Bird droppings (and in many cases, bug guts) are even more caustic, as they contain acid. These contaminates can and will cause some major damage, and it will happen very quickly if the vehicle does not have at least a layer of wax on it.

  3. Joshua Hash says:

    Thanks Zach for the great write up. I remember passing by a car wash facility located in Westerville, Ohio when I lived there a few years back. This facility had a automatic wash with brushes that touch your vehicle. A construction company had sent their entire fleet of trucks to the car wash and they were absolutely covered in mud. Right behind them in line was a lady in a Black Mercedes GL550. I wonder how clean the GL550 was after following those guys?? I always tell this story to my new clients in hopes they will not follow suit.

    • Thanks for reading, Josh! Unfortunately, I would bet the Mercedes was quite trashed after that event. Perhaps the worst part is that the vast majority of people using these dirty automatic washes or ‘full service’ type washes will never know/understand that they are damaging their vehicle. If more people were educated about proper paint maintenance, dealerships would have a much harder time selling even brand new cars. I have seen many cars on showroom floors that could use a full correction.

  4. daryanlenzCFP@gmail.com says:


    Out of pure curiosity and as a Lexus owner, what was the ballpark difference between the amount Lexus agreed to pay and the cost of repair? Extremely poor response by Lexus IMO. Ultimately, I imagine it was the dealer who had to reimburse Lexus who caused the malfeasance.


    • The owner of the vehicle first received a quote from a very high end professional for a full correction and paint coating application. This quote was a true premium, and the amount that Lexus was willing to pay was over $1,000 less. Given the dramatic difference, the owner opted to go with another detailer & service that would leave him with a smaller bill. While I cannot recall the specifics, I believe he still had to come up with several hundred out of his own pocket.

  5. jeff says:

    if you pay for a 3 dollar car wash thats what u get thats what i tell people all the time time u get the same thing the next person gets great point zack

    • Even a $100 car wash can be detrimental if the company does not use quality products and proper technique. This is why it is always important to do research before anyone is allowed to touch your paint. Just because someone is a ‘professional detailer’ does not always mean they know what is best for your car… but yeah, in general a $3 car wash is a good sign to steer clear!

  6. Ron Ayotte says:

    The dealership where we bought our Jeep Grand Cherokee offered “complimentary washes” when the car was brought in for service. I made signs in english and in spanish that said DO NOT WASH THIS CAR/NO LAVAR EL COCHE and placed them on the dash, taped to the rear windows on the outside and the rear window. . I also wrote DO NOT WASH THIS CAR/NO LAVAR EL COCHE personally on the service order. My point got across, they never washed it.

    • Great idea, Ron! I also printed out multiple signs that I leave in my car for times when I need to take my car in. I place 2 on the dash, one on the center console, and hang one from the mirror. I also inform the service adviser not to wash the car. Some people might think it is ‘crazy’, but those of us who really care about our cars know it is everyone else who is really crazy 🙂

  7. Well said.

    Today we had a consultation with a client who had their car washed by the dealership without consent. They took the paint from acceptable for her(it really wasn’t bad) to hammered. The damage done will cost well over $1,000 to repair. The dealership’s attitude? They are indignant that she called them out as if she was a fool and didn’t know what she was talking about. They are bucking at the idea of the car being repaired by someone that is qualified and saying that they can “fix it” inhouse. The owner has a good understanding of car care and knows they can’t.

    She knows that the bottom line is that that free car wash will be the most expensive car wash she’s ever had.

    • Unfortunately dealerships are simply not willing to accept the fact that they are the problem in these situations. It is a terrible situation for any car owner to be in. Hope it all works out and you get some good business and the dealership covers the costs for the repairs!

      • I already told her that, historically, they do not accept responsibility and she will be on her own unless she decides to take it to litigation. She’s a sharp cookie and will do whatever she needs to do.

  8. Justin M. says:

    Excellent right up Zach, I remember following this story on the forums. Educating the car owners on proper car care is the easy part. The hard part is getting them to follow through with the recommendations! In the end it is their car, and a lot of times I think people just don’t care. I always cringe when I see the local tunnel car wash packed to the brim selling $2 “detail kits” and $7-$12 dollar machine brushing car washes.

    Anyways, I will definitely use this article as ammo for promoting healthy car care.

    • You’re right. Once you educate the ball is in their court. Twisting arms to have a service is not the right approach because proper car care just isn’t for everyone. Value is perceived, and to some, the best value is whatever carries the cheapest up front cost.

  9. Ray Scott says:

    This is not a car story issue but is a good example on how dealerships screw customers. A local took his 2012 top of the line Camara, I don’t know the model, but it was the highest hp Camaro and this guy had Camaro’s since 1967 and wrote several articles on them. It was in for service and was kept by the dealer over the weekend. One of their young mechanics came in on Sat, got the keys and took it for a spin. He lost control and hit a pole and totaled it. He was fine, the owner was not after the dealership argued that it was not their responsibility. The owner went ballistic and threatened the dealer with a lawsuit. The dealer offered to replace it with an inferior model and the guy said absolutely no. The dealer wouldn’t budge. This story went viral and the dealership was overwhelmed with e-mails and phone calls. One responder said he didn’t care if the Virgin Mary took it out it is still their responsibility. The bad publicity was effecting their sales so the dealer found an exact replacement for the owner except for color which the owner accepted. Can you believe these idiots. Just another example of dealership incompetence.

    • Ray, I am familiar with that story as I stumbled upon a link to it somewhere since, as you mentioned, it went viral. Another unfortunate event. I just want to clarify, however, that my article was not meant to target dealerships specifically. I simply wanted to show what can happen with one poor car wash. This particular situation just so happened to occur at a dealership, but any local car wash (brush wash or full service) is just as guilty of this type of damage. The truth of the matter is that most of the employees (and I would bet even owners) of these businesses simply do not know any better. To many people, a ‘detailed vehicle’ is simply one that is not dirty so these types of high volume, low quality shops will always be in business. Thanks for reading!

  10. Larry Jack says:

    I love hearing tips on car care, especially paint care. Pardon me, but I didn’t clearly get the message on the “why not” in any of the comments. What’s wrong with touchless car washes? Also, what’s wrong with serve yourself wand washes with the occassional use of the soapy brush? (Occassional means 1 out of 6 or 7 cases, And I thoroughly soap and clean the brush before I use it on my paint…as long as the brush in good condition). My wife, daughter and my dog know that none of our cars are allowed to be washed by a car dealer or automatic car wash unless it is “touchless” and we approve of it first. My dealerships have always complied with my wishes, so I count myself lucky.
    I feel it’s better to get “stuff” off my paint as often as possible and micro-fibre/spray detail paint and wheels between “Mothering”. I also install 3M protective film on my cars’ front end, hood, rocker panels, windshield pillars and other spots like the rear bumper where the trunk lid slams down. Every ~ 2 years I inspect paint and protectiive coverings and repair/replace as needed. I still get swirl marks, but they pretty much come out or are very minor.
    I may not be doing what I should be doing, so if you could comment on my process and make some suggestions I’d really appreciate it. We have fairly late model cars… 2008 Bullitt DHG, 2009 Volvo C30 T5 – R Design… Cosmic White, 2010 Volvo X60 T6 Silver, and a 2012 Honda Civic SI, Black.

    • Hi Larry – thanks for taking the time to read and leave a comment! Touchless washes and self serve power washes can be OK when they are the only available option (ie in the winter time when washing at home becomes difficult). Touchless washes rely on a heavy concentration of chemical cleaners to attempt to remove dirt and grime from your surface. These cleaners have been known to degrade the layer of protection (wax or sealant) and in some cases completely strip it. If your car is coated with a product like Opti-Coat, this is no longer a concern. Also, the touchless wash my remove the majority of dirt, but it is not going to be able to remove all of it. This is why touchless washes that end with a hand dry can cause significant damage as the remaining dirt is then rubbed against the painted surfaces. As for the “soapy brush” at self serve washes – I highly recommend NOT to use that on your vehicle.

      Rinsless washing is a great way to quickly, easily, and safely maintain your vehicle in between traditional washes or detail sessions. In the winter, for instance, I typically take my personal cars to the coin-op power wash or touchless wash to knock off the majority of the heavy dirt from the surface and then follow up with a rinseless wash with Optimum No Rinse at home. Hope that helps.

  11. Caleb says:

    When it comes to your vehicle, you never want to go “cheap”. Invest the time and money to take care of your car and it will last much longer.

  12. Kevin Trillo says:

    Great write up Zach, i try to educate my customers on dealerships and their car washing techniques. its obvious to us the detailers what goes on in the dealerships, but the averrage person has no idea that there has most likely been 10 cars washed with the same water that has been in the bucket before their vehicle even gets touched, and you know they don’t use a grit guard. this is truly a sad story but at least it has a happy ending. Do you mind if i put a link to your article in my auto detailing blog on my website? please let me know thanks!

    • Hey Kevin, thanks for taking the time to read and leave a comment. Please feel free to share this article on your own site! The best way to help educate others is to make the information readily available to them.

      • Kevin Trillo says:

        Thanks Zach for the reply, i posted a blog with a link to your article and i wrote an article similar to this, i love to educate my customers on stuff like this.

  13. CHARLES says:

    Believe me none of the dealerships want to be doing these because they know the liability involved. The problem is that the customers continually need more and more given to them to keep them happy. Services, processes and prices would all be less if all the dealership had to do was repair the vehicles. The dealership that I work at does have a automatic brush car wash. We try to inspect vehicles for damage or anything loose that may get broken in it. You cannot imagine how many times we get hollered at for not washing the vehicles or get hollered at for washing them. We try to discourage some owners from running there $80,000 black vehicles through it, but they demand it. I would gladly not do the free car washes. Unfortunately I think people that are on this forum are in the few. There are so many people that look for the cheapest easiest way for them and then worry about the results afterwards.

  14. Jan Lopez says:

    I just bought a beautiful new car, probably the last in my lifetime. I have mobility issues and in the past used a drive through car wash that recycles the water and uses cloth strips, not a brush. I started this search to make sure the wheels/tires would not be damaged by the tracks that carries the car through the wash.

    I don’t have the option to wash the car myself. I live under major tree canopy (no garage available) and there is much pollen and bird goo.

    What should I do? Thanks so much.

    • Hey Jan – you’re going to want to find a completely touchless car wash. These types of washes rely solely on high pressure sprayers and chemicals to clean your vehicle without any spinning brushes. You may also wish to seek out a quality detailer in your area to visit once or twice a year to keep the car looking its best.

    • Reece @ DI says:

      Jan – I would highly recommend not using any car wash that touches the paint. Almost all car washes, that I know of, have to by law recycle some amount of water. This generally does not cause any issue as it is filtered pretty well. Where you can see issues is with brushes, rags, etc. They are so caked with dirt and grime that they just rub everything into the paint and cause swirl marks, scratches, etc. If you are looking for a fast, safe and easy way to clean your car I would recommend using a touchless car wash. You just drive in and wait, it is that easy. They use strong cleaners, so any wax or sealant you have on the paint will most likely be removed, but they are much safer. I personally use these in the winter as I do not have a garage to wash my car in the cold weather. Hope that helps!

  15. Burt Silver says:

    I like how you pointed out that the carwash did more damage than good at a dealership. I think it would be best to go to a place where the car cleaning is more professionally done that is more dedicated to cleaning your car the right way. I always prefer to pay more for my car wash if I know it will get a good clean.

  16. Nice post, with great content, Love this idea and I want to add few of mine too here. When it comes to car detailing, it has different meanings to different individuals. Considering that, we offer a broad spectrum of suitable and professional car detailing services according to your requirements. Services ranging from a gentle hand maintenance wash to full exterior and interior reconditioning. We offer it all to bring your vehicle back to a state that looks almost new.

  17. Always Ask Questions says:

    (1) I don’t know what I’m looking at in the photos you provided. I see a swirl of scratches and white flecks but it looks like the photos of the car were taken through a scratched glass pane? It’s difficult with the camera flash compounding the problem.

    (2) You didn’t actually explain what the dealership did to damage the car. Did they take it to a car wash off site that left scratches? Did they wash the car by hand but use abrasive materials?

  18. Car care cleaning kits come in all shapes, sizes, and prices, as well as makers. They can also contain a wide variety of car cleaning products, from car wax to car wash soap and everything in between, aimed at almost every conceivable part of your car’s exterior and interior.

  19. citywash says:

    thanks for the FANTASTIC post! This information is really good and thanks a ton for sharing it 🙂 I m looking forward despee that ever did that. Keep it up

  20. D'Marcus says:

    Automatic car washes are abusive. Everyone knows that, and thanks for the reminder. However, there is no way the paint in the picture got that bad from one wash. Something’s fishy here.

    • Reece @ DI says:

      D’Marcus – Unfortunately, the paint condition is true. Just like not all paint is the same, not all touch or tunnel washes are the same. Some can be more aggressive, brushes caked up with dirt and grime, etc. On top of some paint being thinner, even after one wash paintwork can look as it does in the photos. Also note that those photos are under inspection lights as well, so the paint might not look as swirled up in sunlight.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Commenting Rules

  • Try to keep your comments as relevant as possible.
  • Don't be abusive: no personal attacks or any other nastiness.
  • Feel free to express your opinion, but do so in an eloquent way.

If you do not respect these rules your comments may be edited or even deleted.

My Offers
Tax Refund Sale
Free Stuff
Quantity Discounts - Buy More, Save More!
Big Discounts While Supplies Last - Clearance Items - Shop Now
Close overlay