curb appeal (© Consumer Reports)Click to enlarge picture

A makeover for curb appeal begins with a thorough exterior wash, including the wheels, tires and wheelwells.

Whether you trade in your current vehicle or sell it yourself, making it look as good as possible can pay big dividends by improving both its value and sales appeal.

Depending on the vehicle's condition, you can do a lot or all of the work yourself. Alternatively, you can take your vehicle to a professional detailer, where prices can start around $100 but can go rapidly up, depending on the region, type of vehicle, and the amount of work to be done. As with other do-it-yourself projects, the more elbow grease you invest, the less you'll need to pay someone else to do it. Here are some tips about how to get the best results (most of the specialty products mentioned can be found at an auto-parts store or in a dealership that handles your car's make):

Outside appearance. Give your vehicle a thorough cleaning with car-wash detergent and water. Alloy wheels should be scrubbed thoroughly to remove road film and grime. Use a stiff-bristled brush and a good all-purpose detergent or wheel cleaner. If you use the latter, look for one that says it's safe for all wheels. Strong cleaners can eat away the protective coating on factory wheels. Once everything is dry, you can apply a tire dressing to give your rubber a new-car look.

Then inspect the paint surface and assess any damage you see. Note any scratches, stone chips, and dents in the sheet metal. If the paint is in good condition, a coat of wax may be all it needs. If your vehicle's paint is the original factory finish, it likely has a clearcoat outer paint layer. If so, make sure the wax you use is marked "safe for clearcoats." Avoid abrasive products, which are meant for removal of paint defects or to put a shine on a dull finish. On the other hand, if your paint finish is a little dull, look for a product that both polishes and protects. This could help put a shine back in your vehicle's paint.

You can fix small scratches and chips yourself with touch-up paint, available for a few dollars from your dealership. Make sure you get an exact color match, or your repair job will look worse than the original defect. Use the application brush or a small, pointed artist's brush and fill in the scratch by going over it in tiny dabs. Let the paint dry for at least a day or two before polishing the car.

Fine surface scratches in the paint can be professionally buffed out at a body shop or professional car wash center. This will greatly improve the car's overall appearance, but it costs between $100 and $200. Alternatively, you can hand polish the car yourself using an appropriate polish and old terry-cloth towels, an old cotton T-shirt, or cloth baby diapers.

If you know how to use an electric rotary buffer, you can borrow, rent, or buy one. If you don't know what you're doing, though, don't attempt it because you can easily burn through the paint or leave permanent swirl marks.

Dent removal. Having a body shop fix unsightly dents and dings can be costly. If there is no paint damage, you may be able to use a service called paintless dent repair, sometimes franchised under names such as Dent Doctor (www.dentdoctorusa.com) or DentPro (www.dentpro.com). They use special tools to massage out small dents from the inside. Your local mechanic, body shop, or car dealer can help you find a dent fixer, or try using the Yellow Pages. Typical costs range from about $50 to $150 per dent.

Some do-it-yourself dent-removal kits have come on the market as well. They're advertised using TV infomercials and cost from about $20 to $30 (plus shipping and handling). Essentially, they work by hot-gluing a suction cup onto the dent and then pulling the dent out with a special tool. Two kits that Consumer Reports tested were Ding King (www.dingking.tv) and DentOut (www.dentout.net). Our testers found that they worked about equally well, but the results were not perfect. Generally, the more experience you have, the better the results. You have to be careful with the hot glue and should avoid pulling the metal out too far. Small dents less than 1 inch in diameter were the toughest. The kits worked best on dents about 4 inches across.

Fixing window glass. It's very common for a windshield to pick up "star" or "bull's-eye" damage from a flying stone. These dings can be filled by an auto-glass repair service, so that they are less noticeable and don't develop into larger cracks. Figure on spending about $50 to $60 to treat a small glass ding. For larger cracks, you'll have to replace the glass.

Consult your auto-insurance policy first. If you have glass coverage, the replacement is free, except for a possible deductible.

The inside dirt. Clean the inside of the vehicle so it looks as though you were looking at it for the first time with the intention to buy it. Remove all of your personal clutter from the glove box, ashtrays, and other storage spaces. Check under the seats for lost toys, trash, or wayward french fries. Then go to work on the windows, dash, upholstery, and carpets.

You can buy special cleaners for upholstery, carpet, vinyl, and leather. For hard plastic surfaces, use any general purpose cleaner. Use a good glass cleaner to remove smudges and film from the insides of all windows, paying special attention to the windshield and rear window.

If a cleaner doesn't do the job on carpeted floor mats, they can be taken to a carpet-cleaning service and cleaned for about $15 to $20 a pair. Or just replace worn ones. Ridding cars of odors can be a real challenge. First get all of the interior fabrics clean with pet-spot cleaner or another odor-fighting product. Don't forget to wipe down the overhead fabric, or headliner. Also, be sure to clean inside the trunk and spare-tire well.

To remove stale odors from the ventilation ducts, try spraying odor eliminator into the system's air intake, which is usually located at the base of the windshield. Then run the air conditioner full blast for at least 10 minutes.

Under the hood. Cleaning the outside of the engine and other under-hood components can be a chore, but a clean engine bay projects a sense that the vehicle's mechanicals have been well maintained.

If battery terminals are corroded or caked with white powder, use an old toothbrush dipped in a mixture of water and baking soda to clean off the residue. Then coat the terminals with battery terminal grease. Always wear eye protection and gloves when working around car batteries.

You can certainly clean engine parts with old rags and plain soap and water, though you may have better luck with an aerosol engine degreaser. Be careful not to get electrical connections wet. Loosen dirt and rust from iron and steel parts with a soft-bristle brass wire brush and soft abrasive cleaner.

Minor and major repairs. It just makes good sense to fix or replace broken or missing items. A missing wheel cover or a broken mirror are signals to the buyer that your car has not been well maintained and that other repairs will probably be needed. Major repairs are another matter, however. Most buyers probably won't want to make a major repair right after buying a vehicle.

Suppose, for instance, your air conditioner doesn't work, and you have an estimate that it will cost $600 to repair. Obviously the air conditioner isn't necessary for the proper operation of the vehicle and, if you're selling the car yourself, some buyers might not care as long as the selling price is adjusted accordingly. But most potential buyers will likely lose interest when they find out about it. The big question is whether you can recoup the cost of the repair in your selling price. Most of the time you can't—so be prepared to take a beating if you have major repair problems. You'll have the same dilemma if you decide to go the trade-in route with your vehicle.

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