Couple Washing smart (© Wave/Photolibrary)Click to enlarge picture

According to the folks at Kelley Blue Book, aesthetics is one of the top considerations when a person buys a car. Keeping it clean will ensure that your vehicle looks its best.

What's the simplest thing people can do to help maintain their car's value over time? Richard Griot of car care and tool supplier Griot's Garage says, "Keep all of your vehicle's surfaces — the glass, trim, paint and wheels — clean." And we agree.

Your car has many enemies — some visible, some not. Emissions from industrial plants are released into the environment, where they are transformed into nitric or sulfuric acid. When deposited onto your car, in either a wet or a dry state, these contaminants can eat paint and, in extreme cases, metal. When ignored, acid from dead bugs, bird droppings, tree sap and even fallen leaves can do the same. Even something as benign as dust can cause tiny scratches in your car's finish, which can make the vehicle look dull and lifeless.

And the longer offensive contaminants are left on your vehicle, the greater the extent of the damage they can cause to both the car and its perceived value.

So what, you say? A few war wounds are endearing, right? Wrong!

Perception Versus Reality
The reality is that people often value material items based on the way they look. According to the folks at Kelley Blue Book, aesthetics is one of the top considerations when a person buys a car. And since more people are testing the used-car market these days, it is important to keep your car looking its best so it's worth more when you are ready to sell it. A vehicle that has a pitted or stained finish or splotches of rust is a turnoff, and thus is worth less than a car that looks pristine, regardless of how you maintained the vehicle mechanically — sad, but true.

If you currently don't clean your car regularly (at least twice a month), it's not too late to change your ways. Of course, the quickest and easiest way to a sparkling clean car inside and out is to take your four-wheeled friend to a detail shop for the royal treatment. At $75 to $300 or more per visit, using a professional detailer twice a month can get rather pricey. Luckily, there are plenty of do-it-yourself products on the market that you can use to clean your car at home, saving time and money.

To help, we've compiled some advice from car-care professionals on how to properly clean and care for your automobile. Follow these guidelines and your ride will look like you have a detailer on weekly retainer.

Read:  Does Your Car Stink?

Before breaking out the sponges and getting down to business, you'll want to park the vehicle in a shaded spot, preferably in a gravel area where the water can seep, rather than on asphalt that can cause rapid runoff. Direct sunlight can cause some surfaces to dry faster than you may want them to, leaving residue and, thus, unwanted streaks on the finish.

The Basic Wash
Now you're ready to get busy. You'll need a steady supply of water (make sure your hose has a trigger-type nozzle, to conserve water), a soft and dirt-free cloth (or a wash mitt, terry cloth towel or soft-bristle brush) and — last but not least — a proper car-wash soap.

Don't make the mistake of using dishwashing soap or a household cleaner on your car; they contain harsh detergents that can strip wax and damage paint. As Craig Burnett, chemist for Mothers Polishes-Waxes-Cleaners, puts it: "Car-wash products are designed to remove automotive dirt from cars, not grime from clothes or grease from dishes. Don't confuse your kitchen with your garage."

Also, most car-care experts recommend starting at the top of the vehicle and working your way down, focusing on one section at a time. "The bottom of your car, particularly behind the wheel wells, traditionally has heavier accumulations of dirt particles," explains Mike Pennington, director of training for Meguiar's, a leading producer of car-care products. "Washing from the top down minimizes the risk of contaminants in the water or getting caught in the wash mitt or brush, thus minimizing the chances of creating scratches or swirls in the paint as you rub the car clean."

Here's the best game plan:

1. First rinse the entire car with water to remove loose dirt.
2. Wash and rinse the vehicle one section at a time, working from top to bottom, to prevent a section from drying too quickly and leaving deposits or residue.
3. Don't scrub aggressively. Instead, rub the car's surface gently to loosen dirt. Aggressive rubbing can grind dirt right into the finish, leaving scratches and swirls.
4. Rinse the wash mitt or sponge often to prevent accumulated dirt from scratching the paint.
5. After the final rinse, wipe the excess water from the vehicle's surface to prevent water spotting. A soft terry cloth towel or a high-quality chamois are recommended. Keep the towel or chamois clean to help prevent scratching, and wipe the vehicle lightly to soak up water without abrading the vehicle's finish.

Note: If you live in a climate where sand or salt is used on the road surface, be sure to rinse inside the wheel wells, paying special attention to the lower part of the fender, where salt and sand may have accumulated. We recommend using a high-pressure hose for this task.