Family washing a car

Washing your car can be fun, and it's a rewarding way to protect the investment in your vehicle.

Your car has many enemies — some visible, some not. From bird droppings and dead bugs to tree sap and invisible industrial emissions in the air, your vehicle is constantly exposed to myriad environmental elements that can damage its finish. Even basic road grime can damage your car, and the longer offensive contaminants are left on your vehicle, the greater the damage they inflict upon both the car and ultimately its long-term value.

So what's the simplest thing people can do to help maintain their car's value over time? Wash it, but wash it the right way. "Keep all of your vehicle's surfaces — the paint, trim, glass and wheels — clean," says Richard Griot of car-care company Griot's Garage.

Perception is reality

Click to enlarge pictureCar wash (© slobo/Getty Images)

There are plenty of do-it-yourself products available to protect your car from the bird droppings, bugs, tree sap and air pollutants that cause stains when left on your car.

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. If you want your car to bring top dollar when you're ready to sell it, keep it looking its best. A vehicle in pristine condition will attract attention and be worth more than another vehicle that is in similar mechanical condition but has had the appearance neglected.

If you don't currently clean your car regularly — at least twice a month — it's not too late to change your ways. Granted, the quickest and easiest way to a sparkling-clean car inside and out is via a local detail shop. But at $75 to $300 or more per visit, using a professional detailer twice a month can get rather pricey.

Fortunately, there are plenty of do-it-yourself products on the market to clean your car at home, saving time and money. Taking things a bit further, Mike Pennington, director of training for Meguiar's — a leading producer of car-care products — says you should wash your car once a week. "Your car is constantly bombarded with contaminants such as tree sap, mist and bird droppings," Pennington says. "If the contaminants are not removed quickly, they can bond to the paint and even etch the paint."

Whether you're motivated to wash your car once a week, twice a month or at some interval other than annually, we've compiled 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.

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The basic wash

Click to enlarge pictureFather and son washing car (© Fuse/Getty Images)

Use a proper car-wash soap on your car. Dishwashing detergent or household cleansers damage a car's finish. Fresh water, a hose with a spray nozzle, and a clean, soft cloth or brush complete your washing kit.

Before breaking out the buckets and sponges, park your vehicle in a shaded spot — preferably in a gravel or grassy area where water can seep into the ground, rather than on pavement that causes rapid runoff. Direct sunlight causes surfaces to dry quickly, leaving residue and unwanted streaks in the finish.

Now you're ready to get busy. You'll need a steady supply of water, a hose with a spray nozzle, and a soft, dirt-free cloth, wash mitt or boar's hair brush. Most car-care experts recommend a microfiber wash mitt or towel to minimize scratching, but you must keep it clean or the embedded dirt particles will scratch the surface. A separate soft-bristle brush is good for cleaning wheels.

Most importantly, you need a proper car-wash soap. Don't make the mistake of using dishwashing soap or a household cleaner on your car; these contain harsh detergents that can strip wax and damage paint. Car-wash products are designed to lift and remove dirt from a car's surface — not grease from dishes.

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Top-down, not bottom-up

Click to enlarge pictureWashing a Car (© Griot's Garage)

Wash your car from the top down and frequently rinse your wash cloth or brush. This minimizes the risk of contaminants getting caught in the brush and creating scratches or swirls in the paint.

Most car-care experts recommend you start washing at the top of a vehicle and work your way down, focusing on one section at a time. "Washing your vehicle from the top down reduces the chance of scratching the finish" says Griot's Garage President Mark Greene. "By washing from the top down and frequently rinsing your wash mitt, sponge or brush, you greatly reduce the possibility of contaminants becoming embedded in your cleaning tools and creating scratches and swirl marks," he says.

Other professionals agree: "The bottom of your car, particularly behind the wheel wells, traditionally has heavier accumulations of dirt particles," Pennington says. Washing from the top down minimizes the risk of dirt from the lower sections of the car being dragged across upper surfaces and causing damage.

Here's the best game plan:

1. 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 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 microfiber towel or a high-quality chamois is best. 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.

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