Thinking about starting your own carwash business from the ground up? Carwashing and detailing can be a great industry to build a business in, with most operators bringing in anywhere from $40,000 annually for a small carwash, to over half a million dollars annually for full-service businesses according to the International Carwash Association.
The bottom line is that there are a million different possibilities, but the most important thing to grasp is that you need a simple business plan that works for your specific situation.
Are there a higher number of exotics in your area that prefer carwash and detailing? Or will you be operating in a more rural town, where most customers will only want a basic wash?
Keep in mind, that a business plan does not have to be perfect, simply setting some objectives and goals is the first step for being successful in the car wash industry. I’ll outline a few things that I’ve found helpful for rookies just getting started.
Step 1: Choose the right car wash business model
Before you begin creating an actionable plan, there are a few different business models to choose from when it comes to car washes. Keep in mind, not all of these business models may be practical for you, it depends on the market you are targeting (and where you live).
I’m going to focus on two models that make the most sense for beginners: The Mobile Car Wash model and the Hand As you grow, you can certainly invest in automatic car washes with bays, but these business models are great for beginners not looking to invest more than a couple thousand dollars.
Option A: The mobile car wash
This model is one of the most practical for beginners since it requires minimal overhead and really expands your reach. Being able to get the word out that you exist is the main challenge for any operation that relies heavily on relationships with auto owners and referrals.
Now that you know a few pros and cons, I would focus on getting to know your clients. It sounds really simple, but as someone who has used one of these ‘carwash apps’, having someone who I trust knows my vehicle and who I am personally comfortable with makes a big difference.
At the end of the day, automation and convenience is great, but forming these relationships builds loyalty
Option B: The Self Service Model
The self-service model is a good choice for high traffic areas, and requires building bays and purchasing coin-operated equipment and supplies. If you are just starting out, it may be a good idea to begin with option A, as there are significantly fewer startup costs involved.
Step 2: Set up a legal business
Like any business, you will need to keep track of all income and expenses you will need to pay taxes either quarterly, or at the end of the year. For small business owners, you will probably want to keep a spreadsheet of all expenses, receipts, and anything else you will need for reporting.
Start by registering your business
For beginners, it probably makes sense to operate as a Sole Proprietor in most cases, but you may want to consider an LLC or Partnership, depending on your plans. I am not a certified tax professional, and highly suggest seeking professional counsel before getting started. After all, if you are serious about starting a business, you will need to take paying taxes seriously! Many will even give you a free consultation and guidance on how to set things up.
Choose a name
Once you have “Bobby’s Auto Care” name picked you (for example), or have secured a DBA (more on that here), you can proceed to create a logo. If you use your name in the title like “Bobby’s Mobile Car Wash”, you may not need to file for a trade name or DBA
Getting a DBA “Doing Business As” name, allows you to legally use a name other than your own. Once you’ve got a great name picked out, you can move on to creating a logo and marketing your business.
Tracking mileage for your auto detailing business
To track mileage for your detailing business for tax purposes I like to use a free app called Stride Drive. For a free app, it’s pretty easy to use and gives me a basic report at the end of the year for mileage deduction. However, for a business that relies heavily on tracking mileage, Mile IQ is a great option.
If you decide to start a mobile car wash, you will need a good way to track mileage to and from jobs. Another option is to purchase a vehicle that will be used only for your business, where you can deduct repairs, etc. Again, I would suggest consulting with a tax pro for advice on this.
Step 3: Invest in the right equipment
Now that you have a plan in mind, decide what equipment you will need to invest in at a minimum to become operational. It really depends on what business model you choose, but below are a couple of essentials for each type to keep in mind.
If you’re a beginner, get your copy of my free eBook 25 Essential Detailing Products for Beginners for a few affordable products to consider picking up.
Investing in a mobile car wash trailer
With this model, you can either build your own trailer set up the way you want it or order a custom carwash trailer that’s pretty much ready to go. Check out my post 8 Smart Setups For Your Mobile Detailing Trailer or Van to learn more.
- Option A: An all-in-one tow-behind trailer with tank and sprayers. These can range from around $300 to well over $2,000, depending on capacity and are a great all-in-one solution for beginners.
- Option B: A custom setup to work with a trailer you may already own. I found the video below on a custom setup that I thought was really helpful:
- You may also want to consider purchasing a pressure washer. Detail King actually makes one (with a tank!) that is specifically designed for carwashing applications as shown below. Click here to check the current price on Amazon.
Source: Detail King
Accessories to consider when building a custom car wash trailer
- High-pressure spray guns and nozzles
- Generator to operate pumps or air compressors for air-powered tools.
- Water tank with the capacity to get you through a full day’s work
- Hoses and reels if you plan on connecting to a customer’s water source
- A vacuum for interior detailing
Self-service car washes
Depending on the setup, self-service washes can cost at a minimum around $100,000 for construction and equipment purchasing and only makes sense for beginners if you can secure financing. I found this guide by Chron.com helpful if you are considering this type of opportunity.
At a minimum, a few supplies self-service washes require are:
- Coin-operated vending machines with towels and accessories
- Coin changing machines
- Coin-operated wand sprayers with soaps, waxes, etc.
Step 4: Create a marketing plan for your car wash business
How will you get the word out? There are several strategies that are essential for marketing and advertising your car wash business. Set a goal that is attainable, and hold yourself to it. Start small, and make sure you have achievable goals; if your goal is to service 5 customers in your first week, keep track of how you did.
Logo design and branding
For beginners, you can use services like Upwork.com or Fiverr.com to get a custom logo made for your carwash business. I highly recommend paying at least $50 to have a logo made by an experienced designer. I have been disappointed with some cheaper work (around 5 bucks) so you really do get what you pay for.
For marketing and advertising to be effective, here is a shortlist of mediums to include in your marketing toolbox:
- SEO optimized website. (Wix.com is great if you are not tech-savvy, but WordPress is my top choice!)
- Yard signs and billboards
- Social media profiles
- Business cards
Step 5: Create a launch plan
Once you have a business model picked out, inventory ready, you need a launch plan. Below is a basic example of what that might look like the week leading up to launch:
- Monday: Get your Facebook and Instagram profiles set up so people know how to get in contact with you. Start posting pictures well in advance of launch day to showcase what you’re working on! This can be anything from pictures of your crew, a shiny truck, or a basic video.
- Tuesday: Purchase a phone to be used for the business (with a number you can share) and create a calendar on it strictly for appointments. Get used to deleting appointment slots, adding new appointments, and changing times. This will be critical as you scale.
- Wednesday: Canvas the neighborhood flyers, and leave business cards at grocery stores, community bulletin boards, and wherever necessary.
- Thursday: Submit your business to Google. Word of mouth is a great way to add customers, and people will try to find you on Google. Go to www.google.com/business/ to learn more on getting added.
- Friday: Run online ads for news stations in your local area. The carwash business is extremely local, so it’s a good idea to explore some advertising options where you can get local exposure.
Step 6: Use a business plan template and get started
There are dozens of other small steps needed to get started, but hopefully, you have a good idea of what to expect overall when putting together a business plan. It may seem a little trivial, but it is incredibly important to have your goals and objectives outlined so you can hold yourself accountable.
There are a bunch of templates online to model after like this one from Bplans.com. They have a pretty good selection of plans you can copy and tweak depending on your goals. Most contain sections where you highlight the structure of your business, like:
- Executive Summary
- Customer Profile
- Mission Statement
The great news is that about 90 percent of the car wash industry is owned and operated by small business owners, with large corporations staying out of this space for the most part.
This makes the opportunity greater than ever to get started and slowly start scaling your business. For more free auto detailing business tips and tools, check out our detailing business page and our recommended gear list.
This post was originally published on June 18th, 2018, and updated on May 27, 2022.