Buying versus building a carwash - Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Buying versus building a carwash

What you need to know before buying a carwash.

Owning and operating the local neighborhood carwash can be fun and rewarding. But that doesn’t mean it is easy. In fact, there is a lot more to running a successful carwash than washing cars, and a good portion of that success depends on what you learn and do before you buy the business in the first place.

If you have dreamed of running your own carwash — and you have made the decision to buy an existing operation rather than starting from scratch — you will want to make note of the following tips to ensure you are making a smart buying decision and setting yourself up for long-term success.

Related: Wash Wisdom: 8 tips for creating a successful business

Why it may be better to buy

The first part of your decision-making process when it comes to opening and running a successful carwash business is the question of whether to start a new carwash from scratch or buy an existing operation. There are pros and cons to both choices, but with only a few exceptions, buying a carwash ends up being the smarter choice, especially for first-time owners/operators.

By buying a carwash that is already established, you can effectively bypass much of what follows because the current owner will have already done the work for you.

But, that does not mean you do not need to do your due diligence. An existing carwash is only going to help you if it is currently profitable and has a solid, established customer base that is not likely to shrink any time soon. If that can be established, much of the preparatory work and research you would otherwise need to undertake will already be done for you. In that case, arranging the financing and learning how to run the business become your biggest tasks.

So, if you have chosen to buy a solid, successful carwash, consider the following tips as items you just need to confirm the current owner has put into practice for your own peace of mind. If you choose at some point to open your own brand-new location, you will need to dive deeper into actually carrying all these tasks out.

Research legal requirements in your area

The logical place to start your research is by determining state and local legal requirements, including licenses, zoning and any other special considerations for opening this type of business in the area you are considering.

A carwash will naturally use a tremendous amount of water and electricity, so the cost of utilities and any sort of potential restrictions on usage becomes an important factor that must be considered as well.

While researching these matters, it is generally wise to consult with an experienced lawyer who is familiar with the local small business environment.

Site selection is important

The ongoing success of your carwash depends largely on its location and how well it’s situated in relation to:

  • Where your customers live
  • Where your customers drive
  • Where your competition is located.
  • No matter how effective your marketing is or how competitive your pricing, these important criteria are going to make or break the long-term success of your operation:
  • Being four to five miles away from the nearest competitor
  • Being located on a heavily-trafficked road
  • Having plenty of room for constantly flowing traffic into, out of and through your facility
  • Having high road visibility and high-profile signage.

If a carwash you are considering is missing even one of these basics, you will need to consult carefully with the current owner to figure out how it has managed to succeed. If you were starting from scratch in a location that does not meet all these requirements, it is unlikely to be ideal for a brand-new carwash.

Related: Site selection: Critical in building a carwash

Excellent customer service is the key

Whether you are going to be running a fully automated drive-through operation or a slower, detail-oriented handwashing service, excellent customer service needs to be your top priority. Drawing in new customers while maintaining the loyalty of existing customers so they faithfully return every few weeks is how a carwash grows and prospers.

There’s only so much you can realistically do to differentiate the actual process of cleaning the car, so differentiating your entire operation depends on delighting your customers better than “the other guy.”

Consider the following factors:

  • How your carwash is laid out
  • How customers are instructed
  • How the payment process is handled
  • What incentives you can offer to encourage people to come back
  • Anything else your business can do to impress a fickle and easily distracted audience.

Let’s be honest, getting your car washed is not vital for survival, and it is a highly competitive industry. So, there’s really no room for slacking on customer service, or people simply will not come back.

Related: How to use customer service tools to grow business

Keep consistently marketing

Due to that same competitive nature of the industry, continual marketing and advertising are crucial for a carwash. Again, buying an established operation gives you a head start in this area, but do not let a solid volume of business coming in this week lull you into a false sense of security.

The large majority of those customers can and will forget about you if you do not stay consistently visible to them through effective marketing efforts.

Your first priority is to make sure your brand and location are familiar to everyone within five miles. This is your core market, since most customers tend to get the car washed on their way to or from work or while running errands on the weekend. They are unlikely to travel more than a few miles to do so.

Another focus of your marketing should be to convince people, especially inside that five-mile radius, of the need to wash their cars and remind them that they should do it routinely. It’s a busy world, and everyone is struggling to fit too many tasks into their already full schedules. Keeping the car clean necessarily lands pretty low on the average list of priorities. Convincing people it is important requires concerted advertising and marketing efforts as part of a long-term strategy.

Pro tip: offer a loyalty program

Since a steady flow of repeat customers is one of the keys to success for carwash businesses, it makes sense to reward your customers for coming back.

A popular option is to offer a loyalty program that offers customers a free high-end wash after they have paid for a certain number of washes. Another option is to offer a heavily discounted price on a monthly or yearly basis that allows the customer a set number of free washes during their subscription period. You can even experiment with offering unlimited washes as part of a premium membership plan.

This is one of the most effective ways to ensure that your customers avoid your competition — since they are being rewarded and/or they have already prepaid to use your carwash — and it offers the added benefit of guaranteed income in a business model that otherwise cannot rely on that due to several factors, including weather.

Offer additional products and services

Another valuable tip for successfully running and growing your carwash business is to introduce complementary products and services to the standard wash everybody provides.

For example, a few coin or card-operated self-serve vacuums allow customers to clean their vehicles’ interiors at the same time that they are taking advantage of your carwash’s exterior cleaning service. Some carwashes even offer vacuums for free as a value-added service and differentiator, so you could consider experimenting with that option.

Hand towel drying is a higher-end service that is simple enough to implement and appeals to customers who want to eliminate streaks as well as spots at all costs.

Another simple yet valuable option is to offer small items the average car owner would appreciate under the circumstances, such as air fresheners, wiper fluid or tire cleaner.

If you are moving forward with buying an established carwash, take full advantage of the current owner’s wisdom and experience. Find out how he or she keeps customers coming back. You can bet a lot of what the owner’s learned came through trial and error. And, while a smart person learns from his or her own mistakes, a truly wise person learns from the mistakes of others.

Bruce Hakutizwi is the U.S. and international business manager for, one of the largest online global marketplaces for buying and selling businesses. He is passionate about helping business owners succeed and regularly writes about entrepreneurship and small business management and growth. Connect on Twitter @BizForSaleUS.

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