Buying a used car is not easy for your customers. They spend hours researching options and trying to find cars that will fit their needs. Then, once your customers purchase the car and start to drive it, they may find unexpected surprises, such as malodors.

Odors can certainly become an unwelcome surprise to your customers after a used auto purchase, but it is a business opportunity for your carwash.

When customers try to deal with used car odors and fail, they will seek professional services, such as yours, for advice. This article will offer some basic strategies your carwash business can employ or suggest to help your customers get their vehicles odor-free.

Related: Upselling odor removal services

Identify and remove the source of used car odors

In theory, a newly bought car should not have anything in it, but if it is used, there is a chance that something fell under a seat. It is important to make sure you get everything out of the car, even in the hard-to-reach spots, so that it is truly clean.

If you find something in one of those hidden places, it could be the cause of malodor. Remember to check under the floor mats.

You may even consider taking out the seats to get to all of the hidden areas of the car.

As you are cleaning, do not forget about the trunk, glove compartments and doorjambs. These can be places where forgotten items hide, and they are easy to overlook as you clean the car.

Upholstery, hard surfaces and the AC

Odors often hide in a vehicle’s upholstery. For fabric upholstery, start by thoroughly vacuuming the seats and floors. Then, consider steam cleaning these areas for deep-down odors; if that does not work, try shampooing the carpets and upholstery.

For vehicles with leather seats, do not use shampoo. Instead, use a leather cleaner to remove surface grime and, hopefully, the odors it contains.

Next, make sure employees clean all hard surfaces in the vehicle with an appropriate automotive cleaner. Consider stocking wipes made specifically for this purpose at your carwash.

Sometimes, the residue on hard surfaces can be the source of used car odors, so a good cleaning may help.

The air conditioning system is often a culprit for odors. It re-circulates the air, pulling in the scents and sending them back through the car. In some instances, these systems can even grow mildew, which can contribute to the bad odor.

Use an air conditioning cleaner to thoroughly clean the system in any smelly vehicle that comes to your carwash.

Freshening up

If the malodor is from cigarette smoke, getting it out can be challenging. Since smoke is carried by air, it permeates everything in the car, soaking into upholstery and getting into the air vent system.

After cleaning the car thoroughly, you will also need to spray air deodorizer under the hood. Be sure to get it into the intake valve, which will help spread the deodorizer throughout the entire vehicle. It may take a few times before noticing a difference, so be thorough and keep working on the problem until the smell is gone.

Air fresheners may cover used car odors, or they may make them worse by adding another smell to an already smelly situation. If your customers want air fresheners, consider natural options.

People who enjoy the smell of coffee can add a container of freshly ground beans to the car, for example. Mint extract and citrus oils can also be pleasant fragrances, and all of these provide a pleasant smell without adding more chemicals and unnatural odors to the mix.

Also a natural remedy, charcoal is an excellent odor absorber. Consider telling your customers to put a briquette of charcoal in the vehicle for a few days. The charcoal will naturally absorb odors, and this could solve a malodor problem. You can also sell filters that contain charcoal to make this easier for your customers.

Baking soda can also help absorb odors, especially in the carpeting. Sprinkle some baking soda on the flooring and rub it into the fabric. Leave it there for a few hours to allow it to absorb smells and then vacuum it.

The ozone option

Ozone cleaners use ozone to deal with odors. Because it is an oxidizer, ozone attacks smells effectively. However, ozone is not to be used lightly.

You need to invest in an ozone generator if you plan to offer this service. To use, seal the car and fill it with ozone. After about 30 minutes, vent the car and hopefully any of the odors it contained. Remember, do not leave the ozone in the car longer than 30 minutes because it can damage the car’s interior.

Remember, you are the pro, so when your customers seek your advice, you need to have an arsenal of tools to use that will prove effective. Consider these options as you work to get your customers’ cars odor-free.


Reid Zaritsky is senior vice president of Capital Auto Auction, a family-run business since 1988. He has been with the company since 2009 and has a background in science and engineering. Capital Auto Auction focuses on finding the right vehicles for families of all sizes.