A small scratch or dent can be all it takes to make a car look old and worn—and make it harder to sell at a good price if you are looking to do so. Even seemingly minor cosmetic flaws can be expensive to repair if you bring the car to a body shop—repairing a small scratch typically costs $350 to $700, and dent repairs usually climb into four figures.
If you’re not willing to pay such steep prices, there are do-it-yourself solutions that can make some flaws much less apparent for far more palatable prices. These can be particularly sensible when insurance isn’t paying the repair bill and/or it’s an older car that might not be on the road much longer. DIY options for three common car cosmetic issues…
There’s a layer of protective clear coat over your car’s paint. If a scratch has penetrated only this clear coat, not the paint below, then a product called rubbing compound, available in auto-parts stores, could make the scratch much less apparent. Rule of thumb: If you can see primer or metal, the scratch is too deep for this strategy. But if you don’t and your fingernail doesn’t catch when you gently run it across the scratch, the scratch likely is shallow enough to try this.
Rubbing compound gently smooths out these sharp edges. It also can remove paint left behind by a vehicle that made contact with yours. Choose a highly regarded brand, because a bad rubbing compound could make the car look worse. Examples: Meguiar’s Ultimate Compound ($10.99 for 16 ounces) is made by the most respected name in this field. Turtle Wax Premium Grade Rubbing Compound ($6.24 for 18 ounces) also is well-respected.
After applying a rubbing compound according to directions on the package, apply polish and then wax to restore the shine and protect the paint. Examples: Meguiar’s Ultimate Polish ($9.99 for 16 ounces) and Meguiar’s Ultimate Liquid Wax ($22.99 for 16 ounces).
If the scratch removed some of the paint below the clear coat, you’ll have to add new paint to make it less apparent. Small bottles of touch-up paint are available in auto-parts stores, from dealership parts departments or on Amazon.com and elsewhere online, typically costing $15 to $30. Use the touch-up paint sold by the automaker itself…or a highly regarded paint company’s brand, such as Sherwin-Williams Dupli-Color, which offers a wide range of colors. A lesser paint might not match your car’s color as well. The “paint code” identifying the proper paint for your car typically is listed on a sticker inside the driver’s-side door or doorjamb (sometimes it’s under the hood or under the trunk lid). If you can’t find it, give your vehicle identification number (VIN) to one of the make’s dealers and ask what your color code is. If your paint is badly faded, it might no longer match perfectly.
Expert tip: Don’t use the nail polish–like paintbrush that often is included in the paint bottle—this tends to spread paint over too wide an area. Instead use the tip of a toothpick to slowly and cautiously apply a very thin coat of paint into the scratch…or ask at an art-supply store for a paintbrush appropriate for painting extremely narrow lines. Apply the paint only inside the scratch, not over the surrounding area. Too much touch-up paint can look almost as bad as missing paint. Let this touch-up paint dry—the directions will tell you how long that takes—then apply a second coat the same way…and then apply polish and wax as above.
Shallow dents in metal body panels sometimes can be pulled out using a suction-cup dent-puller, available at auto-parts stores for $10 to $20. Most brands of suction tools are pretty much the same. They are most effective when there’s a relatively flat section inside the dented area large enough for a four-to-five-inch suction cup to stick to. If the metal inside the dent has a sharp crease, the odds of success are far lower.
Clean the dented area well before using the suction cup—dirt makes it harder to form a seal. Spraying a light water mist on the cleaned dented area can help improve suction, too. It might take several tries and a bit of arm strength to pull out a dent. These tools don’t work every time, and even when they do, the result might not be perfect—some waviness could be visible in the metal surrounding the spot where the dent used to be. Still, it’s an inexpensive option worth trying.
If the dent is in a plastic body part, such as the caved-in corner of a bumper cover, it’s often possible to push the dent out from behind. The secret is heat—use a heat gun or even a hair dryer on its maximum setting to heat up the dented area, rendering the plastic more pliable, then use your hand to push out the dent from the inside. Wear work gloves to shield your hand from the heated plastic.
Try to maneuver the plastic back into place every few minutes, and heat it some more if it still won’t budge. If there’s no obvious way to get your hand behind the dent, you still might be able to reach thin tools such as metal pry bars into the area and use them to push from behind…you can sometimes remove a part or two to improve your access to the area behind the dent….and/or you could try using a suction tool to pull out the dent, as above.
If you cannot repair a metal or plastic dent on your own, seek out a “paintless dent removal” specialist. These body-repair pros tend to be much more affordable than traditional body shops because they use dent-removal techniques that don’t require repainting the dented area—they typically charge only $100 to $200 per body panel repaired. This isn’t a viable option with every dent, however, particularly if the paint in the dented area has cracked. Search for someone who has been doing paintless dent removal in your area for years, not someone who suddenly pops up offering these services after a hailstorm rolls through. Helpful: Call the service departments at local auto dealerships, and ask if someone can recommend an independent paintless dent-removal pro. Some dealerships do this work in house, but others hire outside pros and know which ones can be trusted.
Damaged side-mirror assemblies
Tight parking garages and other squeezes make side mirrors very vulnerable. Fortunately, replacing a side-mirror assembly is within the abilities of many car owners…and replacement-mirror assemblies often are inexpensive. Warning: The difficulty level of this DIY job varies from vehicle to vehicle. Before deciding to tackle it, enter the make, model and year of your vehicle into YouTube.com, along with the words “side mirror replacement.” If you drive a relatively common car, there’s a good chance that someone will have uploaded a video showing how to do this job. Even professional mechanics sometimes watch YouTube videos before tackling unfamiliar repair jobs these days—it’s a great resource. Watch the video, and make sure that it looks like a task you want to tackle before buying the replacement part.
This DIY job isn’t for everyone, but if it seems within your abilities, call used-auto-parts centers and salvage yards in your area and ask if they have the side mirror you need in stock or can obtain it for you. Or visit the website Car-Part.com, which searches the inventories of thousands of used-parts sellers. Specify whether you need the driver’s or passenger’s side mirror…and the paint color of your car, if the mirror assembly features this color. A used side mirror often costs only $40 or $50, though prices can climb if the mirror contains a built-in camera or sensors. If, instead, you pay for professional installation of a new side mirror, this job would cost at least five times as much. If you conclude this job is too much for you, you often can save some money by buying the used part and having a mechanic install that rather than a new part.