By Sara Cooper
Contrary to the popular saying, “If you build it, they will come,” a successful car-wash site requires a lot more than construction to draw customers. First and foremost, you have to make the right decisions during the planning process. This requires an understanding of site selection, building materials, financial commitment and city regulations.
Craig Eilers, western regional sales manager for the Jim Coleman Co. in Yakima, Wash., has spent more than a decade operating self-serve car washes. In his more than 25 years in the industry, he has seen a lot of operations come and go. He hates to see operators who, failing to gain proper guidance, end up spending a year’s time and $15,000 to $20,000, only to end up right where they started, empty-handed.
The two top questions asked by new car-wash operators are: “What will the business cost me?” and “How much profit will I make?” Of course, every car wash will vary, depending on location, number of bays, price of land and numerous other variables. But knowing the highs and lows of the game will at least keep an operator from being pummeled by excess zeroes.
Bill Sartor, operator of Quality Car Wash Inc. in San Antonio, Texas, says while $50,000 per bay is the cost that has been quoted in the industry for years, it hasn’t quite cut it for the quality of facility he works toward. He says operators in today’s market should consider spending $80,000 to $90,000 for a fi rst-class facility that will be competitive with other washes.
Bob Ivory, owner and manager of five self-serve car washes in Arizona and Utah, says a basic facility, consisting of six self-serve bays and an in-bay automatic wash, will cost around $600,000 ($300,000 for equipment and $300,000 for the building) plus the cost of land. Including an automatic wash alters costs considerably.
Eilers points out an operator can easily spend $15,000 to $20,000 just in the initial planning, before bids are confirmed and permits are in place. For a four- to five-bay self-serve wash, operators are looking at a minimum of $500,000. For a quality facility with eight self-serve bays and two automatics, costs can total as much as $1.5 million. Those operating in colder climates should add an additional 10 percent to the construction budget for floor heat, doors on automatic bays, water-heating systems and other winterizing necessities.
There are a number of business-expense studies prospective operators can obtain from consulting firms, equipment companies or trade associations to help them create their construction budgets. These groups can also assist in determining how much profit to expect from a car-wash venue, including income from coin-operated vacuums, vending machines and self-serve bays.
Eilers has seen several car-wash sites break even in five to six years. At an average site, however, operators can expect to be successful within eight to 10 years. Sartor is hoping to have his most recent site paid off within seven years, but says it could be closer to eight or nine depending on the economy and interest rates.
Every operator will approach the business a little differently, depending on his ultimate goal. Some will simply wait for the business to recoup the cost of land, then demolish the facility and lease or resell the property. Most, however, are looking to build a permanent, high-end site.
Finding an affordable, properly zoned site in the right demographic area can be a challenge. An operator needs to decide what area would be the most accommodating for his customer base. Eilers suggests choosing a location close to middle-to upper-income residential neighborhoods. Also look for areas with condominiums or apartments, as typically, it is blue-collar workers who use self-serve washes.
It is not necessarily in an operator’s best interest to be on the busiest street in town. Medians and numerous traffic lanes can make it difficult for customers to enter the facility. It is important, however, to have good exposure. Eilers says only about 25 percent to 30 percent of the motoring public uses car washes. Building in an area where a facility will be noticed can attract customers who never considered using a self-serve site before.
Ivory looks for sites near convenience stores and gas stations, because visitors to these businesses are many of the same customers who will use a car wash. Plus, they are usually on corner lots, which get a lot of traffic. While property in these areas is expensive, one of the biggest mistakes an operator can make is to skimp on land, Ivory says. Cities will often require a certain amount of “stack room” on the property, and the last thing an operator wants is traffic jams that frustrate customers who cannot adequately maneuver around the site.
Eilers suggests purchasing 5,000 square feet of land per bay as a rule of thumb. A car wash with four to eight self-serve bays and one to two automatics will require anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 square feet. You may have to purchase a larger piece of property to keep the cost per square foot at a reasonable rate. You can then develop additional plans for the property, such as adding a profit center or leasing out part of the site to another business.
Building materials should be sturdy and aesthetic. One of the first decisions that will need to be made is whether to pave the lot with concrete or asphalt. Both can make be attractive, and costs vary by region. Concrete will usually last longer—20 to 25 years—if mixed and laid correctly. Asphalt typically needs to be overlaid every eight to 10 years. In northern climates, asphalt is most common, because it tends to be less expensive in these areas. Eilers says a site can still maintain an upscale appearance with asphalt, as long as it is sealed properly and kept clean.
Brick and block are durable materials for car-wash building. Eilers has had good luck with glazed CMU blocks, which are easy to keep clean. Because blocks can be expensive, a lot of operators will use them to construct the wash-bay walls only, then use more traditional materials for the building exterior.
Some companies use vinyl or fiberglass prefabricated wall sections that are snapped together and filled with concrete. According to Eilers, this type of car wash is quick to erect, and provides for a durable, weather-resistant finish that requires cleaning about every six months. While the materials for this type of construction can be expensive, overall costs will be about the same as other options because of savings in labor.
New operators should visit other car-wash sites in their areas to get an idea of what materials hold up best in the climate. Too many get into the business hoping to rush through planning and make a quick buck. Eilers can’t overemphasize the importance of researching the industry and talking to as many operators and equipment manufacturers as possible before making important construction decisions.
Sartor adds that operators should get competitive bids on everything from equipment to architects. Well-planned construction is crucial to making a car-wash dream a reality.