10 Steps For Starting a Car Wash From The Ground Up

As a 40 year veteran car wash equipment manufacturer and site developer, we’ve seen it all. We know what a daunting and potentially confusing process starting a new car wash can be. What comes first? Prospecting site locations? Securing financing? Assessing your market? How soon should you begin marketing? How long will the process take?

 

While we certainly can’t cover everything you need to know to start a car wash in a single post, we can take a few words to cover what we feel are the 10 most important steps to launching your own car wash business.

Starting a Car Wash

 

1) Location is Everything – Go Scouting

Car washes aren’t automatically successful. Great care must be taken when selecting the location on which you want to build. Our Site Model Pages have in-depth descriptions of location criteria to consider (including population, competition, street types, car counts, and more) and our site development services can help you select and approve the best locations available in your area.

 

Start by driving around your target area, paying close attention to the relative traffic, types of local businesses, and anything that looks for sale. Get a feel for your potential market. You should also visit a commercial real estate MLS like Loopnet.com or many others. Be sure to take your time and never rush into a purchase.

 

2) Review the Competition

Try to get a feel for the local car washes in the area. How many customers do they have and how aggressively are they marketing? What will they do when you open your wash? Can they afford a multi-million dollar renovation to bring their wash in line with yours? Are they debt free and can they cut prices to outcompete you (with your interest payments) in the short term? Are their customers frequent users and very loyal—or are they waiting for something better?

 

Entrenched local competition can be dangerous, even for Totally Tommy buildings, and selecting a location with some elbow room between you and competitors is important. But don’t worry too much about single stall automatic car washes or local fundraisers—you’ll be working in a completely different weight class.

 

3) Do the Paperwork

Find out what local city or county department handles business licenses and request an application, as well as information on local utility usage codes, insurance requirements, tax rates, and other requirements for opening a business. You will also need a Taxpayer Identification Number and you should use the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s trademark search tool to check your brand then register to claim it.

 

Each area and city has different rules, so make sure you take the time to understand everything and keep your business in line. If you can, also get information on local sanitary sewers (for your waste water), utility prices, water usage limits, and other regulations.

 

4) Planning and Approval Process

Set up a meeting with the city planner. Show them a rendering of your concept and try to get verbal approval of the design—or a list of probable issues to address. If you have approval you can set up a formal meeting to present your plans and have them voted on at a city council meeting. With luck, your Totally Tommy building with its modern style, efficient design, and great investment potential will blow them away! Try to be friendly, optimistic, and down to earth. If the city gets on board with your project it can make the whole process move along more smoothly.

 

5) Research Car Washes

Tour as many successful car washes as possible to see what makes them tick—especially if you haven’t been in the business very long. Check out automatic car washes, partially automatic, express, detailing, and other washes to see how they differ from one another. Operations, promotions, pricing, services, demographics… Try to learn as much as you can and develop as deep a background as you can with operations, staffing policies, equipment repair, and customer management (aka, complaints).

 

To help out, our team has training available to teach you everything you need to know BEFORE you’re trying to run your wash on hot days with long lines.

 

6) Operations Decisions

Will you run your car wash independently or will you have a franchise, LLC, or S-corp? There are many models, each with pros and cons. Franchises offer support at the cost of a residual. Solo operations offer total freedom but deprive you of much-needed backup and brand awareness. How much personal involvement are you looking for? If you plan on hiring a manager instead of handling things yourself, make sure he or she has the necessary qualifications and is heavily invested in your future success.

 

7) Make a Business Plan!

Your car wash business plan (click for outline) should focus on both long term and short term operations. Use a professional service and remember that the more detailed, thorough, and researched your plan is, the better it will look to investors or your bank. Include costs (up front and overhead costs), planning for building to long-term revenue management, and marketing strategies (launch and long-term). Professional proforma companies are ready to help and our team is also standing by with years of experience to back up our advice.

 

8) Get Financing

This is likely the most challenging step, and your success here will largely depend on how well you’ve researched and prepared your business plan ahead of time. A solid revenue model can help convince investors to put up the capital for your new car wash business, so be prepared to demonstrate that you need enough funding for a truly high quality car wash facility and equipment with great return potential. You will also need a convincing resume with business and/or car wash experience, and a solid marketing plan.

 

9) Build the Right Wash

Car washes thrive when they capture the attention of the local market and are designed to make turning in, purchasing a wash, and moving through the tunnel as quick and easy as possible. The Totally Tommy building is the best way to do just this, drawing huge numbers of passing customers with a great looking building, perfected layouts, and a full and fast service menu. Proven in scenarios around the country, every component of this facility design has been carefully thought out to create a single, cohesive investment that pays off. From our towers to our pay system, deceleration lanes, glass walls, stainless steel equipment, and clear roof, everything is designed to project sophistication, professionalism, and value.  So why waste money reinventing the wheel, and why risk building a second-best wash when a Totally Tommy wash is waiting for you?

 

10) Market your New Business

Customers don’t know what they don’t know, so don’t just expect them to line up without any effort on your part. Make sure to let the community know about your wash ahead of the grand opening with onsite advertising as well as print, radio, local web, and possibly TV advertisements.  You’ll begin to build a curious customer base who will drop buy and tell their friends and family afterwards. $15,000 or $1 / car for initial marketing including billboards, mailings to 5 mile radius, promotional washes, and radio commercials is a good place to start at your launch and $.10 / car is a standard ballpark long-term rate for the future. One or two day Social media campaigns (incentivize customers with free washes for best results) can also be highly successful. Be prepared to collect feedback and adapt your marketing program for the greatest possible effectiveness moving forwards.

 

Launching any business, and especially a brick and mortar car wash filled with high-end technology, is a complex and daunting prospect. But don’t worry. The team at Tommy Car Wash Systems has hundreds of washes behind us with thousands of installations and developments. We know the steps you’ll need to take to get your wash planed, approved, built, and operational, and we’ll help you turn a fantastic business opportunity into an even better reality.

 

 

For more info please send your requests to sales@tommycarwash.com or give us a call at (616) 494-0411 with your name, any potential sites or locations you have in mind, an idea of your total budget, and phone number or email address for follow up.

 

Tommy Car Wash Systems

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55 thoughts on “10 Steps For Starting a Car Wash From The Ground Up

  • April 27, 2017 at 1:23 pm
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    Hi
    my name is victor , my question is do you do franchising ? if yes what does it take as well as how much will franchising cost me if no , how much will a set up like this cost me thank you

    Reply
  • April 19, 2017 at 5:55 am
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    Hello do u supply to the uk?

    Reply
    • April 19, 2017 at 1:07 pm
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      Hi Karen,
      International shipping is available. For building products you will want to talk to our international rep directly via Tommycarwash.com/contact

      Reply
  • February 1, 2017 at 4:59 am
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    I live close to Nashville, TN. It looks like there was a location opened up about 45 minutes south of my location. I am very interested in opening up a location, but I read on the website of the other location that they are the only wash due to a contact w/ TCWS and that no other TCWS locations could be built. Is that true?

    Reply
    • February 1, 2017 at 2:59 pm
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      Hi Kainin,
      I can’t say too much due to confidentiality concerns, but we do provide car washes using our signature building design and equipment with exclusive territory in their area. You should contact our building rep (Tommycarwash.com/contact) to discuss your project as he’ll be able to look up exactly where that territory is and isn’t, and where you may be able to get started in the region.
      Good luck and thank you for reaching out!

      Reply
      • February 2, 2017 at 1:26 am
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        Thanks I will call tomorrow.

        Reply
  • January 16, 2017 at 7:03 pm
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    If the total cost is $2.5 million, how many years will it take to recover that amount? Also how many cars can be processed in 1 hr?

    Reply
    • January 16, 2017 at 9:33 pm
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      The rule of thumb is that the car wash can comfortably process 1 car per belt foot, with that number increasing as customers become more comfortable with the system or when staff assist in the loading process during high volume periods. The car wash referenced here has processed over 200 cars per hour with a 130′ foot belt.
      As far as ROI, it is impossible to provide a standard answer. Our clients do not release their personal information and the production at each location depends entirely on local traffic, marketing, pricing, equipment maintenance, and countless other factors. I recommend contacting our buildings rep via the “CONTACT” tab on our homepage as he will be able to provide a better answer and more context.

      Reply
  • January 3, 2017 at 11:26 am
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    Hello, I just want to know if you have an outlet here in Africa. I’m planing to start a car wash in my locality in Nigeria and will need Tommy Car Wash for guidelines and support. Thanks.

    Reply
    • January 3, 2017 at 2:19 pm
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      Hello Olugbenga,
      International shipping is available on our equipment, although at this time we are generally unable to build full tunnels overseas due to differences in local building codes. For equipment prices please visit our online store (shop.tommycarwash.com) and use our contact page to reach out to a representative directly.

      Reply
  • January 1, 2017 at 4:54 am
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    Do u have any tommy washes in the Roanoke Va Area?

    Reply
    • January 3, 2017 at 2:15 pm
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      Hi Leroy. No full tunnels to my knowledge, although we may have installed an equipment package or two in the region. If you are interested in launching your own wash you should start at Tommycarwash.com/contact and fill in the form there!

      Reply
  • December 9, 2016 at 4:37 pm
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    Hello,
    Do you have any Tommy Car Washes in Dallas, Texas? I am specifically considering Mckinney, TX to open a car wash. Is there a Tommy Car Wash in Mckinney, TX?

    Reply
  • November 17, 2016 at 7:33 am
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    Hey, I would like to know if you have built any sites in Mexico and also how much would I be spending for a simple complete tunnel carwash with only the basic stuff?

    Reply
    • November 17, 2016 at 1:58 pm
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      Hi Jaime – We’re glad you’re interested!
      So far we’ve never built a complete tunnel in Mexico, though I believe we have shipped and installed some equipment. The cost will depend on the type of tunnel you choose, with Mini versions running $1.6 – $2.5 Million USD and Express versions (our most popular) running $2 Million to $3.5 Million USD (tommycarwash.com/site-models/). If you would like a more detailed quote from one of our representatives, you should visit tommycarwash.com/contact/ and fill out the form there. Be as complete as possible and one of our reps will get back to you soon.

      Reply
  • October 26, 2016 at 4:41 am
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    Hi there,
    I live in the LA valley area – if I want to have one car wash around 60 to 80 ft, just the car wash, how much would it cost? And, as you mentioned, you dont have any financing program but have info, up to how much we could get loan with good credit, to build on from scratch?
    Thank you,
    Steve

    Reply
    • October 26, 2016 at 1:34 pm
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      Hi Steve,
      That length puts you in in the Totally Tommy Mini range (visit site models on our homepage) which costs between $1.6 to $2.5 Million. Our reps can certainly talk with you regarding financing options, but it’s too big a topic and dependent on too many factors for me to go into here. You should visit tommycarwash.com/contact/ and fill out the form there to get in touch with our reps about your options.

      Reply
  • October 25, 2016 at 12:41 pm
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    Hello,

    I want to open a carwash/ cafe for my sons to start them with their own business venture here in Florida. I saw a location which used to be a gas station in a perfect location. Will there be an issue with converting that being that there was a gas station here previously and what do you think the cost would be? Just to give you an idea of the size it’s an old Shell gas station.

    Reply
    • October 25, 2016 at 2:11 pm
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      HI Rashida,
      Our general guidelines suggest that the cost could run anywhere from $300K to $700K. It depends a great deal on the specific installation and the ease of the conversion. For a much better estimate you should visit tommycarwash.com/contact/ and fill out the form there. Specify that you are interested in an “INBAY CONVERSION”, then provide as much related information as you can (financing, address, demographics, etc.). A sales rep for the eastern USA will get back to you. You can always call our office directly as well.
      Hope this helps!

      Reply
  • October 18, 2016 at 7:41 am
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    What is the breakdown cost of the Tommy mini site. I want to know the cost allocated to the equipment and the building.

    Reply
    • October 18, 2016 at 1:46 pm
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      Hi Elliot,
      Each facility involves a great deal of customization. For the breakdown requested you should visit tommycarwash.com/contact/ and complete the form there to reach out to one of our sales reps. They will be able to provide far more detailed information than I am able to here.
      In the meantime, the estimated cost for the mini is shown here: tommycarwash.com/site-models/. You can view prices for individual pieces of equipment on our webstore shop.tommycarwash.com/

      Reply
  • September 28, 2016 at 3:39 am
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    hi, could you please return to me info on how much the cost would be to open one car wash, convenience store, coffee shop, gas station, like yours on maui.

    Reply
    • September 29, 2016 at 1:15 pm
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      Hi Simeon,
      According to the figures published at tommycarwash.com/site-models/ the cost for the gas/c-store car wash model varies greatly depending on the length of the tunnel, configuration of the c-store, and the general complexity of the facility. Estimated costs are between $3 and $7 Million. I would guess that increased shipping costs to Hawaii would adjust this cost as well. However, we have installed equipment on the islands before (Oahu, I believe), so we would certainly be willing to explore this possibility with you.
      To get started with a more detailed quote please navigate to tommycarwash.com/contact/ and fill out the form there with as much information as you can. Our team will get back to you, and you can always call the office directly.

      Reply
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  • September 8, 2016 at 11:44 pm
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    Mendota Ca. is totally without car wash facility and they just barely got first McDonald’s and first Autozone but the small city which is cantalope center of the valley could use a car wash as there is traffic running through here 24/7.

    Im thinking automated car wash facility with self serve.

    Reply
  • September 6, 2016 at 6:02 am
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    Can I set up your equipment in Nigeria? Can your installation team go to Nigeria to set it up for me? 

    Reply
    • September 6, 2016 at 1:08 pm
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      Hi Anthony,
      We do have an international program available. To make arrangements with our international representative directly please contact zlatkoz@tommycarwash.com.

      Reply
  • August 11, 2016 at 1:44 am
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    Is there any centers in Hyderabad, India. I am interested to setup one in India.

    Reply
    • August 11, 2016 at 1:47 pm
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      I believe we have a few pieces of equipment in India but no full buildings. If you are interested, go to tommycarwash.com/contact and fill in the form there with your information. Our international sales rep team will get back to you!

      Reply
  • August 2, 2016 at 3:20 pm
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    Any thoughts of coming our way to the northwest? Portland/vancouver metro area? Im looking into having my own car wash with gas too.

    Reply
    • August 2, 2016 at 5:26 pm
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      We have nothing out there currently, Jason. If you want to learn more about our washes visit our homepage, or go to tommycarwash.com/contact to reach out to a rep directly.

      Reply
    • August 2, 2016 at 5:27 pm
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      We have nothing out there currently, Jason. If you want to learn more about our washes visit our homepage, or go to tommycarwash.com/contact to reach out to a rep directly.

      Reply
  • July 19, 2016 at 5:37 am
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    Would you consider letting me start one up in Arizona?

    Reply
    • July 19, 2016 at 1:26 pm
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      Hi Clint,
      It is certainly a possibility. To get started you’ll want to either reach out to our team by phone or through the form available at tommycarwash.com/contact. There are a few important pieces of information that we’ll want to help inform the process:

    • Have you worked with car washes before?
    • Do you have a specific location or plot of land in mind?
    • Do you have any financing or a plan for financing? (TCWS does not provide financing but we can guide you through the process)
    • Is there a particular Totally site model(Express, Gas, Mini, Flex) that interests you, or would you like a Tommy Car Wash Systems equipment package for installation in a non-Tommy building?
    • We look forward to serving you in the future!

      Reply
  • June 23, 2016 at 8:05 pm
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    Good Afternoon,

    Would you consider Louisville KY for a new location? Thank you

    Reply
    • June 24, 2016 at 5:13 pm
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      Hi Ben,
      We certainly would! To get started you’ll want to either call our site rep team or go to tommycarwash.com/contact. There are a few pieces of information that we’ll want to help inform the process:

    • Have you worked with car washes before?
    • Do you have a specific location or plot of land in mind?
    • Do you have any financing or a plan for financing? (TCWS does not provide financing but we can guide you through the process)
    • Is there a particular Totally site model(Express, Gas, Mini, Flex) that interests you, or would you like a Tommy Car Wash Systems equipment package for installation in a non-Tommy building?
    • We look forward to serving you in the future!

      Reply
  • May 22, 2016 at 9:01 am
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    Do you have any car wash systems in California 
    Where is the closest systems to me 
    Or do you think it would be best to tour a corporate facility 

    Reply
    • May 30, 2016 at 12:16 pm
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      Hi Mark,
      You are always welcome to set up a tour at our corporate washes here in Michigan. As far as California, we have full washes in Hemet and Fullerton, and a Mini in Lemon Grove.

      Reply
  • May 1, 2016 at 7:31 am
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    any plans for entry in the NYC Market?

    Reply
    • May 3, 2016 at 1:57 pm
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      Not yet James, but it’s a possibility that we would gladly explore further.

      Reply
  • April 16, 2016 at 3:06 am
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    Is there a Tommy car wash in Calgary Alberta. 

    Reply
    • April 18, 2016 at 4:13 pm
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      Not presently, Devon. If you are interested in a tour we do have a development in process in Tacoma, Washington, a functioning equipment package in Boise, Idaho, and a full Totally Tommy model wash in Ogden, Utah. Our corporate sites here in Western Michigan are available for full tours as well.

      Reply
  • March 24, 2016 at 3:25 pm
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    Do you have any locations in Western Michigan / Grand Rapids Area? 

    Reply
    • March 24, 2016 at 11:37 pm
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      Hi Heath,
      Tommy Car Wash Systems is based in Holland, MI. We have a new Tommy’s Express Car Wash opening in the next week or so in Grandville near the Rivertown Mall. The wash from the video, above, is located in Holland.

      Reply
  • March 22, 2016 at 10:16 am
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    Do you have a Tommy Carwash in Chicago,il?

    Reply
    • March 22, 2016 at 4:07 pm
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      Hi Carmen,
      Buddy Bear Car Wash in Chicago (several locations) uses Tommy Car Wash Systems equipment in custom made buildings. For an up-to-date look at our wash equipment lineup and the Totally Tommy building you should check out either Quality Car Wash on the other side of the lake here in Holland MI (Tours with our team are available) or Brite Worx Car Washery outside St. Louis (Florissant, MO). Reach out to us at sales@tommycarwash.com if you are interested in setting up a free tour.

      Reply
  • March 22, 2016 at 1:31 am
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    Looking to build a carwash in cygnet between Bowling Green  and Findlay Ohio. 

    Reply
  • March 10, 2016 at 8:53 am
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    Do you all have any current locations in KY or any close by so I could inspect the business and business processes? 

    Reply
    • March 11, 2016 at 2:25 pm
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      Hi Kevin!
      The closest operating Totally Tommy facility relative to Kentucky would be Blue Sky Car Wash, an independently operated wash in Lewis Center, OH. Another is currently being planned for Tennessee, but construction hasn’t been started just yet. It would certainly be possible to organize a tour there via our Tommy Club network, or you are welcome to visit our corporate facilities here in Holland MI for the full tour with out staff members.
      If you are interested, call or email us at (616) 494-0411 / Sales@tommycarwash.com and just let us know you are interested in a tour and any other details. You can also fill out the form at tommycarwash.com/contact/ and we’ll get back to you.
      -TCWS

      Reply
  • January 7, 2016 at 1:12 am
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    Have you considered Ontario or do you have a contact in ontario?

    Reply
    • January 7, 2016 at 2:26 pm
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      There are no Totally Tommy Tunnels in Ontario at present. If you would like to explore a possible build out head to http://tommycarwash.com/contact/
      Once you fill out the form our team would be happy to answer your questions or, depending on the situation, put you in touch with the right regional distributor.

      Reply
  • December 19, 2015 at 4:33 pm
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    Have you built any in the Milwaukee region?

    Reply
    • December 21, 2015 at 3:01 pm
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      Not yet Nasir. The closest options would be the new Brite Worx car wash in St. Louis or the Quality Car Wash on Waverly here in Holland MI. Tours of the latter are readily available for prospective clients!

      Reply

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