What Does TLC for a Car Mean – and How to Prevent or Fix the Issues

One of my kids is saving up to buy a project car. In our household, we get a project to work on together for their 15th birthday (they pay half for everything so they have some “skin in the game”).

As she was looking through the classifieds she kept coming across listings with cars that said “needs a little TLC” or “with some TLC this will be a great commuter”.

She asked me what that meant.

As with almost everything car-related, when someone asks me a question I usually add it to my list of articles to write. Then I send them the article to better explain the idea (don’t worry, I don’t just ignore the question when they ask, I give them a complete answer – but writing it up lets me fully form my thoughts and give them a deserving answer).

When in-person, I usually answer something like this:

TLC means Tender Loving Care. If a car owner hasn’t given their vehicle the TLC that it needs, then it won’t be in optimal shape. This usually includes keeping the interior clean, washing the exterior (and undercarriage) occasionally, changing the oil & checking other fluids, and maintaining proper tire pressures.

man washing car giving car needed tlc

What are some of the issues that a car might have if it’s listed as needs TLC and are some of those things easy to fix? How can you avoid listing your car as “needs TLC” when you go to sell it.

And is there ever a time when “TLC” is a good thing?

What does TLC mean in a car listing?

Let’s start with the last question. There are, in fact, a couple of times when TLC can be a good thing.

When vehicle owners list a car as having received TLC, this can only be a good thing! It means that the owner has treated the vehicle with tender loving care—being a careful driver, maintaining the oil and coolant, taking it to the repair shop to fix any minor issues, and the like.

It also means they fixed the small things when they broke (like a radio knob or a button on the dash).

It can also be an opportunity if you’re into flipping cars.

On the other hand, when someone lists a car as needing some TLC, it means that the car has been neglected in some way (or multiple ways) even while it’s still functional–which is to say, it isn’t exactly in the best shape, but it’s a fixer-upper.

Pretty much the opposite of being “babied”. It may have been a hire vehicle (like for Uber, Lyft or another rideshare program).

What are some common problems when a car is listed as “needs TLC”?

When the owner lists their car as needing TLC, it doesn’t mean that it is nonfunctional. Instead, it means that the car isn’t running in peak performance or doesn’t look as pretty as you might like.

In terms of performance, a car that needs TLC might have old brake pads that need replacing, dirty oil that needs to be changed, and engines that need some new parts. Most dramatically, the car might spurt out smelly exhaust or have a rough idle.

This is all to say that the car still works reasonably safely, but not nearly as well as it should if it were treated right and given the proper care it needs throughout its life.

There are aesthetic ways that a car might need some TLC, too. For instance, the fabric on the seats might fray, there might be stains or dirty mashed into the carpet. Imagine the state a car would be in if the owner bought fast food every day and cleaned the car about, oh, once every three years.

Or maybe it just smells weird – whether that’s from something the driver did or didn’t, do – or maybe it’s “cooking something” once it warms up. It may smell like burning oil or plastic.

It may need an engine oil change or the transmission fluid may need to be checked.

All these things are problems you may encounter if a car is listed as “needs TLC”.

Mechanic does mechanical inspection on a TLC car 900w

How can you take care of your car so it doesn’t need TLC?

Listing a car as needing TLC can make it harder to sell a car in a classified or online, so it’s in your interest to take the necessary steps to care for the car. Apply these care tips, and you’ll be able to get the money for it that it deserves!

If you don’t know much about cars but you’re interested in buying a car that “needs TLC” you may want to schedule an inspection appointment at your local mechanic’s shop to have them take a look at it. They usually charge under $100 to check it out and let you know what’s wrong with it.

Here are some areas that may have issues.

Car Exterior (Body, Tires, Bumpers & Undercarriage)

Maintaining the aesthetic condition of your car is almost as important as staying on top of engine health. One of the more basic ways to keep your vehicle attractive is taking the time to wax the exterior occasionally.

This doesn’t need to be done all of the time and is, in fact, bad for the car if you do it too often, but it should still be a part of your car maintenance regimen. This is particularly true for the warmer months of the year when your car will probably be most in need of wax.

This may seem obvious, but try to take care of dents and scratches and get them fixed sooner rather than later. A minor aesthetic flaw may not seem like a big deal to you now, but these bumps and bruises can rust over time and cause more significant damage to your vehicle. 

Besides, those scratches and dents will significantly decrease the value of your car in the event that you’re trying to sell it.

Interior (Carpet, Seats, Seat Belts & Dash Components)

The other major area where a car needs TLC is the interior. Since we spend so much of our lives in the interior of a car, it’s natural that it can be a little, shall we say, disorderly.

So, when you’re looking to give a car some TLC, the first thing to do is to give the interior a deep clean. This means that you should vacuum out any trash and food crumbs, wipe any spills, and clean off surfaces that might have accumulated dust. 

Although it might seem simple, the truth is that even the most cursory cleaning job can make a car seem years younger.

If the interior needs a more serious clean, remove as many of the mats as you can and throw them into the washing machine. Then, apply some all-purpose auto cleaner and a microfiber sponge to the surfaces to work out any deeply ingrained stains.

Something that most people don’t think about but which is a major TLC area is windows (a funny oversight, since you can’t exactly drive a car without them)! If a car’s been driven for a few years and hasn’t got the TLC it needs, grime and dirt can accumulate on both sides of exterior windows and windshields, making it unattractive and less-than-safe to drive.

To mitigate this problem, just grab some auto glass cleaner from your local auto shop and give your car the full run-down–clean the windows, windshield, rear windshield, and all the mirrors. Nothing says “this car has had TLC” like some shimmering glass.

Vehicle Engine & Mechanical Inspection

Another key way to give your car some TLC is to take care of the vehicle engine. This might seem obvious, but since it’s the essential part of a car, it’s a great place to start taking care of the car.

One of the biggest factors for the condition of your car’s engine is the oil. When you neglect to change the oil, it will become dirty, and the engine will no longer be running efficiently. You should change your oil every three months or 3000 miles. 

Getting your oil checked is the only way to ensure your oil isn’t running low and that you don’t have an oil leak. In other words, when the check oil light comes on in your car, take it seriously.

Beyond just the oil, you should also be keeping an eye on the car engine performance. If you don’t take your car for a mechanical inspection on the engine regularly and it isn’t well maintained, it won’t run well, and you’ll begin to have problems safely driving your car. Be sure to have your engine’s fluids and filters regularly changed—this can dramatically extend the lifespan of your car’s engine. 

Another crucial element of internal car maintenance is checking up on the condition of the different car parts. Aside from doing a complete mechanical inspection of the engine to ensure all parts are well-maintained, the physical condition of the different parts of the car can deteriorate over time. 

If a part has worn down and is no longer functional, it’s essential to get it replaced before it impacts the value and condition of the overall car. 

Taking care of cars isn’t just a financial matter—it’s a serious safety concern. This is especially true when it comes to the state of your car’s brakes. If the brake pads start grinding or simply aren’t working as well as you should, it’s a sign that you should look into getting them replaced as soon as possible. The same goes for brake fluid. Failure of brakes can be a danger to yourself and other drivers on the road.

Another helpful car maintenance habit is keeping an eye on the exhaust pipe. If your car has a lot of smoke coming out of the exhaust, it’s a pretty clear indicator that something is going wrong with the engine. If there is smoke coming out of your car’s exhaust, take your car to an auto mechanic to have the engine examined. 

Overall Appearance

First impressions mean everything when you’re listing a car, and if vehicle owners treat their cars right, it will look that way from the first glance. To do some preemptive TLC for your car, make sure that the paint is consistent, free of chips or faded spots, and make sure you have cleanly removed any decals on the car.

If there are issues with the paint, you can take your car to an auto body shop to give it a new coat. Alternatively, if you’re a big DIYer, you can do so yourself, provided you have the right equipment.

What to do when you own a car so you don’t have to list it as “needs TLC”?

When we bought my son’s project truck, there were some items that just needed a quick adjustment by someone who knew how to make the repairs. There were flipped sparkplug wires, loose visors, disconnected power seats, missing vacuum hoses and detached muffler connections.

They were all small things but combined they made the car run poorly, look bad and sell for less than it could have.

It was all stuff that took a few weekends to identify and fix – and less than a few hundred dollars in total. But because of the issues, we were able to buy it for over a grand less than the list price (so a TLC car can be both good and bad depending on who’s looking at the car).

In some cases, of course, it isn’t possible to take all the necessary steps to get a car in full working order before you sell it or to make all the expensive repairs that it requires. But luckily, there are still ways you can avoid listing the car as “needs TLC.”

Fix the “TLC” Problems Before Listing

The previous owner could have fixed these things himself in a few hours if he had the know-how, the tools and access to the parts.

You can do the same thing. If there are small repairs that have been nagging you for months, you can spend some time fixing them before you list the vehicle. Most often, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can fix some of the problems.

You can buy new parts to make the repairs or find them at a junkyard. Or sometimes it’s a matter of taking time to clean out the trash, wash the windows, wash the exterior and grab a smelly tree (one of my favorites from Amazon) to mask the smells.

A clean clunker can still sell for more than one that’s trashed.


By being clear about the state of the car via photos, you can avoid needing to specify that it needs TLC. This might sound confusing, but it can actually be a great way to help the car’s sale. 

This is because, by taking clear photos, you’ll make the state of the car very apparent–a buyer will be able to tell whether it needs TLC by looking at it, so you won’t have to spend extra time emphasizing the problems or issues that might exist with it.

Clear and Careful Description

The other way to avoid listing your car as “needs TLC” is to write a description that reframes the issues with the car.

This isn’t to say you should be deceptive! If you didn’t give it the proper care it needs, then it will show.

But if you’re honest about the state the car’s in and don’t phrase things to suggest that it needs a ton of work, then your buyer will likely catch your drift.

More often than not you can sell just about any car that needs some love and care as long as you’re open about the condition and honest with the buyer. Don’t try and hide anything and you’ll have a better experience.

I’m always surprised at what people are willing to pay for vehicles that need some TLC. There’s always a market for people to flip cars and, if they have the skills, are willing to buy a car that needs some attention, they can turn them around with little more than time.

And some tender loving care.

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