House cleaning: It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it

June 02, 2013|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU |
  • Wendy Kidd, mops the floor of a Cedar Ridge Road home near Williamsport Friday. Kidd who owns Peachy Clean has been cleaning houses for over 20 years.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

Wendy Kidd was working inside a client’s home, cleaning the master bathroom when, suddenly, she heard a noise in the bedroom.

Peeking around a corner, Kidd gasped when she saw a man — the husband in the family that owned the house — beginning to undress.

“I said, ‘What are you doing?!!’” Kidd remembers screaming.

As it turned out, the man hadn’t known she was there, and he was just changing his clothes.

“I don’t know who was more embarrassed — him or I,” Kidd said.

Then, there was the day that Wanda Hopkins was in a client’s home with a man who had set the appointment for a time when he knew his wife — whom he wanted to surprise with a housecleaning for Mother’s Day — wouldn’t be home.

“So it was just me and him sitting at the table, and she comes walking in,” Hopkins said. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is just lovely. I hope she doesn’t think anything.’ It was just the feeling, ‘Is she going to hit me?’”

Such are the funny stories of several area women, and sometimes men, throughout the Tri-State area whom homeowners hire to dust, mop, wipe and scour their homes clean of dirt, yuck and other messes.

“I do love what I do because of the ‘before’ and ‘after,’” said house cleaner Barbara Burson of Clear Spring, expressing the sentiment of many others. “And when the client comes home, they feel so much better just seeing it all clean. I like that.”

But it’s tough, dirty work.

“Maid service is probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” said Gary Clever, who is 47 and owns Clever Carpet Cleaners & Maid Service Inc. near Williamsport.

“We get on our hands and knees to do a floor. It’s very physical,” said Clever, a 6-foot-2-inch, 300-pound man who does such work every weekday. “The oven, you got to scrub that out. That’s some serious work. There’s nothing easy about maid service, not at all.”

Doing dual duty

Burson, 53, said she became a house cleaner out of boredom as a teenager.

“I used to baby-sit at night when I was young,” she said. “I got bored. I couldn’t take sitting there in this family’s house, doing nothing when the kids went to sleep. So, while the parents were out, I started cleaning the house.

“And, how it ended up was, when the people got home, they were like, ‘Oh, my God! Wow!’ So then, word got around that they had this babysitter who would clean while she sat their kids. Then I got known as the baby sitter and house cleaner in one.”

As an adult, she continued working as a house cleaner, eventually giving her business the Scrubbin’ Bubbas name she uses now. It was inspired by her son who, when he was 2 and saw the “Scrubbing Bubbles” TV commercial, would yell “scrubbin’ bubbas, scrubbin’ bubbas!” Burson said.

Over the years, she said, she’s had as many as 12 employees at once. During the recession, she said, her business “did nothing but advance. Nobody got rid of their house cleaner.”

Even as Americans were saying they couldn’t find jobs, Burson said she had to turn away work because she couldn’t find enough good workers.

The answer, it seemed, had to do with the government benefits the unemployed were receiving after making the required number of job inquiries, she said.

“I had people calling me (to ask about jobs) and, turned out, they were only calling me to make a contact,” she said. “Some, I set up interviews and they never showed up.”

Now, Burson and her husband, William, do much of the work themselves.

“He wears a baseball hat while cleaning,” she said of her husband. “He vacuums and cleans. Men actually do clean.”

Does he do the cleaning at home?

“Not really,” she replied. “I do it, though not as often as I should.”

An occupation of trust

Hiring a house cleaner you can trust is very important, Hopkins said.

With access throughout the house, often when the homeowner is gone, the cleaner has to be blind to a lot of what’s lying out, she said.

“You see it all. You do. Believe me, the things that are left out on the nightstand, you see it all,” Hopkins said. “But you just go on about your business. I have people that give me their code to their garage doors. I have people that give me their keys to their doors. That’s what it is. It’s a trust thing.”

With at least 25 years’ experience, Hopkins, 44, said she’s used to such situations. She has worked as a cleaner for a franchise maid service, an area academy, a butcher shop and, since 2000, her own Hagerstown-based business — Wanda’s Cleaning Service.

Working by herself, she said, she cleans about five or six houses a week. During the recession, when finances got tight for some clients, “if I lost any houses — it might have been one or two in there — I’ve always gotten one or two to replace them,” she said.

Once on the job, she’s willing to tackle even tub drains that are clogged with hair.

“I carry long tweezers with me that I can just go down the drain and get that out,” she said. “Oh, I carry so much (stuff) with me.”

Lately, she’s been carrying a bottle of ant killer.

And Hopkins’ duties don’t stop with cleaning. An older couple she cleans for will “call me up: ‘Wanda, what you doing Friday? Can you take me to the doctor’s?’” And then, they’ll remind her to “make sure I have my buzzers with me,” so she can give the husband a haircut, Hopkins said.

And the wife who arrived home while her husband was talking to Hopkins about cleaning the house as a Mother’s Day gift?

“The husband told his wife, ‘I’m sorry you interrupted your surprise for Mother’s Day,’” and she was grateful. And the job was done, Hopkins said.

An altered approach

Kidd, who is 36 and a single mother, got a job about 20 years ago working part time for a home-cleaning business in Montgomery County, Md.

“I’d clean for people right before the holidays — that’s a prime time. They want the house extra clean for Christmas and Thanksgiving,” said Kidd, who lives in Hagerstown.

When her son began going to kindergarten, Kidd launched the “Peachy Clean” cleaning business she still has today. Her son, Christopher Kidd Jr., who is 17 and is to graduate from South Hagerstown High School this week before starting college, works part time for his mother.

During the recession, Wendy Kidd said, she could almost sense when a client was about to cut back on her services.

“People would say, ‘Hey, look, I’m between jobs right now’ or ‘I just had another baby,’” and, Kidd said, she would respond by trying to help them figure a way that still might make some cleaning possible.

“I’d say, ‘So, if you’re a biweekly clean and you want to go monthly, that’s fine. If you want to scale back your household cleaning and just do some rooms, that’s fine.’” She said the approach worked, winning back one client after he was laid off for six months, and keeping others through the years.

Kidd said she likes her work, cleaning as many as five one-bedroom houses or three regular-sized houses in a day.

“It’s hard work. Most people don’t realize” that, she said. “They think you just run a sweeper.”

But there is a lot to do and how much she charges depends on “how much detail you’re expecting, how many kids do you have, how many animals do you have. I take all that into consideration,” Kidd said.

“Let’s see, a house with one child, depending on age, is probably going to be a fairly clean house. A woman with three children, two dogs and she lives on a farm, she has to be a weekly (customer). She has to be! Oh, yeah, and then, of course, you have pet hair.”

The worst of the jobs is when she’s hired to clean up the household trash, personal belongings, food, dishes, clothing and other things that tenants leave behind after being evicted, she said.

But such a job also is where she found a new friend — “a bunny rabbit” that a tenant had left behind and that Kidd, after talking to the landlord, soon claimed as her own.

“I’m such a sucker,” she said.

Among the homeowners who comprise most of her clients, Kidd said earning their trust is very important because a cleaner must have access to normally private areas of a household.

“People are like, ‘Can you come when I’m home?’” she said. “‘Absolutely,’ I tell them.”

Still, things happen.

“Every day is a different day. It’s always a surprise,” she said.

Like what?

“Whatever,” Kidd replied. “This is a housekeeper. This is a very intimate job, so you expect to find things like that. I had a husband come home. I was working in the house with a helper. The husband saw the helper in the one bathroom and thought there was just one cleaner for the day. He did not realize I was also there, cleaning the bathroom for the master bedroom.”

And that’s when the husband went into the master bedroom, just seconds away from embarrassment.

But such incidents are to be expected, which is why cleaners must be discrete, Kidd said.

“Like I said, it’s an intimate job. I’ve always said the housekeeper is the best secret keeper. She knows when you are pregnant before your husband does. She knows when your husband is fooling around on you.”

And how would a house cleaner know that?

“Like, somebody’s home and they shouldn’t be home. Or you overhear phone conversations and they don’t realize the housekeeper is within earshot. I hear, ‘She’s pregnant, I know she is,’” Kidd said.

“The cleaning lady knows all your dirty little secrets. Your secrets are safe. I’m not going to be the bearer of bad news. I need the paycheck.”

The recession’s toll

The recession hit Clever’s business hard.

It had taken a while to build up, having been founded by Clever and his father, Carl, in 1990 after Carl and his wife, Kaye, closed a longtime ice cream and sandwich shop at Valley Mall and their son, having worked as a carpet cleaner, was between jobs.

Father and son worked their new business hard, cleaning carpets and upholstery for two years before adding house and apartment cleaning to their work, the young Clever said. After a few years, his father died of a heart attack, but he worked on with his mother, and the business had as many as 14 employees by the time the recession began in 2007.

“But when the economy went bad, I had to cut my staff. I was doing a lot of apartment complexes. When the economy went bad, a lot of these big (apartment) companies used their own staff to do (cleaning) to save money,” Clever said. “We lost some really huge contracts.”

Now, he said, he has about seven employees. About half of his business is the service of going to apartments, houses and businesses to clean carpets and upholstery, and about half is to clean apartments between tenants, as well as houses and businesses, he said.

Training his employees the Clever way to clean is important, he said. A woman, who is “an awesome cleaner” and has worked for Clever for more than a decade, “trains everybody and shows them how we want it done,” he said.

“A lot of cleaning is just common sense,” but Clever said he reads cleaning industry magazines and cleaning product newsletters, and attends classes given by equipment manufacturers.

“You have to be prepared for your laminates, for your wood floors, for your steel stuff. We have that, we have all that. You’ve got to change with the times,” he said.

Clever, who volunteers as the youth pastor at his church, said he enjoys both the variety of the work and the people he meets in the cleaning business.

“One day, I might do all carpets or furniture,” he said. “Some days, if I have people sick, I might do carpets, maid service. It depends on what God ordains for that day.”

Clever said he’s not seeing any improvement in the economy.

“Unemployment, that affects my bottom line. So many people unemployed, that’s people not spending money,” he said. And, while the national media is reporting a lower jobless rate, “well, it’s like me. I might employ more people for the summer. It’s seasonal.”

Overall, he said, the economy worries him on a personal basis as a married man with three children. Health insurance costs are a major concern, he said.

“That’s what really shocks me, in our economy, it’s not good. People aren’t making what they used to, and yet costs are going higher and higher and higher,” he said. “And no one seems to be doing anything about it. It seems like no one’s doing anything to help people.”

Cleaning tips

Here are a few cleaning tips from some of those interviewed:

• Combine about three-quarters of a gallon of water with about a half-cup of vinegar, and using a rag, wipe the resulting vinegar water on a hardwood floor. “That cleans it and leaves it nice.”
— Barbara Burson, owner of Scrubbin’ Bubbas

• “A lady said to me yesterday, ‘Wanda, what am I going to do with these spots on my rug?’ I said, (spray it with) blue Windex. It has to be blue Windex.”
— Wanda Hopkins, owner of Wanda’s Cleaning Service

• To clean fingerprints, crayon or any other markings off surfaces, “I love my Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. It will take away anything. Like, if my scrub pad isn’t doing it, then break out my Magic Eraser.”
— Wendy Kidd, owner of Peachy Clean

• To clean food splatters off the inside walls of a microwave, place a “real nice and wet rag — it doesn’t have to be dripping wet”—  inside the microwave, and turn it on for two minutes. “The moisture out of the rag will go around the microwave and it will soften up all the hard stuff.”
— Gary Clever, owner of Clever Carpet Cleaners & Maid Service

• To leave a good smell in the house after it’s clean, use lemon-scented Mr. Clean. “That is my go-to for everything.”
— Wendy Kidd

• A good cleaner for countertops and other surfaces, and one that also can kill smells, is made by mixing Dawn dishwashing detergent with vinegar.
— Monica Smith, owner of Magic Touch in Hagerstown

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