A Clean House is a Happy House

Nobody likes to clean house. Well, no one we know. But our tips will have you out of your work clothes and into your play clothes in no time at all.

a clean house is
A HAPPY HOUSE

STORY BY MARY CANDACE EVANS  PHOTOGRAPHY BY KEVIN MARPLE HUNTER  STYLED BY SHEILA BRAND  HAIR & MAKE UP BY ANGELA ANGEL  MODEL: ROSA COLLINS/THE CAMPBELL AGENCY

 

If there’s one thing I hate more than exercise, it’s housework. Of course, I’m not the only one who puts cleaning on bottom of the list.

When I was in college, I baby-sat for the dean, a brilliant Radcliffe Ph.D.; her husband was a physicist at MIT. Their kids were so smart that they had each skipped two grades and helped me with my homework. I loved these folks, but their house was a mess. They spoke 12 languages, so the place was scattered with foreign newspapers. The once-lovely wood floors were so scratched and scuffed you’d cut yourself if you went barefoot, which of course you would never do because your feet would be filthy.

I thought all brilliant people lived this way. When you read Plato while creating nuclear fission equations in your head, preparing a faculty address, and debating how Determinism influenced the Bolshevik revolution, you have little time for Endust and Lysol. And let’s face it, taking care of a home is like having graying roots colored: time consuming and dull.

For this reason, it is not only brilliant people who live like slobs; it is most people. (Katie Couric is reportedly messy.) Few of us have time to deep-clean our homes, much less organize it. We are grateful if we can find the electric bill and a housekeeper who runs the vacuum over the dirtiest paths, changes the bag, and doesn’t leave forks in the disposal.
But sometimes you have to dig a little deeper to really get your house in order. Fortunately, in Dallas, there’s a whole industry devoted to helping you do just that.

“When a client tells me they have four children and both parents work,” says Daisy Robinson of Improve To Move, a Carrollton-based firm specializing in accessorizing and furnishing properties about to be marketed, “I know we’re about to face a major challenge.”

Realtors agree: they’d rather perish than have you see listings before they call out their “magic brooms.”

“If you saw some of these houses before we called in the ‘dustbusters,’ you would die,” says one of the city’s top agents. “Let me just say that there are some people who do not love their house, no matter what the price range. We have to practically nuke them and start over before the first open house.”

Whom do they call? Mary Ellen Kyle and her sister Lou Ann Suddreth, the owners of Sister Services. This is not a cleaning service; these gals work by fee to redesign space and super-organize homes, often redecorating by minimizing (read: major tossing) and cleaning out other people’s messes.

“We call it clutter,” says Mary Ellen. “Beautifully furnished, designer decorated, multimillion-dollar homes where you can’t see—much less clean—the furnishings or the hardwoods because of the clutter.”

The worst they’ve seen: a $4 million, 6,000-square-foot Dallas home with heaps of clothing in the hallways and piles of books, magazines, toys, shoes, papers, videos, and sporting equipment. “You couldn’t walk because of things piled in rooms,” says Mary Ellen, “and the closets were stuffed.” For some reason, she says, people hang on to dead plants, mate-less socks, even old lingerie. They stockpile 20-year-old spices in drawers, expired drugs in the bathroom, and toss CDs and videotapes into drawers until they refuse to close. The miracle-working Sisters alphabetize CDs, videos, and DVDs, and just about every corner in a house. They even go through the linen closet and crystal stemware, pulling those that need repair and creating an inventory for replacement of missing pieces.

One thing all home experts agree on is that a clean (and tidy), beautifully decorated house is sellable, often for a premium price. If you cannot afford to hire a “dustbuster,” the Sisters say, at least have sparkling bathrooms and a clean kitchen. Make sure pet odors are not evident. If carpets are in bad shape, get rid of them. And take stock of your home from the front, what Realtors call “curb appeal.”

“Usually people just need a little help finding a place to stash things and a little organization,” says Mary Ellen, “especially when they’ve lived in a home for a very long time.”

So what can they teach you? Plenty. Herewith, their tips and tricks for cleaning and maintaining your home:

• In a disaster scenario, where do they start? Says Lou Ann, “Sort, organize, and see what can be discarded and given to charity.”

• “If you have not worn it or used it in the past year, get rid of it,” says Mary Ellen.

• Magazines and paperwork are prime clutter culprits. (Keep design magazines, such as D Home, but toss others, she advises.)

• Problem areas: linen closets, where people toss linens in and use one sheet set over and over. The Sisters label each shelf and then train housekeepers to put twin sheets on the shelf labeled “twin sheets.” Imagine that!

• “If you can see it, you will use it” is their motto. And if you don’t need it, don’t buy it.

• The biggest nightmare: the garage and bathrooms. Expired prescription drugs are often expired and lethal. The Sisters sort, categorize, and discard as necessary.

So let’s start cleaning!

Forgotten and Therefore Filthy

1. FRONT LANTERNS AND PORCH
Check out your front entrance, says Lou Ann. Dead tree limbs, dirty lanterns, and a tacky doormat do not give guests an impressive welcome.

HOW TO CLEAN: Blow dust and cobwebs from the lanterns with a hair dryer. Then wash the glass with window cleaner. Sweep and clean doorways. Make sure trees and plants are trimmed and pretty. Wash doors and door handles and polish brass kick plates. Replace old or dirty doormats.

WHY BOTHER? We go in and out of the garage entrance so often we forget where the front door is. First impressions are everything.

2. REFRIGERATOR COILS
“Out of sight, out of mind?” Right, until the fridge stops working in July. Refrigerator coils should be thoroughly vacuumed every six months—more often if you have animals or the unit is in a laundry room or garage. Don’t forget to clean the small fridges in the bar and media room, too.

HOW TO CLEAN: Remove the grill covering the condensing coils, which may be overhead on a commercial refrigerator. Vacuum thoroughly with the brush attachment. Wash removable covers in hot, soapy water. If you have pets, or the grill is in a high-traffic area, a small throw rug in front of the unit helps keep the lower coils clean. (Launder the rug occasionally.) The inside of the fridge should also be cleaned monthly.

Smelly ice? Don’t let your ice stay in the ice bin for more than a month or two. Empty and clean the tray, but watch what kind of cleaners you use in the freezer as that may affect flavor.

Clean door gaskets, too. (That’s the rubber strip that keeps the door sealed.) If gaskets get sticky or soiled, they may not function correctly and you will get condensation and poor cooling, says Rodney Moore of All Tex Parker Mechanical Services.

WHY BOTHER? Increase efficiency (and lifespan) of the unit. If the coils get too clogged up, they quit cooling.

3. KITCHEN VENT HOODS
Basic types: re-circulating filter systems, down-draft systems (such as Jenn-Air), updraft baffle systems, and updraft centrifugal blower systems (such as Dallas-based Vent-A-Hood).

HOW TO CLEAN: Re-circulating filters: wash or replace the filters as often as possible. Once they become clogged with grease they’re useless. Down-drafts: clean grills, filters, and the bottles that collect grease. Updrafts: Vent-A-Hood’s exclusive centrifugal design is a filtration system in itself. Snap out the centrifugal box and wash in the dishwasher or by hand in the sink. Frequency depends on how much you cook, but a minimum of once a year—quarterly for heavy cooking. Also, wipe out the underside of the hood when cleaning.

WHY BOTHER? Would you toss a gallon of grease onto your kitchen walls? “That’s what accumulates in one year,” says Blake Woodall, son of Vent-a-Hood founder Miles Woodall. Turn the vent hood on full blast when cooking, especially with a gas cooktop. “The cleaner the hood, the more efficiently it will work.”

4. DISHWASHERS
Clean the filter if it has one. Some dishwashers, such as Jenn-Air, come equipped with a built-in garbage disposal that forever ends the argument over how clean the plates have to be before you load the unit. Jenn-Air’s disposal runs during the drain cycle, so the rinse water is fresh.
 
HOW TO CLEAN: A new product called Dishwasher Magic is fantastic. Add it to your dishwasher, run it through one cycle (sans dishes), and you’re through.

WHY BOTHER? Film and gunk that build up on the inside walls of a dishwasher may not directly affect cleaning, but it certainly kills the appetite when you unload the “clean” dishes.

5. UNDER APPLIANCES
The Maytag repairman says everyone hides dirt under the washer and dryer, some more than others. You’d be surprised, too, to see the yuck that accumulates inside your washing machine and below the barrel.

HOW TO CLEAN: Daily, vacuum around all appliances with a nozzle, which gets closer than the sweeper head. Once every three months, unplug and unhook the washer and dryer. Have a strong person move them so you can vacuum and scrub the floor beneath and the baseboards behind. Compressed-air keyboard cleaners can be useful for cleaning knobs and small spaces on the fronts of appliances, as well as those crannies on the stove.

If someone accidentally dries gum in your dryer, freak not: a pre-wash spray will get it off in a jiffy. Clean dryer vent filters after every use, and vacuum as often as you can.

WHY BOTHER? Degunking will stave off appliance repairs. Cleaning under the machine will eliminate dust, dirt, and mold in the room.

6. TELEPHONES
The mouthpiece can be the dirtiest object in your home.

HOW TO CLEAN: Wipe handsets and mouthpiece lightly with an alcohol-soaked paper towel weekly or after every call if used by the infected.

WHY BOTHER? Hand-to-mouth transmission of germs is the way we get sick; our mouths get really close to the phone several times a day. Ditto those indispensible cell phones.

7. BASEBOARDS
As forgotten as the floor under your bed, until the dust bunnies attack.

HOW TO CLEAN: Vacuum, then wash with a rag soaked in warm, sudsy detergent. When wall-washing (aren’t you industrious!), wash from the bottom up so drips won’t mark the walls.

WHY BOTHER? Clean frequently and you won’t need to paint as often. And when you do, the job will be faster.

8. DUCT VENTS
Dust will accumulate. You can help keep air ducts clean by changing the air filters on your central air every three to four months—more often if you have a lot of pets. (Whoever does this job needs a big garbage bag to place the dirty filter in immediately after removal or that dust will go everywhere.)

HOW TO CLEAN: Vacuum first with the brush attachment, then wipe with an electrostatic cloth or brush.

WHY BOTHER? Keeps the air in your house cleaner, ergo less dust and dirt flying around. And say goodbye to mold.

9. THRESHOLDS
Close your borders to dirt!

HOW TO CLEAN: Vacuum with the brush attachment, then wipe out crevasses with a damp rag. Throw rugs help stop dirt at the door.

WHY BOTHER? Do you want all that dirt tracked into your clean house? Didn’t think so.

10. WINDOW SILLS & SCREENS
Unless you have super-insulated, tight-fitting windows, dirt and bugs will creep in. Sills and screens should be cleaned at least once a year.

HOW TO CLEAN: Clean window sills on the outside, with windows tightly shut. Remove screens and hose down. Replace when dry.

WHY BOTHER? Open the windows on a beautiful day and the grit that’s been sunning on the window sill will blow right into the house.

11. CARPET
Experts tell us that wall-to-wall carpets benefit from frequent vacuuming, at least once a week. But twice is even better. Always make sure you (or your housekeeper) are not vacuuming with a bag full of dirt, or worse, no bag at all!

HOW TO CLEAN: Take slow, overlapping strokes—at least seven—to really get out imbedded grit. A beater brush will help. Vacuum thoroughly if you have pets that may be shedding fleas. Hint: toss a mothball or two into your vacuum bag to kill surviving fleas.

WHY BOTHER? Frequent vacuuming keeps the carpets clean—you may never need to shampoo wall-to-wall carpet.

12. DOORKNOBS
Since hands transfer germs, doorknobs can be breeding clinics for even more germs. Everyone touches them.

HOW TO CLEAN: Wipe off high-use areas often, along with fingerprints.

WHY BOTHER? Medical experts say germs will die on these surfaces without a host, but who wants all those little corpses hanging around?

13. SWITCHPLATES
Nothing makes a home look sloppier than smudges and streaks on switchplates. Or the wall surrounding them.

HOW TO CLEAN: Alcohol or any good cleanser on a rag. Q-Tips and—believe it or not—a key-chain-sized Reward card can get into the small crevasses. Do as I say, not as I did: do not insert wet objects—I almost electrocuted myself once cleaning the dirty switches in our first house. Also handy: condensed air canisters for cleaning the keyboard.

WHY BOTHER? Because I am neurotic but meticulous.

14. LAMPSHADES
They accumulate dust faster than we think.

HOW TO CLEAN: James Kerr and Inga Whitman of Hughes L&S (this is the lamp shop in Dallas) at Preston Forest Village use a clean, soft paint brush rather than the vacuum cleaner attachment, which may pull or shred delicate lamp fabric. Do not spot clean large shades. Small shades can be immersed in Woolite or a gentle cleaner solution. The secret is to dry them quickly, using a hair dryer’s lowest setting. (Danger: the wire can rust the fabric.) Don’t forget to dust the light bulbs.

WHY BOTHER? Dirt and heat deteriorate the shade’s fabric and can leave an unsightly tear.

15. ART, PAINTINGS, and KNICKKNACKS
Valuable objects and paintings should be cleaned only by insured experts. For most framed paintings and photographs, a careful housekeeper can dust the tops and sides of the frame and  gently clean the glass with Windex.

HOW TO CLEAN: Use a clean, dry, camel-hair paintbrush, not a rag or feather duster. Vacuum brushes may scratch. Knickknacks can be rinsed in hot, sudsy water (line the sink with a thick terry towel) and air-dried away from family traffic.

WHY BOTHER? Dust and film can dull frames and glass, but experts agree this is the one place where it’s better to have a dirty cherished painting or objet d’art rather than a broken one!

16. SKYLIGHTS
And you thought your windows were dirty.

HOW TO CLEAN: Call a professional window washer.

WHY BOTHER? So they can continue to let the sunshine in.

17. RUG CLEANING
If well vacuumed, rugs may only have to be professionally cleaned every two years. That is, unless you have pets. Sisal rugs are beautiful and the current haute couture of rug design. But alas, they are the dickens to keep clean.

“Sisal is dried grass and very difficult to clean,” says Pete Thiele with Wilton Fabrications, a professional Irving-based rug and fabric cleaner. “Water and liquid stains are particularly hard, if not impossible, to get out because the fibers absorb so much liquid.”
 
HOW TO CLEAN: Blot spots as best you can. Then Pete recommends a mild solution of white vinegar and water. Clean and blot. A hair dryer may help dry, but if stains persist, call experts as quickly as possible.

“Sometimes we’re successful in lightening the stained areas with a light bleaching,” says Pete. “Then we wash and wet the rest of the rug, not the stained area, resulting in a uniform color. Seventy percent of the time, we can get the stains out.”

But the best bet for sisals: keep as much food and liquid off them as you can, vacuum frequently, and send for cleaning if you notice traffic marks.
 
WHY BOTHER? Sisals are costly. Keep them clean and you won’t have to replace them.

 

 

the clean gene

Having been born in the Midwest, where, I think, women are compulsive cleaners, I grew up in a home where my mother and her Polish housekeeper cleaned the edges of the kitchen floor with a rag wrapped around a knife. Floors were scrubbed on hands and knees, and housecleaning was a weekly ritual. (I recall friends’ homes where lampshades and entire rooms were covered in plastic.) I’ve kept house for more than 20 years and do not yield to the extremes of my mother’s contemporaries, but she still knows best:

• Never mix bleach with ammonia—the fumes are toxic.
• Never get sterling or plated silver  near bleach. (Don’t wear your  sterling jewelry in the pool.)
• Kitchen counters (or any surface  where food is prepared) should be  sanitized with bleach at least once a week.
• Kitchen sponges and dishrags get  contaminated rapidly. Sterilize sponges in the dishwasher, and use clean dishtowels daily.
• When you give a dinner party,
 instruct caterers to bag all garbage but not to throw it out until you have accounted for all your silverware.
• Mattresses last longer if they are turned every six months and
 covered with thick mattress pads, which you should launder after each guest.
• Never use Pledge or similar
 furniture sprays on or near a
 wood floor.
• Use a funnel with bleach; it saves you from getting “bleach splatters” on the clothes.
• Denture-cleaning tablets can remove stains from the toilet bowl.

 

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