A HAPPY HOUSE
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!
Check out your front entrance, says Lou Ann. Dead tree limbs, dirty lanterns, and a tacky doormat do not give guests an impressive welcome.
“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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
The mouthpiece can be the dirtiest object in your home.
As forgotten as the floor under your bed, until the dust bunnies attack.
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.)
Close your borders to dirt!
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.
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!
Since hands transfer germs, doorknobs can be breeding clinics for even more germs. Everyone touches them.
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.
They accumulate dust faster than we think.
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.
And you thought your windows were dirty.
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.