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Start a post-construction
cleaning business

By Dorothy Ainsworth

Dorothy Ainsworth

Issue #76 • July/August, 2002

Wherever construction is going on, there will be a big mess left in its wake that somebody has to clean up. That somebody can be you, and you can make excellent money doing it. Cleaning only one sizable house a week can gross you $2000 per month.

If you're the energetic type, in good physical shape, and a fussbudget about detail work, you're "da man" (or woman) for the job. You should be comfortable with ladders and heights, be willing to work long hours on short notice, and maintain a positive attitude and cheerful disposition. But most importantly, you must be dependable, even if you're a grouch.

Contractors are almost always in a pinch to meet deadlines (open-house showings, escrow-closings, etc.) and will be calling you at the last minute to clean a house. You'll have two or three days max to complete the job, no matter how large the place, and with subcontractors still underfoot making messes. (That's where the cheerful disposition comes in.)

To build a great reputation, you have to just do it, no whining allowed. You and you alone will be responsible for making the house presentable to sell, or if it's presold, making it turn-key ready for the new owner to move in—maybe Martha Stewart herself. It has to sparkle.

Getting started

Check out some good books at the library on cleaning, and read up. The experts have a lot to offer in tips and advice that will help you look and feel like a pro, even on your first job.

Think up an original name for your business. Beware of borrowing anyone else's idea. You will need a name (DBA—"doing business as") to apply for licenses.

The next step is to get licensed, bonded, and insured. This is the part none of us likes, but there's no way out unless you want to risk a fine if you get caught. (The contractor who hires you can also be fined.)

A city license is nominal (under $100 most places). Here in Oregon you also have to have a contractor's license to do post-construction cleaning. This requires renting and watching a set of videotapes, available from your local contractor's board. The nine-tape program addresses the legal aspects of the business, not the technicalities of building. You then take a multiple-choice test and when you pass you are issued your contractor's license number, which you will use on your business cards and advertising.

The cost here in Jackson Co., Oregon is about $250. Call the Construction Contractor's Board (CCB) under state listings in your phone book for specific info in your area. (Regulations are always changing.) The CCB will send you an application packet. Simply follow the steps. They want your business.

Bonding and insurance for one year is about $500 (or less) depending on the amount of coverage you need (accident & liability) and is available either through the CCB or privately. They have a chart to determine your needs. Look under "Business Insurance" in the phone book and call around for the best rates.

This may all sound complicated, but it isn't. Just pick up the phone and get started. Professional people are exceedingly helpful. They will guide you through the process; they do paperwork for a living. All you have to do is sign on the dotted line and give them a check. There's no mystery involved.

In your own post-construction cleaning business, cleaning only one sizable house a week can gross you $2000 per month.
In your own post-construction cleaning business, cleaning only one sizable house a week can gross you $2000 per month.

Now it's time to sit down with your "partner-in-grime" (if you have one) and dream up a business logo for your business cards and ads. Keep it simple; keep it cheap. It can be a simple sketch of a squeegee or broom. You don't have to hire a graphic artist unless you have money to spare. Print shops, like "Kinkos", have catalogs of sample illustrations you can pick from and lettering styles to choose from. They'll even help you design your card.

While you're at it, have them print up some flyers announcing that you are ready for business. Then look through the Yellow Pages under "Contractors" and send a flyer to each one. It'll add up to spending about 50¢ (envelope, stamp, flyer) per potential $500 client. It's well worth the effort and expense.

You can also go around to construction sites, introduce yourself to the general contractors, and personally hand them a flyer and a business card. This, along with a handshake, is great PR, especially if you have a Jim Carey or Julia Roberts-smile. Keep in mind that they will be taking a chance on you the first time around, so you might offer "satisfaction guaranteed" or something to instill their confidence in you. No good businessman likes to take a giant leap of faith without some convincing.

Equipment and supplies

You're almost ready to start swabbing the decks—but you need a mop! Actually you need a lot of things, starting with a pickup truck or van or any vehicle that can carry a ladder. (I wouldn't recommend a motorcycle, although that might be a cute logo.) If you spent all your cash getting licensed, go down to the hardware store or janitorial supply house, open an account, and yell: "Charge!" like Teddy Roosevelt. Or use a credit card. Or borrow money from the proverbial "brother-in-law." With the profit from your first two jobs, you'll be able to pay off all your equipment and supplies. The rest of the year will be gravy.

Bare-bones list of materials:

  • 30-foot extension ladder, installed with a leg-leveler kit for uneven terrain (very important for safety)
  • 6 to 8-foot step ladder
  • 3 to 4-foot step ladder
  • small or medium Shop-Vac (wet/dry type) for window tracks and heating ducts
  • regular vacuum cleaner (upright or canister) with long hose attachment for stairs
  • window cleaning tools (buy quality and cry only once). Note: You can buy the specialized window tools you need from a janitorial supply, or order them from a catalog. (There is a huge list of supply houses on the Internet.)
  • tool belt for window tools
  • mop and mop bucket
  • broom and dustpan
  • plastic putty knife scrapers (1½-inch size is handy)
  • toothbrushes
  • bamboo skewer sticks (for tight corners)
  • lots of soft cotton rags (Wal-Mart sells 18 washcloths for $5.00)
  • rubber gloves (surgical-type is best)
  • big soft-bristle scrub brush for showers and tubs
  • quality spray bottle (again, buy the best)
  • gallon of non-toxic cleaning solution (like "Simple Green")
  • assorted cleaners for label removal, etc. ("Goof-Off", acetone, or non-toxic citrus cleaners)
  • plastic buckets (Two medium-sized will get you started.)

The total of the above list is about $850. Now you're ready to roll.

The bid and the contract

Here in southern Oregon the going rate for post-construction cleaning is from 18¢ to 20¢ a square foot (referring to living space, not the garage). The higher end of the range is based on difficulty in cleaning, such as huge high picture windows, hard to reach skylights, the number of windows, complicated fenestration, extensive high ladder work (steep hillsides, etc.), and other architectural details that require extraordinary work.

A good tool belt will carry the tools you will use most frequently in your post-construction cleaning business.
A good tool belt will carry the tools you will use most frequently in your post-construction cleaning business.

In addition to the rate based on square footage alone, you may charge extra for anything that is unusually time consuming, beyond the normal procedures, such as excessive glue on floor seams, paint overspray on window frames and trim, etc.

To simplify the paper work, your contract and bid can all be on one page, with a provision stating that when the bid is actually signed by both parties, it then becomes binding.

If you are a glutton for punishment you may offer to clean up the outside premises too, which may include dump runs. There is always a lot of scrap lumber to be salvaged if you want it for your wood stove or whatever. When in doubt, ask, but the contractor probably won't care; he just wants the place cleaned up.

The time to secure this extra work is when you make your initial contact with the head honcho. Ask to be called well in advance of the interior cleaning job, to do the exterior job. Before you write up your bid, also ask if he (or she) wants the garage floor included in the estimate. (The garage windows are automatically included.)

Window cleaning technique

Perfectly cleaned windows are a priority for a successful business. You will be a great asset to the contractor if you can do it all when you give him a bid. It simplifies his life and saves him time and money to not have to call in another specialist. Contractors love that. The following advice is from a professional window cleaner. This same guy informed me that it's a misnomer to use the term window "washing" in the industry. He said if you want to get really pretentious you might call yourself a "vertical-silicon-surface engineer" who specializes in architectural fenestration. Back to reality. To avoid liability, examine all windows carefully in advance and report any scratches to the general contractor. Almost without exception window glass comes from the factory with a few blemishes, scratches, or anomalies—some even between the panes. They must be noted ahead of time. It will be hard to go back later and say, "I didn't do it!" His furrowed brow and red face will reveal his skepticism. Proper blade technique must be emphasized because if you scratch a window it will have to be replaced. Even label removal can be risky with improper razoring. You and your reputation are at stake here. Practice on your own windows first. Cleaning windows is an acquired skill that requires enough practice to make it look like an art. Needless to say, do not use an inexperienced worker to help with the windows.

The procedure:

1. Spray labels liberally with window-cleaning solution to soak and loosen them. Spray the tracks at the same time and let them soak while you're doing the window.

2. With a new razor, remove labels and other debris by using the scraper in one direction only. Dragging a razor backwards does not remove anything, but it can trap grit under the blade and scratch the window.

3. Spray the window again, wash it with a special window mop, then squeegee down or across in broad overlapping strokes, blotting the squeegee edge on a lint-free rag occasionally as needed.

4. Upon close inspection of your handiwork when finished, if you find any stubborn specks the squeegee didn't get, scrub them off with #0000 steel wool. (Only use the finest gauge.) Spray and squeegee again if necessary.

5. Wipe tracks until perfectly clean. Use a toothbrush and/or skewer stick to get into the corners. (Note: Cleaning the tracks can sometimes be the most time-consuming job in the house.)

There are several techniques and tricks-of-the-trade used by professionals. This article just scratches the surface—no pun intended.

Standard house-cleaning procedure

1. Don your rubber gloves, but carry a dust mask and ear plugs with you.

2. Remove all window labels.

3. Vacuum window tracks.

4. Clean window tracks first, or as you clean the windows.

5. Clean windows inside and out, wiping errant drips off the tracks, frames, and sills as you go.

6. Vacuum all cupboards and drawers in the entire house. Remove bottom drawers and vacuum beneath. There will be sawdust in every corner; be methodical so you don't miss any.

7. With a bucket of cleaning solution and lots of soft clean rags, wipe, wipe, wipe every surface of every cupboard, drawer, closet shelf, bookshelf, door, baseboard, and windowsill in the house. Be sure to get the tops of doors, the molding, and trim throughout the house. Again, be methodical so no surface is skipped. Rinse rags often so you're not just spreading dust around to dry into fine powder. (Remember, Martha Stewart may be checking it with her white glove.)

8. Clean showers, tubs, basins, and toilets with a soft scrub brush and cleaning solution. If label removal is a problem, use acetone (first choice) and a plastic putty knife. For very stubborn label adhesive residue, you may have to experiment with "Goof-Off," lacquer thinner, methyl alcohol, or as a last resort, toluol (a serious solvent). Rinse all porcelain surfaces and polish them with a soft dry cotton towel. Polish all chrome fixtures until gleaming. Clean mirrors with your special window solution and squeegee. (Use this opportunity to look in the mirror and comb your hair; you're probably a mess by now.)

9. Mop bathroom floors and dry with a towel to a lustrous sheen, whether tile or linoleum.

10. Wipe and polish kitchen and utility room appliances and all counter tops. Use stainless-steel-spray-cleaner on stainless. Ammonia products (like "Windex") streak stainless steel and are a definite no-no on marble. Always read labels when in doubt. Scrub and polish the kitchen sink and fixtures.

11. Vacuum out all heating/cooling ducts by snaking the vacuum hose far down the ducts to suck up all the debris you can reach. This job is very important because when the system is turned on it can spew clouds of fine Sheetrock dust all over the house. (And smoke will come out of the contractor's ears.)

12. Vacuum all carpet in the entire house, using the hose attachment along wall edges and baseboard ledges.

13. Wipe tops of all electrical outlet covers. Micro-dust settles on everything. This special attention to detail will not go unnoticed by Martha's eagle eye.

14. Gently wipe chandeliers and light fixtures, or dust them with a lambswool duster. Vacuum the insides of sconce-type lights.

15. Clean all thresholds.

16. Damp-mop the kitchen floor. If the kitchen and dining area is hardwood, save this job for last, and mop as you back out of the room so the floor will remain unscuffed. Use a few drops of lemon oil in the mop water and wring the mop almost dry. This trick-of-the-trade leaves the floor with a flawless sheen.

17. Sweep and/or vacuum the garage if it was included in your estimate. Wipe off the water heater and any other dusty surfaces.

18. As a finishing touch (like Tinkerbell and her wand), leave a little vase filled with a bouquet of flowers (supermarket price) on the kitchen counter with your business card and a congratulatory note, along with a "Thank you for your business." This gesture is well worth the $10 for the goodwill it spreads around. You'll soon earn a reputation for being the best, and you'll have all the referrals you can handle, including repeat business for maintaining clean windows for the new homeowners.

Hiring help

If you need to hire help I recommend you do it through a temporary-labor service agency. You pay the agency directly for the hours an employee works and they act as a surrogate employer, handling the payroll for you (federal and state taxes, insurance, workman's comp.). Of course they charge a fee and a one-time security deposit, but it's worth it.

When you are first starting out it's the easiest route to go because it's responsibility-free for you. The agency will even provide you with the manpower you need, satisfaction guaranteed. (If you aren't happy with who they send out, they'll immediately send a replacement.)

If you choose to pick your own help, they require your prospective employees to register with them in advance and possibly be screened with a drug test and background check (which is understandable since they are insuring them).

The agency issues you a timecard to fill out and send in upon completion of the job. Then they promptly send the employee a paycheck and bill you at the same time. At the end of the year they issue W-2s and spare you that grief too.

On average you can expect to pay from $8 to $12 an hour for help. After a trial period, if an employee proves to be an excellent worker, it would be wise to give him or her a raise. Good help is such an asset to your business and so hard to find (in any business), that it's just common sense to pay people what they're worth and keep their morale high.

Keep in mind you'll have to train your employees on-the-job to do the work exactly the way you want it done—fast and efficient as well as methodical and meticulous. You can't just turn 'em loose on the house and expect a miracle. It's imperative to type up a checklist so nothing gets overlooked. After the first house you'll know how long each chore should take, so make a note of that on your list also. From experience I've found that the average 2000 sq. ft. house takes a minimum of 20 hours to complete.

Someday, when your business grows to the point that you have crews of employees, you may want to incorporate and become the big-shot employer yourself. At that juncture you can drive around from site to site overseeing the worker bees, take coffee breaks, and hire a bookkeeper and an accountant. But for now your partnership with a friend or your husband-and-wife team, or just little ol' you working your glutes off, is the starting point.

If you are a conscientious person and a hard worker, there is no doubt you'll make it in this business. The economy is on your side right now with a building boom going on and low interest rates.

Seize the opportunity. Good luck.

Learn more about Dorothy and/or contact her at her website www.dorothyainsworth.com




Read More by Dorothy Ainsworth

Read More Making/Saving Money Articles

 
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