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The Economic Downturn Has More People Cleaning Up After Themselves

By Lisa Bertagnoli
Special to the Chicago Tribune

March 12, 2004

When Robin Plous Lapins' husband was laid off in December, the couple immediately adjusted their household budget to compensate. The first line item to go was the monthly payout of $150 to the housekeeper who cleaned their 2,600-square-foot home every two weeks.

But before handing the maid a pink slip, the Lapinses, who live in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., had a little conference about who'd do the cleaning once the housekeeper was gone.

"We said if we were going to let her go, we'd have to do the cleaning together," said Robin Lapins. So they devised a plan. Robin, who calls herself "a little more particular about dust and stuff on the floor," would take care of surfaces and day-to-day tidying.

Her husband, Ken, would mop, vacuum and clean the toilets and tubs. The two agreed that they'd stay out of each other's cleaning paths, and that they'd not criticize each other's work.

Six weeks into the cleaning experiment, their house stays clean, but not without a little private grumbling. "I hate it," said Robin, who works from home and cares for their young daughter. "I like things to be neat and tidy, but I'm busy."

The Lapinses are hardly alone in their quest to clean their house themselves. A downward turn in economic circumstances--and plenty of people have experienced that over the last few years--usually leads to a cut in luxuries, and a cleaning service is nothing if not a luxury: Only 7 percent of American households use one, according to a survey done in November by Vileda, a Northlake-based maker of cleaning supplies.

WorkForce Cleaning Inc., which cleans about 150 residences in the Loop and on the Gold Coast, reports it hasn't lost any significant number of residential customers in the past few years. However, these days more customers use the service monthly, rather than weekly, said Jennifer Breen, who owns the service. (By contrast, the dip in the economy has cut her corporate business in half.)

Depending on the size of the house, WorkForce cleanings run $50 to $120 a visit, a rate that Breen hasn't increased in two years. She suspects that's part of the reason she's still in business. "People don't need cleaning services when they're on a budget," she said.

The Chicago franchise for Merry Maids experienced a 10 percent drop in customers last year, with clients either dropping the service or asking for less frequent visits, said Rebecca Pollock, franchise manager. Business has picked up slightly this year, she added.

There seems to be common cleaning elements among couples who find themselves with mop and bucket in hand and an entire house to clean. They have a routine. They get the whole household, even pets, involved. They become attached to certain cleaning products. And they say that amidst the buffing and polishing, they forge a whole new relationship with their home.

When Kim Erwin and Tom Mulhern fired their maid 18 months ago to devote more cash to Mulhern's fledgling business, they inaugurated Cleaning Saturday.

The three-hour blitz of their Evanston home includes Erwin, Mulhern and their two boys, now 7 and 4 years old. The boys do kid-friendly chores such as stripping the sheets, putting away their toys and wiping surfaces with a solution of vinegar and water that won't hurt them, nor anything they spill it on.

"They take time out to build Legos and have pillow fights, but every week the house is returned to order and it is a collective effort," said Erwin.

Erwin admitted she had an ulterior motive in enlisting her sons' help. With the maid service, "they really thought that there was a cleaning fairy," Erwin said. "I wanted the kids to understand that cleaning is something you need to think about, and that it's not just women's work."

Even though the younger one sometimes creates rather than dispels messes, he's still learning something, Erwin said.

"It's about creating a model he will grow into," she explained.

That's good enough reason to not rehire the service, she says, even though their financial picture has brightened.

But there's another benefit as well: Doing her own cleaning enables Erwin to discover and stay on top of maintenance issues, such as icky grout and leaky toilet seals.

Chris Browne and his wife, Lynne Havertine, suspended their cleaning service a year ago after Browne was laid off.

"It was the first thing to go," he said of the $140 monthly expenditure.

Nowadays Browne, who's the cook in the household, is responsible for the kitchen. Havertine handles day-to-day straightening.

In his year as a cleaner, Browne has come to love OxyClean, the all-purpose solution. Despite the somewhat obnoxious late-night ads for the product, Brown said it works.

"I knew about it because I brew beer, and that's what brewers use to clean their tanks," he said. He uses the product to remove carpet stains and as a laundry booster.

Browne also is a big believer in constant cleaning.

"If you always do a little bit as much as possible," for instance wiping down the kitchen every night, "it never gets out of control," he said.

Dana Klein also attends to her Gold Coast condo every day. "I spend a little time cleaning every day, whether it's the bedroom, bathroom or kitchen. I hit every room during the week to get it done."

Klein, who used a service for three years, stopped last August when she started her own business. Surprisingly, she said her apartment is cleaner now than it was when she had the service.

With the service, Klein sometimes let dirt and mess accumulate, knowing that the maids would soon make it disappear. Without the service, she's vigilant about dispelling dirt and clutter.

"It's never stayed as clean as it is now," she said. "It's almost like I have a cleaning person in every week."

Klein added: "I love having people over and showing it off."

- - -

Clean up like an expert

In 90 minutes, a team of experts can clean a 2,400-square-foot house top to bottom. How ever do they do it?

"They're professionally trained," explained Laura Dellutri, a Kansas City, Mo.-based cleaning expert and author of "Speed Cleaning 101" ( Strategic Media Corp., $9.95).

Here's a list of her favorite cleaning tips:

- In each room, clean from top to bottom. Dust and clean top shelves, mirror tops and work your way down. "Dust and dirt fall," she said.

- Work rooms in concentric circles, from outer to inner.

- Have all your supplies on you or near you. Dellutri uses a lightweight backpack vacuum cleaner and attaches rags and spray bottles of cleaning products to the pack's waistband.

- Stay focused. Don't take breaks to talk to your friends, pet the dog or do laundry. "That's why it takes all day," Dellutri said.

- Don't clean clean. Cleaning surfaces that aren't dirty wastes a ton of time, Dellutri said. For instance, don't clean the entire patio door, clean just the door handle that shows fingerprints.

- Minimize products. Dellutri uses only three products: glass cleaner with disinfectant, a multipurpose cleaner (in her case, Kaboom) and an all-purpose cleanser (Dellutri likes cream cleansers).

- Use rags. Microfiber cleaning cloths pick up more dirt and bacteria and won't streak surfaces, Dellutri said.

Copyright (c) 2004, Chicago Tribune

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