HOME DESIGN : Send Out for Clean Sweep

Eve Belson is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Springtime may mean the start of baseball season to you, but to homeowners it also means the annual ritual of overhauling the house. It's time to do battle with the legacy of the past year--dust balls under the refrigerator, cracks in the footpath and chaos in the garage.

Giving a home a spring face-lift doesn't have to mean hard work. With a little time invested in phone calls and a judicious dip into the cookie jar, you can get annoying small jobs done without ever breaking a sweat, simply by hiring someone else to do it all for you.

THE BIG CLEAN

A day is all it takes for a thorough top-to-bottom housecleaning. For $300 to $500, a maintainance company will dispatch a coordinated team of three to seven workers to you to clean the oven, wash walls, scrub mini-blinds, shampoo carpets, clean baseboards, strip and wax floors, vacuum furniture, clean windows and even wash light bulbs.

The larger companies that put together such spring-cleaning teams are usually bonded and insured, since most of their workers are subcontractors. Spring is high season for them, so consider booking a week or so in advance. Mondays, Tuesdays and Saturdays are usually the best days to schedule a major job. Ask about special services, like washing skylights or cleaning out the garage. Some companies use a high-pressure water gun to give the outside of a house a good scrubbing. Others specialize in cleaning silk plants.

If the idea of a team invasion doesn't appeal to you, a single housecleaner can do a thorough job but may need a couple of days to get it done. Since many people who have suddenly found themselves unemployed turn to housecleaning, make sure the person you hire is licensed and bonded in case of damage and breakage. Better still, ask for references and check them.

A single person may be easier to work with if you have specific jobs in mind, such as straightening closets, cleaning kitchen cupboards or polishing brass or silver. Many of these independents are loathe to quote prices over the phone and prefer to do a walk-through before talking money. Rates vary from $30 to $60 a day, depending not only on the work but on the space and maneuverability. Tightly packed furniture and endless bric-a-brac that needs to be moved can greatly affect speed. Ask if the cleaner uses his or her own cleaning products: It could mean big savings on a large job.

CARPETS, DRAPES AND UPHOLSTERY

A good rule of thumb is that, given normal use and wear, carpets should be deep-cleaned once a year, while drapery and upholstery should be cleaned every two years. Companies that have become experts in the technology of fabric care can clean your carpets, upholstery and drapery in one job.

Carpet cleaning is fertile ground for bait-and-switch pricing tactics. An advertised price of "$19.95 per room" rarely works out to be the case. Once inside your home, such companies often insist that they can't guarantee the job unless the carpet is spot-cleaned first. Not surprisingly, this, along with stain-proofing, stairs and split-level rooms, costs extra. Most reputable companies will clearly qualify their quotes over the phone.

Carpet-cleaning options run wet and dry. For homeowners who don't want to be inconvenienced by wet carpet for a day or two, the answer is the new chemical-cleaning methods which leave carpets dry in about two hours. Although traditional extraction cleaning is usually a little less expensive, repeated washing with hot water can weaken carpet backing and cause fiber separation. Ensure that carpet shampooing will be a two-step process in which all detergent residues are rinsed out, otherwise the carpet will quickly resoil.

It pays to shop for expert help when it comes to cleaning antique or Oriental carpets. Many of the dyes used in such carpets are not colorfast, so a small portion of the fabric should be tested to ensure that the carpet and cleaning method are compatible.

Consider calling in expert help to fix seams, repair damage and recolor stains. Carpet tinting can add years of extra wear to a faded carpet, and dyeing carpet a new color can give a room a face-lift for about a third of the cost of buying new carpet.

Bear in mind that dyeing is really a blending of colors, and that the original carpet color will determine the end color. Test the new color in a little-seen area, such as inside a closet, before taking the plunge. Although the dye is fixed upon completion of the job, count on the carpet remaining damp for one to five days.

Upholstery cleaning is also subject to the bait-and-switch ploy. Reputable firms are unlikely to quote a price over the phone. Prices for cleaning a sofa can vary, from $25 to $200 depending on the fabric, degree of soiling and construction. If you are looking to clean such temperamental fabrics as velvets, silks or "bleeders," technical expertise should be your top priority.

Like carpets, drapery can be cleaned either chemically or with a water process. Although washing is often more expensive and incurs added risks, it still does a more thorough job of removing oxidation and discoloration. Because drapery is usually removed for one to three days during cleaning, some companies hang drapes in their place to help you maintain privacy.

Drapery can also be cleaned while hanging. Since this method only removes overlying dust and dirt, it is recommended mostly for fabric weak from sun and air damage and which may not rehang well.

MINI-BLINDS

Dusting is no longer enough when mini-blinds start to groan under a year's collection of grime and household greases. Fortunately, it is easy and inexpensive to have mini-blinds throughly cleaned. And annual wash helps prevent fading and keeps blinds in top condition. Many housecleaning companies include washing mini-blinds as part of their on-site spring cleaning, but purists claim that only mini-blind specialists can prevent the scratching and abrasion during cleaning that shortens the life of the blind.

Blinds can be cleaned while you wait by mobile cleaners who use ultrasonic waves to loosen stuck-on dirt. Ultrasonic cleaning, however, is certainly not as thorough as the more traditional immersion washing methods. Many companies are happy to pick up your blinds in the morning, give them a good wash, and hang them back up that afternoon or the next day for an average of $10 per blind. Some offer extra services, such as waxing, which minimizes dusting and helps protect paint, and minor repairs.

REPLACEMENTS AND RENOVATIONS

Whether the caulking needs replacing in the bathroom, the flower beds need new borders or the stucco needs patching, there is someone who can do it for you, often quicker and better than you can do it yourself. You may think removing stains from your driveway with a little muriatic acid sounds easy, but unless you know what you're doing you can end up with a bigger eyesore than before.

Contractors--electricians, plumbers, builders, carpenters--should have a current contractor's license and up-to-date bonding, because many go out of business each year. Odd-job handyman need only a city business license, but you should still ask for references and check them. For important jobs, don't begrudge the contractor his price, which can run $35 to $85 an hour. But handymen are excellent for small plumbing, electrical and carpentry jobs, as well as such tedious tasks as replacing screen doors or restaining the deck, and they usually charge less--between $20 and $65 an hour.

There is no beating personal recommendations when it comes to finding a reliable handyman or contractor. You can also track down reputable contractors in the reference section at the library, where the Contractors Blue Book gives an up-to-date listing of California's licensed contractors by specialty. Turning to other professionals or building-supply stores is also an excellent way of finding the right person for the job.

THE GARAGE

This year, do more than just clean out your garage. Make it workable. Organize your garage and give yourself a little room by installing storage closets. Modular units can be measured, delivered and installed within 48 hours at prices that start at $200 for a unit that measures 4 feet by 7 feet and is a good 24 inches deep. Surprisingly, made-to-measure cabinets are only slightly more expensive (starting around $250).

Any company specializing in concrete treatments can remove oil stains from your garage floor and driveway, and then seal them with chemical-resisting urethane coatings.

THE GARDEN

Trees and shrubs should be trimmed back in early spring. For $150 to $300, a gardening contractor will send workers for the day to do trimming, reseed grass, fertilize flower beds and remove dead plants. Use the opportunity to replant annuals and add some perennials. Yard workers should also check for pest infestations.

You may have to book the service a week or so in advance, or be prepared to have them come on a slow day, such as a Monday. Many contractors prefer to inspect a garden thoroughly before quoting prices.

Spring is also the time to remove dead leaves and underbrush which offer a harbor for pests that are starting to wake from winter dormancy.

Although fleas and ants are the scourge of summer, spring is the time to take steps to keep them at bay. For under $100, a reputable pest control company can prevent summertime invasions by treating the garden and the outside of the house for fleas and ants before they have a chance to get inside. And it's not too early to send pets off for their first professional dip.

GETTING RID OF TRASH

One of the best investments during a serious spring overhaul is a rental dumpster. Dozens of companies listed in the phone directory under "rubbish" will drop off a three-cubic-foot dumpster outside your house and pick it up one or two days later for as little as $40.

If your neighborhood doesn't permit dumpsters on the street, or if you just don't feel like loading refuse yourself, check out advertisements in local giveaway publications for haulers that will load their trucks with your rubbish for about the same as what it would cost to rent a dumpster.

If you can't bear the thought of sending off a perfectly functional refrigerator or clean-but-outdated clothes to the local landfill, contact nonprofit organizations such as the Salvation Army or Goodwill Industries that may be in need of furniture and clothing.

THAT SOMETHING EXTRA

There are still a few touches that can make the difference between getting back to Square One and giving the house a fresh new feel.

A new front door, for example, can quickly change the exterior look of a house. Prices for a well-made front door start at $200, and it is worth paying a little extra to have it hung professionally. You may also need to replace the molding once the door is in. Even a new coat of paint on an old door can give a house a face-lift. Because your front door takes a lot of abuse from the elements, invest in the best quality paint or varnish you can, especially if the door faces south.

Window tinting can cost as little as $2 a square foot. A colorless film is available that can cut 100% of the harmful ultraviolet rays that fade furnishings and crack paint, while films of varying darkness can cut heat--and air-conditioning bills--by 50%. If you are interested in security, a polyester-based film called Armocote makes windows extremely hard to break. All window films offer a degree of shatter-proofing during an earthquake.

Treat yourself to the heavenly scent of cedar in your closets. Custom-built cedar closets are expensive--starting at around $500 for a standard six-foot bedroom closet--but you can have a closet lined in cedar for about half that amount. Since the scent fades after about six months if the closet is not tightly sealed, sand the wood surface lightly on a regular basis to refresh the scent.

Contrary to popular belief, cedar does not really repel silverfish and moth larvae. To keep your clothes hole-free, fill your closets with the new odorless moth repelling compounds on sale at most closet speciality stores.

If your house is crying "redecorate" but your budget is saying "forget it," say it with flowers and plants. A skilled interior plant-scape artist can virtually reinvent your decor by coordinating plants with your color scheme and choosing foliage shapes to complement your furniture. Your local nursery can recommend a plant-scape designer who will consult with you for as little as $25 an hour.

If you have foliage-phobia, decorate with silk plants.

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