Four Island housecleaners give The Local a look at their busy industry, from the trials and challenges to the rewards, and to why they choose to clean houses.
Maik De Souza and Kristina Kerr
A1 Cleaning Services, Edgartown
What got you started as a housecleaner?
Maik: I was turning 17 when I moved here from Brazil. I’m 34 now. A lot of people here are from my hometown, Mantenópolis, in the north of Brazil.
I was first doing landscape work on the Island. Then an opportunity came along when A1 Cleaning was for sale. I teamed up with my now former business partner and bought it. That was the end of 2007. I was 22 years old at the time, and it was a big decision to buy the company. I had to borrow money, and the company was in debt. It took us over a year to organize and get things on track, but we were glad we did it.
Kristina: I joined the company a couple of years ago, but officially became a partner just last year, when we bought out Maik’s business partner from 2007. I’m from Lithuania, the other side of the world.
What are your duties?
Maik: I’ve always managed the business. Most of the time, I’m involved with the office work and dealing with customer service. I actually enjoy that a lot. I’m the one getting back to people. This was the first year we had a manager to help us, and she took over many of my duties.
In the beginning, whenever people got sick, I would go and clean the schools at night. But not for residential customers, I didn’t think they wanted a guy scrubbing their house. Off-Island is different, but on-Island, it’s really only janitorial cleaning for offices, businesses, and schools guys are involved in. It’s unusual for a guy to be cleaning houses — I think I’m the only one on-Island.
How is it working with so many women?
Maik: You have to be very respectful. I was raised by my mother, two sisters, and my aunt, as my father started going to the U.S. So I was always around ladies, and this is nothing new for me. I always treat them fairly and with respect.
How is the work different in the summer than the winter?
Kristina: Now is the quiet season. We have 10 to 12 girls, and a couple more ready to jump in.
Maik: In the summer, that number probably doubles. We have both Island residents and girls who come for the summer who are really well trained. They are used to the whole routine.
Kristina: We get a lot of cleaners coming from Boston in the summer when it slows down there, but busy here.
Maik: During the winter, we work more for the people who live on the Island year-round. We also do a lot of commercial cleaning. We clean for the Oak Bluffs School, the West Tisbury School, and the Martha’s Vineyard Community Service buildings.
In the summer, we are busy with turnovers and summer residents. For turnovers, we usually have a five-hour window of time during the day when we clean up to 50 houses! It gets a little crazy. Sometimes it feels like everyone desires the same day and time for their cleanings. We have clients that have been using us for more than a decade now, so we know their preferred times and routines very well, and we try to book around them. They are our very loyal clients that we appreciate so much! Some are twice a week, weekly, once a month. The majority of summer clients are at least once a week.
Maik: We try to avoid surprises. If our cleaners have an issue, they call me immediately. I will get there, try to figure it out, and I will try to resolve it before I contact the client. If something breaks, we are fully insured. We walk into some difficult situations sometimes, not often. We deal with whatever comes across.
We’ve had hoarders where we took out more than a dozen trash bags, had to empty refrigerators that got shut off, and basements that got flooded. I’ve done some crazy and gross stuff. Not everyone can handle it.
Maik, you are also a musician?
Maik: Yes, I play in a band called FirstBourne. We are doing a bunch of shows, touring China, doing part of the Stryper tour. We are recording an album now. I played over the years with a couple of the local bands. I play guitar, write songs, and do backup vocals. Kristina is involved with the band too, helping us with graphic design, pictures, merchandise, etc. She helps to approve everything, as she has great taste.
What is the biggest challenge?
Maik: Being the only guy running a cleaning business, it’s hard to be liked. I’ve had probably over a hundred women working for me over the years, and I’ve never had a problem. I must be doing something right. I hope to be the only cleaning company on the Island someday. So if anyone is looking to sell, please come talk to me. We’re competitive.
Kristina: I always say, it is OK if we are not the only cleaning company out there. Competition is healthy. It keeps us on our toes.
What started you housecleaning on the Vineyard?
My first husband and I were selling clothing from Guatemala, and we came to the states to sell the clothes. After he passed away, I came to the Island for a visit, and then decided to stay. It was 1991, and Leslie Hurd was one of our customers who knew our clothes. She contacted me, and asked me to help her with her house and with her children. Then I fell in love and married my second husband here. That was when I started to do cleaning. Cleaning keeps me happy, it’s easy to do, it keeps me going.
How do you find new business?
My customers recommend me to others. I get new clients through Leslie, her aunt, and through my husband. I don’t advertise. I want to keep it just for myself — not work with others. You do whatever you can do, and you don’t have to worry about others not showing up or not doing a good job. That’s the worst.
What do you like about the job?
Just being by yourself doing the things you are supposed to be doing. And soon, the job is done. Sometimes I listen to music. I work in Chilmark, West Tisbury, and I go to Oak Bluffs for Leslie. I try to keep year-round jobs, working full-time.
Are there any surprises?
Sometimes the renters arrive early, but they are nice. They say, “Don’t worry, we’ll go shopping.” In Chilmark, there are lots of renters. It’s more difficult because you have to be there at a specific time, and then the new people come. Most of the renters are nice. They come to have fun here. I never have trouble.
How do you charge?
I charge by the hour. Otherwise, the work can be too much. Some houses take more time. If you do the same house every week, it’s good.
What is the most difficult thing about housecleaning?
The refrigerator! The renters leave all that stuff in there, and you can’t take it all to your house — it’s too much. You have to throw it away, but most people have garbage pickup. The secret of cleaning is to keep the customer happy. Do exactly what they say, and what they want. Because if you move things, you’ll be in trouble. It’s not your house — it’s their house.
Little Elves Cleaning Co., Vineyard Haven
Tell us about your cleaning business.
I’ve had my own business since 2001, when I was gifted a business by the owner, Diane Kuchera, who was leaving the Island. She gave me the remainder of her customers, and that jump-started me. She helped propel me to where I am today. I have a crew working with me in the summertime when it’s very, very busy. In the winter, it’s just me. My staff count is six to 10 people in season. Some girls come back every year, and bring friends with them. Everyone is happy, as they get to chose their workmates. It becomes a big family. It makes for a great summer.
Do you train your staff?
They catch on pretty fast. Most are experienced. I think everybody knows how to clean. The trick is to fine-tune to the needs of the home and homeowner. Some people just want floors done — some want top-to-bottom cleaning.
Cleaning takes a bit of energy. The physical nature of cleaning is hard. You have to have stamina. I try not to have my girls doing more than 40 hours a week. Job to job, you’ll burn out.
We all worked very hard this past summer. I had to be in the trenches on the weekends — it was critical.
I have three people who have supervised and managed for me. They are my backbone, making for a well-oiled machine. They start with a team of workers, I give them the schedule, and they do what they need to do. Debra Braz worked for me for almost 16 years — my right-hand woman. I recently gave her some clients to branch off to form her own business. Everyone who has worked for me has been great — very giving of their time and loyalty. I am very blessed.
Where do you clean?
The roots of cleaning spread everywhere. We touch everything from commercial buildings, to the elderly homebound, all the way to janitors at the schools and hospitals. Cleaning is a part of everybody’s life.
Had any surprises?
I‘ve been in the business long enough to talk on the phone with a client and get to know what is going on. I have many regular customers who have been with me a very long time — some turned into friends, people in my life who care about me, and vice versa. Not too many surprises. Every owner is different, and every job different. That’s fabulous too.
Do you have many houses with renters?
Yes! That’s the most difficult part of my job, this life, is coordinating the “out by 10 am, in by 3 pm,” schedule.
Every year I ask my customers to get their boat time. I need to know. I don’t want to arrive at a house at 11 in the morning and find the renters still there. It screws with my day, and when you have six people working, we need to complete everything in a timely manner. I’m held accountable if the job is not done by 3 pm, and I only have those four hours. It’s a push and pull.
Homeowners and real estate agents get all kinds of questions: “Is there AC? A fridge? Badminton? Do you have a wok? A blender?” But the only thing I need is their boat times. I’m a middleman for the owners, the caretakers, and the renters. I take it very seriously.
There was a hurricane on the Fourth of July, three or four years ago. I had to make the decision whether to send out my people to clean in the middle of a hurricane. How do you kick renters out in the middle of a hurricane? It was a nightmare. I told my staff, If you don’t want to work, you don’t have to work. My customers are important, but my staff is No. 1. I back them up, I stand up for them. I’m there to say, “This is my company, so this is my problem.”
I have very happy customers and a very happy staff. I just need that boat time.
What’s pleasurable about cleaning?
I love to clean — the accomplishment of walking into a house, “Ugh,” and walking out, “Fabuloso!” I love it. Cleaning is my life, part of who I am. It makes me happy.
What’s the reward?
Having a great staff and being able to not only have a company that can sustain my life, but also helps a handful sustain lives here year-round. We complement one another — it’s a network of people who are living here and trying to survive. Giving people jobs, an opportunity, that’s satisfying for me. That’s the most rewarding part: having a staff that is prospering also. It’s afforded me the luxury of living on Martha’s Vineyard for the past 20 years. I’m very grateful.
Kinaki Cleaning Services, West Tisbury
What got you started housecleaning?
I was born in Brazil, and came here when I was 12 years old. My aunt had a cleaning business here on the Vineyard, and I started helping my mother and aunt in the summers when I didn’t have school. That’s how I learned. They were very good cleaners.
In 2000 I moved to Florida, where I worked for a huge company that cleaned houses in Naples and the Fort Myers area. I was the head, and took care of two groups, with three girls in each group. Clean, check everything, and make sure all was well. They were millionaire houses of very wealthy customers. With that, I got a lot of experience. Then I decided to start my own business in Florida — to clean for myself. My mom came to help me, and we worked together for a time.
In 2005, I came back to the Island when my aunt called and needed cleaning help. I came here to work for two months, and during that time, I found my husband’s ad in the paper for painting help and started working for him, but also cleaning. I was house painting and cleaning. I knew the business, had a lot of experience dealing with people, and was helping my friends. That’s how I started to get my own jobs. Here on the Island, the work is word-of-mouth: You do a good job, and people call you back. Then I decided to start my own business three summers ago.
What do you like most about the job?
I care about every detail. As a perfectionist, I want to be sure my work is good. I value what people are spending, so I try to do the best. I like helping people by cleaning. I like to see people happy. It makes a big difference when you come to a clean house — the whole environment changes, the energy changes. People come home, and you see them smile.
Do you prefer working alone?
Yes, right now I like working by myself. Helpers are never like you. You know your jobs and your houses. Opening a house is the hardest thing, as it hasn’t been cleaned for awhile. When I do the openings, it can be a 10-hour job.
I find it easier to clean in parts. I push everything out, and know how to put everything back. Vacuum, dust, mop, and put everything back. I think that’s the quickest way.
Cleaning is very hard work. Not just physically, mental stress too. You have to train and check your workers. When you find someone good, you train her your way.
Is cleaning different in Florida?
Very different. Local people here want you to do a good cleaning, but they are more relaxed.
In Florida, clients are more particular. They complain. That doesn’t happen on the Island.
Do you find renters to be messy?
All the time! In August they are the terribles! In the beginning of the summer, when you are opening the houses, the April people are great. But the August guests that come are sloppy, messy, and leave a lot of trash. The client trusts you to put the house back together once the renters leave. The first thing to do is to inspect everything: Are the sheets damaged? Are there any broken items? And let the owner know right away, as they have to charge the guests. You have to pay attention, it’s your responsibility to be there and check the house — to analyze everything and know what’s in the house. The client trusts you with that. You become part of the family.
Do you have commercial clients?
Yes, I also do commercial cleaning. The Dairy Queen, offices, the Bookstore in Edgartown, and schools on the Island. Tomorrow I’ll clean the real estate office in Edgartown. Commercial clients are easier to do, as you don’t have all the responsibility to check for damages, etc. But you do have the responsibility of confidentiality in commercial — not to throw things out that might be important.