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The Squeegee Dividend
Dingy Windows Don't Sell Houses, So We Share Squeaky-Clean Tips From the Pros

By Stephanie Cavanaugh
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 19, 2008

As you're preparing to sell your house, don't overlook the windows.

"When you're marketing a house, clean windows are like clean teeth," said Phyllis Jane Young, an associate broker with Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate in the District. "They're the first thing people see on the outside and the first thing they see through on the inside."

Home stagers -- interior designers who gussy up homes for sale -- agree. Alice Wilson, design director of Antique and Contemporary Leasing in Alexandria, said, "I can bring in antique armoires, oriental rugs and armfuls of orchids, but if the windows are dingy and streaked, the room won't shine."

But few housekeeping tasks can be as frustrating as cleaning glass -- countless products and techniques have been developed and yet the mirrors are often still fogged and rimmed with lint and the windows streaked.

Despite the claims for miracles in spray bottles, the pros we spoke with wash windows as they've done for centuries, with sudsy water. How simple.

Terry "Turbo" Burrows is a Guinness record holder and seven-time world champion window washer. (Yes, there is such a contest.) In England, he said, "we use Fairy Liquid [with water.] It's highly concentrated; it does not lose its suds; it attacks grease."

Fairy Liquid is not available in the United States, but Dawn, also manufactured by Procter & Gamble, has a similar formulation. "Window cleaners use all sorts of soaps," Burrows said. "But for us, it's the best."

But soap? Doesn't that leave . . . scum?

Nope, said Theo Czarniewy of Fragers Hardware on Capitol Hill, who polished his window-cleaning technique as a volunteer in the reptile house at the National Zoo.

Particularly challenging was the anaconda cage, with its expanse of glass. "It was a horrible job," said Czarniewy, leaning over the counter. "I'd clean it in the morning, and within two hours, the kids would put their hand prints on it. I saw a full face print once." (Of course, these cleaners generally don't leave scum because they are actually detergents, not traditional soaps. There are chemical differences between the two, though consumers -- and professional window washers -- tend to use the terms interchangeably.)

Czarniewy tried Simple Green and dishwashing liquid, but A-33 Dry Disinfectant Cleaner, a turbo-charged detergent available through dealers, was best for this particularly slimy task. "It's applied with a sponge, and then you squeegee across first and then straight down to eliminate the lines."

"I've got to start volunteering there again," he said. "It was the worst job but the most fun."

Mark Dosch, who calls himself the Window Wizard, studied for the priesthood before turning from "spiritual pains to window panes." That was 20 years ago, and the lanky window washer with the crooked grin still wields a wicked squeegee.

Dosch uses a product called Glass Gleam 4, which costs $14 per quart from http://www.JRacenstein.com. Considering that you use only 1/4 ounce per gallon of water, that's about a lifetime supply for most homeowners.

There's a lot of hype about professional products. "The reality is you can use any dishwashing soap," he said. "A two-second squirt of Joy into a pail would be enough. More is not better when it comes to soap."

The exception is in homes with smokers; then he'll boost the cleaning power with a slosh of ammonia. "Smoke," he said, "is like cutting mud."

A mild detergent solution is fine on inside windows with natural woodwork, as well. "Don't let it linger more than half a minute or so. And don't do too many panes at once," he cautioned. You want the squeegee to glide, and you don't want a lot of drips.

Carolyn Forté of the Good Housekeeping Research Institute recently tested six store-bought solutions, a homemade solution of ammonia and water, and three pre-moistened towels.

"We made a lab mixture of greasy, dirty soil; let it dry; then applied a measured amount of each cleaner," she said. The winner was Hope's Perfect Glass, available at Bed Bath & Beyond and other major retailers. "It was best overall for cleaning and removing streaks." Regular Windex was a close second.

Besides the right cleaner, you'll also need appropriate tools.

Cleaning like a pro, Dosch said, requires a squeegee, a gizmo that looks like a windshield wiper with a handle in the middle. Ideally, each window is cleaned with a single downward swoop.

With so many odd-size windows in this area, Dosch has "about 20 different sizes, in quarter-inch increments, in the bucket at all times." They're made in only about 10 lengths, and you'll find far fewer than that at the local hardware store, so he cuts his with a hacksaw.

A horsehair brush for soaping, an old terry cloth towel and a surgical towel complete the kit. Surgical towels are cheaper than microfiber and just as lint-free and washable. "Surgeons can't afford to sew lint into a body, and they're thick to soak up the blood -- let's get some drama into this," he said with a grin.

Dosch demonstrates, preparing for action by flinging the terry towel over his left shoulder, the surgical towel over the right, soap brush in left hand, squeegee in right. Dip, swish with the brush, squeegee down. Go around the edges with the terry towel and zap that one smudge with the surgical towel. Done. That took . . . five seconds. Wow.

Warning: To avoid smears, you must firmly wipe the blade with the terry towel after every pass. And work in the shade, if possible; sunshine causes streaks.

Dosch also carries a razor blade for paint drips and 0000 steel wool for bird droppings and other foreign substances, such as aluminum dust from old window screens. Neither will scratch the glass unless you really work at it.

A squeegee, however, wasn't Good Housekeeping's favorite for polishing panes. "We found microfiber cloth the best," Forté said. "The squeegee involves a technique -- I've never been able to master it."

Newspapers didn't rate highly either. "People swear by it, but newspaper was messy," she said, "and it made our hands a mess. It didn't absorb as well and didn't leave windows as streak-free as microfiber."

Meanwhile, Burrows sniffed at taking shortcuts with windows on upper floors with extension pole systems that connect to a home's water supply, slosh the panes with sudsy water and then switch to a clear-water rinse. "Those water-fed pole systems are okay . . . if they are operated correctly," Burrows said. "But if they're not, it's spot city . . . a complete nightmare."

Maybe you're blessed with an exhausting number of windows, or just had your nails done. If so, you might want to call in a pro.

The going rate for window-washing ranges from $6 to $14 per window, Dosch said, but it also depends on screens, storms and the number of panes involved. "So many homes are gigantic. Even if you're the best, it takes a lot of time."

And choose carefully, scouting out referrals and checking references. "There are horror stories of cheap window washers that left streaks, broke things, dropped dirty water," he said. "If you can avoid disaster, generally you get called again."

Window cleaners -- and do-it-yourselfers -- endure hazards of their own. "Guillotine windows. Undo the latch and whomp." Dosch shook his head. "Usually clients warn me."

One surprise that probably shouldn't be: "Spring is not necessarily the best time to clean the windows," Dosch said. "It's the height of pollen season."

But Forté said that's when everyone wants to do it. "The daylight is longer, the curtains are opened, people want the connection with the outdoors. Clean windows give the biggest psychological boost."

Never mind the sparkle they put in the eyes of home buyers.

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