GARY GITOMER, a Catholic University graduate, was an architect before he decided he could make more money cleaning houses than drawing them.
He was living near a home-cleaning company in Silver Spring called Domesticare. "I watched their fleet of trucks start out at five. Then they had eight. Then they had 10. That looked like the kind of business I wanted to get into."
When the owner moved away, Gitomer answered Domesticare's newspaper advertisement and started the company anew two years ago.
A national chain of housceleaning services, Domesticare is a subsidiary of the Drackett Co., the makers of such familiar products as Drano, Windex and Vanish. Domesticare hates dirt. About 50 area home and apartment owners have enlisted Gitomer and Domesticare, one of about 30 such services listed in Washington-area Yellow Pages, on a regular basis in their personal battle against dust and grime.
A week ago, Gitomer and his crew of three called on one of the customers who sign up for either weekly, biweekly (sometimes once every three weeks) or monthly service. The townhouse in Chevy Chase appeared spotless even as the cleaners were unloading their vacuums and spracy cans from the Domesticare van. But that did't stop Gitomer.
Cleaning usually begins in the kitchen and bathrooms. "We try to get the heavier stuff out of the way first," he says."Then it's downhill from there." Ernie Hazell, puffing away at his pipe, in the kitchen. Al James, built something like a locomotive, scrubbing down the bath. Keith Grimes, at other times a professional musician, is assigued bedrooms and hallways.
While come cleaners develop their own techniques ("Al is the fastest and most efficient I've ever seen," says Gitomer), Domesticare has particular ideas about how a house should be cleaned.
Gitomer calls it a spraling down from ceiling to floor. In a living room, for instance, the crew first attacks cobwebs with a chemically treated cloth on the end of a pole. Then they dust the tops of door moldings, mantelpieces, window frames, sils and mullions and hanging light fixtures. Then bookshelves, including knick-knacks. Then table tops, upholstered furniture, lamps and ashtrays. They polish mirrors. Then the baseboards. Finally they vacuum -- including under furniture -- their way out of the room.
Unless specifically asked, they do not scrub down the walls.
In the kitchen, the procedure is repeated. Hazell uses a mild solution of household cleanser and ammonia in a spray container to "spot clean" finger prints and dirt from cupboards and appliances. He cleans counter and appliance tops. He removes the burners from tops. He removes the burners from the electric stove to clean around them and presoaks underneath them. Then he goes over the appliance with a general appliance polish. When finished, he mops his way out.
Insides of refrigerators and ovens are not touched during "general cleaning." But they are cleaned upon request.
A strong smell of ammonia wafts from the bathroom, where the hulk of Al James reaches easily into every corner and crevice. James starts with the sink, the bowl and chrome ("They really eat up that shiny chrome"), soap dishes and toothbrush holders. A germicide is at work in the toilet. He throws a dash of abrasive cleanser under the rim before scrubbing it. Then he climbs into the shower stall to clean the tiles and the metal fixtures. Then the glass doors and the tub. Mopping the floor is saved for last.
A general cleaning may take one or two hours. But initial jobs have, on occasion, required four hours or more in the bathroom alone. Homes that have been, rented, says Gitomer, show particularly poor cleaning practices. Domesticare has found feces under bathroom rugs. They hauled away a vanload of trash from one home before even beginning to clean. James remembers one case, a home rented for several years, where the bathroom tiles were literally black with grime. James applies a material called "soap scum," steel wool, brushes and no end of elbor grease.
Gitomer's service is divided among three types of clients: homeowners, realestate agents preparing homes and insurance companies fulfilling claims after fires or furnace malifunctions.
At the beginning and end of heating seasons, says Gitomer, some furnaces break down and cause what he calls "puff-back." The furnance backs up, sending all its soo through the ducts in the house rather than out the chimney. Soct creeps into every imaginable place, including closets and drawers. Domesticare cleans the complete inside of the house and provides cleaning of all the clothes.
One family, Gitomer said, left its air conditioning on while away on vacation, but forget to shut a basement window. "When they got back, the humidity had caused mildew in the basement from floor to ceiling. The walls went from white to black." Gitomer called the home office for a chemical solution.
In case of fires, Gitomer cleans where possible, fogs the home to rid it of fire smells, repairs light structural damage and repaints.
Although some things are not included in general service, there is little Domesticare will not clean. Windows, inside and out, venetian blinds, stripping and waxing of floors, Orapery cleaning, carpet shampoo and painting are all availa-bleat varying fees.
Most customers, says Gitomer, receive general cleaning service (between one and three hours work) for $50- $75. Even larger homes, 12 rooms or more, fit into that category, he says. Prices are based on size and condition of the house. Owners who are tidy, for instance, can expect to pay less. All receive an on-site, written estimate. Full spring clean-up would run $150- $300. Gitomer and his crew are licensed and insured in Maryland.
In the two years since he opened his Domesticare shop, Gitomer has drawn new customers largely by word of mouth. The business is still small, with just one van and a closet-size office, used mostly for storing racks of cleaners, vacuums, mops and ladders. But it is slowly growing. He expects to have a second van and crew in the near future.
While he is preparing to finish up at the townshouse in Chevy Chase, a woman two doors down approaches him about cleaning her house as well. Then a painter, on a job nearby, ambles over to ask for some business cards. "People are always asking me where they can 'find' somebody to clean up," the painter says.
Gitomer looks pleased. "I just love it," he says, "when they tackle me on the street." CAPTION: Picture 1, Gary Gitomer on the job: The bucket stops here. By Douglas Chevalier -- The Washington Post; Picture 2, Al James runs the vacuum. By Douglas Chevaller -- The Washington Post