The inside scoop on cleaning apartment complexes. The good, the bad and the ugly.

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by Tom Watson on December 19, 2012

The topic of cleaning apartment complexes comes up pretty regularly when discussing the commercial cleaning market.

It’s a subject I know rather well, as I did more than my fair share of it for the first few years I was in business.

Some of you may have known that as I touch on the topic in my newsletter from time to time. Anyway, cleaning them all was quite an experience to say the least. At one point my company was cleaning well over 100 apartment buildings each week.

So today I’ll briefly talk about my experiences with this particular subsection of the commercial cleaning market. Depending upon your circumstances, it may be an idea worth considering.

In the spirit of starting at the beginning, I’ll make mention that all I ever did to get the apartment complex accounts was send them a direct mail piece. It consisted only of a 2 page sales letter, a flyer that offered a big discount for signing up along with a deadline for when the offer expired. I threw in a business card for good measure.

I simply addressed the letters to the “Apartment Manager”. I did this for every single complex I could think of within my service area. Each letter was hand addressed to make them appear more personal, and less like junk mail. This approach work very well for me, as the phone rang regularly after each mailing.

For those of you who have never bid an apartment complex, it generally goes like this. Once the manager calls you, you’ll be asked to put in a bid for both the apartment complexes “common areas” AND apartment “turnovers”.

The apartment complex common areas consist of any hallways, entry foyers, laundry rooms and elevator or stairwells. The turnovers are simply the units that need to be cleaned after a Tennent moves out or is kicked out. Like I said, MOST times you’ll be asked to bid both.

With that said, from time to time you may encounter a complex that only needs one or the other done. When this does happen, you’ll normally be bidding just the turnovers, as some apartment complexes don’t have any common areas to speak of. When creating a proposal for these type customers, it helps to keep the following in mind.

1 – Any money you are going to make will generally be on the “common area” side of the quote. This is because apartment managers and their owners are notoriously cheap and don’t like paying much for the turnovers.

For some reason they seem to be much more flexible on the common area side of the bid. That was just my experience, but it seemed to be true across the board with every complex I dealt with.

2 – The managers who you’ll be reporting to at the apartment complexes are generally very overworked, underpaid and tend to be a rather disorganized type of individual. This can make your life very difficult as they tend to lean on YOU to make up for their shortcomings.

For instance they may tell you no new turnovers are scheduled then suddenly change their mind Friday afternoon and tell you that 3 need to be completed TODAY. Situations like these are very hard to handle and you will need to be a problem solver to make it work.

3 – Apartment managers churn and burn through many cleaning companies during their tenure (SEE REASON #2). Luckily for me I had a good group of people who had the ability to withstand a high level of stress and found a way to get things done. Those facts allowed me to survive despite being threatened with termination from time to time.

4 – The apartment turnovers you’ll be asked to clean can be incredibly dirty. It’s amazing how people can live in a unit for YEARS and yet never clean it. I have some memories that I would rather FORGET!

My theory on the matter is to think of turnovers in bunches of 10. Out of every 10 units, 1 will be pristine, 1 will be a disaster, 4 will be not all that bad and the last 4 will be below average. When coming up with a price, keep that tidbit in mind.

5 – Hiring people for this kind of work can be a hard task. While it’s rather easy to hire people for the common area cleanings, getting good people to clean the turnovers can be quite challenging. I don’t know if I was just lucky or good at it, but I found a way to get it all done.

Cleaning apartment turnovers is NEVER going to be fun, that’s just a fact. To top it all off, you have to factor in the unpredictability of it all. You may not get a turnover for a week, then have 5 to do in just a day or two. It’s a scheduling nightmare.

These 5 points I just spoke of can make life tough on the cleaning contractor. Knowing this in advance should be a HUGE advantage for you. Even if it’s just in the mindset you need to have to make it all work.

Now after all that bad news, you may think there is no good news. Well…there is always good news! I happened to do quite well in cleaning apartment complexes over the years. I did mess up and under-bid a few jobs, but that goes with the territory. After all, when learning anything new you will make mistakes. You just need to learn as much as possible from each of them!

For the record, my first apartment complex consisted of 8 different buildings. Each one had 3 floors, four entrance doors with foyers and 1 laundry room. So basically all we had to do for each building was vacuum a ton of carpet, clean a little glass on each entry door, wipe down some washers and dryers then mop a laundry room floor.

I figured it would take just about 1 hour per building for one employee to clean. I bid the job at $204.00 per week plus tax (way back when mind you). I did my best, now it was time to see if that was good enough! This is how it all shook out for me.

I paid the staff member who cleaned the apartment complex $8.00 per hour. She worked 8 hours each Monday as that was our scheduled day. She cost me $80.00 plus about $16.00 in related taxes and overhead. This came to $96.00 total.

This meant that after charging $204.00 per visit and deducting the $96.00 I was left with $104.00 profit each time we cleaned. After you factor in that there are on average 4.33 cleanings per month (52 weeks / 12 months) you come up with a monthly profit of $450.32. Not a home run by any means, but nothing to sneeze at either.

If I had it to do over I would have bid it closer to 1.5 hours per building to clean to give me a little more breathing room. I wound up being able to make it work because the staff member who worked the account for me REALLY HUSTLED each week to get it done.

If she didn’t, that accout would have been a loser. But for being my first apartment cleaning account, I considered it a success. I was able to eek out a profit AND I learned a TON about how to do bid the job better once I got another one to do.

This particular account also had us cleaning the apartment turnovers. I was told they only pay $80.00 per unit (regardless of size), and that was it. Take it or leave it. I decided to take it because I really wanted the account AND I didn’t know any better.

I was kind of lucky that they didn’t have but 4 or 5 units per month. This fact allowed me to get a “system” in place to deal with cleaning the units. The good news is I was able to “break-even” on the units. At least I didn’t lose on any of them, but I was fortunate and I knew it.

It was like being between a rock and a hard place. I certainly didn’t want to lose any money on the turnovers, but I knew that managers would be unwilling to pay what they should to get them done right.

What I learned from my first apartment complex account was to make sure I made money on the common area side of the equation. This ensured I would make money each month no matter what. Then my goal was to AT LEAST break even on the turnovers part.

That was just my personal philosophy, you do as you see fit. I also learned that it would be best to try a sliding scale on the turnovers going forward. This meant I would try to put a system in place on any future bids that paid me slighter more for a unit that was larger.

For instance a 1 bedroom would be $100.00, a 2 bedroom would be $120.00 and a 3 bedroom would be $130.00 (or whatever I could get!). I also came up with the idea to get them to allow me to put wax down on any newly tiled VCT floor. This may only add $35.00 or so per unit, but it would only take me 5 minutes to do. Not a bad trade-off!

The plus to that idea was it would give me more buffer room in case I came across a horrible unit to clean. I didn’t know if these ideas would sink or float on my future bids, but I was going to try it out nonetheless.

In hindsight, these ideas did work on some managers, but not on others. But I consider that a success! There is no magic bullet that will work on all customers, so the fact that it worked on some was fine with me.

To wrap this up I’ll quickly make mention of the next apartment complex we cleaned. It consisted of 18 buildings, each had 3 floors, two entrances and 2 foyers. There was no door glass to clean and no laundry rooms, but there was a lot of sweeping and vacuuming to do.

This apartment community had more buildings, but they were smaller and more compact. I figured it would take 3 staff members 1 day to complete. They would all work as a team on each building and through having a good system in place, would be able to get it done in the time quoted.

To make a long story short, I charged $459.00 per visit to clean ($1,989.00 per month). It cost me $284.00 for the 3 staff members and the associated taxes/overhead per visit. This left me with a cool $175.00 profit for the day. This in turn meant $757.75 profit for the month!

I was getting better at that part of the process! The turnovers on the other hand were sadly a break-even deal once again as management wouldn’t budge on that end ($80.00 per unit, and it didn’t matter what size). To make matters worse, this property had 10 or more units to clean each month.

This meant I was doing a lot of scheduling (and associated headaches) for no money essentially. Again, I just viewed it as the cost of doing business with this particular segment of the commercial market. The way I looked at it, I was going to take whatever profit I could and just REINVEST it into other areas.

I wound up adding many more complexes over the next few years, banking whatever I could from each of them. The last complex I bid put over $1,500.00 per month in my pocket after all was said and done. As you can see, collectively it added up to a LOT OF MONEY.

Sadly, it also came with a LOT OF HEADACHES. For me it worked because I had a long-term plan in place. I simply reinvested my profits in other areas that would allow me to earn more with less effort such as floor care service and carpet cleaning. Once the transition into other areas was complete, I got out of that part of the business for good.

Like I said at the beginning, there is a lot of GOOD, BAD and UGLY associated with this market. Is this market a good fit for you? I don’t have the answer to that one as only you will know. Just think it through and make a decision. Either way, I wish you the best of luck!

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tom Watson January 22, 2015 at 11:12 am

Hi Larry! There is no way for me to know that without taking a look. What I will say is this… once you get started doing the turnovers, YOU WILL KLOW “soon enough”. My advice… start with what you think, then MEASURE how long each unit takes to clean. Take PERFECT NOTES. I did notes like this (for each complex)… What size unit? What condition when you first started cleaning? (classify as Perfect, Above Average, Average, Below Average, Disaster). How long did it take to clean? (down to the minute). Before long, you will have a GREAT understanding of how to price your service going forward. At first however, IT’S LEARNING TIME!

2 Verna May 30, 2015 at 12:26 pm

I need help to bid into a 5 level with basement building. How will I price it? The owner said it is once a week cleaning for I think 6hrs-8hrs.

3 Tom Watson June 7, 2015 at 10:19 am

Hi Verna! Sorry for the delay… I’m in the process of moving. To your question, it’s hard for me to say, I need to see the place to help on that. What I can say is that if the owner says it’s 6 to eight hours, then that is A GUIDELINE but NOT the gospel. You need to take your best guess as to HOW LONG YOU THINK IT WILL TAKE, then from there, apply an hourly rate (maybe in the 22 to 26 per hour range AS A TOTAL GUESS).

4 Dana June 7, 2015 at 10:22 am

How can I bid with a property management company that basically has all different layouts for hundreds of properties?

5 Tom Watson June 7, 2015 at 10:29 am

Hi Dana! If they are apartments, then you can come up with a set price for each type unit (that would be best case scenario as far as making it EASY). If they are homes, then I would bid them on a case by case basis.

6 Isaac G. August 19, 2015 at 8:31 am

Thankyou for your sharing your experience I am very eager to learn this aspect of commercial cleaning however I have no idea of what my start up cost would any idea?

7 Tom Watson August 19, 2015 at 8:55 am

Hi Isaac! I did a post on that…

If you have any questions after reading it, email me.

8 HP November 7, 2015 at 10:42 am

I would like to start using your letters to start sending out to property managers in about a week. My only question is, do I have to create a contract to bid on the apartment cleaning or does the property have forms for me to use to submit to them? My contract I have already is more for building cleaning. Thank You for any advice.

9 Tom Watson November 8, 2015 at 11:03 am

Hi HP! You will have to create something on your own (FYI: I have the actual contract that I used in all my Start-Up Guides). I did do a post on creating a proposal that may be of help, Check it out…

10 cathy Day May 5, 2016 at 10:10 am

I need help! I’m writing up my first bid and they have a rather large Clubhouse area that has a kitchenette fireplace lots of seating vaulted ceilings I don’t know even where to begin quoting that can you help?

11 Samantha May 28, 2016 at 12:30 pm

Hi Tom,
Thanks for offering all this great advice. I’ve been doing my research as to how to get started & really wish I would’ve found your site so much sooner!

Now, my question to you is would you have any advice how to get into the make ready for foreclosed homes business through banks?

I used to work for a man where this is all we did. This was several years ago. I recently asked him for advice but turns out its a big secret he doesn’t want to share.

12 Tom Watson May 29, 2016 at 10:06 am

Hi Samantha! I don’t know about everywhere else, but in New Jersey, to the best of my knowledge, you have to go through real estate agents. My experience is that each real estate office (especially larger ones) have one or two agents that specialize in that area.

That was how it was described to me by one of the agents that used to send me foreclosures. I was already HIGHLY FOCUSED on real estate agents, so I wound up getting my fair share of them. So I would be calling (better yet, stop in) to EVERY OFFICE near you.

13 Tom Watson June 6, 2016 at 10:56 am

Hi Cathy! Without SEEING the place, there is NO WAY for me to help with bidding. But this is how it’s done in a nutshell…

You need to take YOUR BEST GUESS as to HOW LONG it will take, then multiply that by your hourly rate (20 to 30 per hour). the lower the rate the better the chance for getting hired, the higher the rate the more profit. You need to decide. Then ADD IN any COST of supplies to be used then add state sale tax if any. PRESTO… you are done.

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