In order to grow her home cleaning business, Wendy Clark needed to build a vehicle fleet at a reasonable price.
“Finding employees who were willing to drive their own vehicles and get paid for mileage proved to be a barrier to growth,” says Clark, owner of Carpe Diem Cleaning, based in Durham, N.C. “People didn’t want to drive their own vehicles.”
To keep costs down, Clark bought used station wagons with stick shifts from a company.
“I figured that most people outside of the U.S. know how to drive stick shift,” says Clark. However, “most of my employees are from other countries and didn’t learn how to drive until they got to the U.S., so hardly any of them knew how to drive stick shift.”
Clark also tried different types of vehicles. She bought two Toyota Matrix hatchbacks, but it was too expensive for the company to purchase a fleet of brand-new vehicles.
Clark remembered a tip from money management guru Dave Ramsey to buy used cars at auctions. Clark was hesitant: “I was afraid that they would be undependable and would break down often,” she says.
After deciding to give an auction a try, Clark found that some police vehicles were up for auction while looking at Durham’s municipal website. “I went to the auction and purchased two used Ford Crown Victoria police vehicles,” she says.
Clark started her home cleaning service in 1994 at the age of 20 with less than $100. Currently, Carpe Diem Cleaning has 35 employees and 12 de-fleeted police vehicles. Each cleaning crew (two to three employees) is assigned to a vehicle, averaging 10,000 to 12,000 miles per year.
“By purchasing the police cars at auction, we have been able to grow the business and get more employees,” says Clark.
Reusing Police Vehicles
After purchasing her first two cruisers at auction, Clark has continued to add more to her fleet. Between 2011 and 2013, the company bought 10 vehicles at local auctions. Since then, Clark has added one vehicle per year.
All are Crown Victorias from 2006 to 2009 model-years. When purchased at the auction, each vehicle usually has 100,000 miles to 120,000 miles on it, according to Clark. Clark says that she budgets around $5,000 per car, which includes the purchase price and the expenses to get the vehicle up and running.
Before entering the cleaning service fleet, each vehicle undergoes a maintenance inspection by Clark’s local mechanic. “I found a great mechanic who helps take care of all our vehicles,” she says. “We do weekly inspections internally and truly stay on top of maintenance.”
For Clark, the Crown Victoria is a great work vehicle with plenty of room for her cleaning crews and their supplies. In each trunk, a container has been added to store cleaning supplies.
“The vehicles can be gas guzzlers, but I think it’s an offset with the low cost of maintenance and replacing parts,” says Clark.
Five years later, Clark is still running the same set of vehicles in her fleet — except one vehicle that is now used for parts. When it comes time to retire the rest of the vehicles, she plans to either sell them at a minimal price to employees or use them for parts, since all the vehicles are the same model.
Clark considered wrapping the vehicles but the process was too expensive. Instead, she added magnets on each vehicle with the company name and logo.
To Clark, it’s been fun driving the cruisers. “I enjoy that people notice the vehicles,” she says. “I have seen people slam on their brakes at stop signs thinking we are the police. I want people to think, ‘thank goodness it’s Carpe Diem and not the police.’”
Because Crown Victorias were discontinued in 2011, Carpe Diem will switch to Dodge Chargers or the other police cruiser models when it’s time to update the fleet.
“I see our company continuing to grow and continuing to add more vehicles,” says Clark.