Do It Better

Time to Hire A Cleaner


But how? (It's not enough to watch Downton Abbey)



With everyone talking about either Downtown Abbey on PBS or The Help, the idea of hiring domestic staff has never been so familiar. But say you actually need to hire a cleaner. How do you go about it?

Craigslist seems quick and easy. But then there’s always the risk that when you get home, your college diploma has been thrown out, because the cleaner you hired thought it was a ratty old envelope. Certain undergarments have disappeared. And the sponge in the sink is blue instead of green. But the blue one is the one you use on the toilet…

So what should you have done? It’s a question that more and more people face these days.Residential maid service is the highest requested service by women, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. And the cleaning services industry is worth over $45 million and is growing despite the recession.

Make a plan: “The first thing to do is decide what you need,” says Donna Levin, co-founder of Care.com, a website that hooks families up with help of all sorts. “Do you want someone to just tidy up once a week? Or do you want someone to manage more of your housekeeping demands such as laundry, errands and cooking?”  

Second, she says, know how much to pay.  “Trying to figure out the going rate for housekeepers is confusing if you’ve never hired one before, so be sure to shop around before you hire. There are plenty of housekeeping companies out there. It’s sometimes easier to go with them, but their rates tend to be higher than going with a self-employed housekeeper.” 

Be specific about what you want done before you hire a cleaner. Levin suggests doing this before you even conduct the interview so that everyone is on the same page about what is expected and what is included in the fee.  

Consider an agency: Certainly, there are advantages to choosing a company over an individual cleaner. A company or agency will likely carry insurance in case a cleaner is hurt on the job as well as to cover damage or theft. Also, companies tend to do background checks and confirm references.

But that said, better marketing does not necessarily mean better service. While it would seem that a team of cleaners in tidy, matching uniforms would take to your house with military precision and discipline, this is no guarantee that corners will not be cut. As Barbara Ehrenreich discovered when working for a well-known residential maid service during research for her book Nickel and Dimed, rags used to clean one area of a house are often used to clean others and sometimes even used at other residences.

Another advantage to hiring cleaners from an agency or company is that they employ the cleaner, and therefore deal with all the payroll and income tax issues. But most people aren’t paying their house cleaners on the books, and you might not have a strict employer/employee relationship anyway. If you only need your place cleaned once every two months and the cleaner brings supplies, the situation becomes closer to hiring a service to clean your carpets or clear your gutters. Play it safe and keep the IRS on your side by following the rules.

Whether or not to pay your cleaner on the books may also depend on his/her immigration status, which can be a sensitive issue. Nevertheless, you need to ask-gently but firmly.  This is especially important if you have even an inkling of a desire to run for office (as Meg Whitman and Mitt Romney have discovered.)

Ask around: As with most services, the best source is your circle. Cleaners that your friends have used are the best place to start—especially your OCD friend. If you have a palatial estate and you need an actual full staff, then try the Bespoke Institute, a “butler school” headed by a former footman for Queen Elizabeth II where they conduct extensive classes in such things as “The Art of Fine Service” and “Laundry Essentials for Household Staff.”  

All of this, however, didn’t prevent an acquaintance from having their very expensive television and stereo stolen. It turned out that their totally background-checked-and-cleared cleaning lady had a son with a criminal record.

But then, it probably didn’t help that this acquaintance runs a medical marijuana dispensary. So, you should be fine.

Check this crib sheet:

  • How much help do you need?  Be specific about tasks
  • Individual or company/agency?
  • How much does it cost?  Flat fee or per hour (and/or per person)?
  • Do background check and inquire re: immigration and legal work status.
  • Interview
  • Pray

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