10 Things Your Cleaning Service Won't Tell You

Need help keeping house? Hiring the wrong housekeepers can create an even bigger mess.

1. "We're as good as our word. And that's not good."
The typical American who cleans his own home spends 10 hours a month doing so, according to a 2003 study by Vileda, an Illinois cleaning-supplies maker. Apparently, for many folks, that's too much time. Cleaning services are seeing record business these days: Franchisor MaidPro's business increased by 15% last year, and national chain The Maids International increased its number of franchises by 35% in 2003.

There are an estimated 22,000 cleaning-service companies out there, ranging from self-employed housekeepers to nationally franchised chains. Unfortunately, there's no way of knowing what you'll get until it's too late. Basically, anyone "with a spray bottle, rag and business card" can call himself a housecleaner, says Bill Griffin, president of Cleaning Consultant Services, a Seattle cleaning-service consulting firm.

How, then, can you find a cleaner that can pass the white glove test? Check out the Association of Residential Cleaning Professionals' list of litmus tests -- such as liability insurance and satisfaction-guaranteed policies -- at www.arcp.us/consumer-FAQ.htm. Also, ask services for five references from customers who have used them for at least six months.

2. "We're more about a quick clean than a good one . . ."
In an effort to hit several houses in one day, many housekeepers move through homes like whirling dervishes. That can lead to inattention to detail, loss of property -- or just plain bad cleaning.

Stephanie Warner, an information technology specialist in Atlanta, knows that well. One time, she says, a speedy housekeeper threw away a very small but brand-new GPS device for Warner's Palm organizer; the maid denied any wrongdoing. "I don't think she stole it, because I don't think she knew what it was," Warner says. Other times the maid just took extreme shortcuts. "Some days she would (only) spray lavender around the room. That's not cleaning."

While service standards vary widely among companies, all firms should promise a reasonably detailed checklist: That means wiping down every surface in the bathroom, for example, including scrubbing the tub, toilet and sink, as well as cleaning the bathroom counters and mopping the floor with cleaners.

Also, to ensure those standards are kept, ask for employees who have been with a company for at least six months. Because housecleaning is a transient business, annual turnover can "range from 70 to 300%, depending on who you ask," says Griffin.

3. ". . . that is, if our workers even know how to clean."
Since she works 60-hour weeks as public relations director at Atlanta's Four Seasons Hotel, Marsha Middleton hired a cleaning service to reduce hassles at home. But in the past year, she's gone through five cleaners. One swore she could iron, Middleton says, but "when I said, 'This is what needs to be ironed,' she started shaking like a leaf." The maid admitted to her that she lied to get the job and was planning to call over her brother as soon as Middleton left.

While it may seem like an obvious prerequisite, not everyone in housecleaning has real skills. Before you sign on with an agency, you should ask what kind of training it offers employees. At Ann Arbor, Mich.-based national chain Molly Maid, for example, new employees go through a two-week training class and then an average of four days practicing in "test" homes before they start working with clients.

At the very minimum, according to Perry D. Phillips Jr., founder of ARCP, a company should offer at least three days of intensive training to new hires. It typically covers topics such as the latest equipment -- using microfiber mops, for example, rather than string mops and water -- or protocol such as what not to use on marble or wood floors.

4. "The first time's going to cost you."
The average price range for a service to clean a four-bedroom, three-bath home every two weeks is $80 to $125, according to industry experts. If you've never used a service before, however, an agency may insist on an initial "deep clean" of your house. That can mean wiping down the inside of a refrigerator instead of just the handle, or moving a couch to vacuum underneath it. That can jack up the price by two to three times the typical fee.

For some companies, though, the initial fee is just a ploy for more money. Such cleanings can run upwards of $300, says Griffin, if companies think that's the only time you'll be using their service. It's perfectly fine to request to skip the preliminary deep-clean and go straight to the standard service. If an agency balks at that request, Griffin says, you're better off eliminating it from your list of prospective cleaners.

Plus, once you're using the service, don't shrug it off if you come home to find that a subpar job was done by the workers who visited your home that day. The key here, though, is to speak up fast. Many agencies will revisit a home the same day but may excuse their sloppy cleaning as the dirt that's accumulated in your house over the past 24 hours.

5. "We don't really know our own employees."
Consumers typically leave their key -- and their otherwise unoccupied home -- in the hands of housekeepers on the day of a scheduled cleaning. But not all consumers are keen to do so. Horror stories, such as the one about a San Francisco-area woman who was stabbed to death a few years ago by a carpet cleaner, only compound those anxieties. How can you feel comfortable about who's entering your home? First, make sure the agency has cross-checked a worker's documentation to verify his or her true identity. Then, at a minimum, confirm that the company runs background checks to look for felony and misdemeanor convictions for the past seven years. It also helps if an agency reviews each applicant's credit history, as well as prior employment and previous judgments against him or her.

Unfortunately, background-check services such as LexisNexis-PeopleWise aren't always available for homeowners looking to check out a self-employed house cleaner. In that case, contact your state's attorney general to ask what kind of checks are available in your state. Some states have a bureau of criminal identification, which can run checks for as little as $10 or $15, but the subject of a check must consent first.

6. "We're bonded, but that means nothing."
Background checks notwithstanding, in the event that a housekeeper steals from you, you're likely to see little or no reimbursement for your loss. While most housekeeping agencies are bonded -- typically enabling them to offer $25,000 in property damage or loss protection -- taking advantage of that coverage is an uphill climb. "Getting bonded means absolutely nothing" for a cleaning service, says ARCP's Phillips. "It just means that (if an employee is) arrested, tried and found guilty, then the bonding company will pay for a customer's property. But they have to go through all of that first." If they're not arrested, it's a cleaning-service employee's word against yours.

If something disappears and you feel certain that it was stolen, your best bet is to file a police report immediately in order to start the process early. A good preemptive defense, beyond background checks, is to give preference to companies that use cleaning "teams," in which two to four cleaners, including one supervisor, come to your home at the same time to divide tasks. Not only does that make your cleaning more time-efficient, but also, employees are less likely to steal or be careless under a supervisor's watchful eye.

7. "We don't speak your language."
Linda Arroz, a Los Angeles-based fitness and fashion expert, likes her twice-a-week housekeeper. There's only one problem: a total lack of communication. Over the past year, since Arroz hired the self-employed Spanish-speaking housekeeper, the language barrier has caused several mistakes -- from assuming anything in a spray bottle was Windex to tossing a Mongolian fur jacket in the dryer and having it shrink to a quarter of its size. "That was probably a several-hundred-dollar loss," Arroz says.

Arroz has grown to tolerate her maid's mistakes, but many homeowners wouldn't be so forgiving. Short of hiring a translator, you can request an English-speaking maid from the service you're using, but getting one may not always be easy. A large portion of the housekeeping industry today is made up of immigrant workers -- as much as 50% just at Molly Maid.

Instead, it's another good reason to use companies that clean in teams, where at least one person always speaks English. Another good tactic: Call the service with special requests the night before, and have supervisors type them in Spanish, or whatever language the workers speak, for its housekeepers going out the next day.

8. "I'll work under the table -- but you'll pay if we're caught."
It's tempting to slash your cleaning costs by forgoing the bigger cleaning services and hiring a self-employed housekeeper. Self-employed cleaners typically charge only from $12 to about $25 an hour -- pretty cheap compared with the $75 you could pay for a couple hours' work per week from a big or franchised service.

But those cheaper fees can be deceptive. If you pay an individual $1,400 a year or more in cash wages, you're usually required to pay that person's Social Security and Medicare taxes, which will add about 15% to your tally; you may also need to pay state taxes or even federal unemployment taxes. Bottom line: Paying an individual $15 an hour for, say, four hours a week can amount to a yearly wage of $3,120, plus taxes upwards of $500.

Of course, the easy way out is to pay a maid in cash under the table, which many people do. But if you get caught, you'll likely owe the IRS back taxes and, if you knowingly employed an illegal worker, face penalties upwards of $1,500. If you use a service that hires maids illegally, penalties will fall on its shoulders.

9. "If I get hurt, you could feel the pain."
Mary Knox came home one day last summer to find an ambulance in her driveway. As it turned out, her housekeeper had fallen while jumping over the garage door opener's electronic beam and had broken her hip, requiring surgery. Fortunately for Knox, the housekeeper had Medicare, which paid for 80% of the surgery, and supplemental insurance picked up the rest.

You can't count on being that lucky. Homeowner policies cover some, but not all, workers who enter your home. You could tack on an umbrella policy to your existing homeowner's plan, but some don't kick in until your losses are high -- say, $500,000 on a $5 million policy.

If you have a cleaner who comes regularly and doesn't work just for you, make sure to get a written agreement that states he or she is an independent contractor and that you are not responsible for his or her taxes, Social Security or worker's compensation insurance. It's safer, however, to use a service that carries a few key forms of insurance. For starters, look for general liability, which covers damage to a home or homeowner, and typically ranges from $300,000 to $2 million. Most important, though, is making sure the service has worker's compensation, which covers any injuries a maid may sustain while on your property and pays for lost wages so that an employee won't be tempted to sue you.

10. "We don't always stand behind our mistakes."
Many bathroom cleaning products contain acid, which can permanently damage certain surfaces. Especially marble, as Jeff Campbell, owner of the Clean Team, a cleaning company in San Francisco, knows all too well. Two years ago one of his employees destroyed a customer's marble countertop when she washed it with an acid-based product. Campbell says he accepted full responsibility, paying a team of marble refinishers $5,000 for repairs.

Not every service, however, will do the same, whether it's acid on your counter, bleach on your carpet or a piece of broken furniture. While larger companies are likely to pay for seemingly minor damage -- say, broken dishes -- they are often technically able to absolve themselves of responsibility for franchisees if they choose to do so.

While you can always sue a company, it's easier and cheaper to try mediation first and then arbitration. You can call on the Better Business Bureau, which handled 811 complaints against cleaning services in 2003. Initial mediation is always free, and at most local bureaus, arbitration is as well. Disputes are typically resolved within 60 days, and most are legally binding. You can find a bureau near you at www.bbb.org.