Clean House

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How to hire a housekeeper without being taken to the cleaners.

Gone are the days of housekeepers being the sole province of movie stars and wealthy society matrons. As our lives become ever more hectic, Americans of all stripes—dual-income households, a growing elderly population, harried new mothers, single women with disposable incomes—are seeking respite from bathtub rings in record numbers.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, more than 10 percent of all American households have paid a professional service to clean their homes. The Association of Residential Cleaning Services International reports that residential cleaning (accounting for 28 percent of the 1.4 million cleaning jobs in the United States) is the fastest growing segment of the cleaning industry, with more and more consumers viewing it not as a luxury, but as a necessity.

In Sacramento, the number of housekeeping services hanging out a shingle has increased significantly during the past decade. Ken Kanady, co-owner of Klassy Kleaning in Sacramento, attributes the rise not only to the aforementioned sociological trends, but also to the recent housing boom.

Lisa Wilson, owner of Lisa’s Housekeeping Personnel Agency in Sacramento, has seen more variety recently in the types of people who hire housekeepers.

“We’ve got everyone,” she says. “Little old ladies living on Social Security, clients with five or six cars in the driveway, the occasional celebrity and new moms. Most of our clients—about 70 percent—are families. There are a lot more working moms.”

What Does a Housekeeper Do?

While having a housekeeper may sound like heaven, there are several things a consumer should know before handing over the dust cloth. Because the residential cleaning industry is relatively young, there aren’t as of yet any official industry standards or certification programs. (ARCSI is working on it.) Anyone can advertise housekeeping services—so you never know whom or what you’re going to get. (And when you think about giving this person a key to your home, that can be scary.)

Even so, you can expect reputable cleaning services to hold themselves to reasonably high standards. According to ARCSI, any cleaning service worth its salt should offer a comprehensive list of services. Routine cleaning should include all surfaces in the kitchen, bathrooms, living areas, bedrooms and floors, as well as vacuuming and wet mopping. But unfortunately for homeowners with streaky panes, “I don’t do windows” is more than a cultural catchphrase. It happens to be true of the majority of local housekeepers we interviewed, who cite as the reason the liability of mounting a ladder. In addition, most housekeepers won’t do dishes or laundry (although some will wash linens) or clean up after pets.

What Price Cleanliness

Among the most important considerations when hiring a housekeeper, for most people, is the price. Here in Sacramento, prices range from about $40 to $150 per visit depending on the size of the house and whether the housekeeper is an independent contractor or is employed by an agency. (Agencies usually cost more.) But, as one local homeowner has concluded, you don’t always get what you pay for.

“I’ve paid a ton of money for some housekeepers, and a little money for others, and it makes no difference,” she says. “You can get a bad one even if you pay $20 an hour or a very good one for a lot less. But I do believe that the more you pay, the more you can demand.”

Finding the Right Housekeeper

“It’s almost like finding a spouse,” Wilson says of finding a good housekeeper. “Sometimes you go through a lot of bad seeds before you find the perfect one.”

Housekeeping services range from individuals to referral services (which screen and refer independent contractors in exchange for a cut of their pay) to agencies that count their housekeepers as employees. Whichever route you take, be sure the housekeeper has several years’ experience, has references and is insured, experts advise.

Before calling anyone, it helps to be clear about your needs and expectations. How often do you need your home cleaned? How long do you expect the service to take? Do you have a list of areas that need to be cleaned each time? Which details are most important to you? What safety concerns do you have? Are you concerned about the chemicals the housekeeper will be using or the liability of having someone work in your home? What time of day will you need your home cleaned?

Once you’ve clarified what’s important to you, start asking around. Word of mouth is the best way to locate a good housekeeper, homeowners and cleaning experts agree. Questions should include: How long have you used the person? Does the person show up for work on time? What services are done and how thoroughly? Are you satisfied you’re getting a good value? Have you had trouble with breakage, scratches or stains caused by improper cleaning? Is your housekeeper honest?

Many customers prefer to interview candidates before hiring, but it’s not absolutely necessary. Says Jackie Rookard, manager of Dana’s Housekeeping Personnel Service in Sacramento, “The best interview a housekeeper can do is go out and clean the client’s home. They may be the greatest people in the world to talk to, but if they don’t meet your cleaning needs, then they’re not the person for you.”

Once You’ve Hired

From the moment you hire a housekeeper, your expectations should be clearly delineated. But what are the housekeeper’s expectations of you? Do you have to tidy the house before she comes?

Some clients do, and some don’t.

One customer believes it’s the housekeeper’s job. “I used to clean before she came, but I don’t anymore. I didn’t want her to see what a slob I really am,” she says. “Now I’ve gotten to the point of saying, ‘This is the way I am.’ If I clean before she comes, then I’m working for her and paying her, too.”

Another client views the situation differently. “I always straighten before the housekeeper comes,” she says.
“My husband gets so mad, but I don’t want her wasting time making my bed. I want clean floors and toilets.”

Housekeepers say they appreciate it when a client picks up the house beforehand because it helps them do a better job.

Wilson says, “The housekeeper is there to clean your house. If she has to spend a lot of time organizing it, that takes away from the cleaning.”

Indeed, tidying up beforehand is one of the best ways to keep your housekeeper looking forward to coming, local cleaners say. (Hint: You’ll probably get better service, too. One housekeeper ranks her clients as ranging from “special needs”—aka slobs—to immaculate. “You do your best job on the immaculate homes,” she says. “You can’t do an excellent job for a special-needs client. You won’t get anywhere.”)

Of course, tips, bonuses and gifts are another great way to keep your housekeeper happy. According to ARCSI, you should tip only if you feel you are receiving great service. Never feel like you have to tip, and never tip in hopes of receiving better service.

Most local clients do reward their housekeepers regularly.

“You see a lot of generous gifts at Christmastime,” Wilson says. “A lot of our ladies will get $50 to $100 from clients. One gentleman gave one of our housekeepers a $5,000 bonus. It brought her to tears. She was like a surrogate daughter to him.”

Other welcome gifts can include furniture or appliances the homeowner no longer wants but that a housekeeper may not be able to afford.

“I always ask if my housekeeper wants something of mine before I donate it to charity,” says Sheryl Bray of Rancho Murieta. “It makes me feel good because I know she can use it.”

The Housekeeper’s Perspective

Housekeepers tend to be a special breed of people. Who else gets their thrills from making faucets gleam and toilets sparkle?

“I love to clean. I did it as a kid. I would go to friends’ homes and convince them to clean before their mom and dad came home,” says Wilson.

Shannon Stecker, a housekeeper who is registered with Wilson’s agency, can relate: “I like to dust and vacuum,” she says. “If the client has a shag carpet, I love making the V pattern with the vacuum.”

When a client goes out of his or her way to acknowledge a job well done, well, it doesn’t get any better than that, local housekeepers tell us. “Make yourself comfortable,” “Help yourself to the fridge” and “If you don’t get it all done today, I’ll understand” also are music to a housekeeper’s ears.

But—and there’s a big but here—housekeepers have yet to figure out how to clean up the messes made by ignorance, ridiculous expectations or just plain rudeness on the part of some clients. Here, local residential cleaners vent about what they wish you knew.

They’re not maids. “I’m a housekeeper,” says one woman. “A couple of times one of my clients, the husband, called out to his wife, ‘The maid’s here!’ That bothers me. I don’t live there. I don’t clean every day for them.”

They hate being treated as inferior. “People think that because you’re doing housekeeping, that’s all you can do, and that’s not true. For people to judge you is sad,” says one cleaning woman.

Another housekeeper feels degraded when someone walks over a floor she’s scrubbing or through a patio door she’s wiping, not bothering to say, “Excuse me.”

“There’s no respect there,” she says.

They don’t like being shadowed.
“It’s nerve-racking,” says one housekeeper. “This happens a lot with elderly clients who are set in their ways. They want things done a certain way, and they follow you to make sure you’re doing it their way.”

They don’t need hand-holding. 
“One thing I don’t like,” one housecleaner says, “is when a client walks me through the house and explains every little thing I have to clean. I don’t need to be told to clean the inside and the outside of the toilet. It’s almost insulting.”

They find total slobs irritating
. Says one cleaning woman, “I have picked a week’s worth of food-encrusted dishes out of the sink, scrubbed the sink and put the dirty dishes back into the sink. I don’t want to be taken advantage of. I want to be respected.”

They don’t mind other people’s dirt. But if it’s too gross, please spare them. “I’ve cleaned a lot of things that would make other people’s stomachs turn,” one housekeeper says. “Toilets that look like someone’s exploded in them, homes where people have died or were murdered in. Blood doesn’t bother me. But a garbage can where someone has left rotten food—that bothers me very much. I do the whole gagging thing.

And if it has maggots in it—well, one time I actually let the client finish the job. In general, though, it takes a lot to bother me. As long as the client is good to me, and as long as I’ve got gloves, I’ll do anything.”

They’re human beings, too. “We’ve had a lot of incidences over the years where clients have been blatantly rude,” says an owner of a local housekeeping agency. “One client asked one of our housekeepers to socialize and play with her dog in addition to cleaning the house. The housekeeper tried to accommodate her, but had not grown up with dogs and was not a dog person. The lady got very upset with her, asked her to leave and slammed the door on her. Please remember that housekeepers are people, too, and please be polite.”

They hate it when you argue in front of them.
“When you’ve had a client long enough, they feel comfortable enough to be themselves—sometimes too comfortable,” one housecleaner says. “I don’t like it when clients fight with each other in the home. It makes the housekeeper feel extremely uncomfortable, like she has to walk on eggshells.”

They won’t always meet expectations. “Homeowners should realize that it’s not going to be perfect the very first time. We’d like for it to be, but there are so many expectations. We can’t read their minds,” says Kanady. “Along those same lines, if your house is a little older, when you hire a housecleaning service to come in, they’re not going to take off three or four years’ worth of dirt and make it look brand-new.”

They cringe when you bad-mouth previous housekeepers. “It’s in bad taste,” one housekeeper says. “And you feel extra pressure, because automatically they’ve got this tunnel vision and you feel like you’re being set up for failure.”

They’ll never be able to please certain people. Kanady says, “We’ve had some people come to us who’ve said, ‘We’ve been through four or five housekeeping services and we haven’t been happy.’ To me, that’s a sign that you’d better do it yourself because you’re just too picky.”

 

Housekeeper and Client: A Tricky Relationship

For years, she’s wiped the hair out of your sink and folded your underwear. She knows things about you that even your best friends don’t know. And you—you’ve had lengthy chats with your housekeeper while she was dusting, or perhaps even over a cup of coffee. You know her children, her pets’ names, and about her latest troubles with her marriage or her sick mother.

It’s not your typical boss-employee relationship.

So what is your housekeeper to you anyway? Your friend? Your confidante? Your partner? Part of your family? Your subordinate? Often, it’s all of the above, and the fuzzy distinctions between roles can create havoc when it’s time to get down to real business, as many local home-owners have discovered.

Most homeowners we talked to who hire housekeeping help admit to feeling a bit squeamish about the concept of having someone clean up after them. After all, we’re supposed to be an egalitarian, self-sufficient society and, somehow, having someone scrub our toilets seems neither egalitarian nor self-sufficient, even if we pay them handsomely.

“I’m a little bothered by the maid thing. It’s like, who am I?” says a rural Elk Grove woman who gets weekly help with her 6,000-square-foot-house. “But it’s nice not to have to clean.”

Women, especially, often can’t bring themselves to be the boss. They have trouble telling their housekeepers what to do and falter when it comes time for constructive criticism. And fire the housekeeper? To these women, it’s the very definition of guilt.

“The hardest thing I’ve ever done was fire my housekeeper,” says one local woman who’d become close to her cleaner despite what she considered the cleaner’s poor job performance. “I felt like I’d been taking care of her. I had a hard time because I knew her kids and her family.”

Another local woman feels she can’t fire her housekeeper because . . . well, that’d be like firing a beloved family member.

“My housekeeper started out being a good housekeeper but became lazy,” she says. “One day, I found her with her foot on a cloth, eating Top Ramen and watching a soap opera. She’s driving us crazy! We call her the worst housekeeper in the world. But we can’t let her go because we love her. She’s been so much a part of our lives for so long. She’s a kind person, and I never want to turn kind people away. I have to ask myself, do I want a spic-and-span house or more kind people in my life? So now I do what I call stealth cleaning. I hire people to clean behind her back.”

How do you avoid these types of situations? Local housekeeping experts say it’s best to frame the relationship on more professional terms.

“I keep my distance, and my clients do, too,” says one housecleaner. “Some ask questions about my life, and others just talk about the weather or the Kings. And that’s fine.”

Wilson of Lisa’s Housekeeping Personnel Agency sums it up this way: “I like to refer to housekeepers as co-workers. They’re helping you get your work done.”

Independent or Agency?

Overwhelmed about where to start looking for a housekeeper? Should you dial one of those agencies with a charmingly alliterative moniker or try to track down what’s-her-name who works for your sister’s boss’s mother-in-law (who’s a lot cheaper and supposedly does windows)? Each has its pros and cons. Check them out here before you make that first phone call.

Why You Might Hire an Independent Contractor

• Independent contractors, being in business for themselves, are likely to have more flexible schedules than agency workers. 

•  With the same cleaner coming to your home every time, you have the opportunity to build a more personal relationship, which can be deeply rewarding to both parties. The housekeeper becomes familiar with your needs and expectations, which leads to better satisfaction on both sides.

•  An independent is more likely to indulge special requests or give the client a pleasant surprise. Martina Miranda, owner of Miranda’s Housekeeping Services in Sacramento, will make a bed or clean a refrigerator (something most agencies won’t do) if she has time and is comfortable with the client. She’s even been known to rearrange the décor in a client’s home—and hasn’t heard a complaint yet.

•  In general, independent housekeepers are less expensive than an agency.

Why You Might Not
•  You have to do a considerable amount of legwork to make sure the person you’re hiring is reputable. You can run a background check yourself by using a service such as ChoiceTrust (choice
trust.com), which can provide a crime record search and identity verification.

•  You may not be guaranteed the level of protection an agency can offer. If the individual you hire doesn’t take care of the taxes they owe on the money you pay them, you can be held liable for the taxes. And an individual who is working under the table is a serious risk if she’s injured or disabled while working in your home. If she’s not covered under worker’s compensation, she could sue you for lost wages, damages and medical costs. (It’s important to review your homeowner’s liability insurance to make sure it covers service people in the event of an injury and to notify your insurance company of your situation.)

•  Independent housekeepers aren’t known for their writtencommunication; most have oral agreements with their clients. To help avoid disputes, it’s important to compose a written agreement covering wages, duties and hours. If your housekeeper doesn’t speak English, find someone who can translate the terms of the agreement.

•  Many independents don’t supply their own cleaning products and equipment, so you have the added responsibility of keeping your house well-stocked and your cleaning equipment in good repair.

•  If the housekeeper is sick or is unable to come to work for any reason, you’re out of luck until she returns.

•  If you decide to fire your housekeeper, you have to confront her personally. This can be difficult if she’s become close to you.

Why You Might Hire an Agency
• Many screen their employees. (But not all companies do adequate criminal background checks. Ask the service to show you a sample background check so you can be sure it includes a multistate search of criminal records and verification of the person’s identity.)

• You’re likely to be protected against worker injury claims, property damage and theft. (Again, check it out. A reputable cleaning service should carry worker’s compensation insurance and liability insurance and be bonded. But it’s worth noting that you can file a claim against a bonding company only after the person has been caught, tried and convicted of stealing—which is rare.)

• Top national franchises such as Merry Maids offer training for new hires. (But be careful; the majority don’t teach employees how to use cleaning products. One Elk Grove homeowner found her cherry-wood furniture ruined after her housekeeper wiped it with Windex.)

• Franchise cleaners usually detail their services and fees in writing.

• Agency workers often work in supervised teams, which discourages dawdling and snooping.

• Agencies usually provide their own cleaning products and equipment. Those with experience know which products work best and how to use them, relieving you of the guesswork.

• Many agencies strive to make the perfect match. Says Jackie Rookard, manager of Dana’s Housekeeping Personnel Service in Sacramento, “Some housekeepers are great with the elderly, others are not. Some do great in the house with 10 little kids running around, others don’t. The way we make matches is knowing our people.”

• If your housekeeper quits or isn’t doing a good job, she can be replaced with a professionally trained employee, without any effort on your part.

• If your housekeeper can’t make it to work, it is the policy of most agencies to send someone else as soon as possible.

• You can terminate your housekeeper without a lot of emo-tional anguish. Just let the agency handle it.

Why You Might Not

• You may not get the same cleaner or cleaners every time, so the service is less personal. Also, it can be frustrating trying to communicate your expectations to a different person or team each time. (If you like the service, however, many companies will make an effort to send the same person or team each time. Just let them know.)

• An agency is likely to be more expensive than an indepen-dent.

• Agencies usually don’t deviate from their routines, so if you want something special done, you may have to look elsewhere. (But talk to the agency first. Sometimes they’ll accommodate you.)

You’re Fired!

Many housekeepers bust their buns to please. But what if you’renot satisfied with your housekeeper? Tales abound from local clients willing to spill about their housekeeping woes, with offenses ranging from mildly irritating to termination-worthy.

One of the biggest reasons clients become dissatisfied with their cleaning help is what they perceive as sloppy performance.

“I have had my share of housekeepers in the past,” says one Sacramento woman. “I found that I cleaned more than they did most of the time, if I was not there to see what was going on. I have probably fired more housekeepers than most people have ever had. [My husband and I] travel so much, and it got to the point where they were stopping by, dusting the entrance hall, picking up the check and leaving.”

Another customer hasn’t yet found anyone who could clean to her standards. “Don’t expect perfection,” she cautions. “They don’t clean like you would. If you saw a smudge on the door, you’d wipe it off, wouldn’t you? But they walk right by it. It’s not their home.”

Besides poor job performance, dishonesty ranks highly as one of the reasons clients would let a housekeeper go. One client’s husband used to leave money lying around the house as “bait” (fortunately, the housekeeper passed the test), and another client says she fired a housekeeper because she suspected her of stealing a pair of earrings.

Other behaviors may be irksome, but perhaps not grounds for firing. One customer and her husband came home to find that their housekeeper had been working on their picture puzzle rather than spending the time cleaning. Another was bothered by evidence of her housekeeper’s bringing her children to her home. (Her husband’s bucket of golf balls had been dumped out and some of their Halloween candy was missing.)

“She also cleaned my medicine cabinet, which rankled me,” the client says. “I’d rather she did something else.”

So how should a customer handle situations like these?

Call your service or let the housekeeper know—and don’t delay, experts recommend. A good service will welcome your comments and do everything they can to correct the situation, whether that means sending a crew back within 24 to 48 hours or making a note to catch the problem next time.

“I appreciate it when a customer gives us the opportunity to remedy the situation,” says Ken Kanady, owner of Klassy Kleaning in Sacramento.

So does Lisa Wilson, owner of Lisa’s Housekeeping Personnel Agency in Sacramento. Open communication, she says, is essential to resolving problems (especially if you’re nice about it).

“My advice is to talk positively with your housekeeper or leave a positive note,” she says. “It’s negative to say, ‘You did a horrible job!’ The positive way to say the same thing would be, ‘My sink requires a lot of elbow grease. Would you mind spending some extra time on it?’ If you like your housekeeper and this is someone you want to continue to have coming to your home, then being polite is key.”

If you find that you do need to fire your housekeeper, it’s best to be upfront about the reason, especially when dealing with an agency, which values feedback from its customers.

“We want 100 percent truth on why you’re making a change,” Wilson says.

But in the case of an individual who’s become close to your family, this, of course, is easier said than done. In this instance, many customers decide to fudge on the truth.

“I take the easy way out and say I don’t need their services anymore,” says one. “You don’t want any retribution.”

Another client says, “I lied to my housekeeper. I told her my daughter had given me a gift certificate to [another cleaning service]. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.”