Make Your Life Easier: Housecleaners

Good housecleaners are hard to find. Here's help.

By: Leslie Milk

One lesson I learned at Mother's knee: Everybody cares about a clean house, but nobody cares who cleans it.

If you'd rather be reading or even getting a root canal than scrubbing the bathroom floor, you can hire someone to clean. The most common choices are an individual cleaner and a cleaning service. There are advantages to each.

A cleaning service, such as Merry Maids or Maid Brigade, generally sends a team of at least two people with their own equipment and supplies. Employees are usually insured, which means you'll be compensated if anything is stolen or damaged.

A team can get the work done faster and is more able to move furniture than is one cleaning person. Some services send the same team every time, so they get to know how you like things done.

Because the crew works for the service and not for you, the company is responsible for checking immigration status and deducting Social Security. Also, a service can accommodate an erratic schedule--say, if you travel frequently--more easily than a single employee can.

Ask about the products they use; some firms use caustic chemicals or bleach. If this is a problem, say so.

Ask what is included in a standard cleaning. Most dust, vacuum, empty trash, mop floors, and clean the kitchen and bathrooms. Services consider tasks like cleaning the oven or the refrigerator extra.

You'll pay more for a cleaning service. A four-bedroom, 2H-bath house with no pets can run $174 for a weekly cleaning, versus $75 to $85 through an individual cleaner. Most firms will quote a price over the phone; if you are looking for a long-term relationship, it pays to get a few in-home estimates.

Many homeowners are more comfortable hiring an individual cleaner who gets to know them and their house. You can make your own list of tasks and have her clean your house the way you like. Besides standard chores, a cleaner will often change bed linens, do laundry, clean the oven, wipe down the inside of the refrigerator, and polish silver. You provide the cleaning supplies, which allows you to control what's used.

Some homeowners who travel frequently pay for the weeks they are away even if the cleaner doesn't come, feeling it is unfair to penalize the cleaner.

If you pay your cleaner $1,400 a year or more, provide the supplies, and spell out the work to be done, the cleaner is your employee, according to the Internal Revenue Service. You are responsible for making sure the person can work legally in the United States, for withholding federal income taxes, and for paying Social Security and Medicare taxes. The taxes are 15.3 percent of cash wages. You must also pay federal unemployment tax and file an annual W-2 form with the Social Security Administration. It can all get quite complicated, so the IRS puts out a guide, Publication 926, available online at www.irs.gov.

With an individual cleaner, you have the reassurance that someone you know is in your house. Once you develop a relationship, it can be harder to criticize if you don't like the way something is done.

A cleaner usually doesn't have liability insurance. If you are worried about damage to something, you can ask a cleaner not to move or clean it--or just put it away. My husband, Benjamin, doesn't like to have the chaos in his study disturbed, so when a cleaner comes, he shuts the door.

Will a cleaner or cleaning service do it as well as you would? Probably not. You can expect them to get the cobwebs but not go after the grout with a toothbrush or get on their knees to scrub the kitchen floor so clean you could eat off it. But when was the last time you ate off the kitchen floor?

How to Find Good Help

These cleaning services were top-rated for quality by Washington Consumers' Checkbook magazine. Although some, like Maid Brigade, have multiple locations, these offices were the ones that scored highest in a survey of Checkbook readers.

Americlean, 703-281-6775. In Virginia.

The Broom Closet, 703-790-5722. Serves Arlington, Falls Church, McLean, and Vienna.

DomestiCall, 703-578-0454. In DC, Virginia, and Maryland.

Huff-n-Puff Cleaning Service, 301-571-8222. DC and Montgomery County.

Lilly's Cleaning Service, 301-990-4179. Covers Montgomery County.

Maid Brigade, 301-946-5500. In Montgomery County.

Merry Maids, 301-869-6243. Works in Montgomery County.

The best way to find a housecleaner is to ask friends or neighbors--individual cleaners get work by word of mouth.

These nonprofit agencies also can help you find an individual cleaner:

Change Inc., 202-387-3725

Jubilee Jobs, 202-667-7390

Neighbors Consejo, 202-234-6855

Spanish Catholic Centers: in DC, 202-939-2415; in Silver Spring, 301-431-3773; in Gaithersburg, 301-417-9113.