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10 things house cleaners won't tell you

Before you pay a stranger to make your home bright and shiny, you might want consider these points before you open your door and wallet.

By MSN Money producer Oct 8, 2013 8:03PM

This post comes from Jonnelle Marte at partner site MarketWatch. MarketWatch on MSN Money


No. 1: 'We tidy up your closets, but good luck finding the skeletons in ours'


As more Americans find themselves with less time to take care of their homes, it's becoming more common for people to hire professional help. But for the average person who doesn't know how to run a background check, verifying the identity of the person they're letting into their homes — and ruling out candidates with questionable records — can be tough.


Amber Gillespie needed a new housekeeper when she moved to Arizona last year from California. So she decided to work with someone recommended by an acquaintance. The woman said she was bonded and insured under her own cleaning company, but when Gillespie looked her up online, she discovered that she actually worked at an unrelated home-service business. It turned out she wasn't insured as a housekeeper at all. After that, "I had a really hard time trusting her," says Gillespie. "I basically asked her not to come back."


Gillespie says the experience was a lesson in how hard it can be to vet a person who is going to have access to your home. Some companies will go through the process of verifying that a person is legal to work in the U.S. and checking if they've had any criminal or credit issues in the past. Chris Rall, owner of the Golden Shine Cleaning agency in California, says his company only works with employees who have clean records. (Some states restrict employers from using background checks and credit checks.)


Anyone trying to vet a housekeeper on their own should ask for multiple references and discuss liability insurance up front, says Ernie Hartong, executive director of the Association of Residential Cleaning Services International, or ARCSI, a trade group for the residential cleaning services industry. Even those going through larger cleaning agencies should ask about what specific steps the company is taking to verify a worker's identity.


No. 2: 'Prepare for sticker shock'


Thinking about hiring a pro to spiff up your home? Be prepared to pay up for that first visit. Cleaning companies will often charge more than their typical rates for the initial deep cleaning, and then have lower rates for the standard service. For instance, it generally costs $85 to $120 to clean a four-bedroom, two-bathroom house, according to industry pros. That first deep cleaning, however, can cost up to $200.


Housecleaner © Colin Anderson/Getty ImagesOf course, there's a reason for the price differential. Cleaning companies say that after the initial deep cleaning, visits are more a matter of maintenance than heavy lifting. The staff might use that first visit to move most of the furniture to vacuum underneath and dust off the ceiling fans, tasks that can be done less frequently or alternated in follow-up visits. And housekeepers can work more efficiently once they get to know a property, industry pros say.


But not all new customers have to pay a premium for the first visit, and clients should be able to specify what tasks they want the cleaners to focus on. "You may be able to skip that first deep clean if your home is in above average shape," says Hartong.


No. 3: 'We are more about speed than thoroughness'


Many housekeepers will whiz through a property if they feel pressured to get through multiple homes in one day. That speed can sometimes lead workers to miss spots, break things or just do a subpar job.


It was that sense of rushing that lead Michelle Tennant Nicholson, a public relations specialist near Asheville, N.C., to fire her cleaning company earlier this year. The first cleaning Nicholson received with a large cleaning company was "fabulous," she says. With a manager supervising their work, the staff brought their own supplies and gave her two-bedroom, two-bathroom cabin a good scrubbing. But on following visits, workers often left dog hair on her bedroom floor or failed to clean behind the toilet in her bathroom. "Unless I was watching them, they would take shortcuts." she says. (Nicholson is now using a self-employed housekeeper referred by a friend, and she says she likes being able to talk to the individual directly, rather than a management company, about which tasks need to be done each week and what can be skipped over.)


To prevent his staff from doing rushed, careless work, Mark Kushinsky, chief executive of MaidPro, a cleaning franchise with offices throughout the U.S. and parts of Canada, says he assigns small crews of one or two employees to each property, since customers generally expect larger crews to finish a job more quickly. The small crews also remain responsible for the same properties on repeat visits, which allows the workers to get to know the homeowners over time and adjust the service based on what that customer needs, he says: "It's just a more personal clean." Many cleaning companies also create checklists of tasks cleaning crews must complete at each visit.


No. 4: 'That is, if our workers even know what they're doing'


Excited about hosting her family's annual Christmas party a few years ago, Katherine Ibarra decided to get help cleaning up her new South Florida townhouse. But the housekeeper she found through a local cleaning company seemed unprofessional. For instance, the cleaner accidentally left a Windex soaked rag on top of the mattress when she made the bed. "I couldn't get the chemical smell out of the mattress so I had to flip it until I could replace it," says Ibarra. The maid also didn't clean under any furniture or dust on top of the bookshelves.


Hartong, of trade group ARCSI, says many cleaning agencies are educating their workers about the best methods for cleaning various surfaces and recognizing the benefits of specialized supplies like microfiber cloths and mops with special bristles. The association recently launched a training program that covers safety and basic chemistry that has seen high demand, says Hartong.


No. 5: 'I can work under the table, but it's you who will be on the hook'


Some homeowners may be tempted to slash cleaning costs by hiring a self-employed housekeeper instead of turning to a larger cleaning company. And with some individuals charging $10 to $25 an hour, compared with the $30 to $40 typically charged by some cleaning companies, the savings can indeed be substantial.


But those cheaper fees could result in a bigger check to the tax man. Anyone paying a household employee cash wages of more than $1,800 a year is normally required to pay that worker's Social Security and Medicare taxes, which could add another 8% to the bill, not including the taxes the housekeeper is responsible for. For example, someone hiring a housekeeper at $20 an hour for, say, four hours a week would end up paying an annual wage of $4,160, and they would owe an additional $320 in payroll taxes.


Many people try to avoid the hassle by paying their housekeepers in cash, but if they get caught, they could owe the IRS back taxes and other penalties. If you're hiring a cleaning service, make sure that it will be handling its employees' wages and taxes, or that its workers are independent contractors who do their own taxes.


No. 6: 'My injuries will hurt you too'


Homeowners may be on the hook for medical bills incurred by housekeepers who get injured in their homes. Gillespie found herself paying a few hundred dollars out of pocket two years ago when her previous housekeeper in California cut his hand trying to save a crystal vase from falling on the floor. She wasn't aware until he got injured that he didn't have health insurance. Gillespie says she didn't think to ask about his insurance status, since she originally hired him through a large cleaning company, but she says it's a topic she wishes she had brought up sooner.


While most homeowners insurance policies will cover injuries incurred by people on a property, many will limit coverage for someone who is considered an employee of the household, experts say. Some homeowners may find that it is easier to settle the bills privately, than to file a claim; that's what Gillespie decided to do. But such an incident could leave them spending hundreds or thousands of dollars out-of-pocket.


ARCSI says consumers should ask cleaning agencies if their housekeepers carry workers' compensation insurance, which should cover any injuries workers might suffer while on the job. Some states will require companies to offer the coverage if they have a certain number of employees. Also ask whether the agencies carry general liability insurance, which should cover any damage a housekeeper might do to your property.


No. 7: 'We don't always make up for our mistakes'


Tracy Bagatelle-Black, a publicist in Los Angeles, had a team of housekeepers making their monthly visit to her 2,000-square-foot home a few years ago when one of the maids snagged the vacuum on an electrical cord and knocked over a $300 glass lamp. At first, the small agency that hires the cleaners was reluctant to reimburse Bagatelle-Black for the damage, claiming it wasn't something they typically did for customers. The lamp was a model that was no longer being made and couldn't be replaced. But after she showed the company a receipt for the lamp and followed up with the owner, it agreed to write her a check.


Industry pros say the discussion about who will be responsible if something gets damaged should happen up front—not after the fact. Not all companies are prepared to reimburse homeowners if a housekeeper breaks an item or ruins a surface by using the wrong tool or chemical. Consumers might want to ask the company to sign a service agreement stating that the company will pay for damages up to a certain amount, says ARCSI's Hartong.


No. 8: 'Good luck if something disappears.'


Many cleaning agencies assuage customers' fears of getting robbed by pointing out that they're bonded — meaning they have a type of insurance that covers property damage or loss up to a certain amount. But some homeowners don't realize that may need to overcome several hurdles before that coverage would even kick in. Most times, an employee needs to be arrested, tried and found guilty before a bonding company will pay up —pitting the homeowner's word against that of the housekeeper's. "Bonding situations don't pay off unless there is a conviction," says Hartong.


Anyone who suspects their housekeeper stole one of their belongings should file a police report to get the investigation started as soon as possible, says MaidPro CEO Kushinsky. Kushinsky says his company will try to make customers whole, even without a conviction, if they determine one of their employees is at fault for missing or damaged property.


No. 9: 'We've gone high-tech, but not necessarily more efficient'


New Web-based companies are entering the market, promising to reduce the hassle of finding a housekeeper by making it easy to instantly book pre-vetted cleaning professionals. But consumers say the process isn't always so seamless. Cheryl Clements says it was easy to book a housekeeper for her apartment in New York City's West Village by using, a New York-based startup that helps people book cleaning staff or handymen online or via a smartphone app. She made the appointment online, received a confirmation email the day before the appointment, and was overall content with the cleaning. But when Clements tried to cancel an upcoming session before a vacation, first online and then by phone the day before the appointment, the housekeeper still showed up at the previously scheduled time. There were also some disputes over how much time housekeepers needed to clean her apartment.


To be sure, the complaints customers have about Web-based cleaning services may not differ much from the concerns they have over other cleaning companies. But concerns about scheduling can be common, with some consumers saying that while it is easy to book appointments, it can be difficult confirm scheduling changes or reach representatives on the phone.


Oisin Hanrahan, founder of Handybook, says the company is able to accommodate most scheduling changes with at least 24 hours advance notice. But with the company handling thousands of jobs a day around eight major U.S. cities, including New York, Boston, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia and San Francisco, mistakes can happen. Hartong says consumers should take the same precautions with the Web-based companies that they would with any cleaning service, asking questions about their vetting process, training and insurance policies.


No. 10: 'It isn't easy being green'


Ibarra, who owns a property maintenance company with her husband near Fort Lauderdale, Fla., made the switch to only organic cleaning products after her son was born last year. But her housekeeper struggled to adjust, sometimes not diluting the soap enough when she mopped her wooden floors. Other times she used too much water, messing up the floor boards. Ibarra found herself having to constantly redo the job, and five months ago decided to stop using the cleaning service. "In general, most maids seem clueless when it comes to organic," she says.


Indeed, a 2010 survey done by Ipsos for Procter & Gamble of 428 professionals who make cleaning-related decisions found that less than a quarter of them had guidelines in place to help their businesses to become more sustainable and environmentally responsible. While many professional housecleaners are willing to use organic cleaning products provided by homeowners, many aren't trained to properly use some of those products, says Hartong. But some companies are responding to increased consumer demand by adding more green products and training workers on the best ways to treat exotic home surfaces, he adds. And many cleaning companies are taking steps to be more environmentally friendly by recycling, carpooling and even introducing their own lines of "green" cleaning products.

More from MarketWatch:

Oct 9, 2013 4:50PM
 I have been in the cleaning business for over 12 years. I am the owner and operator. Some things are not true I never charge a big fee to clean first time in. It may be hard to find a good cleaner ,but  when you do keep them no matter what. Not all cleaners are out to screw you like this guy tells you. I Hate people who put down my occupation. Until he does it for a month he should shut up. Not all cleaners are bad.
Oct 9, 2013 2:35AM
Regular repeat house cleaner for a disabled relative stole all her valuable jewelry, several new dresses, and anything else she could get her hands on, then left town.  Police said, too bad, that happens all the time. 

A neighbor hired a handyman to do odd jobs.  He fell from a ladder, broke both ankles, and sued her, which her homeowner's policy handled--then raised her rates.

A friend sought to make some money by cleaning houses.  The firm she worked for told employees how to cheat on the job--wipe only what's visible, run vacuum only where it shows, and spray furniture polish into the air to make the customer think you polished all the furniture, not just the most obvious tabletops.  She quit.

Oct 9, 2013 5:00PM
Teach yourself and your family to clean after themselves. Spring clean in and out. It is good exercise.Clean before it gets out of hand. Generation X has not been taught basic cleaning of their living area. Too bad because the new economy is making it very hard to hire help. Unless you are handicapped or filthy rich, you should find time to clean your own mess. 
Oct 9, 2013 6:00PM

I'm with you on your statement Reiki4michael. I have been in business for 35 yrs and never had any of the things happen that has been written about. If we break it we pay for it that's that. I am also a member of the ARCSI. People who want us to use organic cleaner and don't want to pay for the extra time it takes to clean. If your home has not been properly cleaned with organic cleaners and you expect us to come in and clean with something new that you never used it makes our job harder. I am not just an owner I have my own client's list and we employ over 100 employees in two states. I still have clients for  30 yrs. same people seen there families come and go. You become part of there families and lives. Your house cleaner knows a lot more about you then you might think. We are the cheapest paid therapists around next to your hair dresser. We also know whats under your bed's down to the type of toilet paper you use. We see a lot and keep it confidential like a profesional should. Our policy is never talk about a client in front of another client or in public. It's office talk and thats it.

Oct 9, 2013 5:21PM
I prefer to hire a cleaning company, but not on a regular basis.  In many, but not all, cases, they will try to impress you the first time they clean.  After that, their job performance tends to deteriorate.  So I have them in a few times a year to do a "deep" cleaning.  After that, my husband and I keep up a decent cleaning for the  next few months.  Although the deep cleaning is expensive, this system works for us.
Oct 9, 2013 7:34PM
We and many friends have the same housekeeper. We are on a monthly schedule. She actually keeps a record of the 'extras'. Those are moving furniture to dust and mop, fans, baseboards, blinds and exterior window and door cleaning. She spends 6-7 hours at our house and does a top to bottom cleaning. We are retired and unable to do the 'heavy' cleaning. Of course we surface clean however heavy cleaning a 5 bedroom, 4 bath home is out of the question at our age. She has been with us for 12 years, charges a flat rate and is always on time, uses her own cleaning materials and vacuum. we have friends and neighbors who would love to hire her however she is very booked up and rarely takes on a new client.
Oct 9, 2013 5:12PM
I wonder why people are complaining about Walmart wages if housekeepers are making $10 to $40 an hour?  Seems like they would be quiting Walmart and start cleaning houses.
Oct 9, 2013 6:39PM
My wife wanted to hire these people, but in the end, if you didn't do work BEFORE they got there, the work they did was pretty useless.
The organics freaks can clean their houses themselves.
Oct 10, 2013 8:08AM
I have housecleaned and watched children for 35 yrs. and never had any of these problems. I charged by the job, the householder provided all the cleaning supplies and I used their own vacumn. (Because I wouldn't want my house cleaned with the vacumn that had been in multiple houses). I have never been bonded or insured. We all break things in our own homes. Unless your housecleaner is a clutz, something will break once in a while. To pay your own taxes, social security, pay for insurance, buy own cleaning equipment, there is no way you could make enough money cleaning, which is  hard work, to make it worthwhile. Better to work at Wal-mart for 9 dollars an hour. At any rate, everyone I worked for was alway very happy. If I did need to bring, for example, something I preferred, I did. I always did a little extra, because it was my choice, not a company I worked for. I now moved and my last client is still hoping I will move back. Housecleaning shouldn't be so complicated. But if you find a great person who works hard for you treat them well, and be generous with bonuses and you will both be happy.
Oct 10, 2013 10:18AM
My wife and I both grew up poor and even though we do ok in life the idea we would pay someone else to do our chores is confounding.
Oct 9, 2013 9:19PM
While it is true that there are many excellent and reputable businesses and employees in this field, it is just like any other in that there are both good and bad examples of both. The article here gives concrete examples of some of the problems that can (but not necessarily will) arise. Your self advertising of your business is good and if you were in my area I'd hire you, but not before taking the time to make some of the checks that are recommended in this article (and elsewhere).
Oct 10, 2013 8:16AM
Funny, I would always spend more time the first few times to get the house in the order I wanted it to be and never charged more. In the end it benefited us both. I made the money I wanted to make and made it easier on myself in the coming weeks. I never charged by the hour because some weeks I would see something needed more attention and there would be weeks that I could breeze through. So if there was a 45 min or half hour difference, shorter or longer it never mattered. It was always made up in the end. And the house gets the attention it needs when it needs it.
Oct 9, 2013 11:13PM
Due to a layoff I started cleaning a commercial build. The cleaner before me was obviously lazy but the owners didn't seem to mind, however I cleaned areas she didn't and they were very complimentary. With that said in another life I used to hire cleaners in two different areas one in a suburban setting, mostly okay cleaners but would get lazy after a while, so I would speak to them, if it didn't changed I'd hired a new cleaners not that hard there were always somebody to hire out there. At my summer home which was in a rural area I had the same cleaner for years.  She opened many of the summer houses and cleaned through the season. She was great I think I missed her more than my house when I sold! Hiring anybody for you home make sure they come recommended and insured, insured insured!!!! And check references even if you use an agency. In defense of cleaners some of these clients like organic Sally above you will never please no matter what you. Also the  tax issue most cleaners are independent contractors you don't pay their taxes.
Oct 10, 2013 12:14PM
 Some people can not clean their own houses - and it's not due to laziness. How about rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson's disease? Some people are physically unable to do thing like move furniture to vacuum underneath it. Should they give up their houses (or apartments)?
Oct 10, 2013 3:01PM

I felt weird hiring a housekeeper, but I'm glad I did. 


I work full time, and have pets (2 dogs, 2 cats).  I get a lot of dust in the cold season because I heat with a wood stove.  My house is pretty large for one person (my husband died last year), but it's not enormous.  I tried keeping up with it all myself for a while, but it took ALL my spare time just to do the routine stuff, and there were some things I really never got around to.  It was getting gross, and it was getting depressing. 


For me, it's really not about being lazy.  It's not mentally healthy for me to spend so much time cleaning that I can't do anything else - I need to learn to have fun again.  Even aside from my loss, though, why all the anger at people who choose not to clean their own house?  I'm giving someone a job!

Oct 10, 2013 1:44AM
I would NEVER have anyone strange in my house cleaning or doing my laundry.  No one can be trusted.  I have seen rich friends get screwed over and over by their hired help- it i really tragic because the people getting by with "stiffing" the rich friends can't speak good English and had no morals, but they make a bundle. 
Oct 10, 2013 10:33AM

scary....i don't want the hassle ofa  quick-rushed cleaning, stolen stuff, people hurt on my property, and worthless bonding. I will be cleaning my own home for years to come.


Another case of "the one holding the money" gets the shaft....and the cleaning workers are weighed to the ex-felon dishonest side. 

Oct 10, 2013 12:34PM
skibum609, some people are too old to do heavy cleaning and some people have bad backs that prevent them from scrubbing and mopping, that's why we hire someone to clean. I have used two different "professional" cleaning services over the years. Both did well for a few visits, then it was obvious they did just enough to try to fool me. My house just  became dirtier and dirtier. I always 
de-cluttered before they came and my house is probably kept cleaner than most on a daily basis, so I made their job easier. Yet, because I trusted them to do their job and didn't follow them around, they all stopped doing a good job after about 2 visits. I now use a lady recommended by a relative and she does a much better job, and no problems with thievery.
Oct 10, 2013 10:06AM
Cleaning is part of life - basic "learn how to clean" advice at -   essentially it's a cinch by the inch. 
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