Who Ya Gonna Call? Dustbusters

Jane Lawson, a veteran of 20 years in the housecleaning business, prefers two things from clients: "dirt and a paycheck."

And please, hold the on-site supervision. Professional housecleaners "feel jittery when they're watched. Nobody likes that," says Ms. Lawson, of Peabody, Mass.

For those who wield a feather duster, business is booming. The prime market: single professionals and two-income families. "They have no time or desire to do any of these chores," says Pat Curnan, who owns a franchise of The Maids, a national chain, in Boston's western suburbs.

Finding good help isn't necessarily easy, but many find it unavoidable now that 60 million American women are working. "That's probably the most profound change of this century," says Jeff Campbell, who owns the San Francisco-based Clean Team service.

Before you hire a franchise name or the woman your neighbor recommends, ask about taxes and if the workers are bonded or have insurance.

"We are competing with hundreds and hundreds of people in San Francisco who do the work for half as much as us because they don't have insurance, don't pay taxes or Social Security, and don't have workers' compensation," says Mr. Campbell. "It's impossible for us to compete with them on price ... and you can have a bad experience or an expensive experience because there's no insurance."

Your homeowner's insurance may provide protection, but it's worth checking to see exactly what's covered.

Casual worker-employee relationships also can backfire years later, Campbell says, when a former housecleaner decides to collect Social Security and none has been paid. The Internal Revenue Service, he says, has been known to track down people who hire cleaners years later and stick them with a big bill in back taxes.

One of the reasons cleaning franchises are popular is the peace of mind that comes when wage, tax, and insurance issues are handled professionally.

They also are fast, often utilizing teams of workers. The Maids franchise has four people who work together, Curnan says. A high degree of trust is required in hiring a service, since the cleaners often must enter untended homes.

"That's one of the reasons why it's important to get references," says Ms. Lawson, who now teaches housecleaning and is writing a book on the subject.

"The very best references are from a friend who's already using the service," Campbell says.

Lawson says her personal preference would be to hire a self-employed person with a small business. "You can monitor things more closely and be more in touch," she observes. "Because you represent a chunk of their income, they can't afford to lose you. They're more flexible, too, in terms of accommodating requests for specific cleaning products."

Lawson acknowledges, however, that some people feel more secure dealing with a large company. The quality of franchisees can vary, but they usually can be counted on to be there.

"I just got a call from a woman who was having a party and her cleaners didn't come," says Mrs. Curnan of The Maids. "Part of the reliability of our service is in the team approach. If one member of the four-person team is out, a team of three can get through the day."

Communication can sometimes be a challenge, especially given the number of cleaners for whom English is a second language. Curnan says that her supervisors must speak English.

Lawson says that cleaners appreciate customers who speak openly from the start about their concerns. Some leave notes about what needs special attention.

When people request cost estimates, she says it's important to know in detail what is covered. "One estimate might be for $50, another for $57 for the same general work. You need to ask, 'Are you going to do my blinds, clean the stove-burner plates? What about the fingerprints on the cabinets?' You can go through the whole house like that to find out what they do and don't do."

Lawson suggests people on tight budgets consider having little-used floors or rooms in a house be cleaned less frequently than the kitchen, baths, and family room.

It's also helpful to explain what your priorities are. For example, the same person who insists on sparkling mirrors and kitchen floors may not care a whit about vacuuming under beds.

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