Every other Wednesday noon, housecleaning partners Dianne Kraus and Peggy Jackson pull up to a beige two-story house in Ithaca, N.Y. Although the owners are at work, the two women unlock the door and begin their carefully orchestrated routine. For nearly three hours they vacuum, dust, polish, and scrub, upstairs and down.
''It smells so good and looks so clean when we come home,'' says Linda Klena, a nurse at Cornell University. She and her husband, Dennis Lynch, an assistant dean at Ithaca College, used to share the cleaning. But ''there just was no way we could live our lives and clean the house simultaneously,'' she says. ''I don't see how people do it when they work full time.''
Samia Langlade of Needham, Mass., takes a different approach. After putting in long days as a travel agent during the week, she spends up to eight hours every other weekend cleaning her three-bedroom house. While favorite operas play on the CD, she moves furniture to vacuum, washes floors, cleans kitchen appliances inside and out, dusts picture frames and light bulbs, and cares for her plants.
''When I finish, I feel like a bird - free,'' says Ms. Langlade, the mother of 19-year-old twin daughters. ''It has never crossed my mind to hire someone to clean my house. It's not that I don't trust people. It's just that the way they work doesn't satisfy me.''
Call this a tale of two cleaning styles and consider it a 1990s microcosm of Americans' ongoing attempt to conquer the three D's of domesticity: dust, dirt, and disorder. With more families earning two incomes and working longer hours, questions such as ''Who will clean, and when?'' and ''How clean is clean?'' loom large.
''We don't have cleaning days anymore - we have hours, we have minutes,'' says Don Aslett, an author and lecturer on housework.
To maximize that time, more households are turning to cleaning companies or independent cleaners, contributing to rapid growth in the industry. One of the largest chains, Merry Maids, which operates 800 franchises in the United States and 200 internationally, grew about 15 percent last year and between 15 and 20 percent for each of the past five years, according to spokeswoman Sarah Smock.
Yet the cleaning industry as a whole, Mr. Aslett observes, remains ''a struggling business,'' with a failure rate of nearly 97 percent. ''People start janitor businesses and maid businesses, but they don't always hire professionals,'' he says.
Among those hiring outside help, two-career couples with children make up the largest group. Senior citizens rank second. Seventy percent of Merry Maids customers use weekly or biweekly services, Ms. Smock says. The rest are divided between those who want help monthly and those who call for one-time or sporadic cleaning.
For some families, hiring outside help is a priority even when budgets are modest. ''Some people can't afford to hire me, but they can't live without me,'' says Laura Sullivan of Norfolk, Mass. ''They'd sacrifice anything. They say, 'We won't go on vacation.' ''
New tax laws simplify task
As a professional cleaner, Mrs. Kraus observes wide variations in customers' cleaning patterns. ''Some people are kind of obsessive, some are real lax, and most are somewhere in the middle.''
Equally varied are people's views on the choice between cleaning services and independent cleaners. Some clients say services provide greater reliability: If one employee can't make it, the company sends someone else.
Those who like services also point out the advantage of not having to pay taxes, Social Security, and insurance for household employees - details the company handles. Yet revised tax laws have simplified reporting and payment provisions. Clients who pay an independent household employee cash wages of $1,000 or more annually now pay employment taxes only once a year by attaching a new form, Schedule H, to their 1040 form.
Brenda Krachenberg of Plymouth, Mich., is among those who prefer independent cleaners. ''I like individual people who come week after week and take personal responsibility,'' she says. ''There's more accountability with one person.''
Private cleaners generally charge less than cleaning companies. Homeowners interviewed here pay individuals wages ranging from $45 to $70 for an average of three hours' work. Nationally, says Smock, costs for a service such as Merry Maids average between $65 and $70 for weekly cleaning and $70 to $75 for biweekly.
But all figures come with a caveat. Jeff Campbell, founder of the Clean Team cleaning service in San Francisco, says, ''If you had two identical houses next door, one might have a husband and wife, three kids, a dog, a cat, and a parrot. The other might have two working professionals with no kids who never cook and never use the second bathroom.''
Cleaning still falls most heavily on women. ''I think men are still pretty lax about doing their fair share,'' Mr. Campbell says. Sullivan adds, ''On Saturday, there are more disputes in families about cleaning. People say, 'You didn't do this' or 'You never help me around the house.' ''
Still, experts see signs of change. In 1980, Aslett recalls, audiences for his housecleaning seminars often included only one man among 300 women. Today men make up one-third of some audiences. In addition, he says, ''One of the single biggest factors in getting kids to clean is the father's example - how he cleans and picks up after himself, and how he keeps the garage up.''
Describing cleaning as ''a pretty fun thing to do, and therapeutic,'' Aslett says, ''It's fine to hire people for the big stuff - the things you struggle with, such as shampooing carpets and washing windows. But to have somebody come in regularly to do the rest, you can clean that stuff in seconds.''
The 'one big mistake'
Many people, he says, ''make one big mistake. They wait for the warrior day - Saturday, Sunday. That's really stupid. If you make your bed when you get up, clean your bathroom, wipe out the sink after you use it, you probably have two hours a week or less of cleaning to do. But when you wait, you double the time it takes to clean.''
To streamline the process, he advises buying professional tools. He suggests keeping a caddy under each sink with cleaning supplies. He also advocates getting help from family members and learning proper techniques.
For men and women, Campbell says, the ''biggest pitfall'' in cleaning is a lack of know-how. ''That tends to mean people attack it in a way that takes too long. They take out the Windex and walk around looking for things to put it on. Then they do the same with furniture polish.''
A far more efficient system, he says, is to walk around the room once, working top to bottom, left to right, front to back, doing everything.
Whatever the technique, even professionals sometimes have to compromise their standards in their own homes. As Kraus explains, ''Right now I'm looking at a carpet that's loaded with dog hair, but I have to go to work. It'll have to wait until Saturday.''