Getting the chores done - from the sofa

Call him the ultimate husband: He can build a deck or fix the sink. He doesn't watch football when he's supposed to be mending the fence. (Yes, he even does windows.) And you never have to nag.

This handy paragon is the creation of Maine entrepreneur Kaile Warren Jr. The idea came to him three years ago, when he was out of work and living in an old warehouse after a car accident. "I went to sleep on the sofa and asked for intervention," he says. He awoke at 3 a.m. with a phrase: "Rent-A-Husband, for all the chores that don't get done."

Apparently, US households are bursting with to-do lists: Twenty-nine franchises later, Rent-A-Husband is expected to make $8 million this year.

Mr. Warren's business belongs to an expanding array of "personal service" firms that help busy Americans do just about anything that needs doing. For people willing to pay, they will shop for groceries, walk the dog, or whip up a week's worth of haute cuisine for supper (all stacked neatly in the freezer).

All the hired help is a new accoutrement of a middle-class America that feels it has more cash than time. It's among the fastest growing segments of the US service economy: The handyman industry alone will bring in $9 billion this year.

There's been "a lot of growth in areas of services that provide for an easier life and save us time and help us juggle multiple roles in society," says Frederic Brunel, associate professor of marketing at the Boston University School of Management. "A lot of us are very affluent. All the disposable income leads us to think, 'Hey, I can pay someone $50 to do this.' "

And that - more than the catchy name - is behind Rent-A-Husband's success.

"People work so much, they're totally stressed out," says Warren, who, like his staff, wears a denim shirt with "Hi, I'm your husband" embroidered above his name. "Most people aren't going to relax by coming home and working some more." Nor, he adds, is it easy to unwind when "your house is falling down around you."

Maureen Kelley, for one, is happy to pay someone to take care of chores. "I'm self-employed. I have no time for all these little things around the house," says the Portland, Maine, insurance broker, who recently had Rent-A-Husband come and clean the windows of her three-story Victorian, and is planning a return visit. "I've got a whole list of things for them to do."

The need to hire someone to pick up the household slack has grown for the past couple of decades, as more women have entered the work force, experts say. For example, "once upon a time, there was someone at home to do the cooking," says Mr. Brunel.

As dual-income and single-parent households have increased, the question "What's for dinner?" can assume proportions usually reserved for philosophical discussions on the meaning of life. As a result, the personal chef has become one of the hottest home-based professions, according to Entrepreneur Magazine.

The US Personal Chefs Association has gone from 15 members in 1992 to 2,800 members today. While the title may evoke images of Hollywood celebrities, founder David MacKay says you can find personal chefs everywhere from Boston to Niles, Mich. The system is simple: Once every few weeks, the chef takes over a client's kitchen, whips up 10 to 15 home-cooked meals, and whisks off to the next house - leaving behind a clean sink and reheating instructions. "We like to brag that, when you walk in the door, dinner's ready before you can get out of your suit," says Mr. MacKay. "An extra hour of family time in the evening, what's that worth?"

But the convenience comes at a price that puts it out of the range of many families' pocketbooks, others say. While personal chefs may no longer be solely the province of the rich, clients tend to be married homeowners who make more than $60,000 a year.

And if all the disposable income dries up, will people have to divorce their Rent-A-Husbands? "If there is an economic downturn, people will reevaluate how they spend their money. That's basic economics," says Brunel.

But others believe that as Americans become dependent on these services, the businesses will continue to thrive, regardless of bumps in the economy. "It definitely will go beyond the current economic boom," says Chuck Matthews, director of the Entrepreneurship Center at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio.

One reason may be that, with all the help available for hire, fewer Americans are learning how to do it for themselves.

"No one's handing down the skills of carpentry," says Warren, both of whose parents worked in construction. "Once that misses a generation," he asks, "how does it get caught up?" The same is true in the kitchen. "There are less and less folks who know how to cook or have a desire to cook," says MacKay, citing studies that predict that by 2002, 55 percent of all meals will be prepared outside the home.

"One could look at it as a corrosive manifestation of this new affluence, leading people to avoid the kinds of common or mundane, but nevertheless significant, activities that indeed make us human and help us relate to the larger society," says David Shi, author of "Simple Life" and president of Furman University in Greenville, S.C.

"To the extent that we pay people to do everything for us, we become victims of our own affluence. We run the risk of living an unreal, a sterile, detached existence."

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