Decision number one is whether to hire an individual or a housecleaning
company. The main advantage of employing an individual is that you may
be more comfortable dealing with a single worker for a very personal job.
But a major disadvantage is the added legal responsibilities youll assume
as an employer (see below). Many families who employ household workers
either are unaware of their legal obligations or choose to ignore them.
If you want to hire a company, our Ratings Tables show how customers
we surveyed rated local housecleaning services and the results of our price
Since prices vary widely from company to company, get at least a few price
quotes. Although you may be able to get estimates over the phone, some
companies wont provide binding price quotes until they conduct in-home
inspections. If you do get price quotes over the phone, confirm the pricing
by asking the company to perform an in-house inspection and prepare a written
contract detailing the work to be done and final price.
Before hiring an individual housecleaner, obtain references and check them
out. Former employers can fill you in on the prospects strengths and weaknesses.
Describe your job expectations, and ask if they encountered any problems.
Write out a job description listing all tasks and how often you want them
done. Make sure you describe jobs you are picky about or that could be
considered out of the ordinary. Review with the worker all terms of employmentduties
to perform, pay, schedule, and benefitsand put them in writing.
Whether you hire a company or an individual, plan on being home for at
least the first several visits, and store valuable and/or fragile items
in safe places.
Since you spend most of your waking hours working, when you finally have
time for yourself youd prefer biking, hiking, shopping, seeing a movieor
doing anything but cleaning your house. You can confront the cleanup drudgery
stoically, head on, or hire someone to do your dirty work.
The first step in farming out your chores is to decide whether to hire
a company or an individual. Hiring a company has one major advantage: You
do not assume the responsibilities associated with the role of an employer,
such as filling out paperwork and paying various taxes. On the other hand,
you may be more comfortable dealing with a single worker for a very personal
job. Also, a companys standard cleanup job may not be good enough if you
need help with laundry, shopping, cooking, or childcare.
The first section of this article covers housecleaning companies, including
tips for hiring one and ratings of area services for quality and price.
The second part will help you screen and hire an individual, and deal with
him or her fairly. It describes arrangements some of our subscribers have
made with housekeepers, and provides guidelines for making your own. We
also cover window washing services and carpet and rug cleaning services.
Since weve received quite a bit of negative feedback on various housecleaning
companies, you need to be cautious when choosing one. Most complaints relate
to sloppy work, but we also often hear about quality of work deteriorating
over time. To help you find a good outfit, our Ratings Tables include
information on area housecleaning services.
One way to start your search for a high-quality housecleaning service is
to ask friends and neighbors for recommendations. The ratings shown on
our Ratings Tables summarize the experiences of many area consumers
(primarily CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers) with area housecleaning
Our surveys ask customers to rate housecleaning services inferior, adequate,
or superior on several questions: doing work properly, starting and
completing work promptly, neatness of work, and overall performance.
For each company that received at least 10 ratings, our Ratings Tables
report the percent of surveyed customers who rated it superior (as opposed
to adequate or inferior) on each question. Our Ratings Tables also
report the percent of surveyed customers who rated each company adequate
or superior (as opposed to inferior) for overall performance. (Our
customer survey and other research methods are further described here.)
For firms that were evaluated in our last full, published article, our
Ratings Tables also show counts of complaints we gathered from the
Better Business Bureau (BBB) for a recent three-year period, the number
of complaints on file with local government consumer protection offices
for a recent two-year period, and complaint rates relative to the volume
of work companies do. For more information on reported complaint counts
and rates, click here.
Before contacting housecleaning companies, decide which services you want
them to perform. Almost all companies dust, vacuum, empty waste receptacles,
mop floors, and clean kitchen and bathroom fixtures. If you want them to
do other tasks, check whether prospective companies will handle them. Most
companies will not shampoo carpets and rugs, wash window exteriors, or
Also decide how often you want service. Companies generally want to schedule
regular periodic service, but some are willing to come only as needed.
Some offer only weekly or biweekly service. (Some companies charge somewhat
more per visit for less-frequent visits.)
If you want service on a certain day, check whether companies are available
on that day, especially if you want service on Fridays or Saturdays.
Call companies for estimates. To help guide you, our Ratings Tables
report price comparison scores for firms that were evaluated in our last
full, published article. We calculate these scores using price estimates
our mystery shoppers collected by calling area companies at different times
and providing clear job descriptions. Although some companies wanted to
see the house first, they nevertheless gave estimates by phone.
For each company, the price comparison scores are intended to suggest the
price a customer might expect to pay for regular housecleaning services
that would cost $100 at the average company. A price comparison score
of $110 for a company, then, means that its prices were about 10 percent
above average; a score of $90 means that its prices were about 10 percent
Our price researchers requested four separate estimates for four hypothetical
homes from each company they called. Most companies indicated they charge
more for the initial cleaning visit than for follow-up visitsnot surprising
since the first visit may require them to bring total squalor under control.
Although obtaining price quotes requires time, it is time well spent. As
you can see on Table 1, prices quoted for the same job vary dramatically.
Since differences of $50 per visit ($2,600 per year) for weekly housecleaning
services are common, getting three or more estimates is well worth the
Table 1Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Companies for Illustrative
|Weekly cleaning of house
Two-story house with three
bedrooms and two bathrooms
One-time cleaning of empty house (prior to a move)
Two-story house with four bedrooms,
3 bathrooms, and finished basement
Weekly cleaning of condo
Condo with two bedrooms
and two bathrooms
Semi-weekly cleaning of house
Two-story house with three
bedrooms and two bathrooms
|1For each job, companies were given additional, detailed specifications.
Since most housecleaning companies provide free estimates, shopping is
relatively easy. While some companies offer binding price quotes only after
inspecting worksites, most give estimates by phone for routine weekly or
biweekly cleanings. Phoning for estimates lets you compare prices quickly,
but keep in mind that if you have a broad range of tasks, or your job requires
more work than usual, phone estimates might not be meaningful.
When getting phone estimates, provide a complete description of your homenumber
of floors, bedrooms, bathrooms, and other rooms to be cleaned, including
their rough dimensions. Also note any carpeting or furnishings that will
require special treatmentfor example, wood furniture that requires a special
When workers arrive from a company youve hired based on a phone estimate,
confirm the work that will be done and the price to do it before they begin.
Given the discrepancies our mystery shoppers sometimes found between phone
quotes from the same company, consider calling to confirm costs before
To avoid disputes over what work is to be done and how much it costs, ask
prospective companies to inspect your home and provide written price quotes.
Many companies will accommodate your schedule by coming for an inspection
in the evening. When arranging for an in-home price quote, stress that
you want only a price; otherwise, you may answer the door to a crew ready
Tell the companys estimator everything you want them to do. Some tasks
may seem too obvious to mention, but its better to provide too much detail
than not enough. Some companies use a checklist of tasks to work up a proposal,
others a type of receipt blank. In any case, make sure the estimator signs
and dates a written description of all the work requested along with the
price. A piece of paper with a dollar amount scribbled alongside a vague
work description leaves too much room for misunderstanding.
While some companies stipulate that homeowners provide cleaning equipment
and/or supplies, others furnish supplies and equipment themselves. Still
others charge extra for equipment and supplies. Our Ratings Tables
show what companies told us when we asked them whether they bring their
own equipment and/or supplies or expect customers to supply them.
Ask any housecleaning company you hire to provide proof that it carries
both general liability and workers compensation insurance. Although some
companies advertise that they are bonded, this does not protect their customers.
The type of bond available to housecleaning companies for their employees
is a fidelity bond that protects the company from theft by its employees.
Customers who are victimized still have to collect from the company or
During the first few visits, plan to be home to oversee the work. Supervise,
but be sensible. Following a workers every move takes as much of your
time as doing the work yourselfand wont establish a congenial relationship.
For one-time cleaning jobs, or when your regular company sends a new worker,
wait until a section or room is done, examine it, and immediately point
out any problems. Perform a final inspection to be sure all work has been
Before a company comes to clean, store cell phones, jewelry, and other
valuables in a safe place, and secure out of harms way any heirlooms,
china, or other fragile articles apt to be knocked over, spilled on, or
Hiring an individual to help with housecleaning differs substantially from
hiring a company. He or she will be your employee, not a contractor. You
must negotiate pay and benefits.
As with a housecleaning company, youll want to hire an individual you
can work with comfortably on a regular basis. He or she must understand,
and fulfill, your particular expectations as to what jobs they should do
and how they should do them.
The personal nature of your relationship with an individual housecleaner
can be problematic. You may feel ill at ease giving orders or voicing complaints.
Your employee may feel awkward about requesting a raise, extra pay for
special jobs, or time off.
To help you screen prospective household employees and define a satisfactory
relationship, the remainder of this article consists of the results of
a survey of CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers who have employed
housecleaning help, guidelines for household employment, and a summary
of employers legal responsibilities.
We surveyed more than 200 consumers who employ individual housecleaners.
Most have help weekly or biweekly, but some have fewer than one visit a
month and a handful have daily visits. Here are answers to some of the
questions we asked
How did you find the housecleaner? Nearly 80 percent were steered to their
employees by friends, relatives, neighbors, or coworkers. The next most
frequent source was advertisements.
How did you check out the housecleaners competence and honesty? Of respondents
who found their employees through sources other than referrals from friends,
relatives, neighbors, or coworkers, only about half checked their employees
references at the time of hiring.
How much do you pay? We asked about pay per visit, number of rooms in the
respondents home, and number of hours of a typical visit, and found big
variations in pay rates. For example, some employers pay a rate that calculates
out to less than $15 per hour, while others pay more than $60 per hour.
What other types of payments or benefits do you provide? The figure below
shows percentages of respondents who provide several types of payments
other than a straight hourly rate or salary.
How do you rate your housecleaner? We asked respondents to rate their employees
on doing work properly, neatness, promptness/arriving on time, and overall
performance. The figure below reports the combined results for all household
workers in the surveyed households. Compared to the average scores from
consumers who rated housecleaning companies, the ratings of individuals
were, on average, substantially higher.
What problems have you had with household workers? About half of our surveyed
consumers who employ individual housecleaners reported having problems
with their current housecleaners or with housecleaners in the past. Broken
household items were most often cited but many employers also reported
language-barrier problems and declining quality of work over time. Some
mentioned theft, tardiness, not showing up, and not being thorough.
Do you have an explicit agreement with your housecleaner regarding transportation
expenses, vacation and holiday pay, and other aspects of employment? Seventy-six
percent had no agreement, and only a handful of respondents had written
Figure 1Results from Our Survey of Consumers Who Employ Individuals for
|Per room (counting bathrooms)
|Employer’s share of Social Security
|Employee’s share of Social Security
|Withhold income tax
|Paid holidays or holiday bonuses
|Paid sick leave
|Doing work properly
When recruiting a new worker, always contact past employers, who can fill
you in on the prospects strengths and weaknesses. Describe your expectations,
and ask about any problems they may have experienced.
Before interviewing candidates, write out a job description detailing the
tasks you require and how often you want them done. Assess your own expectations
honestly. If you are picky about certain things, tell the candidate about
them during the interview. If some tasks are out of the ordinary, discuss
Work out all terms of employment and put them in writing. Discuss and reach
an agreement on pay, sick leave, vacations, holidays, hours, and rules
regarding meals and rest periods. Also, establish a probationary period:
It gives you and the employee the opportunity to back out gracefully if
During the probationary period, get acquainted with each other. Be at home
during the first visit or two, and explain any peculiarities of your home.
As work is completed, discuss any areas of dissatisfaction. Do not let
complaints pile up and then bring them up after a month. Be straightforward
and honest with criticism and directions.
A major disadvantage of employing an individual rather than using a housecleaning
service is the added legal responsibilities associated with being an employer.
Many families who employ household workers either are unaware of their
legal obligations or choose to ignore them. Indeed, few of our surveyed
consumers who employ individuals for household work said they pay Social
Security or unemployment taxes. The following summarizes the legal requirements
of employers of household workers.
Verification of Citizenship and Work Eligibility
When you hire an employee, federal law requires you to complete with him
or her Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification for the U.S. Citizen
and Immigration Services (USCIS). To complete this form, you must check
the employees identification or other documents that prove either that
he or she is a U.S. citizen or has the necessary documentation to work
in the U.S. The verification form is not filed with USCIS, but you must
keep the completed form on file for three years after the date of hire
or for one year after employment ends, whichever is later. You can download
the form at www.uscis.gov.
Federal law requires that Social Security and Medicare taxes be paid for
all adults (18 years of age and older) who are paid more than $1,900 per
year for household work. In 2014, the employers share of Social Security
is 6.2 percent and 1.45 percent for Medicare. The employees share of these
taxes is currently also 6.2 percent for Social Security and 1.45 percent
for Medicare. If you employ someone, you are responsible for payment of
both your employees share of these taxes and your own share. You can either
withhold your employees share from his or her wages or pay it yourself.
If you pay a household employee $1,000 or more during a calendar quarter,
you must also pay federal unemployment taxes. The tax rate is six percent
of the first $7,000 in wages, but the federal government offers a credit
to offset state unemployment taxes (see below) of up to 5.4 percent, regardless
of the actual state tax rate. This means that if you properly pay state
unemployment taxes, the effective federal unemployment tax rate is 0.6
Payments are made annually by completing a Schedule H on your Form 1040
income tax return. Failure to pay these taxes can result in penalties as
well as the obligation to pay both the employers and the employees share
of the taxes.
Although you are not legally required to withhold federal income tax, you
are required to file forms W-2 and W-3 with the Social Security Administration
each year. The Social Security Administration records earnings and sends
the information to the IRS.
For more information, see IRS Publication 926: Household Employers Tax
None of the local jurisdictions requires you to withhold income taxes for
household workers. State income taxes are the employees responsibility.
The District requires you to pay unemployment insurance tax for household
workers who are paid $500 or more in a calendar quarter, and then in all
subsequent quarters, regardless of wages, as long as you employ workers.
Maryland and Virginia require you to pay unemployment insurance tax for
household workers who are paid $1,000 or more in a calendar quarter. Unemployment
insurance tax rates vary depending on the wages paid and previous unemployment
claims against the employer. New employers should register with their local
Workers Compensation Insurance
Workers compensation insurance covers costs such as medical care and lost
wages for workers who are injured or killed on the job. Legal requirements
for employers of household workers vary depending on where you live
The District requires employers of household workers to purchase workers
compensation insurance only if they employ someone who works 240 hours
or more during a calendar quarter.
Maryland requires employers to purchase workers compensation insurance
coverage for household workers who have been paid $1,000 or more during
any three-month period.
Virginia does not require employers of household workers to purchase workers
Even if the law doesnt require it, you still may want to purchase coverage,
since most homeowners insurance policies do not cover claims that would
normally fall under a workers compensation policy. Without coverage, you
could be liable for medical expenses, lost wages, and legal fees if someone
is injured while working for you. You can buy a workers compensation policy
from your homeowners insurance carrier or from an insurance agent.
The National Committee on Household Employment (NCHE), before it closed
its doors, developed a set of standards and a model contract for employers
and their household employees. The standards and contract were formulated
in hopes of making employer-employee relationships more businesslike.
The guidelines below are taken from NCHEs Code of Standards for Household
Employment, with certain modifications made to reflect current circumstances.
The hourly wage should be no lower than the minimum wage, but where the
cost of living is higher than average, wages should be raised accordingly.
As of this writing, the Districts minimum wage is $9.50 per hour and will
be raised to $10.50 per hour in July 2015 and then $11.50 per hour in July
2016. The minimum wage in Maryland is $7.25 per hour, and will increase
to $8 per hour on January 1, 2015; $8.25 per hour on July 1, 2015; $8.75
per hour on July 1, 2016; $9.25 per hour on July 1, 2017; and $10.10 per
hour on July 1, 2018. Virginias minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.
Higher wages should be paid for jobs requiring previously acquired training
or special skills.
Wages and paydays should be agreed upon in advance.
Gifts of clothing and/or food should not be considered part of payment.
Any hours exceeding eight hours per day should be paid at 1.5 times the
hourly rate. Any hours exceeding 40 hours per week should be paid at 1.5
times the hourly rate. Hours exceeding 48 hours per week should be paid
at double the hourly rate.
Social Security, income, and unemployment tax: Earnings should be reported
and payments made in accordance with the laws for Social Security, unemployment
insurance, and income taxes. See above for an explanation of legal requirements
Sick leave: Employees working one day a week in one home should receive
a minimum of one day paid sick leave a year. Full-time employees should
receive a minimum of six days paid sick leave a year.
Vacations: Full-time day or live-in workers should receive two weeks paid
vacation after one year of service.
Employees working one day a week in one home should receive one day paid
vacation for each six-month period worked.
For longer service, there should be an agreed-upon increase in vacation
Holidays: Live-in workers should receive at least eight paid legal holidays
Full-time live-out employees should receive six holidays with pay per year.
A day worker working one day per week in one home should receive one paid
legal holiday per year.
A written agreement between employer and employee should clearly define
the duties of the position, including specific tasks and frequency of performance.
Time schedules should be agreed upon in advance of employment.
If an employer does not require the services of a day worker for the agreed-upon
time, the employee should be notified at least one week in advance or else
be compensated in full.
The employee has the responsibility of notifying the employer as soon as
possible if he or she is unable to report to work.
Rest periods, meal times, phone privileges, and time out for private activities
(such as church attendance or recreation for live-in employees) should
be agreed upon in advance.
Appliances used for cleaning work should be efficient and safe, and should
be used carefully.
Work and work relationships should be discussed periodically with the intent
of improving efficiency and cooperation.
A professional working relationship should be maintained by both parties.
State and Local Government Consumer Agencies
District of Columbia Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs
1100 4th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20024
District of Columbia Office of the Attorney General
441 4th Street, NW, #11455
Washington, DC 20001
Fairfax County Department of Consumer Affairs
12000 Government Center Parkway
Fairfax, VA 22035
Howard County Office of Consumer Affairs
6751 Columbia Gateway Drive
Columbia, MD 21046
Maryland Consumer Protection Division, Office of the Attorney General
200 St. Paul Place, 16th Floor
Baltimore, MD 21202
Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection
100 Maryland Avenue, Suite 330
Rockville, MD 20850
Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs
Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
102 Governor Street
Richmond, VA 23219
800-552-9963 or 804-786-2042
Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan Washington
1411 K Street, NW, 10th Floor
Washington, DC 20005