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Housecleaners (From CHECKBOOK, Spring/Summer 2012)
 
Go to Ratings of 72 Washington Area Housecleaners

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House Cleaners

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 you’ll have 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 shopping. 

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 won’t give binding price quotes unless 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 get in touch with past employers. Former employers can fill you in on the prospect’s 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 employment—duties to perform, pay, schedule, and benefits—and 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 a safe place. 

Some derive deep satisfaction from cleaning their homes. Then there’s the other 99 percent of humanity who’d rather spend their free time doing just about anything else—or nothing at all. One way to maximize your downtime is to hire someone else to do your dirty work. 

If you want to take the plunge and hire housecleaning help, first decide whether to hire a company or an individual. Hiring a company has one major advantage: You do not assume the responsibilities (such as filling out paperwork and paying various taxes) associated with the role of an employer. On the other hand, you may be more comfortable dealing with a single worker for a very personal job. Also, a company’s 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, with 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

Hiring a Company 

Since we’ve received quite a bit of negative feedback on many 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 report information on area housecleaning services. 

Compare What Their Customers Say 

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 operations. 

Our surveys ask customers to rate housecleaning services “inferior,” “adequate,” or “superior” on several questions: “doing work properly,” “starting and completing work promptly,” “letting you know cost early,” “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.) 

Compare Complaint Histories 

For firms that were evaluated in our last full, published article, our Ratings Tables also show tallies of complaints we gathered from the Better Business Bureau (BBB) for a recent three-year period, and the number of complaints on file with local government consumer protection offices for a recent two-year period. 

Where we were able to, we have also reported on our Ratings Tables complaint rates, calculated by dividing the number of complaints by our measure of the number of full-time-equivalent housecleaners working for the companies. The complaint rates take into account volume of work and the fact that companies that do more work are exposed to a greater risk of incurring complaints. 

You can check current BBB complaint information on any company by visiting www.bbb.org or calling 202-393-8000. You can check current customer survey ratings by clicking on the company’s name on our Ratings Tables and, in the details under our listing for the company, click a link to go directly to the BBB’s most up-to-date report on the company. 

Consumer protection offices in Fairfax and Montgomery counties also maintain online databases that let you check complaint histories on any company. Click here for links and contact information. 

When using the complaint information, keep in mind that complaints are not always justified; sometimes customers are unreasonable. Also be aware that some companies are at greater risk of incurring complaints than others because of the specific types of work they do. And remember that the measure of business volume we use in calculating complaint rates (the number of full-time-equivalent housecleaners working for the companies) is at best a very rough indicator. 

Compare What They Do and When They Can Do It 

Before contacting companies, decide which services you’ll want them to perform. Almost all companies dust, vacuum, empty waste cans, mop floors, and clean kitchen and bathroom fixtures. If you want other tasks done, check whether prospective companies will handle them. Most companies will not shampoo carpets and rugs, wash window exteriors, or do laundry. 

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. 

Compare Prices 

Call companies for estimates. To help guide you, for firms that were evaluated in our last full, published article, our Ratings Tables report price index scores. We calculate these scores using price estimates our researchers collected when they called each company at different times and provided clear job descriptions. Although some companies wanted to see the house first, they nevertheless gave estimates by phone. (Our researchers did not reveal their affiliation with CHECKBOOK when they called.) 

For each company, the price index 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 index 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 below average. 

We tried to get four separate estimates for four hypothetical homes from each company. Most companies indicated they charge more for the initial cleaning visit than for follow-up visits—not surprising since the first visit may require bringing total squalor under control. 

Although obtaining price quotes requires time, it is time well spent. As you can see on Table 1, prices companies charge for the same job vary dramatically. Since we have found that differences of $40 per visit ($2,000 per year) for weekly housecleaning services are common, getting three or more estimates is well worth the trouble. 

Table 1
Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Housecleaning Services for Illustrative Jobs1
Description of jobLow priceAverage priceHigh price
Once-per-week cleaning
Two-story house with three
bedrooms and two bathrooms
$70 $101 $155
Every-other-week cleaning
Two-story house with three
bedrooms and two bathrooms
$75 $118 $192
Once-per-week cleaning
Condo with two bedrooms
and two bathrooms
$60 $94 $190
One-time cleaning (before or after a move)
Two-story house with four bedrooms
and 3 bathrooms
$140 $254 $500
1For each job, companies were given additional, detailed specifications.

Since most housecleaning companies provide free estimates, shopping is relatively easy. While some companies give 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 home—number of floors, bedrooms, bathrooms, and other rooms to be cleaned along with their rough dimensions. Also note any carpeting or furnishings that will require special treatment—for example, wood furniture that requires a special polish. 

When workers arrive from a company you’ve 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 shoppers sometimes found between phone quotes from the same company, consider calling to confirm costs before workers arrive. 

To avoid disputes over what work is to be done and how much you’ll pay, 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 to work. 

Tell the company’s estimator everything you want them to do. Some tasks may seem too obvious to mention, but it’s 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 you want done 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 which companies bring their own equipment and/or supplies. 

Check Insurance Coverage 

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 the employee. 

Plan to Be Home 

During the first few visits, plan to be home to oversee the work. Supervise, but be sensible. Following a worker’s every move takes as much of your time as doing the work yourself—and won’t 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 done properly. 

Before a company comes to clean, store cameras, jewelry, and other valuables in a safe place, and secure out of harm’s way any heirlooms, china, or other fragile articles apt to be knocked over, spilled on, or otherwise damaged. 

Hiring an Individual 

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, you’ll 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 well 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 subscribers who have employed housecleaning help, guidelines for household employment, and a summary of employers’ legal responsibilities. 

Our Survey of Employers 

We surveyed more than 220 subscribers who employ individual housecleaners. Most have help weekly or biweekly, but some have less 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? Seventy-six percent of the household employers were steered to their employees by friends, relatives, neighbors, or coworkers. The next most frequent source was advertisements. 
  • How did you check out the housecleaner’s competence and honesty? Of respondents who found their employees through sources other than referrals from friends, relatives, neighbors, or coworkers, only 57 percent 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 respondent’s 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? Below, we show 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 the respondents to rate their employees on doing work properly, neatness, promptness/arriving on time, and overall performance. Below, we report the combined results for all household workers in the 220 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 in the past? Fifty-eight percent of our subscribers who employ individual housecleaners reported having problems with their current housecleaners or with housecleaners in the past. Broken household items were most often cited as the problem. 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? Sixty-nine percent had no agreement, and only a handful of respondents had written agreements. 

Screening Workers 

When recruiting a new worker, always contact past employers, who can fill you in on the prospect’s 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 them. 

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 problems arise. 

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. 

Legal Requirements 

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 subscribers 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 employee’s 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 Taxes 

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 $1,800 per year for household work. In 2012, the employer’s share of Social Security is 6.2 percent and 1.45 percent for Medicare. 

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 percent. 

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 employer’s and the employee’s 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 Employer’s Tax Guide.” 

State Taxes 

None of the local jurisdictions requires you to withhold income taxes for household workers. State income taxes are the employee’s responsibility. 

The District, Maryland, and Virginia do 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 agency: 

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 $750 or more during any three-month period. 
  • Virginia does not require employers of household workers to purchase workers’ compensation coverage. 

Even if the law doesn’t 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. 

Extra Advice:
Results from Our Survey of Subscribers Who Employ Individuals for Housecleaning Help

Average Pay
Per hour$33
Per visit$98
Per room (counting bathrooms)$11


Percent of Employers Who Make Payments in Addition to Salary or Provide Other Benefits
Transportation1%
Meals1%
Used clothing2%
Employer’s share of Social Security7%
Employee’s share of Social Security6%
Unemployment tax2%
Withhold income tax0%
Paid vacation5%
Paid holidays (not including holiday bonuses)7%
Paid sick leave1%
Health insurance0%


Average Ratings of Individuals vs. Companies

Percent of surveyed customers who rated individual/company “superior” for…
 Employers
of individuals
Customers
of companies
Doing work properly72%47%
Promptness68%61%
Neatness82%50%
Overall performance83%49%

Extra Advice:
Guidelines for Managing Household Employees

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 NCHE’s Code of Standards for Household Employment, with certain modifications made to reflect current circumstances. 

Wages and Hours 

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 District’s minimum wage is $8.25 per hour. The minimum wage in Maryland and Virginia is $7.25 per hour. 

Higher wages should be paid for jobs requiring previously acquired training or special skills. 

Wages and paydays should be discussed and 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 1/2 times the hourly rate. Any hours exceeding 40 hours per week should be paid at 1 1/2 times the hourly rate. Hours exceeding 48 hours per week should be paid at double the hourly rate. 

Benefits 

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 for employers. 

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 time. 

Holidays: Live-in workers should receive at least eight paid legal holidays per year. 

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. 

Working Relationships 

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 and meal periods and time out for private activities (such as church attendance or recreation for live-in employees) should be agreed upon. 

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. 

Where to Complain

State and Local Government Consumer Agencies

District of Columbia Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs
1100 4th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20024
http://dcra.dc.gov
202-442-4400

District of Columbia Office of the Attorney General
441 4th Street, NW, #11455
Washington, DC 20001
http://oag.dc.gov/
202-727-3400

Fairfax County Department of Consumer Affairs
12000 Government Center Parkway
Fairfax, VA 22035
703-222-8435

Howard County Office of Consumer Affairs
6751 Columbia Gateway Drive
Columbia, MD 21046
410-313-6420

Maryland Consumer Protection Division, Office of the Attorney General
200 St. Paul Place, 16th Floor
Baltimore, MD 21202
410-528-8662

Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection
100 Maryland Avenue, Suite 330
Rockville, MD 20850
240-777-3636

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
www.dc.bbb.org
202-393-8000



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