The first step in getting someone to do your dirty work is to choose whether to hire a company or an individual. Going with a company has a major advantage: You don’t have to act as an employer and fill out paperwork and pay various taxes. On the other hand, you may be more comfortable dealing with a single worker for such a personal job. Also, a company’s standard cleanup job may not be good enough if you need help with laundry, shopping, cooking, or childcare.

This section covers housecleaning companies, including tips for hiring one and ratings of area services for quality and price.

Because we receive lots of negative feedback on housecleaning companies, be cautious when choosing one. Most complaints relate to sloppy work, but we also often hear about the quality of services deteriorating over time. To help you find a good outfit, our Ratings Tables include information on area housecleaning services.

What Do Past Customers Say?

Start your search by asking friends and neighbors for recommendations. Our Ratings Tables summarize the experiences of many of your friends by reporting how area consumers we surveyed rated the companies on several aspects of service. We primarily surveyed Checkbook and Consumer Reports subscribers, but also other randomly selected consumers we invited to participate. Our Ratings Tables report results for companies that received 10 or more ratings on our surveys.

Our surveys asked 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 quality.” 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 quality.” Our customer survey and other research methods are further described here.

Is There a History of Complaints?

Our Ratings Tables also show counts of complaints we gathered from the Better Business Bureau (BBB) for a recent three-year period and complaint rates relative to the volume of work companies do. Click here for more information on reported complaint counts and rates.

What Can They Do and When Can They Do It?

Before contacting housecleaning companies, decide which services you want them to do. All will do the basics: dust, vacuum, take out the trash, mop floors, and clean kitchens and bathrooms. If you want them to perform other tasks, 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 visits, but some are willing to come only as needed, say for a move-in or move-out. Some offer only weekly or biweekly service. (Some companies charge somewhat more per visit for less-frequent appointments.)

If you want service on a certain day, check whether companies are available then, especially if you want someone to come on Fridays or Saturdays.

How Much Do They Charge?

Call several businesses for estimates. To help, our Ratings Tables report price comparison scores. We calculated these scores using price estimates our undercover shoppers collected by calling area companies and providing clear job descriptions.

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 below average.

Our price researchers requested separate estimates for four hypothetical homes from each company they called. Most companies indicated they charge more for the initial cleaning session than for follow-ups—not surprising since the first visit may require taming total squalor.

As you can see on figure below, 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 trouble.

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. 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 obvious, but too much detail is better than not enough. Make sure the estimator signs and dates a written description of all work requested and price. A piece of paper with a dollar amount scribbled alongside a vague work description leaves too much room for misunderstanding.

Ask if you must provide cleaning equipment and supplies. While some companies stipulate that homeowners provide it, others bring their own stuff, and some charge extra for it.

Does the Company Carry Proper Insurance?

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.

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Stay Home for the First Visit or Two

During the first few sessions, plan to be home to oversee the work. Supervise, but be sensible; don’t follow workers’ every moves. For one-time 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 cell phones, 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.