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Hiring a home-cleaning service? Here’s what to know.

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The pandemic forced most of us to spend a lot more time at home, and the results have not been tidy. Dust coats every surface. (Where does it come from?!) There’s schmutz all over the bathroom. The kitchen looks as if people regularly stage food fights. You can vacuum, wipe, scrub, mop and dust to exhaustion, or — if it fits your budget — you can hire someone to help restore order to your space.

The first step in getting someone to do your dirty work is to choose whether to hire a company or an individual. If you go with an individual, a major disadvantage is the added legal responsibilities you’ll assume as an employer. Many families who hire household workers either are unaware of these obligations or choose to ignore them. Hiring a company relieves you of employer responsibilities. But you may prefer getting to know an individual with whom you can establish a long-term, trusting relationship.

You’ll also probably get better work from an individual than a company. A survey conducted by Washington Consumers’ Checkbook found that D.C.-area residents who employed companies were less satisfied than consumers who hired individuals. Individual housecleaners received “superior” ratings for “overall quality” from 69 percent of their surveyed customers; companies received such favorable ratings from only 58 percent.

Prices vary widely among local companies. For example, quotes obtained by Checkbook’s undercover shoppers ranged from $80 to $183 to clean a two-story, three-bedroom house with two bathrooms on a weekly basis. For a semiweekly cleaning of a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo, prices ranged from $83 to $225. Most companies indicated that they charge more for an initial cleaning session than for follow-ups, which isn’t surprising, considering that first visit may require taming total squalor.

Before contacting companies, decide which services you want done. All will perform basic tasks such as dusting, vacuuming, taking out the trash, mopping floors, and cleaning kitchens and bathrooms. If you want other tasks done, such as folding laundry and changing linens, check whether prospective companies will handle them.

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Before you hire a service, supply detailed information to several companies about your home — number of floors, bedrooms, bathrooms, types of floor coverings, how large your space is — and collect estimates from each. To help guide your search, Washington Post readers can access Checkbook’s unbiased ratings of Washington-area housecleaning services free until April 25 at Checkbook.org/WashingtonPost/Housecleaners.

Decide how often you want service. Companies generally prefer to schedule regular periodic cleanings, but some are willing to come as needed. Some offer only weekly or biweekly service. If you want them to come on a certain day, ask about availability, particularly if it’s a Friday or Saturday.

Ask companies to provide you with certificates of insurance, including both liability and workers’ compensation. If a company tells you it is bonded, know that doesn’t mean much: The bonds housecleaning services buy protect the company, not you.

Once you’ve narrowed your search down to one company, ask it to send a representative to your home to supply a written proposal with a description of what work is to be done, how often and for what price.

If you prefer to hire an individual, keep in mind that paying someone to help with housecleaning differs substantially from hiring a company. You must negotiate pay and benefits. Get referrals from friends and neighbors. Talk with them — and other references from the individual — about your priorities, your pet peeves and the strengths and weaknesses of the person you’re considering.

When you’ve narrowed down the field, invite the candidate to your home, list and explain tasks, describe your expectations, and listen to questions and comments. Describe jobs that you’re picky about or that could be considered out of the ordinary. Discuss the terms of employment — pay, schedule, benefits — and put them in writing. Specify a probationary period, so you can get acquainted.

Regarding how much to pay, Checkbook found no solid rule of thumb. Surveyed consumers who employ individual housecleaners reported paying anywhere from about $15 to $50 an hour.

Finally, remember that this person will be your employee. Depending on where you live and how much you pay a housecleaner in a year, you could be responsible for verifying work eligibility, paying employer payroll taxes, paying into unemployment insurance funds, carrying workers’ compensation insurance, and handling various other requirements set by state and local governments.

Employers’ payroll tax 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 and the obligation to pay both the employer’s and the employee’s share of the taxes. (For more information, see the IRS’s “Publication 926 (2022), Household Employer’s Tax Guide.”)

Although you are not 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 SSA records earnings and sends the information to the IRS.

In D.C., employers of household workers become liable to pay unemployment insurance tax and contribute to the universal paid leave program if they pay employees $500 or more in any calendar quarter. Maryland and Virginia require employers to pay unemployment insurance tax for household workers who are paid $1,000 or more in a calendar quarter. In all three locations, 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: the D.C. Department of Employment Services, the Maryland Division of Unemployment Insurance or the Virginia Employment Commission.

No matter who you hire, plan to be home during the first cleaning. Do a walk-through of your home and describe your expectations. Try to arrange to have the same crew for each cleaning, and always store valuable and/or fragile items in a safe place.

Kevin Brasler is executive editor of Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org, a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. You can access Checkbook’s unbiased ratings of Washington area housecleaning services free until April 25 at Checkbook.org/WashingtonPost/Housecleaners.

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