Dealing with Domesticity's 'Three D's' Time-Short Householders Turn to the Pros, Do-It-Yourself Gurus, and Designers to Defeat Dust, Dirt, and Disorder

Article excerpt

Every other Wednesday noon, housecleaning partners Dianne Kraus and Peggy Jackson pull up to a beige two-story house in Ithaca, N.Y. Although the owners are at work, the two women unlock the door and begin their carefully orchestrated routine. For nearly three hours they vacuum, dust, polish, and scrub, upstairs and down.

"It smells so good and looks so clean when we come home," says Linda Klena, a nurse at Cornell University. She and her husband, Dennis Lynch, an assistant dean at Ithaca College, used to share the cleaning. But "there just was no way we could live our lives and clean the house simultaneously," she says. "I don't see how people do it when they work full time."

Samia Langlade of Needham, Mass., takes a different approach. After putting in long days as a travel agent during the week, she spends up to eight hours every other weekend cleaning her three-bedroom house. While favorite operas play on the CD, she moves furniture to vacuum, washes floors, cleans kitchen appliances inside and out, dusts picture frames and light bulbs, and cares for her plants.

"When I finish, I feel like a bird - free," says Ms. Langlade, the mother of 19-year-old twin daughters. "It has never crossed my mind to hire someone to clean my house. It's not that I don't trust people. It's just that the way they work doesn't satisfy me."

Call this a tale of two cleaning styles and consider it a 1990s microcosm of Americans' ongoing attempt to conquer the three D's of domesticity: dust, dirt, and disorder. With more families earning two incomes and working longer hours, questions such as "Who will clean, and when?" and "How clean is clean?" loom large.

"We don't have cleaning days anymore - we have hours, we have minutes," says Don Aslett, an author and lecturer on housework.

To maximize that time, more households are turning to cleaning companies or independent cleaners, contributing to rapid growth in the industry. One of the largest chains, Merry Maids, which operates 800 franchises in the United States and 200 internationally, grew about 15 percent last year and between 15 and 20 percent for each of the past five years, according to spokeswoman Sarah Smock.

Yet the cleaning industry as a whole, Mr. Aslett observes, remains "a struggling business," with a failure rate of nearly 97 percent. "People start janitor businesses and maid businesses, but they don't always hire professionals," he says.

Among those hiring outside help, two-career couples with children make up the largest group. Senior citizens rank second. Seventy percent of Merry Maids customers use weekly or biweekly services, Ms. Smock says. The rest are divided between those who want help monthly and those who call for one-time or sporadic cleaning.

For some families, hiring outside help is a priority even when budgets are modest. "Some people can't afford to hire me, but they can't live without me," says Laura Sullivan of Norfolk, Mass. "They'd sacrifice anything. They say, 'We won't go on vacation.' "

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As a professional cleaner, Mrs. Kraus observes wide variations in customers' cleaning patterns. "Some people are kind of obsessive, some are real lax, and most are somewhere in the middle."

Equally varied are people's views on the choice between cleaning services and independent cleaners. Some clients say services provide greater reliability: If one employee can't make it, the company sends someone else.

Those who like services also point out the advantage of not having to pay taxes, Social Security, and insurance for household employees - details the company handles. …