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
"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
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.' "
New tax laws simplify task
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. …