Come clean. What do you pay the woman — or man — who does for you? Apparently, more than 6m people in the UK now employ a cleaner, a figure that has risen dramatically over the past decade, making domestic help look more of a necessity than a luxury.
I have a long history of inappropriate relationships with people I’ve employed to help around the house. Heartbroken au pairs poured their hearts out at my kitchen table while I got on with sweeping the tide of Cheerios from under their feet. And my cleaners all felt the need to offload a week’s worth of worries — neglectful sons, failed visa applications, crippling debts — before picking up a J-cloth.
It’s all my fault. I was fond of them and I had no boundaries. Kasia, a tiny Polish Catholic, set off from my house one day after an afternoon of light cleaning, and several hours later phoned me from Dover. She’d put “Home” in the sat nav and inadvertently headed for Krakow, rather than Hampton Wick. She wasn’t the best cleaner, but she was devoted to us, particularly to the dog, who grew fat on spicy sausage.
Every Easter and Christmas, she would give the front windows a vigorous polish “so God could see in”, which cheered me up no end. But if God had ever looked, he’d have spotted the forest of dust balls on the bookshelves and the tangle of cobwebs, which she noticed only when they swooped so low, they dangled in her line of sight.
Kasia was 4ft 10in and never cleaned above head height. Did I complain? Never. She worked four houses a day and I couldn’t bear to hurt her feelings.
There’s more. I frequently cleaned before the cleaning lady came. In my house, this means shifting a skipload of Lego from the kitchen floor and relocating hundreds of shoes and toys, fragments of homework and half-used tins of paint. I also felt I had to deal personally with the downstairs loo before she came. (Readers with boys will understand where I’m coming from.) When my husband, one of the untidiest men alive, questioned where the sanity was in all this, I’d shriek: “It’s so I can tell the cleaner has been!”
Was it also because I didn’t want to be judged on the level of filth we generated? It’s complex. I only know I longed for the process to be simpler. I wanted to open the front door to find a gloriously sparkling version of my own home, without guilt, gas or grind, but sadly it never happened.
The cost of cleaning varies up and down the country, but expect to pay £8-£10 an hour — or up to £14 an hour if you are using an agency for a one-off spring clean. Bear in mind, however, that after the agency has skimmed off its fee, the cleaner may only be paid the minimum wage, a guilt-inducing £6.70 an hour.
Molly Maid is one of the largest cleaning franchises operating in the UK: it carries out 2m cleans a year worldwide, and 90% of its UK customers are regulars. “People are looking for dependability and reliability,” says the firm’s marketing manager, Jenny Duff. “Hiring through an agency means no gaps in service for sickness, and it’s often a simpler relationship. It’s easier to give feedback in a sensitive way via the company than to say something to a maid’s face.”
Molly Maid visits each house and provides an estimate based on individual needs for a uniformed maid, complete with her own cleaning materials, to “sprinkle your home with fairy dust”.
Malcolm Lewis, a former business analyst and founder of the app MoppedUp, admits having resorted to desperate measures to avoid face-to-face confrontation. “We’ve had numerous cleaners over the years, some great, some not so good,” he says. “I’ve learnt that the most important thing is communication.
“Maybe it’s being British, but I’m rubbish at saying, ‘Would you mind cleaning behind the fridge?’ I’d leave Post-it notes instead.”
A MoppedUp survey found that 10% of employers are too embarrassed to tell their cleaner when they weren’t happy, and 11% feel they have to stop what they’re doing and leave the house when the cleaner comes. I’m surprised that figure isn’t higher.
Research conducted a few years ago by the big franchises found that more than 50% of people felt guilty about hiring someone to do their cleaning. I know I found it almost impossible to sit down while someone else was doing mine. “It’s not an overly well-paid industry, and I think I always felt guilty,” Lewis says. “Which is why I wanted to pay the money and wait for the magic to happen. I didn’t want to talk about it.”
As well as the homeowner app (£2.99), there’s a free version of MoppedUp for cleaners. It includes a personalised schedule that covers basic jobs — cleaning the bathrooms, wiping the counters, vacuuming the stairs — and another level of tasks you might want doing now and again.
Kasia was 4ft 10in and never cleaned above head height. Did I complain? Never
Lewis’s tumble dryer blew up recently because he hadn’t cleaned the filter. Now, every month, a reminder pops up in his cleaner’s app. No cleaner I have ever employed has spotted the scuffs on the skirting boards or the greasy handprints stamped on every door. MoppedUp would cover that without me having to mention it. Lewis’s cleaner is also reminded periodically to test the fire alarms and put salt in the dishwasher.
“It takes her from being a cleaner to someone who is really helping with the minutiae homeowners don’t remember or get around to attending to,” he says. And cleaners benefit because they’re able to build their own profile — the app includes a section enabling anyone drowning in detritus to connect with the most highly recommended cleaners in their area.
Some cleaning agencies will offer discounted rates for slots early in the week, with Thursdays and Fridays often attracting a premium. Lewis’s cleaner comes on a Friday, angling his cushions artfully and working her magic before he gets home to enjoy a restful weekend. “We all want that little treat at the end of the week, don’t we?” he coos.
We do. These days, I do not have a cleaner, partly as a result of austerity measures and partly because I’m a tightwad — shouldn’t children clean their own rooms? (They don’t.) I cannot remember the last time my cushions were professionally plumped. I feel emotional just thinking about it.
I regularly clean the loos and, once a week, I vacuum straight through, dealing with any areas of notable grime or stickiness along the way. And I clean any glass I can’t see through. (Kasia’s influence lingers.) The only way I could safely hire another cleaner is if I could be sent a roster of staff that changed so frequently, I couldn’t be on first-name terms with any of them.
Fortunately, help is at hand. The cleaning company Fantastic Services, which launched in London seven years ago, now has a client base of 100,000. Via its app, Gofantastic, you can book an anonymous maid or manservant to steam-clean your mattress, scrub your tiles or deep-clean your fridge. They’ll also tidy your garden, power-wash your patio and take away your rubbish. I can see how you could get carried away with all this.
Reliable estimates of the value of the domestic-cleaning market are hard to find, but Molly Maid believes it to be about £2.86bn — which makes me wonder what would happen if we all saved our cash and didn’t deep-clean anything at all. I have to report that my house doesn’t look appreciably different after six months without a cleaner. Is all cleaning, as my son believes, largely a “psychiatric activity”?
Maybe the answer is to obsess a bit less. When the raconteur Quentin Crisp was asked why he didn’t clean his New York apartment, he replied: “Because after three years, darling, the dust doesn’t get any worse.”
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