Article By Ann Kadet
I still remember the first time I had my apartment cleaned by professionals, because it was last week. Coming home afterward was a bizarre experience. It was my apartment, but it wasn’t my apartment. It was the apartment of a much cleaner person. I wandered in a daze, spouting random commands to an amused visitor: “Look at my sink!” “Look at my refrigerator!” The maids from a start-up service called MyClean, hired to perform the $228 “spring cleaning” job, had scrubbed the inside of the microwave and changed the sheets. They’d dusted the plastic dinosaurs and washed the recycling bins. And I discovered that cleaning is like a back rub: Hiring a pro is a lot more fun than doing it yourself, and much more effective.
I am probably the last person in NYC to join the cleaning party. Roughly half of New York households earning at least $75,000 use cleaning pros, and that means we spend about $600 million a year on maids. Of course, those figures are estimates. Most New Yorkers use independent cleaners who they meet through referrals and pay under the table. You ask around and it turns out your friend Susan has been using the same cleaning woman for 74 years—a reliable Belarus native who scrubs the baseboards with a toothbrush for $15 an hour. If you hire her, she will someday clean the space station inhabited by your great-great-grandchildren.
The problem with these arrangements is the risk. If you come home and discover all the furniture is missing or, even worse, the maid is dead following a slip on a banana peel, you’re on the hook for the loss. That’s why we have professional cleaning services that are bonded and insured. The downside: They charge twice as much as the solo cleaners, and that means $20 to $45 an hour. Angie’s List, the ratings site for local services, says that even though we live in homes that suburban folks would refer to as closets, the average cost of a housecleaning in New York City is $274—36% higher than the national average.
The New York market is so odd, in fact, that the nation’s largest housecleaning chain, Merry Maids, doesn’t even operate here. A spokesman says that while change is in the air, the company once did a feasibility study concluding that a New York operation wouldn’t be profitable. He couldn’t say why, but I suspect it’s because we have, well, special needs when it comes to housekeeping. The latest, trendiest furnishings and surfaces decorating Manhattan apartments can be hard to clean, says Barbara Roche Fierman, founder of high-end service New York’s Little Elves. Her latest pet peeve: pewter kitchen countertops that can’t be washed with water.
And that’s just the start. In Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Trinidad native Gale St. John runs the sole NYC franchise for another national chain, The Maids, and the former J.P. Morgan banker says the company’s suburban business model just didn’t fit New York. For the first four years, she had to pay a full-time driver to chauffeur her cleaners around town in the required Maids-branded vehicle, because no one has driveways. And she had to convince corporate to approve bigger teams to clean the brownstones—a city house with indoor pets gets so furry, it needs an extra duster.
But this hasn’t discouraged a spate of cleaning startups, perhaps because it’s a business with relatively easy entry—mops and brooms are cheap. Former life insurance salesman David Steiner, head of fast-growing, high-end cleaning service Dirty 2 Purdy, says he got into the business after dating a cleaning woman. He spent a few months researching cleaning techniques on Google and chatting with the national franchises to learn their systems.
The tough part is hiring maids. It’s a high-turnover, low-pay business, and many companies hire five trainees for every employee who sticks around. Mr. Steiner’s big break came when he met a man at a dinner party who did vocational training for the deaf. Mr. Steiner’s first question: “Can they clean?” Two years later, he has 16 employees and more than 300 clients who pay $40 an hour for a basic cleaning.
Folks searching Craigslist for a housecleaning service can’t avoid Tammy’s Cleaning Girls on Call (“CALL HAVE SOMEONE THERE IN 90 MINUTES”). Founder Tammy Corrieri posts on the site’s household-services category more than 100 times a day in an effort to stay at the top of the search results and funnel more clients to her $25-an-hour start-up. Ms. Corrieri says the business is almost entirely virtual—she posts the ads and coordinates the schedules from afar. “I have homes in several states,” she says. Last week, she was running her operation from a laptop in Las Vegas.
And it was only a matter of time before we had a cleaning service in the form of a Web start-up. MyClean CEO Michael Scharf, a former Bank of America derivatives salesman, admits his company started as a tech outfit in search of a fresh industry. The cleaning business looked like a ripe opportunity. “In another business I’d be up against 30 M.B.A.s,” he says. On MyClean.com, you can get an instant estimate (there’s an algorithm for that), book an appointment with a favorite cleaner, pay by credit card and earn reward points. It’s a clever business model with low overhead—MyClean contracts with several office-cleaning companies to take on the excess hours of cleaners on their payroll. But judging from my experience, it’s a good system. Josefina Propst and Alida Nolasco got my fridge looking whiter and shinier than when I moved in five years ago. Now if only I could get them to brush my teeth.
—Ms. Kadet, who writes the “Tough Customer” column for SmartMoney magazine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.