Luxury Living: How To Hire Maids, Butlers And Gardeners

Everything you need to know about hiring domestic help""maids, butlers and gardeners""where to find prospects, questions to ask, and defining work responsibilities.

Maids, butlers and gardeners were once the province of the rich and famous. With people working more hours each week, taking on more responsibilities, and raising children later in life, it makes sense to delegate household tasks. If you devote entire weekends to scrubbing, cooking and gardening, without so much as a moment of time for yourself, it may be time to investigate the luxury of hiring domestic help.

If you're a Type A personality, you'll need to first shed the notion that no one on earth can possibly do (fill-in-the-blank) as well as you. It's counterproductive to take an entire weekend to accomplish something that a professional can knock off in less than a day. Isn't the point of all your hard work to be able to afford life's little luxuries? Money is not the only commodity required to enjoy life; time is an equally important finite commodity. If you can afford to buy the time you need to enjoy life to its fullest, what are you waiting on? There's no time like the present to collect your rewards.

The most important questions you need to answer are "Which tasks do I want someone to accomplish for me? Which tasks do I find the most onerous? Which tasks, when eliminated, would restore a sense of calm to my hectic life?" Before you do anything else, write a complete list of things that you want to eliminate from your schedule. You can add to the list over time, but you need to start out with a good idea of your goal. You can't hire a maid, and then decide that you want your garden weeded""and expect the maid to do it.

Committing to full-time or live-in help is not only a financial responsibility, but it creates a responsibility to another person. If you cannot estimate how much help you need, start with part-time help. If you lack the confidence or experience to hire and fire, start by hiring a service or agency rather than an individual.

Hiring a Service

You can hire a maid (or whatever the person wishes to be called""housekeeper, helper, etc.) on a daily, weekly or sporadic basis from a service. You will pay more to hire a maid through a service, but agency maids are usually bonded and insured, cleaning equipment and supplies are included, and there are no tax consequences to consider.

Start your search by asking friends for recommendations. If that fails to produce prospects, check the yellow pages. Interview the service just as you would a potential employee.

Checklist for Service Interview

* Go over your list of requirements, including laundry, window washing, etc.

* Ask about availability and frequency.

* What are the rates? Do they vary depending on how frequently you use the service? Ask about a frequent user discount or senior citizen discount, if applicable.

* Are the service employees bonded and insured?

* Ask about a cancellation policy. If you are sick or cannot be home on the day that you have scheduled service, how far in advance do you need to cancel?

* Do you need to be home when the maid arrives, or can you arrange to allow the maid entry?

* What is your recourse if you are not satisfied with the service?

* Ask for three references, and contact the references.

Hiring a Maid

There is no better way to find quality help than to ask for recommendations from friends. Unfortunately, you may find that your friends' maids have no free time available. Your next best bet is to contact an agency. You can often hire one of their employees by paying a finder's fee. Agency maids are bonded and insured, and have already been subjected to a background check. Hire the maid through the service first, and offer employment after a successful trial.

When you hire your own maid, you must supply your own equipment and supplies. In addition to communicating your requirements and discussing rates and availability, you'll need to address or observe the following in your initial interview:

* Ask some leading questions about work procedures; for example, "how will you perform routine maintenance on my Oriental rugs," or "how would you handle a scratch on the grand piano?"

* If you have any special requests; for example, you want the maid to cook dinner, walk the dog, answer the phone, etc., you'll need to negotiate them up front. Be prepared to pay extra for special requests.

* If you have children, observe how the prospect interacts with the children.

* If the prospect speaks little English, ensure that you can communicate adequately.

* Discuss terms of employment--employee vs. contract work, hours of employment, if applicable, etc. In addition to salary, confirm who is responsible for taxes, social security, and worker's compensation, if any. Discuss any benefits, including disability, sick days and vacation.

* Ask for references. When you contact each reference, inquire about reliability, promptness, courtesy, and quality of work performed.

* If you have children, or if it would make you feel more secure, it is not paranoid to run a background check. Most companies routinely run background checks on new employees.

Note: Experience, though desirable, is not mandatory. If the prospect shows promise and lacks experience, it may be easier to train someone than it is to break old habits. Character traits trump experience.

When you've concluded all of the interviews and checked references, invite the serious prospects back, and show them around the house, detailing exactly how you would like things done. For example, you'll want certain laundry items hand-washed, and you may not want your good china to go in the dishwasher. The only way to ensure your satisfaction is to communicate your requirements.

When you settle on your most likely prospect, hire the prospect conditionally for a trial period to last a predetermined period. On the first day of employment, present the maid with a letter detailing the terms of employment or contract. At the conclusion of the trial period, make a final offer of employment or begin the trial process with another prospect.

Note: Tax laws regarding domestic help are complex and change from year to year. Consult your tax expert to determine whether you maid qualifies as a contractor or employee and which laws and regulations apply.

Hiring a Butler

Hiring a butler requires more time, money and effort than hiring a maid or a gardener. The search is time-consuming and expensive. To contain costs, you must know precisely what you want from your butler. More importantly, you need to know what a butler expects. Butlers consider themselves consummate professionals. They have trained extensively for the position, and they expect to be treated with respect and handsomely rewarded for their efforts. Expect to pay six figures (including hidden costs such as placement fees) for a butler and to provide living and transportation costs. Traditionally, if the butler does not reside at the residence, the employer still provides living and all work-related transportation costs.

Start by consulting a placement agency. After the initial consult, expect to pay a fee for the search and all associated expenses, even if you do not hire a butler. The placement agency manages all of the interview details, including airfare, accommodations and ground transportation. When you hire a butler, you'll pay a finder's fee""up to 35 percent of the first year's gross salary.

Butlers serve as chief-of-staff of the household. They will perform a wide variety of duties, including:

* Running the household, and supervising other household staff

* Party and event planning

* Serving as a personal assistant, including correspondence and scheduling

* Planning and maintaining the household budget

* Coordinating maintenance for second residences, aircraft, yachts and vehicles

* Taking care of the children and coordinating their activities, but not caring for infants

* Preparing meals

* Laundry and clothing maintenance

Note: If you prefer to eliminate the finder's fee, be prepared to handle numerous interview details. Start your search by contacting your state Employment Security office. Check newspaper ads in large metropolitan papers, and prepare to conduct a regional or national search. While you may be able to eliminate an agency from the search equation, you'll probably end up paying just as much to your tax professional and attorney, and chances are that they'll have to spend time in research that could cost as much or more than your finder's fee to the agency.

Hiring a Gardener

If you need your lawn mowed, your leaves raked, or your gutter cleaned, you can hire an industrious neighborhood teenager or a yard person instead of a gardener. If you are planning to design and plant new garden beds, or if your estate requires regular maintenance, a gardener is your best bet. Determine whether you need manual labor or horticultural expertise. If your plans call for large-scale landscaping, hire a landscaper who will supervise an entire crew and handle the project from its inception to its conclusion.

There is a near-foolproof method for hiring a qualified gardener: contact your local agriculture extension cooperative, and ask for a list of Master Gardeners. Prospective Master Gardeners attend an intensive course lasting several months, and upon successful conclusion of the course, they are required to participate in continuing education each year.

Master Gardeners must also perform community volunteer service each year. As part of their volunteer service, they can offer gratis gardening services for residents in their local community. Ask for a complimentary in-depth consultation with the Master Gardener, reminding him or her that this qualifies as volunteer hours. You can determine if your styles are compatible without an initial investment, and you can explore design possibilities together. To gain the most benefit from your gardener, try to keep an open mind about his or her design ideas as well as your own. Landscaping is a collaborative effort and is an extension of your home design.

Another way to locate qualified gardeners is to contact one of your local upscale garden centers. They can offer recommendations, but you may have to hire the gardener through the garden center. Ask for references, and visit other clients' properties. Once the gardens are established, work with your gardener to establish a maintenance schedule.

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