Hiring a housecleaner can be a big step. For some, it means overcoming guilt — after all, you ought to be able to clean your own house, right? Plus, it means letting a stranger (or strangers) into your home for hours at a time — it's personal. But the rewards can be well worth it: more free time, and no more dusting, mopping, vacuuming, or scrubbing.

The first step in getting someone to do your dirty work is to choose whether to hire a company or an individual. If you go with an individual, a major disadvantage is the added legal responsibilities you will assume as an employer. Many families who hire household workers either are unaware of their legal obligations or choose to ignore them. Hiring a company relieves you of employer responsibilities, especially paying taxes and obtaining unemployment insurance coverage.

You are also more likely to get better work from an individual you hire than from a company. A survey conducted by Twin Cities Consumers' Checkbook found that area residents who employed companies were less satisfied than consumers who hired individuals.

Quotes obtained by Checkbook's undercover shoppers ranged from $112 to $231 to clean a two-story, three-bedroom house with two baths on a weekly basis. For an every-other-week cleaning of a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo, prices ranged from $105 to $207. Most companies indicated they charge more for the initial cleaning session than for follow-ups.

If you decide to hire a company, phone estimates can provide an idea about which ones are reasonably priced. To aid your search, until June 5, Star Tribune readers can access Checkbook's unbiased ratings of local housecleaning companies via Checkbook.org/StarTribune/Housecleaners. Before contacting companies, decide which services you want them to do. All will dust, vacuum, take out the trash, mop floors, and clean kitchens and bathrooms. If you want them to perform other tasks, check whether prospective companies will handle them.

Also decide how often you want service. Companies generally want to schedule regular periodic service, but some are willing to come only as needed. Some offer only weekly or biweekly service. If you want service on a certain day, check whether companies are available on that day, especially if you want someone to come on Fridays or Saturdays.

Over the phone, be sure to supply detailed information about your home — number of floors, bedrooms, bathrooms, types of floor coverings, how large, etc. Invite them to your home for a more accurate estimate. Ask companies to provide you with certificates of insurance — liability and workers' compensation. If a company tells you it is bonded, know that doesn't mean much: The bonds housecleaning services buy protect the company, not you.

If you prefer to hire an individual, keep in mind that paying an individual to help with housecleaning differs substantially from hiring a company. You must negotiate pay and benefits. Get referrals from friends and neighbors who are satisfied. Talk with them — and other references from the individual — about your priorities, your pet peeves, and the strengths and weaknesses of the person you are considering.

When you have narrowed the field, have the candidate come to your home, explain and list tasks, describe your expectations, and invite questions and comments. Make sure you describe jobs you are picky about or that could be considered out of the ordinary. Discuss the terms of employment — pay, schedule and benefits —and put them in writing. Specify a probationary period to get acquainted.

Surveyed consumers who employ individual housecleaners reported paying anywhere from about $15 to $75 an hour. Finally, remember that this person will be your employee. That means you might be responsible for paying payroll taxes, contributing to the state's unemployment insurance fund, and carrying workers' compensation insurance.

Plan to be home during the first cleaning visit. Do a full walk-through of your home describing your expectations. Try to arrange to have the same crew for each cleaning, and always store valuable and/or fragile items in a safe place.

Twin Cities Consumers' Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization. Star-Tribune readers can access Checkbook's housecleaner ratings and advice free until June 5 via Checkbook.org/StarTribune/Housecleaners.