For a price, having time in their lives

Brenda Richardson "used to spend any time off running like a madwoman catching up on home projects," says the Towson endodontist.

She has since farmed out tasks such as meeting workmen, running errands and waiting for deliveries to Beth Adams and Susan English of the Baltimore firm My Girl Friday.

"It's a relief — and actually comforting — to know Beth handles every project professionally and efficiently," says Richardson.

Despite the do-it-yourself vogue, many households delegate tasks —running errands, cleaning the house, cooking meals and walking pets — to hired help. The services come with a price, yet for some clients, it's worth what they get back.

"We give time," says Adams, whose My Girl Friday services start at $38 per hour and vary based on client needs. "We free up weekends or evenings, so you have more time to do what you want to do."

"Everyone is so busy," adds English. "Families and schedules are more demanding, and at the end of the day, they need help."

"Relief" is a word personal chef Terri Moser hears often, especially from working mothers. Her meals start at $250 plus the cost of groceries for three four-serving entrees with side dishes.

"When people hire me on a regular basis, they tell me they feel relief because the pressure is off to get a healthy dinner on the table every night," she says. "It's a big stress reducer, especially for women. We feel like we have to do it all — go to work, get kids to practice, get a great meal on the table every night."

Client Michele Heisler of Hunt Valley and her husband juggle owning a law firm with raising three children (and a dog).

"I love to cook," says Heisler, "but I am limited timewise. Even getting to the grocery store is a problem."

Moser's meals help Heisler manage her schedule — and meet other goals, as well. "One of the things I asked her to do was make the menus low-calorie for me," Heisler says. "She makes me a huge salad for the week, so my meals are based on salads, and hand-mixes dressings. It's changed the way I eat and live."

According to the American Personal & Private Chef Association, the number of families employing personal chefs is on the rise. There are about 9,000 personal chefs in the U.S., serving about 72,000 customers. The association expects the number of customers to double over the next five years.

Other home service industries are also growing. The pet care association Pet Sitters International reports that its members made 18.5 million pet-sitting or pet-walking visits in 2010, up from 17.4 million in 2007. Though landscaping services — a $24 billion industry — were hit by the economic downturn, by 2010, the majority of company owners reported that their business was stable or growing, according to a Landscape Management magazine survey.

Amy Kimball and her husband struggled with the desire to do yard projects themselves — specifically, clearing ivy and building two walkways at their Idlewylde home.

"We loved the idea of doing things ourselves," Kimball says, "but the reality is that as working parents with two young kids, it's difficult to fit in any type of project. To find time to work would take away from the little family time we have."

Then there's the primary disadvantage of hiring help: "The obvious downside is cost," she says. She and her husband shopped around, soliciting estimates from several landscapers before hiring Stoneview Landscaping in Baltimore County.

"We've always benefited from multiple estimates," Kimball says. "Not just for the sake of cost, but also from figuring out who we mesh with best."

Not all service providers take over tasks. Worthington Park-based organizational coach Holly Millman also helps clients learn skills to change the way they live. Millman works individually with clients — often teenagers — to teach them how to manage their lives.

"I give people skills to organize their time," she says.

Millman focuses on time management, task prioritizing, and home or office organization. For teens, this means helping them use a schedule or planner to meet assignment deadlines. Millman's rates range from $75 to $90 per hour.

According to Millman, when clients hire her, "they often feel unsuccessful or poorly about themselves. They see that things are not working."

After adopting her strategies, which may be as simple as creating detailed to-do lists, "the successes become habits. It gives them life skills, confidence, self-esteem and habits they can carry on."

Millman works primarily with teenagers and their parents, but for most other home professionals, a diverse client list is common. "We have clients who range from single professionals to a lady in her 80s," says Adams of My Girl Friday.

Older clients often hire helpers to assist with activities they have difficulty handling alone.

"Older clients go to garden centers for ideas," says Stoneview Landscaping owner Chuck Sells. "But they don't want to put 60 bags of mulch in their car and make a bunch of trips back and forth to Home Depot. We do the heavy lifting for them." (Stoneview rates vary significantly based on project scope.)

Many home service professionals say a number of their clients are busy families with two working parents.

"Couples who both work and have kids don't want to sacrifice their weekends cleaning house," says Patryk Tararuj, owner of Canton-based Green Apple Cleaning. For his firm, the average fee for cleaning a Baltimore rowhouse is $75 to $120 per visit.

Tararuj says that keeping up with cleaning a three-bedroom, three-bath house takes about half a day every two weeks. "If you don't have that time, it'll build up, and you'll never be able to clean the whole house because you'll run out of time."

Nearly half of Towson company Sentinel Pet Care's business comes from midday dog walks, according to owner Patrick Harvey. Almost another half is dedicated to pet-sitting for people traveling on business or vacation. Rates range from $18 to $22 per walk.

"People are working longer hours," says Harvey. "And people care more about their pets these days. If they won't be home for 10 or 12 hours, that's too long for a dog to go without the bathroom or exercise."

Harvey notes that pet owners have several options when hiring someone to walk their dogs. "You can certainly pay the kid down the street $8," he says. "But ... we end up educating our clients about social behavior issues and medical issues," he says, adding that professional pet caretakers pay close attention to even minor changes in pet behavior.

That sense of know-how is what helped sell the Kimballs on Stoneview Landscaping. Before meeting with Sells, they did research and made a few plans.

"We had some idea of what we wanted, but we were pretty limited in our ideas. We thought about steppingstones with gravel. Chuck suggested not doing gravel with little kids running around, since it can be slippery. His experience paid off for us."

Now, the Kimballs have an attractive yard with functional walkways. Perhaps more important, they spent last spring enjoying time with their kids — instead of pulling ivy.

Hiring tips

The best pros are good at what they do but also trustworthy. Here, they share tips for hiring.

•Find out who's working for your neighbors. If you like someone else's landscaping, ask who they use, how they liked them and how much it costs.

•Do homework on potential vendors. You can do online research through sites such as the Better Business Bureau and Angie's List, and request referrals from current clients.

•Make sure they're professional. For instance, firms such as maid services should be bonded and insured.

•Look for knowledge and experience. Beyond the service itself, some companies, such as pet sitters, can help educate clients and watch out for their pets' health.

•Compare estimates. Approach multiple vendors before making a decision.

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