Tips to Avoid the Carpet Cleaning Bait-and-Switch

Longtime tenants know this story: worn carpets long past their prime get to looking downright threadbare. Yet pleas for renewal find no sympathy from an inattentive landlord. Even a request for a carpet cleaning falls on a deaf ear (so to speak). When the quality of interior furnishings like carpets declines, it can fall to the tenant to pick up the slack: new paint, new carpet and the occasional carpet cleaning at her own expense. We’ve done that and more over the past twenty years and most recently hired a carpet cleaner. Here are our lessons learned!

First, this is not our first rodeo; we’ve wrangled carpet cleaners before. But we tend to forget the hassle and move forward. In some ways, contracting a carpet cleaner is like a visit to the DMV or the passport office: the existential discomfort recedes with time, but it all comes back the the next time.

This particular carpet cleaner came via a recommendation from a landlord friend. We even used his name and got a pretty good price: about 35 cents per square foot for a small 1-BR apartment. We agreed on a time. “Is it a truck or a portable cleaner?” we asked. Your choice, said Manny. “Truck,” we said, anticipating a more thorough job with a bigger, truck-mounted machine.

Old carpet (left) and the newer carpet (right).
The old carpet (left) and the newer carpet we paid to replace meet here at a closet threshold. You didn’t think we’d pay to re-carpet closets, did you?

To be honest, we were overdue for a cleaning. But it wasn’t like we were expecting miracles from a too-worn carpet. We had replaced it about seven years ago at our expense after our request for renewal was denied by the landlord. (Even though that carpet already showed some wear when the lease was signed.)

This carpet cleaner was a crew of one young guy armed with a portable cleaner. Oh, and a calculator. He took a look around the place (which one can do from a single vantage point) and shook his head in mild disapproval. He had seen it before: dirty carpet! He plugged a few numbers into his calculator. We waid, “Wait – how much?” For our benefit he tapped in numbers again and there came the price: $329 or two-and-a-half times the phone estimate. Clearly the calculator is the most important appliance in the carpet-cleaning business!

Now in the time we took to negotiate a price he could have actually half-completed the job. But his time was not the focus here: it was his bottom line. And the calculator was the centerpiece of the effort to push his post-estimate price as high as possible. Presumably using the calculator must mean the price is unarguably accurate.

Nonsense! Yet his calculator was the first step in pushing the price up to $329 from a phone estimate of $130. How? By rattling off a (short) enumeration of rooms. There was the living room, the dining area, and the hallway (never mind that all comprise one room) and of course the bedroom. The latter he priced at the full $130. Add all those rooms and the hallway and the total came to $329.

Next he emphasized that the carpet needed “deep shampoo,” so of course he needs a premium for that. In the end we got a good job (though time will tell!) at a price that was indeed 50% higher than the estimate. Fair enough we though: it had been a while since the last cleaning.

What helped us arrive at that number – indeed any number at – was that my partner produced a receipt for the last cleaning. And we suggested we were ready to call that company right there on the spot. A minute later we agreed on that price and he was on the job. Time for tips!

Renters Alliance Carpet-Cleaning Contracting Tips

  • The first question is, Go name brand or no-name? A name-brand carpet-cleaner may be worth something, but is it worth a significantly higher price? For the extra money will the result be better? Hard to know. But there is something to be said for well-maintained machinery and a brand reputation behind the job.
  • Avoid working with a sub-contractor. Most reputable companies will take the call, give the estimate, then have an employee do the work. Here, unbeknown to us, we were working though a guy named Manny who subcontracted out the job to the cleaning guy. That allowed the carpet-cleaner to position himself as a victim. “He gave you the price,” the guy says, “but I’m seeing the job, and if I give it to you for that…” He meant he would be losing money. “I think Manny created a problem for you,” we replied.
  • Get an in-person estimate. Get the cleaner to eyeball the job. Don’t get ambushed by a too-high revised price when you’re standing in the middle of an apartment with the stuff moved out. Alternately, have a backup or even a receipt for a prior cleaning. We only landed (finally) on a number because we were holding a receipt for the prior cleaning at that price.
  • If eyeballing the job is not practical then make sure the company bases their estimate on actual floor area. Square footage is an objective measure; it is the only thing to go by. Terms like ‘dining area’ and ‘hallway’ mean nothing in the context of price. But they do allow the negotiator to suggest how big is the job – so many rooms in a 1-bedroom apartment! – and raise his price accordingly.
  • Likewise, don’t be distracted by imprecise terms like “deep clean” and “deep shampoo.” These are examples of negotiating verbiage no different from the kind we’ve encountered on a used car lot. Look past them. Our positions were $100 apart, for example, and what accounted for his higher price? His special cleaning products cost him extra. Don’t believe it: certain spot-cleaning products may cost more to apply, but really an additional $100 in a small 1-bedroom apartment? Isn’t spot-cleaning part of the job anyway?
  • Don’t sign any paperwork unless it states exactly what the agreed price is. We were handed a blank estimate form for a signature. Our carpet-cleaner didn’t press us to sign it, but we wouldn’t have signed it anyway without a final price on there.
  • Be prepared to walk away. That’s standard in any negotiation but it bears repeating here. The occupant who has already emptied her apartment is negotiating at her weakest moment. (And that negotiating position only gets weaker later in the day as dinnertime approaches.) But the occupant prepared to call another service on the spot has the leverage. In any event, should he walk we’re sure he will turn around and keep negotiating because he already has sunk his time into the job. Why walk away over a few bucks?

In conclusion, it can seem like bait-and-switch is the business model in the carpet-cleaning business. The barriers to entry are low and there are many small providers giving low-ball estimates just to get in the door. Then when it comes time to do the work a much higher price appears right there in the calculator.

But really our best tip is to get your landlord to take responsibility for interior finishes. That includes paint, carpet, and, where necessary, periodic carpet cleaning. But serving an existing tenant adds nothing to the bottom line. Which is why tenants demand higher habitability standards and a city inspection program to enforce them. No tenant should be embarrassed about discolored, worn or soiled carpets when we’re paying every month for a level of fixtures and finishes commensurate with what we were provided as new tenants.


Renters Alliance welcomes any tips you may have! Please contact us with carpet-cleaner tips!

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