Tip: Avoid the Carpet Cleaning Bait-and-Switch

Longtime tenants know this story: worn carpets long past their prime get to looking downright threadbare. As pleas for renewal find no sympathy from the landlord, the tenant’s fingers do the walkin’ looking for a cheap carpet cleaner. There are none! There are only cheap quoted prices. Once the job is underway the price changes. Here’s what to expect!

First, this is not our first rodeo; we’ve wrangled carpet cleaners before. 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 from 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. We replaced the carpet about seven years ago at our expense after a request for new carpet was denied by the landlord. Anybody would agree it was ready for replacement. The landlord didn’t even look at it. Request denied.

This carpet cleaner was a crew of one young guy armed with a portable cleaner (not a truck-mounted machine). But he did have a calculator.

He took a look around the 500 square foot  place from the door. He shook his head in mild disapproval. He plugged a few numbers into his calculator and out came his price: $329 or 66 cents per square foot — double the phone estimate! Clearly his calculator is the most important appliance in his business!

In the time he took to negotiate the price he could have half-completed the job. But his time was not the priority but rather his bottom line and the calculator was his most important prop. He rattled off the rooms: living room, dining area, and foyer (they all comprise one room) plus the bedroom. He punched a few buttons again: $329. Why so much? The carpet needed “deep shampoo,” he said, and of course there is a premium

In the end we settled on about $230, which was higher than the estimate but more than a hundred bucks less than his on-the-job prices. We got a good job and the price was fair enough: it had been a while since the last cleaning.

What helped us arrive at the negotiated price was that we had a receipt for the last cleaning, at a much lower price than Mr. Carpet Cleaner was asking, and though all the furniture was out — that was his leverage! — we were prepared to call that company on the spot (no pun intended). A minute later we agreed on the price.

In conclusion, the bait-and-switch may be the business model of the carpet-cleaning business. It can attract some bottom-feeder companies because barriers to entry are low and a low-ball estimate will get them in the door. Then when it comes to the work the higher price pop up on the calculator. Who could argue?

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?

The best solution to the problem is to take the responsibility off the tenant to maintain the premises. Carpet cleaning won’t fix a beat carpet. The landlord take responsibility for interior finishes like paint, carpet, and, where necessary, carpet cleaning. That is why tenants have called for a real habitability standard and a city inspection program to enforce it.

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.