Extensive Advice About Hiring (and Keeping) a Housekeeper in South Korea

You are in South Korea for a limited time and you want to explore as much as possible. Hiring a housekeeper can help you free-up weekends and support your mental health. However, hiring a housekeeper can also be filled with a great deal of stress and disappointment due to communication and cultural differences. I’m going to do my best to provide detailed information that will help mitigate such stress points. Remember though, this blog only touches lightly on the complexity of communicating between cultures. You will need to stay aware of your own needs and expectations for housekeepers and add to this list as you see fit.

How much does housekeeping cost in South Korea?

Korean house cleaning services tend to be an affordable way to free up your time. Notice that I said affordable and not cheap. The minimum wage in South Korea is 7,530 won ($6.65 USD). You absolutely need to pay anyone doing manual labor more than minimum wage. The hourly cost of your housekeeper should look something like this:

  • Minimum if your housekeeper DOES NOT bring their own supplies: 12,000 won ($10.93 USD) per hour
  • Minimum if your housekeeper DOES bring their own supplies: 14,000 won ($12.75 USD) per hour.

I am quoting ethically rock bottom prices here. Housekeepers may need to charge MORE if: your house exists outside of their working area (like houses in the countryside); you have an exceptionally dirty home that requires excessive cleaning each week; or you have special requests that require them to buy unique supplies. Remember, that your ex-pat lifestyle often requires special skills and supplies. For example, oven cleaners or bathtub cleaners. Also, ex-pat homes tend to have more furniture than Korean homes, and that makes cleaning more difficult.

I personally paid 120,000 won for my housekeeper’s first visit and I now pay 80,000 won each visit. Our villa apartment is about 32 pyong (1,123 sqft) and we have 2 dogs. The housekeeper comes every other week. To be honest, I have no idea how long she works for. She cleans whatever needs cleaning. Sometimes she messages me that she is leaving early and sometimes she messages that she stayed late. I always pay the same amount of money and leave managing her time up to her. That’s the situation she and I have worked out and it’s what works for me since our household has a strict budget.

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What ethical considerations should I be aware of when hiring a housekeeper?

Please don’t just hire cheap. Paying deeply discounted prices often means you hired illegal housekeepers or are taking advantage of an elderly housekeeper.

Please don’t hire undocumented workers working for companies. Like many developed countries, the abuse of undocumented workers occurs in South Korea. We encourage everyone to make an effort to avoid using businesses that may not protect their employees by providing them with valid visas. Of course, Hiring a Korean housekeeper will ensure that your housekeeper is legal to work

Don’t cancel or adjust their cleaning days with less than 48 hours’ notice. Remember that when you cancel your housekeeper or change the cleaning day at the last minute, you take money out of their pockets that they can’t get back. Respect your housekeeper and give them plenty of notice if you need to change. If you cancel a housekeeper without notice a few times they may quit because they need to get paid. If you MUST cancel or change their schedules offer to pay them at LEAST half of the wages they will lose from your poor planning or your emergency.

What do housekeepers do when they clean your house?

Every housekeeper in South Korea has their own cleaning system. Some housekeeping task details can be negotiated when interviewing the housekeeper and other items will need to be negotiated when they come to clean our home the first time. Negotiating such housekeeping tasks is why it is VERY important to be home during the housekeeper’s first visit. However, DO NOT get in the housekeeper’s way unless they ask for your help. You paid them to clean, so let them clean. The following information relates to negotiating and establishing housekeeping expectations in order to minimize culture shock.

In addition, each housekeeper has their own systems that reflect their access to resources. Some housekeepers have their own cars, others take public transportation. Some housekeepers have worked in many countries, others have only lived and worked in Korea. Your job is to develop an understanding of how the housekeeper works and if it will meet your needs.

What questions do I need to ask about communicating with my housekeeper?

Establish how you will communicate with your housekeeper from the very beginning. You need to know that they understand how well you do or do not speak Korean. Try to ask the following questions so that you know how you will approach all of the following questions:

  • Does the housekeeper speak English?
  • If the housekeeper does not speak English, are they comfortable communicating through Papago?
  • How do they prefer to communicate? (Do they want to talk to you via text, voice call, video chat)?
  • How will conflicts or concerns be negotiated? (This can’t always be established, but it’s best if you do because issues will come up. Having a person who speaks Korean who can help negotiate important communication with your housekeeper will empower you BOTH in the working relationship..)

You may want to keep a service like Wonderful on retainer to help you with communicating with your housekeeper. You will have to pay them for their time, but it can provide peace of mind within your working relationship.

Important cultural note: Your housekeeper will likely agree to many things that they do not understand. You are likely to agree with many things that you misunderstood. Just because your housekeeper says “yes” does not mean your housekeeper understood you. Just because your housekeeper spoke to you in English doesn’t mean you understand what your housekeeper meant. Expect to be shocked by how your housekeeper follows through on your directions the first time. Then expect that you will need to negotiate understanding a few times before the housekeeper meet expectations.

Always remember that you and your housekeeper are smart people who want to succeed. Mistakes will be made and they do not reflect on the other person as being bad or lacking in any way. These miscommunications and misunderstandings exist when people attempt to communicate between cultures and languages. Holding space for confusion and ambiguity.

What questions do I need to ask my housekeeper about housekeeping supplies and appliances?

Every housekeeper we or our friends have used had their own system (Yes, we said this twice now because it’s important). You will find no standard for how housekeeping supplies and appliances are handled. Additionally, the cleaning supplies used in South Korea are NOT the same as in your home country. Therefore, you need to figure out what you expect and what the housekeeper your interviewing offers.

  • Who provides the cleaning supplies?
  • If you provide the cleaning supplies, what cleaning supplies do they need?
  • Who will provide the cleaning tools?
  • If you provide the cleaning tools/appliances, what tools/appliances do they expect you to provide?
  • If the housekeeper finds something broken should they go ahead and get the supplies to fix it or should they leave you a list of supplies they need? (We had one housekeeper that left us a list and we bought items for her. Our current housekeeper just fixes things and replaces things and we don’t worry about it. We set a budget of 20,000 won and if she needs more she asks us.)

What questions do I consider when my housekeeper comes to clean my house for the first time?

These questions often come up during the first day that they clean your house. Due to the language barrier, these questions usually get answered through an exciting game of charades mixed with a great deal of Papago voice to text translation:

  • Will you be home while your housekeeper cleans your apartment or house? (Some housekeepers do not what you home while they clean because you will be in the way. Clarify this situation before they start.)
  • How long do you want your housekeeper to clean your apartment or house? (Do you want them to clean until the job is done? Or do you want them to have a strict time budget?)
  • What would you like your housekeeper to focus on cleaning? (Are there places you don’t want them to clean and some rooms you want them to focus on?)
  • Should the housekeeper sort things and organize your things while they clean your home? (Korean housekeepers are likely to go through your house and brutally throw things out that they think are broken or past their sell-by date. Nothing is sacred so be clear about what to toss and what not to toss. My housekeeper was like, “That TV is crap, let’s toss it and you go buy a better one.” She was not wrong, but I was shook by being called out over my very crappy TV.)
  • Do you want them to clean the fridge and cabinets? (Seriously, a Korean housekeeper will likely toss anything they don’t quite understand in your kitchen cabinets if you don’t clarify it’s a special foreign item.)
  • When the housekeeper cleans the fridge and cabinets, do you want them to decide if things are bad and toss the bad items? (You should know that your housekeeper may just start throwing things away right and left if you don’t clarify that you don’t want that to happen.)
  • Should your housekeeper do your laundry? (If they do your laundry, should they use the dryer? Are there things they shouldn’t wash? We never expected the housekeeper to do our laundry, and came home to all of our clothes washed one day. If we had known this was an option we would have pulled out the dry cleaning.)

Cultural tip: No matter how hard you prepare, there will also be miscommunications that you never saw coming. Hiring a housekeeper is stressful for everyone, including your housekeeper. Try to stay flexible and communicative. Try to understand that the housekeeper may need you to adjust your expectations or clarify your expectations in order to have a mutually beneficial experience. Take time to learn about negotiating meaning between languages.

Additionally, you may need to try a few housekeepers before you find the one that fits your home. Make sure to find a housekeeper who you can communicate with.

What pet owners need to know when hiring a housekeeper

If you are a pet owner, you need to clarify additional information with potential housekeepers. This will ensure that your housekeeper doesn’t show up at your door and then promptly leave your home because they are deathly afraid of dogs or highly allergic to cats:

  • Does the housekeeper clean homes with pets?
  • Does the housekeeper have experience cleaning homes with pets?
  • Does the housekeeper have any pet allergies?
  • Does the housekeeper use cleaning supplies that are safe for pests?
  • Does the housekeeper charge more for cleaning homes with pets?

You will need the pets kenneled or in a separate room while your housekeeper cleans. This is a best practice to protect your pet so that they don’t slip out an open door or scare the housekeeper. Remember that your housekeeper and your pet likely do not speak the same language so misunderstanding can easily occur. Kenneling your pet will protect you from unfortunate misunderstandings that could negatively impact your relationship with your housekeeper.

Things you need to clarify with your housekeeper before they start cleaning

In South Korea the cultural concept of privacy does not exist in the same way it does in other parts of the world. That means that your housekeeper may come into your house and clean EVERYTHING. That may include emptying all your drawers, doing all your laundry, sorting through every box. This may also include asking you directly about anything they find in your drawers (In our case, I had to explain why my husband needed two drawers of candy by his bed. I would have felt less foolish explaining adult toys which would have at least made sense.) Consider nothing off limits in your home unless you tell them they are off limits. You need to clarify:

  • Drawers you do not want to be opened
  • Boxes you do not sorted
  • Laundry you don’t want washed
  • Things in the fridge or cabinets you don’t want to be tossed
  • Papers that are not trash, but you are saving for later
  • Rooms that you don’t need to have cleaned

You then need to tape notes REMINDING your housekeeper to not touch these areas. The truth be told, your housekeeper likely won’t remember most of the information you give them. I recommend printing do-not-enter symbols (not words) and taping them to anything you don’t want to be touched or cleaned. Pictures are better than words. Your housekeeper will likely NOT REMEMBER ANY VERBAL LIST! Think about how long you remember something someone tells you in Korean and you will understand your housekeeper’s life. Not to mention, they will have several other households to clean. Remembering every detail for every house can be difficult.

Things that surprised us about our current housekeeper

Everyone has a different relationship with their housekeeper, but here are a few things we have experienced with our current housekeeper:

  • Our housekeeper has the code for our house
  • Our housekeeper brings all her own supplies and appliances
  • Our housekeeper steam mops all our floors and tile
  • Our housekeeper does our laundry
  • Our housekeeper gives us tasks to take care of during the weeks she can’t come
  • Our housekeeper brings us gifts
  • Our housekeeper always asks for Aeropress coffee if we are home
  • Our housekeeper won’t let us help
  • Our housekeeper is the boss of us
  • We would rather starve than not have a housekeeper

How can I find a housekeeper in South Korea

Housekeepers generally work in one area and they don’t travel far. That means you should ask your landlord, real estate agent, or friends for recommendations in your area. There are smartphone apps and websites for finding housekeepers in South Korea but the apps are only in Korean. Remember that asking a friend to refer their housekeeper is a very serious request. It’s a relationship built on trust and your friend needs to be 100% sure you will treat the housekeeper they recommend with respect. Don’t even play. You can also use a service like Wonderful to help you find a housekeeper.

How to keep your housekeeper happy

Since housekeepers are people with feelings, hopes, dreams, and families – keeping a housekeeper means respecting them and supporting them. In South Korea, smalls gifts go a long way in building trust and communication. The gifts should consider how hard the housekeeper is working. A few things that I do are:

  • I leave my housekeeper a gift of instant coffee, fruit juice, or Korean snacks.
  • If I bake something I leave some for my housekeeper.
  • I make my housekeeper a sandwich if I am home and she is working through lunch.
  • I pay using a Korean money envelope which you can get at Daiso or any stationery store.

Our housekeeper has become a huge part of our lives. To be honest, since the two of us don’t have parents our housekeeper fills that role in our lives in some ways. We have a person who comes to our home and actively looks for ways to support us and care for us. In return, we try to find ways to make her life more delightful each time she visits.

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