From ironing to grave-tending - other people's dirty work is a boom industry. MEG CARTER on the people who'll do anything (so long as you have the cash)
The fridge is empty (no, that shrivelled pepper and mozzarella three weeks past their sell-by date don't count). Your washing's hanging in the bathroom in the vain hope that steam's as good as an iron. And you keep tripping over those unread holiday brochures. If you're in a full-time job, whether you have kids or not, chances are you feel there aren't enough hours in the day. Isn't it about time, then, to hire ... a wife?

Go on, admit it: it's a tempting thought. And the good news? It's no longer wishful thinking. Domestic service is Britain's latest boom business. Today's busy professionals can now rest easy with the promise of a helping hand with, well, anything - from planning a weekend away (you can even pay someone to pack your suitcase) to staying in for the plumber, writing your Christmas cards, even removing dog turds from your lawn. All of which comes at a price, but if you're lucky you may soon find all this subsidised: by your boss.

Hiring help is as old as the upper classes, but never before has it been so accessible. According to market research firm Mintel, the British market for domestic help is now worth pounds 500 million (an inevitable under-estimate as much work continues to be paid for cash in hand). And two reports out last week confirm the trend. An Abbey National survey revealed the amount we spend on domestic services has more than trebled over the past four years. Frenetic Londoners are already spending up to pounds 5,000 a year per average family household to get others to do their chores for them, the Abbey says. Small wonder that NatWest now predicts one-fifth of new businesses will be in personal and domestic services.

It's the desire for more quality time rather than laziness that's driving this new service economy, according to Martin Hayward of the Henley Centre. "While the Eighties were all about consumerism, the Nineties are about how to deal with so much consumer choice," he says. "With more money to spend and less time to spend it, buying in domestic services is an obvious solution."

In the US, birthplace of a new breed of mass-market domestic service (they call it "personal outsourcing") you can use a company called Rent- a-Wife to clean your home and run personal errands; while Dial-a-Husband will handle your DIY. Meanwhile, Boston firm Streamline will install a fridge/freezer in your garage and keep it fully stocked with food - even when you're out. In Nebraska, Tidy Lawn will keep your grass shipshape. And in Greenwich Village, even your dog can benefit by hanging out at The Wagging Tail canine social club while you're at work.

"Domestic service is a phenomenon right now in the US," says David Daugherty, president of New York state-based Capital Concierge which will handle all your travel plans, buy a gift for a friend or arrange an intimate dinner for two. "Not only is this being driven by people having less time to do all the things they need to do, it's also down to employers. They see the stresses their employees now have due to working longer hours and a growing number are paying for their staff to use our services - as a perk."

Capital Concierge already provides services to staff of two major US credit card firms. And if you're lucky enough to work for KPMG, Microsoft or Texas Instruments, you'll enjoy automatic membership of Les Concierges, a similar service based in San Francisco. Don't worry, though, soon you won't have to go Stateside to benefit from such help. Capital Concierge is just one US domestic service provider looking to set up in the UK while a number of British companies are finally waking up to the idea.

London firm One For The Road, for example, will drive you home from the pub in your own car if you've had one too many - the company's chauffeurs can also take your car for a service while you're at work, then return it; drive you to the airport in it and park it back home to save on car- park costs or collect it from the car pound if it's been clamped. The Ironing Board will collect your washing and iron it for you, including underwear and sheets. And a service called Flying Needles will take care of loose buttons and sagging hems.

Meanwhile, Clear Space will advise you on how to "de-clutter" your home. Present Connection can buy that gift for your mum. A company called Screwdriver will send round a handyman to assemble troublesome flatpack furniture, garden sheds or climbing frames. Home Work will take on those small but irritating jobs no one else will do - such as squeaky floorboards or loose loo seats. And Co-Op Grave Tending Services keeps any eye on deceased loved ones.

Alternatively if even this sounds too much trouble, you can sign up with a "total domestic service provider" like recently launched Time Energy Network Ltd. For pounds 500 a year you will be assigned a personal assistant to handle, well, anything you throw at them, says TEN managing director Alex Cheatle. His clients include Jonathan who lives in West London. Jonathan is in his mid-forties and works for Procter & Gamble. His wife, Olga, is a creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi. "It's been a life-saver," he says, "a way of getting those things done that you're too busy, or stressed about, to do. I've done more work on my house in the last six months than the last five years."

Or rather his TEN account manager Olivier has. For it was to Olivier that Jonathan turned when he decided to get his house recarpeted, hire a housekeeper and wanted a guitar teacher for his son. Oh, and when he needed a dog psychiatrist able to cure canine bed-wetting. "I have a friend who recently hurt his back. They even supplied someone to prepare his food for him as he was on a special diet," Jonathan says.

At pounds 500 a year and, of course, the cost of each service used plus administration fee, it might not be the cheapest way of getting things done but, he insists, it's money well spent:"Have I recouped money through their negotiating with people on my behalf? I doubt it. But I have saved at least pounds 5,000- worth in reduced levels of stress."

Cheatle claims his service is equally worthwhile for people of more modest means. "Many of our clients are single women who just can't face being patronised or ripped off by another builder or decorator," he says. "We're currently signing up a 75-year-old mum whose husband recently died. At the moment her two sons are trying to look after her long-distance. If we can take on her domestic chores - like sorting bills and household repairs - they could enjoy their time together more."

Paying for an intermediary to manage your personal affairs has a number of benefits. Perhaps the most obvious is that it means you can neatly sidestep the middle-class angst many of us still feel when confronted with the notion of taking on "staff".

"I was desperate for a cleaner - my boyfriend never pulled his weight around the house and eventually, after many arguments we agreed to split the cost," says Caroline, a 34-year-old financial adviser from South London. "I found it very Upstairs Downstairs - I felt uncomfortable telling her what to do, found it difficult to explain when I was unhappy about her work and always had a quick tidy before she came."

After six months, Caroline decided to go back to doing the cleaning. "Apart from feeling guilty, I was also neurotic about someone I didn't really know going through my stuff and having a key to my house," she admits. "Paying a stranger to do your chores for you takes a great leap of faith."

It's a common feeling although one that's in decline. "With more and more of us paying for domestic help it's coming out into the open - as people realise lots of people they know are doing it too, the guilt soon fades," says Hayward. A more important factor likely to shape the future of mass-market domestic service is trust, he adds. Which is prompting a number of familiar high-street names to take note.

"When things get personal - and what can be more personal than giving someone the keys to your house - people want brands they can trust," Hayward says. "If you already buy a company's furniture, or household products the chances are you'd be more than happy to use someone sent by that company to install the fixtures they sell, clean your house or paint your walls."

Drivers in Tesco uniform already deliver shopping ordered online via Tesco Direct to your door, after all. Waitrose's SOS catering service will tailor-make you a dinner party or picnic (handled by your local branch). Certain Safeway stores take in dry-cleaning. And from the end of next month, Abbey National launches an emergency advice line, One-Call, for anything from travel to home repairs.

The 21st-century Jeeves, then, won't be white-gloved and deferential but a hard-nosed entrepreneur. And the rest of us? It seems we'll have even less time to do anything other than work harder and harder - to foot their bill.


Abbey National, from end of October: 0800 555 100

Clear Space: 0171 233 3138

Co-Op Grave Tending Services: 0800 328 9646

Flying Needles: 01564 792 059

The Ironing Board: 0181 530 1066

One for the Road: 0181 542 7966

Present Connection: 0171 228 4002

Safeway: 01622 712 541

Screwdriver/ Home Work: 0800 454 828

TEN: 0207 563 4200

Tesco: 0345 024024;

Waitrose: 0800 188 884