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How to find the right service for the right price

September 30, 2007|Julie M. Makinen | Times Staff Writer

Hiring a personal assistant can help ease your stress, but it can quickly become a very expensive proposition. Consider your needs, then decide whether an in-person or virtual assistant would be effective and economical for you.

Virtual personal assistants are inexpensive -- starting around $30 a month -- and are good for anything that can be accomplished over the phone or Internet, such as researching travel plans, making appointments or restaurant reservations, buying tickets and getting directions.

In-the-flesh personal assistants start at about $25 an hour. They can run errands, organize a home office, walk your dog, wrap your Christmas gifts, meet your cable guy and a lot more.

Katharine Giovanni, chairwoman of the board and co-founder of the International Concierge and Errand Assn., says a good "live" personal assistant will do anything for you, as long as it's legal and ethical.

When shopping for an assistant, she recommends checking his or her references, making sure the service is bonded and insured and finding out if it has a clean history with the Better Business Bureau.

Beyond that, she advises asking a few "What would you do if . . . ?" questions to see how the assistant might perform.

Be sure to inquire about rates and additional fees. Check to see whether the service bills by the hour or in 15- or 30-minute increments; shorter intervals can save you money. Some services have a two-hour minimum.

If you want the service to drive you to appointments or the airport, or drive your car anywhere, check in advance to make sure it will do this. Some services won't for insurance or liability reasons. Also ask whether the service charges for mileage.

Find out if the service adds a fee when it pays for things out of pocket for you and gets reimbursed. Also, ask what forms of payment are accepted. Some take only cash or checks; others accept credit cards and even PayPal.

Some services offer gift certificates, something to keep in mind for that person on your list who never has enough time.

You can afford to be picky because nowadays there are more choices than ever. Giovanni says there are thousands of personal assistant or concierge services in the U.S. now, up from just 20 or so in the late 1990s. The ICEA itself has seen 110% growth in the last year alone and now has more than 600 members.

"We're a time-starved nation," says Giovanni, who runs Triangle Concierge in Wake Forest, N.C. "Everyone's trying to squeeze 36 hours into a 24-hour day."

In addition to being hired by harried businesspeople, personal concierge services are now in demand by entire companies. Older people also welcome their assistance.

"A lot of seniors aren't ready to be put into a home, but they need help. A concierge is there to pick up the slack," Giovanni says. "For instance, they can have a personal chef come in and make a week's worth of meals and show them how to reheat it -- what buttons to push on the microwave."

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