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Personal aides: Worth it?

Times Staff Writer

The friend’s birthday gift, unmailed for weeks. The dental appointment, put off one month, then two. The Jiffy Lube sticker on my windshield, telling me my engine was 2,000 miles overdue for an oil change.

It was a hot summer night, and I was driving home after another 11-hour day at the office, wearily contemplating my growing to-do list. How had I managed to let yet another week slip by without scheduling a haircut? That call would have taken two minutes. I couldn’t find time in my workweek for a two-minute call!

If only I could pay someone to do this.

Wait a minute, I thought. Isn’t this L.A., land of the personal assistants? And land of people who won’t mock me for having a personal assistant? I could pay someone to do this! But it would probably cost a fortune. Or would it?

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Once home, I did a little poking around on the Internet and, to my surprise, found dozens of options -- a full-time assistant for $1,000 a week (yeah, right), a la carte services at $25 to $50 an hour and something called a virtual assistant starting at $29 a month.

Naturally, I started with the cheap one, a new outfit called Sunday ( www.asksunday.com). For $29 a month, the assistants at Sunday would do 30 tasks for me.

The rules were simple: Each task could take no more than 30 minutes, and each had to be something that could be accomplished, ahem, at a distance: These assistants, I learned later, are mostly in India.

My first was John Locke. Actually, it was a guy using the pseudonym John Locke, a character on the TV show “Lost.”

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The assistance-at-a-distance model ruled a lot of things out. The assistants could not pick up my dry cleaning or go stand in line to mail a package.

But I was surprised at how much they could do. Once I had registered at the website, I uploaded some personal data, such as my frequent-flier account numbers, and the names and phone numbers of my dentist, hairdresser and doctor. If I wanted an assistant to make purchases on my behalf, I could also load credit-card information in encrypted form.

Sitting on my couch at 1 a.m., I dashed off a flurry of requests via e-mail:

* Contact all my frequent-flier airlines and inform them that I had recently changed my last name and wanted my accounts updated.

* Schedule a teeth cleaning for sometime in the next few weeks, any time before 9 a.m.

* Make an appointment for a haircut.

* Find out how much an airline ticket to Las Vegas would cost on Labor Day weekend.

Within 30 minutes, there was an e-mail in my in box saying that my requests were being processed. By noon the next day, the folks at Sunday had sent a list of flight options, a confirmed dental appointment and a date for my haircut.

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There was a snag on the frequent-flier accounts: The assistant found out that only I could change the name. But thoughtfully he had prepared a list of what each of seven airlines required in the way of documentation and where to send my requests.

Quickly accomplished

Wow, three and a half things knocked off my list before noon. And it had cost me only $4!

Other subscribers to Sunday have found novel uses for the service. In addition to submitting requests via e-mail, you can call a local phone number and ask for something. In a bar and need to settle a bet? Have a Sunday staffer look up the answer. Lost and without your Thomas Guide? Call Sunday for directions. Need to call your cable company but don’t want to sit through 20 minutes on hold? Have a Sunday assistant call, then patch you through once a human is on the line.

Driving to and from work, I would call for restaurant reservations or for help finding a rental car.

As far as it went, Sunday was helping me whittle down my to-do list -- although my hairdresser griped that the calls from Sunday were a bit insistent.

Yet there was still that unmailed birthday gift. The nagging Jiffy Lube sticker, guilt-tripping me each time I got behind the wheel. And there were new things joining my list every day: the dripping pipe in the kitchen. The light fixture in my den that fried out one day. A few items that needed to be returned to IKEA.

Clearly, I needed another assistant -- on this continent, in this city, with a car.

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After a brief search, I settled on My Girl Friday Errands, a small husband-and-wife enterprise that provides help by the hour. I plunked down $554 for a 20-hour package, which comes out to about $27 a hour.

It didn’t seem cheap. On top of what I was already paying for other “helpers” in my life (cleaning lady, $140 a month; gardener, $80; pooper-scooper man, $44; Sunday virtual personal assistant, $29), this put me at nearly $850 for the month -- just to pay people to help me manage my house and my errands.

But then again, if this service could help me dig out from under my big to-do list, it might be worth it. And that would relax me more than any $100 massage.

In addition to my list of undone errands, I wondered whether an in-the-flesh assistant could help eliminate the other big stress in my life: my hourlong, stop-and-go commute to downtown.

As an experiment, I asked my personal assistant to drive me to work. I could sit back and read the paper or send e-mails and text messages without trying to steer at the same time. Coming home, I could take public transit.

The ride in was a delight. Maria Laguda-Butcher, who runs My Girl Friday Errands with her husband, Ivan Butcher, picked me up on time and deposited me at my office 55 minutes later, for less than I would have paid a taxi.

But my plan unraveled on the journey home. Leaving work around 9 p.m., I walked five minutes to the subway station, waited 20 minutes on the platform, then rode for 30. Then I waited 20 more minutes for a bus and rode for 20. After a 10-minute walk I was finally home. One hour and 45 minutes to go 18 miles.

Clearly, I needed to go back to the drawing board.

Cost efficiency

There were other conundrums. I had $20 worth of stuff to return to the store, but it made no sense to pay my assistant $27 an hour to do that errand. Personal assisting has its own peculiar economic rules, I discovered.

Overall, though, I was pleased. Maria, Ivan, and their staff really got things done for me. They had the lenses replaced in my sunglasses. They waited at my house for the cable guy to come and do some rewiring. They dropped my bike off at the shop for a tune-up.

They paid any charges they incurred, then sent me an itemized list and billed my credit card.

I started getting savvy, pairing up the work of my virtual personal assistants with my in-the-flesh assistants. The guys in India looked up the requirements for changing the name on my passport and sent me the forms. My in-the-flesh assistant picked up my passport photos at the drug store, then stood in line at the post office to submit my application.

The more I started to rely on my personal assistants, though, the more I realized that I really couldn’t afford to keep this up long term.

Sure, it would make sense to hire an assistant during a few busy periods of the year -- around back-to-school time, for spring cleaning or at the holidays, for instance. In fact, Maria Laguda-Butcher started her business around Christmas 2005; for one client, she shopped for gifts for 14 people, then spent two weeks wrapping them. I guess it’s the thought that counts.

I could imagine many other situations in which a temporary assistant would be a godsend, such as planning for a big party or a wedding, dealing with an aging parent who needs help with errands, or if you’re going to be out of town for weeks at a time.

But for me, $550 a month wasn’t sustainable. What I needed was a simpler life. What I needed was a shorter commute, less stuff to manage, more free time.

I decided to use the remaining hours I had booked with My Girl Friday Errands to help me accomplish that goal. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that if they did their jobs well, they’d be working themselves out of my employ.

I put my house up for lease and started looking for an apartment closer to my work. Maria sent an assistant over to help me hold a garage sale. The day before, she bought pricing stickers and picked up small bills at the bank to use as change. On the day of the sale, she helped manage the customers and handle some of the money. When the sale ended, she took digital photos of the larger leftover items and made a “for sale” posting on Craigslist.

When it was time to pack, the assistant fetched some boxes. When I needed a plumbing leak repaired and a light fixture replaced for the new tenant, the assistant waited at my house for the fix-it men to show up. And when a prospective renter called and asked whether she could view the house in the middle of the day, my assistant was there to give her a tour of the property.

I’ve now found someone to rent my house. And I’m taking up residence in a smaller apartment downtown, four blocks from my office.

In the next few weeks, I plan to call on my assistant to help me pack up my house, forward my mail and get the utilities turned on at my new place. Maybe she can even help me plan a housewarming party.

After that, I hope I won’t need her much. After all, with such a short commute, I’ll have at least one extra hour each day to do my own errands. And I can pay myself $27 a hour to do them.

julie.makinen@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Where to go

Here are some places to look for help in taking care of personal tasks.

Virtual assistants

* Sunday offers two membership plans. $29 a month gets you 30 requests. Extra requests are $2. Or for $49 a month, get 50 requests -- plus you can use the service to make free international phone calls. More information: www.asksunday.com or (310) 499-7179

* Red Butler offers three membership plans, from 15 requests a month for $36.95 to 40 requests a month for $165.95. Red Butler members also get discounts at dozens of local restaurants, bars and stores. Submit requests via phone, online or text message. More information: redbutler.com or (888) 288-5372.

* American Express Platinum Concierge, available to platinum card members only for no added fee, offers many of the same services. More information at www.americanexpress.com or (800) 345-2639.

In-person assistants

There are scores of such services available in Southern California. To find one:

* The International Concierge and Errand Assn. offers a “Find a Concierge” search function at www.iceaweb.org. Use your local city or California as a search term.

* The National Concierge Assn. can locate a helper. E-mail info@ nationalconciergeassociation .com.

* Many personal concierges belong to the National Assn. of Professional Pet Sitters. There’s a locater function on the group’s website. Go to www.petsitters.org and click on “For Pet Owners.”

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Unusual requests

Virtual assistant service Sunday doesn’t just get requests to order flowers for the secretary. Here are some of the more unusual requests they’ve handled, according to company founders Steve Ludmer and Avinash G. Samudrala.

* A woman asked an assistant to call and cancel a date with a man; no reason given.

* A customer wanted dinner reservations made -- in Norway.

* Two men asked Sunday to peruse Craigslist for dating prospects who met their “specifications.”

* A concertgoer sent in a cellphone photo of a musician wearing a T-shirt and asked Sunday to find out where he could get one like it.

* A customer, traveling in Paris, sent in a request marked “asap” asking for directions to the red-light district and for recommendations on places to visit while there.

Ludmer and Samudrala say the company also got a request to extend birthday greetings to a client’s mother. They accepted the task -- with the provision that they wouldn’t be held responsible for any ill will that ensued.


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