Sure, we all know the custom: Tip the cabbie, the waitress, the barber. And we generally agree on the math: 15 percent, once-standard, is...

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Sure, we all know the custom: Tip the cabbie, the waitress, the barber. And we generally agree on the math: 15 percent, once-standard, is now pushing 20 percent.

But what about people who perform services in our homes: The plumber and window washers? The movers who haul a sofa up two flights of stairs, or the kid who brings us a pizza? And what about carpenters and painters who can begin to feel like family during big remodeling projects? Ask a dozen people whom they tip and why, and you’re likely to get a dozen different answers. Some routinely give extra cash to anyone who helps them out; some never do. (In the way that opposites attract, they are occasionally married to each other.)

The “rules” for tipping for household services appear totally arbitrary. Particularly this time of year — think fall planting, interior sprucing-up and pre-holiday deliveries — generosity can mount up fast.

“Call me old-fashioned, but I always tip the people who come to my house to perform a service,” says Lilly Tijerina, an information security specialist in Virginia. “I believe that most of the people that do the service type of jobs are not highly compensated, so I always give them a tip. I just had some furniture delivered and I tipped both of the delivery men. I had the windows washed earlier this year by a crew of three — the owner and two guys. It came to $350. I tipped the two workers $20 each, not the owner.”

An opposing point of view:

“No, I do not tip those who mow my lawn, clean my gutters, wash my windows, deliver furniture, fix the furnace, renovate the kitchen, upgrade the wiring, et cetera,” says Cyndy Gilbert, of Adelphi, Md., a management analyst at the federal Office of Personnel Management. “If so, I’d be dead broke from all the tipping.”

Are they pre-tipped?

Some tipping rules and regulations

During the holiday season, some homeowners put cash or gifts out for sanitation workers or slip some cookies to their faithful letter carrier.

Tipping government employees can be problematic. Many jurisdictions have regulations that bar their workers from soliciting or receiving money or gifts for doing their salaried jobs. On the other hand, many counties and cities contract out sanitation services to private firms, meaning that trash collectors are not government employees at all, and thus free to pocket tips.

Private companies may have their own rules. For example, Jerry Hardebeck, regional director of public-sector services for Waste Management, which provides garbage collection services in Seattle, said the company has a policy of allowing drivers to accept gratuities as long as they are not alcoholic beverages and not in exchange for taking extra trash.

The U.S. Postal Service prohibits letter carriers from accepting alcohol, money or any gift costing over $20, and requires that cakes, cookies or other goodies be shared with co-workers, says spokesman Gerry McKiernan.

The Washington Post and Seattle Times staff

Plumbers and electricians, she reasons, “charge out-of-this-world prices for their services, their travel time and at such rates I’m sure they’ve already included a hefty tip for themselves anyway.”

Spencer Levine, of suburban Maryland, communications director for a nonprofit organization, is somewhere in the murky middle.

“We tip the pizza-delivery guy and the kids who shovel snow from the driveway, even if they don’t do an especially good job, because they are kids. I never viewed house painting as a service for which I would tip, in the same way I am not going to tip Herson’s Honda when I buy a car.”

After a pause he asks, “Are we doing something wrong?”

Perhaps we will find clarity among those working closely in the home-service industry? No such luck.

“Typically, plumbers don’t get tipped, but painters do. There is no rhyme or reason for it,” says Angie Hicks, who runs Angie’s List, a nationwide series of local rating guides for an array of domestic services. “One thing to keep in mind is if they’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty and provided exceptional service: If they came out in the middle of the night if your toilet were overflowing.”

Gratitude attitudes

There are no definite rules about tipping for home services, but we found these widely shared principles:

• Tip workers who go above and beyond in performing a service.

• Offer drinks or snacks to hard workers, especially those doing tough jobs in grueling weather.

• Call or write the employer to commend a job particularly well done.

Annie Groer, The Washington Post

For lawn-care crews on contract, Hicks suggests “maybe something at the end of the summer, $20 to $50 or the price of one mowing. And don’t forget about the little things,” such as a glass of lemonade.

Sarah Smock, marketing director for Merry Maids, the nation’s largest residential housecleaning service, says relatively few clients tip during the year; 17 percent regularly give their weekly or twice-monthly cleaners an extra $5 to $10 each per visit, although “there is more tipping at the holidays.”

Rewarding a contractor — who is often handsomely paid — or his employees is a sometime thing, says Chris Landis, president of the Washington area chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry and president of a District of Columbia construction company bearing his name.

Drawing the line

Clients often won’t tip him, as owner of the company, but will reward his contractors and laborers in about 40 percent of projects, he says.

“I’ve had customers take me out to dinner, buy me a bottle of wine, but the real tips go to the guys they see every day. I don’t necessarily encourage it, and I hope it’s just a tip, not for work they are doing on the side, like, ‘While you’re here, can you shave this door or do something?’ It adds up, big time.”

Often, tipping is a simple expression of niceness, says Peter Post, great-grandson of manners doyenne Emily Post, author of four etiquette books and a believer in the “above-and-beyond” maxim: “If someone hauls a couch up three flights of stairs and then moves four pieces of furniture, you want to give them a tip, some lunch if they are there all day, cold drinks. Saying thank you is good. So is doing a letter of appreciation.”

But he rarely offers extra cash. “That’s not what this is about. With plumbers, electricians, carpenters, people who build an addition, the best thing you can do is pay them right away.”

Ann Brown, former Consumer Product Safety Commission chairman, has her own system. She tipped a carpet cleaner who “came quickly, worked well and had a really great attitude,” and she always gives the man who brings Chinese or Indian food $10 because “I am sure he doesn’t get paid that much.”

Her electrician just gets a cup of coffee — “he’s a professional and I think it would be demeaning” to tip him, and the crews that maintain her lawn and pool don’t get gratuities because they work on contract.

The best all-around tippers are often those who rely on the kindness of others.

“I tip all the time,” says bartender Madeline DeLisle, who lives in Washington, D.C. “Plumbers, the TV installer, movers — $25 for each person on the crew. I give $5 or $10 for a food-delivery order. If mail is left at the front desk and someone on the building staff brings it to my door, I tip for that. I don’t know anything about technical stuff, so if the maintenance man helps me by changing a washer or a fuse, I tip for that, too.”

Oh, yes, and she always gives to the building’s staff holiday fund.

“Typically, plumbers don’t get tipped, but painters do. There is no rhyme or reason for it.”