You can banish the dog to the backyard. Restrict the children to other rooms (or, along with the dog, to the backyard). Be “that host” who makes everyone leave their shoes just inside the front door. Rearrange furniture to cover stains. But no matter what you do, you’ll eventually need to have your carpet and rugs cleaned. Even perfectly unreasonable actions won’t protect your floor coverings from air brought from outdoors, airborne dirt and dust and oily cooking residue.

The company you hire to clean your carpets or rugs can impact how well it gets done: whether carpet and rugs look good afterward and how long they stay that way; whether difficult stains are removed; and whether the cleaning methods and products they use remove rather than attract dirt. With the least-competent companies, you risk permanent damage to your floor coverings.

Washington Consumers’ Checkbook’s ratings of local carpet and rug cleaners reveal big differences in the work companies do and how much they charge to do it. For the next month, Washington Post readers can get free access to Checkbook’s ratings via this link:

The highest-rated companies in Checkbook’s comparisons were more than twice as likely as the lowest-rated companies to get positive reviews from their customers for survey questions on “doing work properly,” “neatness” and “overall quality.”

Before hiring a cleaner, ask about the methods it uses. For carpet, you’re usually best off hiring a company that offers hot-water extraction with truck-mounted equipment. Rugs should be cleaned outside of your home. Most companies advertise that they “hand wash” rugs, but that’s just a generic term. Look for one that hand washes using an “immersion” method. Also, know that a lot of cleaners take in rugs but don’t actually perform the work themselves; instead, they send them to specialized cleaners. If possible, deal directly with the company that actually does the work.

Be sure to compare prices. If you can provide accurate measurements and descriptions, most carpet and rug cleaners will quote prices over the phone or via email. Checkbook’s ratings of Washington area cleaners include pricing details, collected by Checkbook’s undercover shoppers. Checkbook found some carpet and rug cleaners charge a lot more than their competitors for the same work. To clean a living room, dining room, hall and bedroom totaling 460 square feet, companies quoted Checkbook’s shoppers prices ranging from less than $160 to more than $300. Prices quoted for in-plant cleaning of an 8-by-10-foot, all-wool hand-knotted Oriental rug ranged from less than $150 to more than $300, including pickup and delivery.

Paying less doesn’t mean you’ll get shoddy work. Checkbook found that several companies that received the highest ratings from their customers for the quality of their work also charge lower-than-average fees.

For in-home carpet cleaning, be wary of prices quoted by room or “area,” as opposed to by square foot. Companies may envision more rooms in your house than you do — two separate rooms in what you consider one L-shaped room, for example. And don’t overpay for add-ons such as soil retardants and deodorants. With some companies they can dramatically increase the price but cost little or nothing with others. What they actually do and how effective they are also varies from company to company.

Ask for a written guarantee that the company will at least redo the job if you find it unsatisfactory. Most carpet and rug cleaning outfits provide guarantees, but what they promise varies. Give companies credit if they talk candidly about their limitations before they begin work. Some types of stains are extremely difficult or even impossible to remove once they have set, and companies may not know whether they can remove them until they try.

Before work starts, be sure to point out stains and tell workers what caused them. For carpet cleanings, remove or raise hanging objects that might be bumped by cleaning personnel, who generally walk backward as they work. Remove prized valuables; cleaning personnel will generally move such items for you but not necessarily with the care you desire. To avoid surprises, get in writing the total cost of the job before service begins.

Don’t pay until you check the work. If you are not satisfied with the finished job, explain that you will not pay until the work is done properly. If you later discover spots or other problems, contact the company immediately. The longer you wait, the more likely they will suspect that the spot is new.

Kevin Brasler is executive editor of Washington Consumers’ Checkbook and, a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. You can access all of Checkbook’s ratings of plumbers free of charge until May 15 at