Washington Consumers’ Checkbook’s ratings of 94 Washington-area stores reveal that while national chains, such as Home Depot and Lowe’s, charge low prices, they generally also offer subpar advice and customer service. (Steven Senne/AP)

Not everyone is handy. There’s no shame in it: When you need to do a home repair, you need some help. Meaning you hope your trip to the hardware store doesn’t morph into its usual five trips to the hardware store.

Good hardware stores cater to all points on the handiness spectrum, offering up an Aladdin’s cave of tools and supplies, plus advice on how to best use them. Unfortunately, you’ll probably pay more for that help. The nonprofit Washington Consumers’ Checkbook’s ratings of 94 Washington-area stores reveal that while Home Depot and Lowe’s charge low prices, they generally also offer subpar advice and customer service.

Until June 20, Checkbook is offering free access to its ratings of area hardware stores to Washington Post readers via this link: Checkbook.org/WashingtonPost/Hardware.

To compare prices at area stores, Checkbook’s undercover shoppers checked prices for 20 items and found Home Depot and Lowe’s beat all the independents and other chains. Lowe’s prices averaged about 23 percent less than the all-store average and Home Depot’s prices averaged 19 percent lower. But Checkbook’s price survey did find below-average prices at several area independent stores.

For large projects that require a lot of equipment and materials, you might get a contractor’s discount from an independent store of about 5 to 15 percent — but not from the big chains — merely by requesting it. And some stores offer 10 to 15 percent discounts to customers who use a store charge account or the store’s own credit card. Because our price comparison scores don’t take such discounts into consideration, these discounts would make those stores’ prices more competitive with the big chains.

For many customers, price is just part of the deal: They also crave good advice and customer service. Running a top-notch hardware store starts with recruiting well-informed, helpful staff. Because the best hardware store salespeople must possess the knowledge of plumbers, painters, electricians, roofers, landscapers, carpenters, and a dozen other tradespeople, finding and retaining a cadre of these professional know-it-alls is not easy. In addition, top hardware stores somehow manage to stock just about everything their customers need, and organize this amazing jumble of products so shoppers and staff can find them.

To evaluate stores for service quality, Checkbook surveyed local consumers (Checkbook and Consumer Reports subscribers plus other randomly selected individuals). Unfortunately, price leaders Home Depot and Lowe’s fall well short on key service fronts. In these surveys of area consumers, Home Depot received “superior” ratings for quality of advice from only 20 percent of its surveyed customers; Lowe’s from only 38 percent. In contrast, suburban Maryland chain Strosniders Hardware and a number of independent stores throughout the Washington area received “superior” ratings for advice from more than 80 percent of their surveyed customers.

Among the area’s many Ace and True Value stores, Checkbook found no consistent pattern in ratings for advice or other aspects of service. That is not surprising since Ace and True Value are buying cooperatives for independent stores that impose no performance standards or specific operating procedures on affiliates.

Before buying items at a hardware store, find out about its return policy. A liberal policy is important because it’s easy to miscalculate the volume of paint, number of nails, or type of hinges a job needs. If you buy materials for a project ahead of time, it may be months before you realize that you have too much, the wrong thing, or a defective product. It helps to buy from a store that willingly accepts returns.

Fortunately, Checkbook found return practices at most hardware stores are remarkably liberal. Almost all retailers offer a full refund on returns for an indefinite period — as long as the customer presents a receipt and the item can be resold. And managers whose stores’ stated policies impose time limits and proof-of-purchase requirements indicate that, in practice, they are often much more flexible. Even if a sign over the checkout counter says “No returns after 30 days,” the store might offer regular customers a refund on merchandise purchased over a year before. Some stores even offer refunds to regular customers who have no receipts and even if the items have no price tags.

Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. We are supported by consumers and take no money from the service providers we evaluate. You can access all of Checkbook’s ratings and advice free of charge until June 20 at checkbook.org/washingtonpost/hardware.