The oldest known carpet fragment dates to around 400 B.C. in Persia. But humans have probably been covering their floors with stuff since cave-dwelling times — just think of how cozy a woolly mammoth skin must’ve felt under the toes!

But if you need to hunt for new shags or Berbers, you may find it’s as challenging as taking down a saber-toothed tiger. That’s because many installers and sellers offer inaccurate advice and unclear pricing on their products. To get you covered — and help you wade through all the colors, styles, textures and prices — you’ll need experts who are in the know and offer fair prices.

To identify top outfits, use Checkbook’s ratings of local stores and installers. In its evaluations, Checkbook found big company-to-company differences in customer satisfaction. Until Aug. 9, Checkbook is offering free access to its ratings of area carpet outlets to Post readers at checkbook.org/washingtonpost/
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Checkbook also found that what you pay — even for the exact same carpet — depends on how and where you shop. To carpet an 810-square-foot area, for one brand and style, Checkbook’s undercover shoppers received price quotes ranging from $1,800 to $6,534. For another, they were quoted prices ranging from $2,880 to $5,670. Checkbook’s ratings of local stores also include how each stacked up for price.

Before you buy carpet, consider the following:

Where will it go? Will you be eating or entertaining much in carpeted rooms? Do you have pets and/or children? If so, get varieties with soil- and ­stain-resistant properties and colors and irregular textures (such as tweeds) that show dirt the least. If an area gets a lot of foot traffic, buy a low-density pile that will wear better than a plush one.

How much are you willing to spend? Carpet prices vary tremendously — from less than $2 to more than $12 per square foot depending on materials and other factors. Price differences that seem small per square foot become great by the room. For example, 500 square feet of wall-to-wall carpeting at $2 per square foot — a total of $1,000 — seems modest, but at $6 or $8 per square foot — a total of $3,000 or $4,000 — gets intimidating. Charges for cushioning, installation and other labor often pad the basic carpet price.

What styles and colors do you like? Wall-to-wall carpeting introduces a large area of unbroken color and expands a room’s appearance. Because high-quality carpets and rugs last for years, choose designs, colors and patterns you won’t tire of quickly. Shop with fabric or wallpaper samples, paint chips, and even couch cushions to help with your selection; and bring home carpet samples or rugs to see how they look with your furniture and lighting.

How long do you want it to last? Well-constructed carpets last 10 years or more with normal use and care. If you plan to move soon or change the use or furnishings of a room, consider rugs rather than carpeting — rugs are portable, and wall-to-wall carpeting is not.

Which fiber? Nylon is by far the most popular carpet fiber, and it resists abrasion, crushing and mold. Olefin (polypropylene) is popular for indoor-outdoor carpeting and in low-pile carpeting, and resists static, soil and stains. It also resists abrasion and repels moisture (so is a good choice if you have accident-prone pets). But because it crushes or flattens easily, its use is mostly restricted to low-pile carpets. Polyester is often used in deep-pile carpets because of its soft, luxurious feel, and it tends to be used in low-traffic areas.

Check on density. In some carpets, the tufts of yarn are spaced much more densely than in others. Density is determined by the number of tufts per unit of surface area and the thickness of individual tufts. All else being equal, the denser the pile, the better the carpet. This is because the individual tufts in a dense carpet support each other, so the carpet is less likely to appear matted, and wear occurs only at the top of each tuft rather than along the tuft’s side.

What pad?Good padding minimizes carpet flattening and wear by absorbing some of the impact of foot traffic. It also creates a softer walking surface, insulates cold floors, absorbs noise, prevents carpet from shifting and makes irregular floors feel more even. As a rule, the heavier the pad, the better the performance. High-traffic areas should have a heavy but relatively thin pad. For a bouncier, more luxurious feel, such as in a bedroom, use a thicker one. But don’t confuse thick, soft padding with good padding. Bouncy padding can make a thin carpet feel more luxurious but shorten its life by letting the backing flex too much. Many stores include padding in the price of the carpet. Be sure to check out the quality of what’s offered and, if necessary, find out whether you can upgrade.

Because Checkbook gets a lot of complaints from ­carpet-buying customers, deal carefully with suppliers and installers. Here are tips to getting a cushy landing:

Don't get floored on price

Comparing carpet prices isn’t easy. Although carpets from several major manufacturers are sold at most stores, it is often difficult to find exactly the same style and grade on display at any two stores because thousands of styles are available. Comparing prices becomes even harder because many retailers — especially large ones — change carpets’ style names from the manufacturers’ names, and some big chains (such as Home Depot and Lowe’s) have exclusive rights to sell certain carpet styles.

Price comparisons are possible, though, if the manufacturer’s style name or number appears on the carpet label and you can find at least two stores that sell it. As long as you provide the correct style information, many stores will provide per-square-foot price quotes over the phone for carpet manufacturers they regularly carry.

Take the time to do some shopping. As already noted, Checkbook’s undercover shoppers found significant store-to-store price differences for the same products.

Make a diagram of the spaces

You can’t get a realistic cost estimate without knowing how much you need to buy. And some stores take advantage of customers by selling them a lot more carpet than they need. To avoid this, measure your spaces and make a diagram of the area. Indicate positions of doorways and closets and other protrusions. The diagram should also indicate the height and depth of steps.

Show your diagram to salespeople at several stores and have them estimate how much your job requires. Though some waste is inevitable, a good store will keep it to a minimum.

Ask stores to bid

Once you have decided on a specific style of carpet, note the style name or number on the carpet sample tag. Then contact five or six stores and ask for their installed price for that style and your choice of padding. Let salespeople know you are calling several stores, and give them only one chance to bid. Although stores will seldom stock the style you want, many will be able to get it from the factory. If you can’t find stores that sell your style, ask the manufacturer for names of local stores that sell its carpets.

Get prices for the whole job

Price quotes should include type of padding, whether installation is included, whether takeup and removal of old carpet are included, whether installation of new quarter-round molding at the base of the woodwork is included, if you want it (usually an add-on), and whether doors that don’t clear the carpet will be cut down (which many stores won’t do).

Beware of 'free' offers

The cost of “free” installation is often built into the price of the carpet. You are likely to get a lower price for the carpet somewhere installation is not free.

Beware of advertisements quoting prices by the room.

The rooms envisioned by those ads are likely to be a lot smaller than yours. And there is a good chance that what you consider one room — an L-shaped room, for example — will be considered two rooms by some stores.

Ensure it's the right carpet

Because some stores have taken advantage of consumers by delivering carpet of a different style and quality than what the customer ordered, be ready to make sure you get what you paid for. You can purchase a labeled sample of the carpet you’ve ordered, which most stores sell for less than $20, and compare it to the item the store delivers.

Unfortunately, even experts can’t be certain that two pieces of carpet are the same. A store may try to pass off a carpet that looks about the same but won’t wear as well as what you ordered.

If the store orders directly from the manufacturer, make sure your purchase contract requires the store to provide a copy of its factory invoice for the carpet, showing your name and the style, color and amount of carpet the factory shipped. If the store provides such an invoice, you can be reasonably confident that it will bring the correct carpet to your home.

Inspect the carpeting

Look for discolorations, dye spots, streaks, holes or yarn flaws. Also check to see if color or quality is significantly different from the retailer’s sample.

Pay by credit card

If there is a problem with delays, or you receive incorrect or defective merchandise, paying by credit card gives you the right to withhold payment under the Fair Credit Billing Act and the policies of most credit card companies.

Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is 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 and advice free of charge until Aug. 9 at checkbook.org/washingtonpost/carpet.

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