Your halls are fully decked and full of holiday guests. Fireside hot cocoa in the hands of young children. A feast with all the trimmings (and red wine in klutzy Aunt Shirley’s glass). Indelible memories and seemingly indelible stains on your new carpet.

Whether you’ve got food or beverage residue, muddy footprints, pet stains, or just overall dinginess, a good cleaning can make carpets and rugs look new, help them last longer and even improve indoor air quality. When it’s time to call in the pros (ideally once you’ve wrapped all your holiday hosting duties), you’ll want to look carefully for an outfit with a reputation for doing good work at a fair price.

Washington Consumers’ Checkbook’s ratings of local carpet and rug cleaners reveal big differences in the work companies do and how much they charge. 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.”

Until Jan. 25, Washington Post readers can get free access to Checkbook’s ratings of local carpet-cleaning services on Checkbook’s website (

The company you hire will determine how good your carpets and rugs look afterward — and how long they stay that way. With the least-competent companies, you risk permanent damage from over-wetting, improper or poorly mixed chemicals, improper brushing, and other shoddy practices.

Before hiring a cleaning company, ask about its methods. For carpet, you’re usually best off hiring a company that offers hot-water extraction with truck-mounted equipment. Rugs should be cleaned outside 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. And 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 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 local cleaners include pricing details, collected by Checkbook’s undercover shoppers, who found some carpet and rug cleaners charge a lot more than their competitors for the same work. For a sample 460-square-foot medium-color, low-pile area rug, prices for hot-water-extraction cleaning ranged from $106 to $414. For in-plant cleaning of an 8-by-10-foot, all-wool, hand-knotted Oriental rug, including pickup and delivery, prices ranged from $80 to $600.

Paying less doesn’t mean you’ll get shoddy work. Checkbook found that some of the companies that received the highest customer ratings 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. The add-ons can dramatically increase the price with some companies but cost little or nothing with others. What the extra treatments actually do and how effective they are also vary 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 the 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 aren’t satisfied with the finished job, explain that you will not pay until the work is done right. If you later discover spots or other problems, speak up immediately. The longer you wait, the more likely the company is to suspect that the spot is new.

DIY stain advice

Stains can ruin a carpet, but if you act quickly you can avoid disaster.

●Immediately blot spills using a clean white absorbent material.

●Pretest spot-removal agents. Put a few drops of solution on each color in the carpet. Then, using white absorbent material, hold it against each color, count to 10, and examine the results. If the dye has bled into the absorbent material, or if there has been a change in the colored area, call a professional.

●Don’t over-wet. Work with small amounts of solution.

●Don’t rub or brush. Excessive agitation may cause distortion.

●Work from the outer edge toward the center of the stain.

●Be patient; some stains respond slowly.

●Remember, haphazard attempts at spot removal may produce indelible stains and/or permanently damage fabrics. If you have doubts, seek professional advice.

Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and take no money from the service providers it evaluates. You can access all of Checkbook’s ratings and advice free of charge until Jan. 25 at

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