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. Our ratings of Washington area stores reveal that while big chains Home Depot and Lowe’s charge low prices, they generally also offer subpar advice and customer service.

Which Stores Offer the Lowest Prices?

To compare prices at area stores, our undercover shoppers checked prices for 20 items at the Washington area stores listed on our Ratings Tables (these are the stores for which we received at least 10 ratings on our surveys of consumers).

We used those prices to calculate each store’s or chain’s price comparison score, reported on our Ratings Tables. These scores show how a store’s prices compare to the average prices at all surveyed stores for the same mix of items. The price comparison scores are calculated so that a score of $100 is about average, a score of $110 means prices about 10 percent above average, and a score of $90 about 10 percent below average.

For prices, Home Depot and Lowe’s beat all of 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 than average. But our price survey did find below-average prices at several area independent stores.

At some stores, you can save money just by asking for a discount. Some independent 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 than our Ratings Tables indicate.

For large projects that require a lot of equipment and materials, you might get a five to 15 percent contractor’s discount from an independent store—but not from the big chains—merely by requesting it. Some stores offer discounts to homeowners who plan to spend over $500—and in some cases even less—over a couple of weeks. Our price comparison scores don’t reflect such discounts.

Where to Get Great Advice and Service?

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 area stores for service quality, we surveyed local consumers (Checkbook and Consumer Reports subscribers plus other randomly selected individuals). We asked consumers to rate stores they had used as “inferior,” “adequate,” or “superior” on several aspects of service, including “advice on choice and use of products,” “promptness of service,” “staff attitudes/atmosphere,” “ease of looking at/testing products,” “variety of products,” “reliability (standing behind products, doing what’s promised, etc.),” and “overall quality.” For stores that received at least 10 ratings, our Ratings Tables show the percent of customers who rated each store “superior” (as opposed to “adequate” or “inferior”) on each question. Click here for more on our customer survey and other research methods.

Unfortunately, price leaders Home Depot and Lowe’s fall well short on some key service fronts. In our surveys of area consumers, Home Depot received “superior” ratings for quality of advice from only 20 percent of its surveyed customers and Lowe’s from only 38 percent. On the other hand, 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, there’s 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.

Whichever store you choose, seek out the specific clerks most capable of providing helpful advice. Over time, you’ll learn who they are by trial and error, but you can expedite the process by asking questions—for example, “Who can give me the best advice about plumbing?”

In contrast to their low ratings for quality of advice, the big national chains score better in terms of another key consideration in store selection: variety of products. Although they generally don’t rate as high for variety as for advice, many independent stores do a masterful job—often in a relatively small space—of offering the variety of items their customers want.

In addition to having a wide range of products, hardware stores also vary in special services offered. Services such as tool sharpening, key making, and glass cutting are offered by many stores, while bicycle and lawn mower repair are offered by very few. Some stores offer free classes on topics like landscaping, floor installation, and cabinet installation. And of the many places you can rent tools, your local hardware store is probably the most convenient.

Do Most Stores Have Reasonable Return Policies?

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.

From the store’s standpoint, however, there are real disadvantages to a liberal return policy. First, long delays may mean a store no longer carries the product customers want to return. Second, customers probably will have damaged the packaging. Hardware manufacturers, for inventory and merchandising purposes, now prepackage many items formerly sold out of bins or from other types of open displays. Everything from bolts to braces now comes sealed in clear plastic packs. If you find out only after opening the package that you need to return an unsuitable corner brace, the store knows it will be very hard to sell. A further problem is crime: Like other types of retailers, hardware stores must deal with crooks who seek cash refunds for stolen merchandise.

Despite these problems, 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.