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8 Great Frugal Tool Options for Home Improvement Projects

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You probably already know that tackling home improvement projects on your own (or with some friends) is one of the best ways to build equity in your home. Skilled construction and remodeling labor commands a premium price in the U.S. By doing it yourself, you save the cost of that labor; plus you get the added satisfaction of showing off your improvements to your friends.

A lot of home projects can be completed by the reasonably competent and motivated homeowner (if you want some ideas, just head to your public library’s home improvement section). Need some free labor? Motivate your friends to help by offering to trade work at their house or use some other creative incentives… A few beers and pizza usually suffices to get the renovations moving around our place.

Even with cheap labor, home improvement projects still require the right tools. In fact, a semi-pro shop should cost more than $10,000 at retail. But who pays retail anymore? Here’s some ideas on the best and worst ways to get your hands on the tools you’ll need for these projects.

1. Borrow from Family, Friends… And Freecycle

Yep, you guessed it. This best way to get tools is pretty straightforward: if your best friend or big brother already has the tool you need, borrow it. Just remember the following tips:

  1. Don’t be a leech. Make sure you offer something in return. You can loan tools you have, or offer to do work at the other person’s house. Maybe you’re good at baking. Returning a tool to our house with some brownies in tow will ensure you can borrow again 🙂
  2. Take responsibility. When the tool is in your possession, it’s your responsibility. Unfortunately, tools can break due to no fault on the user’s part. Make sure you talk about this situation ahead of borrowing the tool, especially if it’s expensive. I have a policy that if a tool breaks on someone else’s watch, they’ll pay to have it fixed.

Borrowing outside the box: One of our online buddies had great success borrowing a pressure washer from someone a few blocks away by running a request in her local freecycle community. Apparently, even some strangers are willing to lend tools.

2. Co-op Buy with a Friend

One step down from borrowing is co-op buying. Thinking of laying hardwood floors? Have any friends who are going to do the same? Instead of both of you renting a nailer at the local big box (which could cost $240 for 2 days each), why not go in together on an inexpensive nailer for only $200. Or, perhaps one person buys the hardwood nailer and the other gets the compressor and finish nailer kit to install the trim, and you share…

Obviously, this can be tricky… For instance, who owns/keeps the tool when the projects are done? My take: don’t worry about it. If it was cheaper than renting the tool, it doesn’t matter if you don’t end up with it.

3. Rent It

Renting tools make a lot of sense, especially for tools that are one-time use or high priced. All the big name home improvement stores now offer tool rentals, and there are still dedicated rent-a-center type shops. Most places will offer you a low-price insurance policy on the tool in case it breaks while you’re using it.

Our take: buy the policy. You never know what kind of abuse the tool has been through before you picked it up. For a few bucks, you’ll save the hassle of fighting with the store if it breaks.

4. Buy Used

There is an enormous online market for used power and hand tools. Craigslist, E-Bay, and Amazon all have booming pre-owned markets that are worth checking out. Most flea markets and yard sales will also offer some tools, although we find it to be much more tedious than surfing online – especially if you’re looking for a special purpose tool or a particular brand.

5. Buy Factory-Reconditioned (Refurbished)

Nearly every major tool manufacturer sells factory reconditioned (refurbished) tools. Reconditioned means that at some point, the tool broke. It was returned to the manufacturer, who fixed the defect/repaired the tool and is re-selling it. Reconditioned tools are usually priced 30-50% off retail, and include a full manufacturer’s warranty. We maintain a large list of places to buy factory reconditioned tools; the list covers every popular brand.

6. Buy Online

Our favorite first-stop for buying tools online is Amazon. They have more than 10,000 power tools and offer free shipping, which is nice on heavier items like miter saws. Besides Amazon, there are plenty of other online tool retailers that are almost always 5-15% cheaper than the local big box and you can sometimes avoid paying sales tax. Google the name of the tool you’re looking to buy and you’ll find a dozen retailers willing to service your request.

7. Wait for a Sale, Find a Coupon for Retail

Home Depot and Lowes both offer 10% coupons at those links just for signing up for their moving mailing list. The HD coupon is good for up to $200 off, and the Lowes for up to $500 off. If you’re buying a good table saw, that could amount to $50-90 off.

We also maintain automated feeds of coupons for some of the popular online stores including Home Depot Coupons and Sears Coupons, at those links.

Unfortunately, coupons for tools and home improvement stores are rare, and retail is the most expensive (yet most popular) way to buy tools… which leads us to #8.

8. Walk into the Store and Buy It

Rounding out this list is the worst way to come buy a tool: walk into the retail big box store and buy it. Bottom line: You’ll pay for the convenience. It’s the most expensive way to purchase tools.

But hey, it sure is easy, and returning a defective tool is easier.

Did I miss a frugal way to get a tool? Is there a secret you know that I missed?

(Photo: amagill)

{ 14 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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14 Responses to “8 Great Frugal Tool Options for Home Improvement Projects”

  1. Refurbs are great for just about anything. The biggest hindrence to my doing home improvement projects is skill with the tools. Perhaps someday when I have a house I’ll learn.

  2. j says:

    Here in the San Francisco Bay Area there are actually tool librarys associated with the public library. If you are fortunate enough to have one of these in your library system it’s a great way to borrow tools for free.

  3. Miranda says:

    My husband got two different saws (table and mitre) for the price of one with the combination of a sale and a mail-in rebate. We like having the tools,and we like letting our friends and relatives borrow them. The more use they get, the better of a deal they are!

  4. Jadzia says:

    GREAT tips! I am a huge proponent of tool rental, although it must be said that for larger tools (I am thinking of an unfortunate experience I had with a rented rototiller), you need to look out for burning money on transporting the things back and forth. If you end up having to rent a truck, your savings are somewhat diminished.

    • Fred says:

      Definitely a good point. Also, we’ve found that people tend to underestimate the amount of time they’ll need the tool for the job. I recently helped a friend lay hardwoods. We had the best of intentions to finish about 800 square feet in 1 day with 5 guys. In reality, the job took a full 12 hour day, plus about 3 more 4-hour days.

  5. Bill says:

    You can get some high quality tools at pawn shops.

  6. I have actually only bought using the last method…time for a change!


  7. Kyle says:

    My neighborhood is great about the borrow it. Between about four houses on our street we have almost every tool you could ever need. We swap out all the time and the best part is you can usually pick up some free labor along with your free tool.

  8. Dennis says:

    I just moved to Chicago and miss my network of home improvement buddies. I did use a new service called, let me name my own price for my job, nice to have options until I can connect with some help out here.

  9. Pablo says:

    Many jobs require seldom used or specialty tools. If you haven’t discovered Harbor Freight, now is the time. Harbor Freight sells decent tools for really good prices. These are not tools suited to daily uses but they work great for me for the ocassional DIY job.

  10. Paularado says:

    Call me the spoilsport, but we have every tool on earth from gutting/remodeling one home and building another from scratch and we don’t lend out our tools. From doing so we now have an expensive tile saw that was obviously dropped and now bent, dull saw blades, etc. It’s not that people are intentionally careless, but people who don’t own tools don’t seem to know how to care for them.

    Be careful with renting. Our experience has often been that you spend more than it would have cost to buy the tool because things ALWAYS take longer than you think. That isn’t true for all tools, but we’ve regretted renting on a number of things. You can always sell it when you are done, but you get a brand new tool vs one that may or may not be in good condition.

    Tool King and Max Tool are good sources of refurb or cheap tools.

  11. John says:

    I have purchased many good quality used and almost new tools at local pawn shops. In this economic enviroment they often are willing to let them go at very reasonable prices. Hint here: know the values and bargain with the seller.

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