Hooniverse Wrenching Tips: Let’s Go Shopping, Round 1: Tools on the Cheap

This week we’ll run the first of several Wrenching Tips about buying what you need to get the job done. Our opinions on what to get, and what to spend vary heavily depending on the intended purpose and what the actual need is. This week is all about how to spend as little as possible without buying total junk.

Know the retail price of whatever you’re buying. As a general rule, I price the Craftsman version, the Kobalt (Lowes) or Husky (Home Depot) version, then the Harbor Freight version. Generally speaking, you should set the Harbor Freight example as your price ceiling for buying anything used.

The most successful used tool purchases I’ve made are for specific big ticket items that people tend to need once, then move on from. Specifically, that’s how I picked up my engine hoist and stand for various Uberbird fixes (and haven’t used either since).

Unless you’re looking for an excuse to wake up early on the weekend and cruise around suburbia, be judicious in what garage sales you go to. Almost all will have “tools” somewhere in the listing, but this can mean anything from a couple of screwdrivers to Uncle Smokey’s full tool boxes. If you don’t see a specific picture of what you want or a garage that looks like it means business, it’s probably not worth the visit.

In fact, garage sales on the whole are rarely a good place to score tools, as they’re the venues for people to unload unwanted items. Conversely, estate sales are where it’s at. They contain the items people valued and hung on to until their death. Additionally, they tend to be managed by offspring that have no idea what things are worth, and really just want everything cleared out. This can be a great place to score a bulk buy of a complete tool set for a fraction of retail. Search “estate” and “tools” on craigslist and you’ll see what I mean.

The next best place to score good, useful tools is a shop cleanout sale. These are typically going out of business, moving or upgrading events. This tends to be a great place to score higher-end or heavy duty tools for decent prices, and a good place to end up with lots of cool odds-and-ends as freebies along with any major purchase. The biggest downside is that the sellers typically know the value of what they’re selling, so you’re unlikely to get “everything on that shelf for $50”. Beware of industrial-grade equipment like air compressors , as all too often it runs on 220V, 480V or 3-phase power.

Be skeptical for “used” tool sellers that seem to have a pile of miscellaneous unrelated tools, particularly tools that are easily carried off from jobsites or pickup beds or the like. Thieves only steal because they have a market, so do us all a favor and don’t be part of that market.

To point out the obvious: plan on paying cash. No one’s going to take a check or let you paypal them the money. To point out the less obvious: remember you’re now carrying a potentially large pile of bills to a semi-unknown industrial side of town, so keep your wits about you.

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