Part of the allure of the DIY lifestyle is saving a couple of bucks wherever you can. But tools are expensive. Buying secondhand tools can be an excellent way for a savvy DIYer to cut costs — as long as you know where to look, what to buy, and when to walk away.
3 Quick Tips for Buying Used Tools
No matter what tools you're shopping for, you should take these three pieces of advice into account.
Don't get carried away.
You're buying secondhand to save money. Only buy what you actually want, and avoid the temptation to buy cheap tools just because they're cheap.
Know when — and when not — to buy budget.
You don't always need to spend brand-name money to get quality tools. For example, one mechanic told us that Harbor Freight's Pittsburgh Pro ratchets cost a fraction of the Snap-on equivalent, but work just as well for hobbyists — and though they might be less sturdy, they carry a lifetime warranty. A good rule of thumb on budget brands: If it can severely injure you when it fails, don't skimp. A cheap socket wrench breaking is annoying; if a jack stand or a lift fails, it could kill you.
Don't expect premium brands at budget prices.
Professional brands like Milwaukee and Bosch tend to hold their value, and for good reason: they'll last a long time. But people who own these tools know what they have, and even in the secondhand tool market, you'll (mostly) get what you pay for. Trying to negotiate deep discounts will likely just be insulting.
Where Should You Buy Secondhand Tools?
Pawnshops will have given at least a cursory inspection to anything they're selling, which makes them decent sources for reliable used tools. They want to make sure they can resell whatever they take on, after all. Plus, these resellers are sometimes open to negotiation.
You'll find a wide selection of tools on Craigslist, but the quality can vary wildly. Be skeptical, look carefully at everything you buy, and be wary of tool deals that seem too good to be true — sometimes stolen tools get unloaded on Craigslist. Always try to negotiate for a better price.
Yard sales are occasionally a good source for used tools as like-minded DIY folks clean out their garages. You won't likely find many high-end tools here, but you'll have significant negotiating power. Nobody wants to drag yard sale items back into the garage.
Estate sales and auctions also often have tools, but attending and bidding can be a significant investment of time and money — you can accidentally spend more than you intended. Your ability to negotiate a better deal may vary, but it never hurts to try.
How to Buy Used Hand Tools
Buying used hand tools is fairly straightforward. The general rule is this: If it looks good, it probably is good. Keep an eye on brands, of course — don't pay Snap-on prices for Kobalt tools — but if a hand tool has held up to some usage, it'll probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
Check the tool's working surfaces: Surfaces that are supposed to be smooth should actually be smooth, and parts that are supposed to move should do so freely, evenly, and precisely. If it feels wrong, it probably is wrong.
How to Buy Used Power Tools
Buying power tools is more complex than buying hand tools. Before you buy any power tool (you can learn about the most essential power tools here), insist on seeing it run. If the seller doesn't have batteries or a power outlet nearby, negotiate as if this tool might never work. Reject any power tools with frayed cords, bent plugs, tape on the electrical cord, significant trauma, or scorch marks. If you're still willing to take a risk on a power tool you haven't seen operating, rotate its various moving parts by hand. If it feels wrong, walk away.
Expect to buy new batteries for used cordless tools, and remember that batteries and chargers can cost nearly as much as a new tool. Compare the cost of new batteries and a charger against that of a new tool (which may come with batteries and a charger). You're unlikely to come out substantially ahead, especially in the entry-level market.
Air tools should be treated with similar skepticism. You should be able to hear and see an air tool run before you buy. If you can't, assume it'll require work to bring it back to life, and negotiate accordingly.
Similarly, insist that motorized tools be started and run, ideally cold. If it won't easily start when cold, assume you're going to be doing some small engine repair.
Know Your Warranties
Hand tools from retail tool brands can often be replaced for free at their respective retail outlets, with no proof of purchase required.
There's an important, near-universal exception to this rule, and it's torque wrenches. Precision tools are warrantied for a set amount of time, and even if you're still in the warranty period, you're unlikely to get warranty service without a receipt. Also, it's awkward and time-consuming to determine whether a tool is calibrated before you buy it. You're almost always better off buying new.
Power tools, toolboxes, and other tool-adjacent items have more restrictive warranties. Without a receipt from the retailer, you're not going to receive warranty service, so buy wisely.
Readers, what experiences have you had buying or selling used tools? Where do you look for bargains? Let us know in the comments!