By Jane Magaro, Cheapism.com
How many times have you spent part of a Saturday in front of HGTV or Million Dollar Decorators, rather than redo your bathroom or even spruce up your walls with a new paint color? Rather than wait till you can afford to hire Martyn Lawrence Bullard or Kathryn Ireland, take a look at two other big names in home renovation: Lowe's and Home Depot. Cheapism sent a researcher to branches of both stores to find out which one deserves your DIY dollars. She compared prices, selection, customer service, and other features, and concluded that overall Lowe's is the best place to tackle your spring projects. The competition was stiff, however, so read on to find out which store might best suit your needs.
Related: Lowe's vs. Home Depot
To compare prices, Cheapism took a shopping list of 39 items to outposts of both hardware giants. The totals amounted to nearly $2,000 but differed by a mere $1.27. The Lowe's-Home Depot price comparison found that Lowe's posted lower prices on 14 items and Home Depot beat Lowe's on 11 items.
Cheapism also priced out a whole project -- building a new deck -- and again the price difference was slim, about 2%. The cost of materials and supplies at Lowe's was $1,507.32, $34.24 less than at Home Depot, where the total came to $1,541.56.
While Lowe's appears to eke out a win against Home Depot on price, it all depends on the project at hand. For example, if you're planning to do some repainting, note that Home Depot beat Lowe's in a comparison of four types of interior paint from the stores' house brands. A gallon of Valspar cost $27.97 at Lowe's, compared with $23.96 for a gallon of Behr at Home Depot. Behr also scores higher in tests by consumer product experts.
Related: Best cheap lawn mowers
Merchandising and inventory depends, of course, on each location's store size and customer base. The number of items in any product category varies from branch to branch, and even on the retailers' websites.
For bathroom renovators, Home Depot beats Lowe's hands-down for its selection of toilets (2,200) and ceramic tiles (529 types). For kitchen remodeling, Home Depot carries 1,291 different kinds of backsplash tile compared with just 545 at Lowe's. But if you're looking to update your oven, stove, or other appliances, Lowe's is the clear winner. A Lowe's sales associate told Cheapism that the store can special-order most appliances, with the exception of a few high-end brands (Viking, Miele, Wolf, and JennAir). On the other hand, Home Depots sells appliances from only Maytag, GE, LG, and its own Adora line.
Hardware stores can seem like mazes of warehouse shelving, so helpful customer service is crucial. The best sales associates point you in the right direction and offer advice about materials, saving you time and money.
During multiple visits to Lowe's and Home Depot, Cheapism's reporter found associates at both stores friendly and knowledgeable. However, Lowe's staff took extra time to educate her on laminate flooring or windows, and anticipated additional needs. The staff also approached her later to follow up. The deck project, which appeared complicated for a novice and took two and a half hours to plan at Home Depot, seemed straightforward at Lowe's, where associates used deck design software to produce a plan in about 20 minutes. They then showed the researcher where to find everything she needed and explained the advantages and disadvantages of different materials.
Related: Best budget vacuum cleaners
Both stores stock shelves that scrape the ceiling with power tools, lumber, and the like. At Lowe's, Cheapism found wide, well-lit aisles clear of intrusive displays and clutter. The shelving was lower than at Home Depot, placing products within easy reach. That means customers don't have to hunt down an associate to help them grab what they need.
The signage was larger at Lowe's and the price tags better placed, with few, if any, missing. Lowe's groups like products together, where at Home Depot they might be scattered among two or three different areas. A 2007 consumer survey found that women prefer to shop at Lowe's, according to MarketWatch.
Return Policy and Price Matching
It happens: You buy the wrong kind of wrench or have a change of heart about those minimalist, stainless-steel fixtures. Depending on a store's return policy, you could either receive a refund or have to buy expensive materials all over again.
The good news is: Both Lowe's and Home Depot have 90-day return policies on new, unused merchandise. Notably, Lowe's gives customers 90 days to return damaged or defective merchandise, while Home Depot allots only 30 days. There are exceptions for certain types of merchandise, such as heavy equipment and generators, so check the fine print.
The two stores offer nearly identical price-matching guarantees. If a competitor offers the same product for a lower price, both stores will not only match the price but give you an additional 10% discount. Cheapism found that some customers take advantage of this to help keep their projects within budget.
More from Cheapism:
Best Budget Washing Machines
Best Cheap Refrigerators
Best Cheap pools
Costco or Sam's Club
For more ways to save, follow Cheapism on Twitter and Facebook.
To stay on top of the latest posts, read the Cheapism Blog.