Lowe's or Home Depot

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Do-it-yourself season is that time of year when you suddenly feel compelled to organize the garage, do something about your outdated kitchen, build a deck, or apply a fresh coat of paint. Whatever the project or task may be, chances are you'll check the offerings at Lowe's and/or Home Depot. Cheapism sent a researcher to outposts of both hardware giants to determine which offers the better value for your limited renovation dollars. These big-box bigwigs are highly successful and fiercely competitive, making it impossible to pick a winner based on the cost of merchandise alone. Although prices at Home Depot and Lowe's sometimes fluctuate, they're often exactly the same, and the differences we noted typically were slight. In the end, the service and overall experience we got for our money earned Lowe's the title of value champ.

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Lowe's or Home Depot

Consistency from location to location may be a hallmark of retail chains, but a certain amount of variation -- due to store personnel, store size, local market preferences -- is inevitable. That said, we did our best to compare the Lowe's and Home Depot outposts in one major metropolitan area by visiting each store three times at different times of day. We made our trips during the week and on the weekend and evaluated the customer service experiences as a whole instead of on a per-visit basis. To compare prices, we drew up a select list of items that were the same at each retailer or as similar as possible. We chose one large project -- a deck -- to price out component by component for the big-picture view. Lastly, we sought the opinions of experts and of shoppers from a variety of locales, with online postings serving as our source. The totality of the evidence led us to a clear conclusion but also highlighted how effectively these home improvement titans compete.

Overall, prices were cheaper at Lowe's by mere pocket change. The pre-tax total for the 39 items on our general shopping list was $1,924.08 at Lowe's compared with $1,925.35 at Home Depot. When pricing out the deck project, Lowe's again proved cheaper: $1,507.32 versus $1,542.56 at Home Depot. In percentage terms, however, the price differential on some items (same products but often different brands) was substantial. For example, a 16-ounce steel claw hammer with a $4.98 price tag at Lowe's was more than 40% cheaper than the $6.99 version at Home Depot. For a one-off purchase of a small item, such price differences may not matter much (given the price of gas, you may decide it isn't worth driving farther to the store with the cheaper merchandise just to save a couple of dollars). But if you're working on a project that calls for multiple pieces of a given part -- tiles, say -- a price difference counted in pennies quickly adds up.

Although we had positive experiences at both stores, sales associates at Lowe's seemed more experienced and provided more explanation than their Home Depot counterparts. Project support offerings, such as the Lowe's Deck Design Software, were more sophisticated and we were less often led astray. Additionally, it was far easier to locate and price out merchandise at Lowe's, where the aisles were more spacious and simpler to navigate. We found Home Depot's maze of shelves overwhelming, with haphazard pricing signage and product organization.

Home Depot offers some distinct advantages, however. For one, Home Depot regularly holds free weekend workshops designed to familiarize DIYers with basic home improvement projects, such as installing a faucet or painting a room. Lowe's offers nothing comparable, although associates will demonstrate techniques upon request and online video walkthroughs and project manuals are available on the company website. Tool rental is another point of differentiation. Most Home Depot locations rent a variety of power tools, such as tile saws and floor strippers; Lowe's does not provide this service.

Roger Saunders, a marketing expert, extrapolates market research data that echo some of our findings. In a recent Retail Wire discussion, he comments that Home Depot wins with consumers in the areas of store location, project tips, and knowledgeable store associates. (In our visits to both retailers, we found Lowe's associates to be more knowledgeable.) Lowe's, he continues, comes out ahead in service, overall store experience, and product selection and quality.

In short, Home Depot and Lowe's are both good home improvement resources for the average consumer, and sometimes even for the pro. Each retailer is relatively easy to find; Home Depot operates more than 1,900 stores in the U.S. to Lowe's 1,725-plus locations in North America. But at the end of the day, your experience will depend on what you're looking for and on the way your local store is stocked, staffed, and managed.

Lowe's vs. Home Depot Prices

Home Depot and Lowe's compete aggressively for consumer dollars. Over the course of multiple visits to each store in our area, we compared the before-tax cost of 39 commonly purchased products. We priced a variety of items, from decking lumber to ceramic floor tile to basic tools to interior paint, and found that most were similarly priced, down to the penny. When there was a difference, the Lowe's item usually sold for less, but only by a dollar or two. This was also true when the brand was the same; for example, on the days we visited the stores, a Skil 45-degree 7 1/4" circular saw was going for $49.98 at Lowe's and $59.97 at Home Depot. The total before-tax cost of the items we priced came to $1,924.08 at Lowe's and $1,925.35 at Home Depot.

Among the items on our shopping list, Lowe's bested the competition on 14, including a gallon of clear waterproofing wood stain ($13.48 at Lowe's and $15.98 at Home Depot), a pound of 8D x 1 1/2" nails ($14.28 at Lowe's and $16.81 at Home Depot), and an 8" steel plumb bob ($4.78 at Lowe's and $4.93 at Home Depot). Home Depot posted the lowest prices on 11 items from our list, including a 3/8" socket wrench ($11.97 at Home Depot and $14.96 at Lowe's), safety goggles ($2.59 at Home Depot and $2.97 at Lowe's), and four types of interior paint (one gallon of the house brand, eggshell finish, cost $23.96 at Home Depot compared with $27.97 at Lowe's). Note that both house brand paints -- Behr at Home Depot and Valspar at Lowe's -- scored well in tests conducted by a consumer products review site testing organization, although Behr ranked higher.

To get an idea of how much we could expect to spend on a larger project, we priced out the cost of building a 12' x 16' ground-level deck using a master list of required tools and materials. Again, we noticed how similarly priced the items were at each store: 16 of the 34 items on the list, including a treated structural post and two sizes of pressure-treated lumber and cedar decking, along with other products such as 1/2" galvanized hex nuts and a 7.2-volt cordless lithium drill, cost exactly the same; five were within a penny or two; and seven of the 13 remaining items were less expensive at Lowe's. Only four products -- safety goggles, a 24" standard level, an 8" solid brass plumb bob, and a 3/8" socket wrench -- were cheaper at Home Depot. The total cost of materials and tools for our backyard deck project rang up at $1,507.32 before taxes at Lowe's, a $34.24 savings over the $1,541.56 project cost at Home Depot.

To put things into perspective, we called up a well-known, home-grown lumberyard to compare the cost of buying local. All the items we priced were more expensive at the neighborhood store. For example, a 4" x 4" x 8" #2 pressure-treated structural post cost $9.19, $1.22 more than the $7.97 Home Depot and Lowe's were charging. A 5/4" x 6" x 12" plank of cedar decking, which was $11.76 at both big-box stores, was $4.54 more per piece at the lumberyard.

Note that Lowe's and Home Depot feature nearly identical price-matching guarantees. If a local competitor sells the same product for a lower price, both will match that price and give the buyer an additional 10% discount. The guarantee covers in-stock items only; special orders don't apply. Although it's obviously cumbersome to price match every purchase, it's useful for large or high-dollar transactions. One contributor to Electrician Talk says he leverages the system to streamline his operating expenses.

Lowe's vs. Home Depot Products and Layout

Based solely upon visits to our local Lowe's and Home Depot stores, our initial impression was that Home Depot offers more product variety. In our area, the Lowe's store is much smaller than the Home Depot, leading to the logical conclusion that inventory depends on the size of each store's stock room and display area. Given that deduction and the fact that counting in-store products would be an impossible task, we assessed the depth of product selection according to the information provided on each store's website.

As it turns out, there's little consistency as to which store carries more items in any given category. Lowe's stocks 545 SKUs of glass backsplash tile to Home Depot's 1,291. In the lineup of single-hung windows, Lowe's offers 687 options compared with 120 at Home Depot and carries seven different window brands to Home Depot's five. Home Depot comes out ahead in toilets (2,200 to 1,023 at Lowe's) and ceramic floor and wall tiles (529 offerings to 136 SKUs at Lowe's). Lowe's edges out its competitor with towel bars (1,095 SKUs to Home Depot's 711), post caps for decking (1,441 to Home Depot's 80), tile grout (395 SKUs to 315 at Home Depot), and electric ranges (433 options compared with 140 at Home Depot). Indeed, Lowe's sells far more brands of appliances than does Home Depot. An associate at our local Lowe's store claimed the retailer can special order any appliance except for a few high-end brands (JennAir, Miele, Wolf, and Viking); a Home Depot team member said the chain offers only Maytag, GE, LG, and Adora (Home Depot's exclusive line, manufactured by GE Cafe).

Among the eight product categories we researched, Lowe's won by a nose for its slightly broader selection. Then again, had we compared other categories, would we have gotten different results? Maybe. To illustrate the point, one consumer from the Chicago area who posted a comment at Yelp said Lowe's carries more designer options than Home Depot for things like fixtures and home furnishings. Another note on Yelp, referring to the selection at a Brooklyn location, suggests such merchandising strategy comes at the expense of hardware and staple items.

Store Experience and Organization.

When it comes to store organization and overall shopping experience, Lowe's outshines Home Depot. Both retailers present a warehouse-like atmosphere, but during our visits to Lowe's and Home Depot, the former seemed more approachable. The aisles at Lowe's are wider and better lit and mostly clear of displays; when present, they didn't require complex maneuvers to get around. Products were accessible, most within easy reach of an average-height person. Home Depot, by contrast, seemed cramped and hard to navigate. Aisle displays were more obtrusive and stacks of random merchandise in many aisles further impeded our progress. Customer-ready products were stocked the equivalent of a shelf higher than at Lowe's, putting many items out of grab-able reach and caused us to wonder whether we truly wanted to consider them in our shopping comparison because it meant finding an associate to get them down.

We also found product organization to be superior at Lowe's. Signage was larger and price stickers were consistent in look, size, and placement ; there were few, if any, missing tags. At Home Depot, we noticed enough outdated, missing, or inconsistent price tags (e.g., one price on the product itself and another on the signage) to feel both confused and overwhelmed. This was most apparent in the kitchen area. For example, one cabinet brand was letter-coded and accompanied by a reference chart that detailed prices for each letter grade; the price per square foot was also noted on some cabinet door samples but not on others and several contradicted the chart. Additionally, Lowe's grouped like products together, whereas Home Depot often spread them around two or three different areas of the same department. In the kitchen department, Home Depot grouped items by category, rather than by brand or price, making it hard to shop with budget in hand.

No doubt, the overall shopping experience varies by person and location. The blogger at Sound Money Matters, herself a homeowner, writes that it was easier to find what she was looking for at Lowe's. A seasoned DIYer posting on Helium, however, finds Home Depot's layout more intuitive. Online commentary suggests that Lowe's appeals more to women while a MarketWatch article dating to 2007 (the most recent statistical information we could find) reported that females preferred Lowe's to Home Depot, 54% to 46%. The same report found Lowe's to be more popular in the south and northeast, and Home Depot to reign supreme in the west and Midwest.

Lowe's vs. Home Depot Customer Service and Professional Services

During multiple visits to our local Lowe's and Home Depot, we generally encountered friendly staff and good customer service. We also came across a couple of grumpy souls, including one older Lowe's associate who seemed put out to be asked the store hours shortly before closing time and a Home Depot locksmith who was grudgingly helpful. We shopped at different times of the day and noticed offers for help at both retailers were scarcer at 7:00 p.m. on a Sunday night than at 2:00 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon. During one three-hour prime-time visit to our neighborhood Lowe's, we were approached 10 times by six different associates. On a Saturday afternoon trip to Home Depot that lasted nearly two hours, four sales people inquired if we needed help, while two others offered assistance when we requested it, and a seventh passed us by altogether.

Although both stores employed pleasant and knowledgeable sales people, Lowe's had the edge on customer service. The Lowe's staff seemed to go the extra mile -- answering questions and taking the time to educate us on windows or appliances or laminate flooring, and anticipating additional needs. Lowe's associates also made a point of following up and approaching us again as we continued to wander around. At Home Depot, only one associate approached us a second time and didn't remember our initial encounter.

Consumer reviews posted online of multiple Home Depot locations indicate that customer service is a mixed bag. One shopper from Alameda, Calif., and another from Minneapolis, Minn., report that employees range from helpful to clueless. A patron from Seattle, Wash., says employees go out of their way to offer advice. We also read other posts on Yelp complaining about associates who don't want to be bothered. One patron from Mesa, Ariz., gripes about an over-reliance on self-checkout lanes.

Lowe's customer service likewise receives positive and negative reviews. Shoppers at one Bellevue, Wash., store give it only two out of five stars on Yelp, citing cases of unprofessional or inexperienced staff. In contrast, visitors to an Austin, Texas, location award it more than three stars and highlight on-the-ball associates and friendly service. One Arlington, Mass., consumer writes that the two chain stores seem quite similar but recommends Lowe's wood-cutting service. Other consumer reviewers say they appreciate the "buy online, pick up in store" option at Lowe's.

Catering to the Professional.

When it comes to serving home improvement professionals, Home Depot has long been thought to have the upper hand. The hardware megastore focuses on contractors and other paid repair and construction workers with a dedicated Pro desk. Home Depot offers this customer base perks like advance order pulling, job-site delivery seven days a week, and volume discounts for purchases greater than $2,500 (some items don't qualify for a discount). One electrician who commented on Electrician Talk says he's saved a bundle on projects by taking advantage of these services but still chooses to buy certain items from industry-specific supply houses.

Lowe's answers back with identical policies, right down to large-order discounts for expenditures exceeding $2,500. One blogger cum real estate investor, however, has found that follow-through at Lowe's leaves much to be desired, reporting that one sales associate arranged for a 10% discount but another was unwilling to budge on price. Despite Home Depot's reputation for attention to the professional, shop talk suggests that Lowe's may be narrowing the gap. A veteran contractor who posted on Helium.com says he prefers Lowe's for the hassle-free experience and excellent customer service.

Plenty of pros love to hate the big box stores and prefer to work with supply houses and local businesses whenever possible. Another post on Electrician Talk extols the advantages of a supply-house relationship and points out that there are professional-grade materials that Lowe's and Home Depot don't carry.

Lowe's vs. Home Depot Return Policy, Project Support

To check out the support these hardware superstores provide DIYers wanting to tackle big projects, we sought help from both. Our goals were simple: Determine what materials we needed to build a ground-level, 12' x 16' deck; price out the cheapest products that would give us good results; and come up with a parts list and project estimate. Despite having researched deck building online, we approached this project as novice builders and wanted all the guidance we could get.

At the Home Depot Pro Desk, a friendly but seemingly green associate helped us start the process. He walked us through the aisles of lumber and fasteners, where we checked prices on pressure-treated and non-treated cedar in a variety of lengths (8", 12", and 16") and widths (4" and 6"). We were a bit skeptical when he said we'd need only four nails to secure each board and provided an estimate that included only four support posts for the entire deck. Over the course of two hours we adjusted those numbers and compiled a priced-out materials list. Another Pro Desk employee then led us off to appraise the concrete options. He looked at our materials list and rough sketch and gently but professionally let us know it needed to be reworked. He suggested we purchase cement pier blocks that were pre-drilled for brackets rather than mix and pour cement to build supports on our own. He told us we'd probably need 24 supports for our deck instead of the six that the first salesperson had ultimately recommended. He increased the number of support beams from three to nine. By the time we left Home Depot, employee No. 2, who seemed more knowledgeable, had advised changes to half the items on our merchandise and service summary. Total time elapsed: 2.5 hours.

Our visit to Lowe's started with a conversation with two older male associates at the commercial sales counter. They asked questions and made recommendations about the best way to build and support the deck. One associate typed the information into the Lowe's Deck Design Software, and within 20 minutes or so, we had a printout detailing the materials required and the price of each item. We were then led to each piece of recommended lumber and to the tools department to see the various mitre saws we could buy. Within the 45-minute visit at Lowe's, 15 to 20 minutes were spent looking at materials and discussing the relative merits of buying, rather than renting, a mitre saw. We learned a lot from the salesperson, who explained that we'd probably want 5/4" decking boards rather than the standard 2" (nicer aesthetics, easier to produce) that we priced at Home Depot and said 12" boards are far straighter than boards 16" or longer. He recommended using pressure-treated wood for the support structure but advised using non-treated boards for the facing. In his opinion, the natural wood looks nicer, takes stain better, and doesn't expose deck users (especially small children) to a slew of harsh chemicals.

The deck project that had seemed daunting and over our heads during our time at Home Depot seemed straightforward and achievable after our planning session at Lowe's. We were more confident in our materials list and used that one to price out comparable products at Home Depot and the neighborhood lumberyard.

Although we had more success with one-on-one project planning at Lowe's, we discovered that Home Depot shines in other areas of project support. Every Saturday and Sunday, Home Depot offers free workshops for weekend renovators that focus on common home improvement projects. Three different classes are offered each month, with times and dates posted on the website (the schedule is consistent from location to location). Recent classes have included interior painting, installing wall tile, and installing a vanity, faucet, and bath accessories. Upcoming workshops include landscape design, lawn maintenance, and vinyl flooring installation. Sessions may last up to 1.5 hours.

Lowe's, by contrast, doesn't hold regular workshops. When we asked team members at three different locations if there were any classes we could attend, they said no but added that any Lowe's employee would be happy to demonstrate techniques if asked. We also learned that Lowe's provides how-to videos on its website, as well as step-by-step project walkthroughs.

2" x 6" x12" #2 Pressure Treated Lumber








2" x 6" x 16" #2 Pressure Treated Lumber








5/4" x 6" x 8" Cedar Decking








5/4" x 6" x 12" Cedar Decking








4" x 4" x 8" #2 Treated Structural Post








TOTAL $856.59 $673.23 $183.36

Return Policies.

As every weekend warrior knows, it makes more sense to overbuy than under-purchase supplies for home improvement projects. This saves multiple trips to the hardware store and ensures a uniform look with tile, flooring, and paint. Overbuying is also a reason to be familiar with each store's return policy. Home Depot and Lowe's both maintain generous return policies, although Lowe's is a little more so.

Lowe's and Home Depot accept the return of new, unused merchandise within 90 days of purchase, with some notable exceptions. Lowe's has a 30-day return policy for outdoor power equipment and major appliances, while Home Depot puts a 30-day limit on the return of generators, furniture, and gas-powered equipment or tractors. At Home Depot, whole-house or stationary generators and utility trailers are non-refundable. Lowe's accepts returns of damaged or defective merchandise for 90 days from the date of purchase, whereas Home Depot asks that all damage or shortage claims be made within 30 days of receipt. Lowe's takes back new, unused merchandise, but Home Depot specifies the product should be in "100% saleable condition" in the original packaging. Additionally, Home Depot requests a packing slip or receipt for every return, while Lowe's accepts the credit or debit card used for the purchase or a phone number (for cash or check payments) in lieu of a receipt. At both stores, the return of special-order merchandise incurs a 15% restocking fee.

Lowe's vs. Home Depot Credit Cards, Tool Rental

Many Home Depot locations offer rental options for customers who don't want to invest in tools they may use only once or twice. Lowe's, on the other hand, doesn't rent power tools (carpet cleaners are the exception).

When deciding whether to rent or buy tools, consider price and availability. The final rental price obviously depends on the length of time you'll need the tool. Home Depot stores in our area charge $34 for a four-hour tile saw rental, or $48 a day. The medium-size unit we would need to make cuts of up to 16" (for the 12" x 12" ceramic floor tiles we singled out) is also available at a weekly rate of $192. Buying a tile saw with the same capabilities would cost $258. The Home Depot associate we spoke with recommended the Ryobi WS750L, the least expensive model in stock that comes with a stand, allowing for sliding cuts. Bottom line: It wouldn't make sense to purchase the Ryobi for only one project, as the weekly rental rate is less expensive. Home Depot also sells a basic table-style tile saw, the QEP 650XT 22650, for $89. This model requires that you manually move tiles to cut them (it has no slider) but is the cheapest tile saw Home Depot sells.

With our deck project in mind, we asked about mitre saws. Home Depot rents the Ridgid MS1290LZA at a rate of $30 for four hours, $43 for a day, or $144 for a week. Contrast that with the cost of a brand-new budget model, the Ryobi TS1343L, which commands a price of $119. In this case, it may make sense to purchase, rather than rent, a saw if you'll need it for longer than a day. Granted, the model Home Depot rents is a higher-end unit that retails for $569, but it packs more power than needed for simple board cuts.

Availability also matters when deciding whether to rent or buy. Our nearest Home Depot doesn't rent tools, so we contacted two other Home Depot stores in the area. One location rents out two mitre saws, but only one was available at that time. The same location had three tile saws for rental, and all three were in stock. Rental tools at this location are first come, first served -- no holds even for the time it takes to travel to the store. A different Home Depot had deeper inventory of rental tools, including four mitre saws and "several" tile saws. Here we were told the no-reservation policy applied, but we could call ahead to place a tool on hold until we could get to the store. It's worth asking about the rental tool inventory ahead of time and remember to factor into your planning the possibility of unexpected delays.

Lowe's and Home Depot Credit Cards.

Home Depot and Lowe's both extend lines of credit to qualifying customers who want to finance their home improvement ventures. Each plan has its advantages.

Home Depot's consumer card charges no interest when buyers spend $299 or more as long as the balance is paid within six months. Lowe's consumer credit card gives shoppers 5% off most purchases charged to the card, although the bimonthly billing cycle irks at least one Lowe's cardholder.

For larger projects, Lowe's offers the Lowe's Project Card. This is essentially a line of credit that requires minimum monthly payments and an initial purchase of $1,000. No interest is accrued on purchases paid off within six months. As with the consumer card, buyers get a 5% discount on all expenditures. Home Depot's version of this is the Home Depot Project Loan, which also boasts six-month, no-interest financing and requires minimum monthly payments but offers no 5% discount.

Both hardware megastores also offer financing options for home improvement professionals. Home Depot has two programs: a Commercial Revolving Charge Card, with no annual fee and a choice between regular monthly payments or paying off the balance, and a Commercial Credit Account, which lets the pros track spending by buyer or itemize billing by job number. Lowe's Business Credit accounts include the standard Lowe's Business Account, with flexible payment terms and no annual fee, and the Business Rewards Card, which lets users earn American Express points on purchases. All Lowe's Business Credit cardholders get 5% off in-store purchases; the same discount doesn't apply for online buys, as it does for Lowe's consumer cardholders.