It’s been a while since I’ve shared a frugal food find here, and there’s a reason. Even The Brokavore doesn’t live by day-old bread alone, and a pesky need for shelter recently led me to become a first-time homeowner. Which means I’ve been spending a lot of time battling basement leaks and sucking on plaster dust instead of searching out dollar tacos.
Buy a home and like it or not, before long you’re going to find yourself darkening the automatic doors at Lowe’s or Home Depot. With one of each within a mile of my South Slope home, I’ve made many a grudging trip to both. And given my natural gift for parsimony (though gift is maybe not the word Mrs. Brokavore would use), having two competing big-box behemoths within easy reach led me to wonder: which is cheaper?
My scattered visits offered no ready answer, so to settle the matter I put the pair to a test, matching the price tags on a hypothetical shopping list of 16 home-repair items.
Given the Tweedle Dee-Tweedle Dum competition between the two, it was no surprise to find a tight race. Prices on many items lined up to the penny. So a pound of drywall screws costs the exact same $6.47 at either place, a sheet of half-inch drywall $8.25.
Where there was a discrepancy, though, Lowe’s more often had the edge. Home Depot had a big nine-cent advantage on a quart of Minwax stain; more notably it won on a four-pack of fluorescent bulbs (60 watt equivalent), which ran $6.97 to Lowe’s $8.78. But Lowe’s undercut Home Depot slightly on five different items, including a combo smoke/carbon monoxide alarm, contractor trash bags, epoxy wood filler and caulk. The total saved was $3.24.
Which, I’ll grant you, is not a huge deal on a shopping list running close to $400. But Lowe’s gets the edge in other ways as well: it’s more pleasant and easier to navigate, it’s easier to find a staffer, and it lacks an infantile orange color scheme that makes you want to gouge your eyeballs out with a spackling knife. So we’re giving Lowe’s the nod, with one notable exception.
That has to do with paint. Being both a tree-hugger and someone in full need of all his remaining brain cells, I’m a fan of low-VOC paints, but the steep price tags tend to make me consider whether huffing benzene fumes is so bad after all. I was surprised to find, though, that while they don’t make a big deal out of it, the Behr Premium Plus Ultra paint stocked by Home Depot is all low VOC — in fact, the specs are comparable to Benjamin Moore’s Aura paints, which cost about $20 more a gallon.
And it’s really good paint, lately rated No. 1 by Consumer Reports. So that’s a win for Home Depot, and a reason to endure the place when it’s time for a new coat of eggshell in the bedroom.
But I’ve got a more important lesson to impart based on hard-won experience: whenever possible, skip them both. As I’ve learned, the true hero in any match-up is my neighborhood hardware store: the narrow, cramped Leopoldi Hardware on Fifth Avenue. Run by a pair of brothers whose father started the store 46 years ago, it’s staffed by three generations of Leopoldis, who can point you toward whatever obscure item you need and don’t have a name for.
Here’s a typical visit to Home Depot: Get in the car and spend ten minutes driving there. Park, enter the store and spend 25 minutes searching in vain for the item I want or for anyone who can tell me where it is. If lucky, finally find it. Take it to the front, where there’s one register operating with a 15-minute line. Cursing, opt for self-checkout. Find that one out of three of the machines is down. Wait ten minutes for working machine, spend another five minutes trying in vain to get it to scan my item. Finally toss it aside and leave empty-handed, cursing with frustration.
Leopoldi’s: Walk in, describe what I need (“you know those, uh, twisty metal things that . . .”) to a staffer who walks ten feet, swings open a cabinet, pulls out a drawer, retrieves what I need and puts it in a paper bag. Pay and leave.
And the sweetener is, often their price is just as good, and sometimes it’s even better. For example, the Minwax wood epoxy I paid $14 for at Home Depot was $11 at Leopoldi. So instead of choosing between saving money and supporting a local business, you can have your cake and eat it too.
You can also save by buying small: when I needed a few four-inch masonry spikes, the guy at Leopoldi pointed me to a dusty bin and charged me fifty cents for a handful. When I needed some metal lathe, one of the brothers cut me half a sheet using tin snips, chuckling to himself as the jagged edges scraped his knuckles and he literally bled for a customer.
Combo Smoke/Carbon monoxide alarm
Home Depot: $38.97
Box of 50 contractor-grade trash bags
Home Depot: $23.37
Home Depot: $6.97
Home Depot: $7.48
Home Depot: $17.98
Home Depot: $1.57
Minwax High-Performance Wood Filler
Pound of two-inch drywall screws: Tied at $6.47
Six-gallon wet-dry vac: Tied at $46.97
Lutron dimmer switch: Tied at $17.97
Gallon of premium ceiling white: Tied at $23.98
Sheet of half-inch drywall: Tied at $8.25
Five-gallon bucket of joint compound: Tied at $14.25
Purdy 3-inch poly-nylon sash brush: Tied at $16.97