As a follow-up to my previous post on home maintenance parts every homeowner should have in their house right now, I’ve put together this list of basic tools and supplies for any homeowner that wishes to attempt of basic home maintenance on their own. You may not believe me, but I promise you that even if you’ve never wielded a screwdriver (no, not the drink…) in your life, a minor investment in these tools and supplies — and some patience and willingness to learn by trial and error — will pay off for years to come. You really can do it!
I’ve split my list into two sections. First, the “Must Haves” are what I consider the bare minimum you’ll need to be able to perform most basic and intermediate home maintenance tasks, including nearly all the DIY projects I blog about. The “Nice to Haves” are things that aren’t essential, but they’ll save you a bunch of time and energy, and as you grow in DIY expertise you may want to consider adding to your tool kit.
I’ve created an Amazon Listmania List containing recommended versions all of these basic tools and supplies, which makes it easy to price shop them, or even add them to a Wish List so friends, family, and Santa know what you want for you birthday or holiday gifts! 🙂
1. Basic Portable Tool Kit
I keep my “fancy” tools (for working on cars, boats, and personal watercraft) in a huge, shiny, red tool-chest-on-wheels in the garage, but I don’t recommend relying on these tools for home maintenance. First, when you bring those tools inside the house, there’s a chance they may not make their way back to the garage. Second, it’s inconvenient to go outside and grab what you think is the right sized wrench, only to find you guessed wrong and that you need to take another trip to the garage.
Instead, I recommend picking up a basic portable tool kit from Costco, or Amazon, or your local hardware store. At a minimum, it should have a hammer, an assortment of flat-head and Phillips head screwdrivers, various standard and metric wrenches, a socket wrench, various sockets in standard and metric sizes, a set of standard and metric Allen wrenches, an assortment of driver bits, a level, standard pliers, and needle-nose pliers.
For less than $40, you can buy this 65 piece set by Stanley, which is an OK deal… except that it doesn’t come with any wrenches.
So I recommend that you spend $60 and can get something like this 115-piece set from Denali, which has most of the tools you’ll need, and comes with a bag for carrying them around the house. Another advantage to having a bag like this is that when you purchase additional tools, they’ll fit inside a bag, but they won’t fit inside a molded plastic cases like the Stanley set.
Regardless of which kit you purchase, it should contain an assortment of tools and be easily grabbed and carried around the house.
2. Tape Measure
A basic tape measure will likely be included in any portable tool kit, but it may only be 12′ or 16′ long. It’s worth spending $9 a slightly nicer tape measure that’s at least 25′ long and has a reliable locking mechanism, like this Stanley tape measure (which is the exact one I use).
Tape measures are crucial when you need to measure how long to cut PVC tubes for plumbing projects, or floor area for tile projects, or wood length for carpentry stuff, or for hanging pictures on the wall. Just remember the adage: measure twice, cut once.
3. Utility Knife
A decent utility knife is an essential part of any tool kit. There are various styles available, including the traditional box cutter style that uses replaceable razor blades, or the click-type that allows you to break off the end when it gets dull and click up a new blade, or the folding style utility knife (which is what I use).
These knives are great for breaking down boxes (for all the stuff you order from Amazon), or cutting rope, slicing open electrical wire insulation, trimming rubber tile, scoring drywall, and a million other things. A knife is one of the original tools of the early human, and is still one of the most useful things you can have in your kit.
4. The Tape Trinity: Duct, Electrical, & Teflon
No tool kit is complete without a roll of each of these tapes. Duct tape (not “duck” tape) was originally designed for sealing HVAC duct work — and still performs that task wonderfully. But its use is almost limitless when you need to keep something in place or create a quick fix. Vinyl electrical tape is perfect for further insulating wires, wire-nuts, and butt-splices during electrical projects. And Teflon tape is a necessity for any plumbing project that involves anything with threads.
The ancient Egyptians used liquid to accurately keep their building projects flat, and nobody’s invented anything since that can do it better. The tool kit above that I recommend comes with a basic level, but I like having a larger level available for my projects — and I use it more often than you might guess. In a pinch, you can download a free level app for your smart phone. I’ve used that app on my iPhone with good results when I didn’t have my regular level available.
6. LED Flashlight and/or Headlamp
More often than not, DIY projects involve opening stuff up and poking around inside. And that’s when a decent light source is a must. A a minimum, your tool kit should include a quality LED flashlight, but you can kick things up a notch by also adding an LED headlamp, which will keep both your hands free while you illuminate your work area. Why LED? The light is brighter, your batteries and bulbs both last longer, and it’s more resistant to impact. And for “man card” points, it’s always cool to rock a MagLite!
7. Pipe Wrench
If you’ve got even the most basic plumbing tasks on your DIY list, a pipe wrench will come in handy. They range from ridiculously huge to the downright cute, but a 10-14″ wrench will probably do most of what you need. Of course, it’s cheaper (per wrench) to just buy a set with four different sizes, and you’ll be sure to have the perfect tool for the job.
8. Smooth Jaw Channel Lock Pliers
Another necessity for plumbing projects, dependable channel lock pliers are worth their weight in gold. The tool kit I recommend above includes a basic channel lock with a grooved jaw, but to protect the finish on plumbing fixtures, you really should have a set of smooth jaw channel lock pliers, too.
For simple cutting jobs, there’s no beating a hacksaw. It’s great for cutting PVC, copper pipe, wood, metal, and anything else you can think of. A basic hacksaw is included in the kit above, but it’s not a bad idea to have one with a decent handle, especially since you can get one for under $10. Buying a couple extra blades isn’t a bad idea, either.
10. Wire Cutters and Wire Strippers/Crimpers
A basic set of wire cutters is already included in the above kit, and those are more than good enough for snipping wires during electrical projects (after the power is shut off). But for stripping wires and crimping insulated connectors, you can’t beat a stripping/crimping multi-tool.
11. Digital Multi-meter
Once you start tinkering with electrical projects, you’ll pull your hair out (or possibly make it stand on end) without a multi-meter. Higher-end ones (such as the Fluke T5-600 I use) can be found for under $90, and the really fancy professional ones can get up to $400, but are overkill for home users. You can find ones for under $10 on Amazon with mixed reviews, but I recommend spending $25 on this well-reviewed unit from Mastech, then step up to something like a Fluke when you want something a bit more robust.
12. Soldering Iron
The first time you use a soldering iron to replace an LED diode, capacitor, or relay on a circuit board instead of buying a new one, your $15 investment in this basic model will pay for itself 10 fold. These are also great for tinning speaker wires, or anywhere else you want to make sure you have a semi-permanent wired connection. Don’t be afraid of the soldering iron. The more you practice with it, the better you’ll get.
13. Wire Nuts and Butt Splices
Continuing with the electrical theme, I’ve found it’s never a bad idea to have a healthy assortment of wire nuts of various sizes in your tool kit. They come in really handy when wiring in new switches, light fixtures, pumps, irrigation heads, etc. And right next to them in my tool bucket (yes, I use a bucket) I like to keep an assortment of various heat-shrink butt splices. They help make secure, tight, weatherproof connections when I’m splicing in anything electrical.
Almost as useful as duct tape, a zip-lock baggie full of various lengths of zip-ties will be empty and needing a refill before you know it. These are great for keeping wiring projects tidy, or for hanging and securing objects.
15. Basic Cordless Drill/Driver
So far, most of the items I’ve suggested have been relatively inexpensive. And while a decent cordless drill will be one of the more expensive tools in this list, you don’t need to run out and grab an expensive pro-series model (unless you really want to). Drill brand wars can get like Mac vs. PC wars. Personally, I’m a fan of Makita brand drills. I received one as a gift years ago, and they’ve never let me down, so I haven’t found a need to shop elsewhere. The Makita LXFD03 I use is on the spendy side, but a more basic model will be fine for basic DIY needs. This Dewalt drill/driver kit is currently the #1 seller on Amazon, and hovers around $90. The price is relatively low because it uses the older NiCAD battery technology (as opposed to the newer Lithium Ion), but still packs 18V which is plenty of power for what you’ll likely be doing.
You’ll use a cordless drill for drilling holes (duh), driving screws, removing access panels, tightening bolts, and more. Features such as a keyless chuck, multiple speeds, and adjustable torque settings will come in extremely handy. And with a tool like this, you’ll be extremely handy, too!
16. Smart Phone with Camera
You probably already have this tool in your pocket right now. A phone-based camera is a great tool that I use on nearly every single DIY project I tackle. They’re great for snapping photos of things before (and as) you take them apart, so you don’t have to rely on your memory when putting them back together. A picture is worth a thousand words when you’re wiring in a new thermostat and trying to remember how the one was was wired. Instead of trying to write down your fridge’s model number, snap a photo. Trying to describe to the guy at the hardware store what the water lines look like under your sink? Show him instead. Snapping photos before heading to the hardware store is the best way to get the right advice the first time. And if you’re trying to take a photo of wiring or plumbing in a dark confined space, turn on the phone’s flashlight, hold it inside, and snap a photo where you’d never be able to fit your head for a clean view.
17. Small Shop Vac or Cordless Handheld Vacuum
Sometimes (alright… way more than sometimes), DIY projects can result in a bit of a mess. So in order to maintain household harmony, cleaning up after yourself is a must. I generally run to the kitchen and grab our Dyson cordless hand vac, but when I saw this Stanley mini wet/dry vacuum on sale at Costco last week, I knew I couldn’t live without it. It’s already come in handy after I accidentally shattered a florescent bulb on the garage floor!
18. Course Thread Drywall Screws
This one was suggested by my friend Smack (not his real name, but everyone calls him that), and it’s one I completely agree with and always have in my own toolkit: course thread drywall screws. I refer to them as “grabbers,” and they’re great for joining things together, hanging pretty much anything in drywall, and they also screw into wood and sheet metal pretty well, too. I recommend getting a variety of sizes (and I even have some galvanized ones I can use outside). These are always the first screw I grab when doing a project, and with scant few exceptions, generally the only one I need.
19. Pick-Up Tools
Suggested by my buddy Jason, I totally agree with him that this pair of tools will come in extremely handy. First, a flexible magnetic pick-up tool will save your bacon whenever you drop a screw, bolt, washer, or any other metal down into crevices where your eyes can’t see and your hands can’t reach. For stainless hardware and other stuff that’s not attracted to magnets, however, you’re out of luck… unless you have something like this mechanical grabber claw with LED light. It can help you see what you’re reaching for, and retrieve it with a minimum number of swear words. I’m ashamed to admit that I drop stuff a lot, and therefore use both of these tools frequently.
Nice to Haves
The “nice to have” list is a much smaller list than what I consider the “must haves,” but if you already have all the tools from the first list and are itching for an excuse to hit the hardware store (or the hardware section of Amazon), then these items are what I consider the “next level” of DIY tools:
1. Caulking Gun
For minor caulking projects, you can simply buy a small tube of caulk that can be squeezed like a toothpaste tube. But for bigger jobs, you’ll need a full sized tub of caulk and a caulking gun.
2. Electrical Receptacle Tester with Ground Fault Button
If you plan on upgrading a number of electrical outlets, or you find yourself troubleshooting outlets on a semi-regular basis, then a receptacle tester might be a good addition to your tool collection. They’re under $10, and I recommend getting one like this that also has a button to generate a ground fault, so you can test whether your GFCI outlets will trip when they’re supposed to.
3. Coax & Ethernet Cabling Tools
If you need to run RG6 coax cable (like for A/V projects, cable TV, or satellite) or Ethernet cable in a project, then you’ll definitely want the tools on hand to help you terminate them quickly, easily, and properly. For coax cables, my favorite is the Paladin 70053 Kit. It has everything you need to cut, strip, prep, and compression fit coax, BNC, and RCA adapters onto RG6 cable. On the Ethernet site, I use the Paladin 70007 Kit, which makes prepping and terminating network cables a breeze. After using these kits, you’ll wonder why anyone does it differently!
4. Endoscopic Camera with LED Light
OK – I admit this one’s a bit out there. But after dropping a wrench in the hull of my Sea Doo for the umpteenth time, I went looking for a better solution than fishing around with a coat hanger or a magnet. For around $20, you can buy a waterproof endoscopic camera that attaches to your laptop via USB — which you can then shove down drains, into tanks, under your Sea Doo motor, into HVAC ducts, through your pool plumbing, or anywhere else you want to take a peek. I found this one on Amazon, but I bought a slightly different one on eBay. It’s the most fun you can have with a DIY tool for $20!
5. Mini Utility Pump
This is more of a luxury than a necessity, but I suppose that’s why it’s on the “nice to have” instead of the “must have” list. I use a Simer Mini M40P utility pump to massively speed up the process whenever I flush my water heaters. I also use it when flushing my Sea Doos with anti-freeze when I winterize them. I’ve used it to drain the water fountain in the driveway, and it can clean up the water in a utility room when your water heater’s TPR leaks (ask me how I know). At around $75 they’re not cheap, but if saving time is worth it to you, then treat yourself and pick one up.
6. Reciprocating Saw (SawzAll)
This item was also suggested by my friend Smack, although he considers it a “must have.” I didn’t include it on that list because I’ve actually only ever needed to use a reciprocating saw (commonly called a SawzAll) one time, and that was a few years ago to remove a muffler. In all other cases, a hacksaw did the trick just fine. However, perhaps this is one of those items that once you get one, you don’t know how you ever lived without it. I’m certain one of these would indeed be “nice to have,” so maybe I’ll pick one up soon and see how much I actually use it.
7. Compound Miter Saw
Also suggested by Smack, and one I completely agree with. I love using my “chop saw.” Whenever I do project with PVC my compound miter saw makes short work — and makes a decent mess (which is why a shop vac is on my “must have” list). You can pick up a decent one for around $100, and they are great for cutting dowels, plastic pipe, boards, and wood trim. If you’re doing any job with crown molding or baseboards, a miter saw will be your best friend. I lined the entire closet at my cabin with aromatic cedar planks using only a chop saw and a brad nailer. It’s a very versatile tool that more advanced DIY folks will truly appreciate.
What’s on Your List?
So there you have my “must have” and “nice to have” list of tools and supplies for the average DIY homeowner. Again, you can find them all on my Amazon Listmania List so you can add them to your Wish List — or just buy them yourself.
If this list seems overwhelming, don’t feel pressured to buy all these tools all at once. Start with the basics, and expand your tool collection as you expand your skills. Put these items on your birthday or holiday wish-lists, and make sure your friends and family know that tools as gifts are always appreciated. Keep an eye out for sales or clearance items at your local hardware stores, and don’t be afraid to ask others for their opinions and experiences with their tools.
And now that you’ve got tool collection going, I also recommend that you check out my article on Home Maintenance Parts You Should Have In Your House Right Now.
Do you have something on your list that should be on one of mine? Please tell me about it in the comments!