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It’s been a comedy of failures around my place lately, with the “new” wearing off the house and its contents and lots of little issues cropping up. It’s given me a lot of opportunity to think about the perfect way to buy products you expect to use for years to come — whether that’s a dishwasher, an air conditioning unit, or a high-end power tool. And I’ve discovered that no matter how I come at the problem, I almost always end up seeking a balance between price and features.

I know this seems pretty obvious, but looking a little deeper, it’s a lot harder to figure than one might suspect.

Take, for example, my dishwasher. The one that came with the house held up pretty well until about a year ago, when it started not getting all the crap off the dishes and generally being a pain in the ass. I put it back together a few times, fixing little issues and such, but recently it got so bad that we jokingly put a sign on it reading “please wash dishes before running dishwasher.” Doh.

And so the feature onslaught began. A basic “it washes dishes” dishwasher (placing it squarely ahead of the one I currently owned) started at around $300. Fancy models ranged upwards of $1,000. Where’s the price line? A little research uncovered that up to around the $500 point, quality ratings and available features increased steadily. But of the over-$500 models, some received great ratings and some less. Some even rated poorly on quality. My read: beyond the $500, I was buying features, not quality. So we bought right around that point — since we generally don’t care too much about the advanced features.

Power tools aren’t that different, at least in our experience. With some exceptions, of course, you generally see a pretty linear correlation between price and quality(/reliability) starting at the lowest-priced units up until some point — which we’ll call the “price/quality line” — at which the relationship breaks down. Some “above-the-line” units continue to follow the relationship, pricing higher and offering advanced features which increase reliability. But for the most part, above the line, you’re just buying individual features.

One other factor to consider with power tools: the job. What are you going to do with the tool? The biggest mistake we see tool consumers make is overestimating the needs of the jobs for which they’ll use their new tools. Bigger isn’t always better, and there are lots of downsides to buying a tool bigger and/or more powerful than you’ll need. For one, they’re more expensive. $150 to $200 will easily buy you a decent 18V drill/driver, but step up to a 36V model and you’ll pay twice that (or more). Sure, that extra torque lets you drill bigger holes, but how often do you need to drill a 1-3/4″ hole in 1/2″ steel? If the answer’s never, you probably wasted $150 or more on the 36V.

They’re heavier, too. If you drill that big-ass hole twice in the course of two years, but you drill smaller holes, say, 100 times, you lugged that sucker around 98 times unnecessarily. Consider, too, that you probably could have borrowed the big drill from a friend, or even rented one for less than your $150 difference.

Of course, this isn’t always the case, and I’m not suggesting that everyone should avoid buying large and powerful power tools. I’m just saying that it’s worth the time to examine one’s use cases before shelling out the dough. It’s a great way to uncover whether you want that monster tool because it’ll make your life better, or because Tim Allen made you think it’s cool.

So what do you think? What’s your thought process when you go tool (or dishwasher) shopping? How do you balance your needs and wants to buy tools that move you toward your project goals instead of holding you back from them?

 

27 Responses to Buying on the Price/Quality Line

  1. Sawdust Everywhere says:

    I like you similarly find that I often wind up buying something smack dab in the middle of the price range. To me, the middle is about where the price/quality sweet spot is at its best.

    I can’t recall a time where I have ever purpose purchased something that was the opening price point. To me, there’s just got to be a reason that item is so cheap and I’d prefer not to find out what it was while I was using it.

    As you said, top of the line is usually paying for the features, not the quality. So, I find about in the middle to be a good option for someone who wants a quality built item, a decent range of features, and not spending too much money.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The value for money graph seems to be a bit more complex than the obvious linear approximation. The cheapest stuff offers, probably, the best value for money if you don’t mind replacing it whenever it breaks, and the top-of-the-line things are very often superior in some way that their middle of the line alternatives simply cannot include.
    Say, a cheapest made in China corded drill or something like that would be almost free – and will work for a few years before dying :)
    On the other hand, a high-end tool would have some options – like an electronic brake or some fancy fast-change chuck – that would save a lot of time every day, and would easily pay for themselves.
    So, for me it’s different: I buy the best (and quite costly) stuff for things that would be used often and the cheapest possible for the rest. Seems to be working just fine.

  3. Matt says:

    I find there’s generally a “best bang for the buck” point and shoot for that if it’s reasonable financially. If it’s not… I decide which things are most important and try to get something that does those well, even if it does other things not-so-well.

  4. David says:

    I think your best bet is understanding what *class* of a tool/appliance you need (meaning a subset of features that line up with the applications you’ll need it for), and then paying for the quality level you need based on how often you’ll use it, and how far up the creek you’ll be if you ever go to use it and it breaks.

    You always get what you pay for. When I bought my Weber grill, I *knew* it would last me 10 years, so paying $500 for a medium size grill that cooks evenly was a good investment, rather than replacing a $200 grill every 3 years while dealing with hot spots and cold spots.

    The same goes for power tools. If I’m making my living off of a tool, I want to pay whatever it is up front for the extra reliability to minimize the cost of repairs and (more importantly) costly downtime.

    If we’re talking cordless tools, I don’t know many situations needing 36V power, unless it’s a farm application where outlets are rarely an option. In fact, those compact 18V lithium drills do a whole lot for $149-$200 these days. You might not be able to sink as many lag bolts with one, but if you’re installing 30 sets of blinds it’s a lot easier to work with, so again it’s important to select the right class of tool.

    Sure, there’s a plus side to having the baddest drill on the block, but if you need to hang it from your belt while you measure and mark your workpiece while on a ladder, it’s nice to have a 3 lb drill and not a 10 lb one.

    • fred says:

      Most of this discussion makes sense based on individual cases and applications. Tools are just that – a means to an end – just like automobiles are a means for getting from one place to another. With the vehicles that we buy we make choices – not unlike our tool buying choices. Do we actually need a high end luxury car – perhaps we do if it is to impress a certain sort of client – but probably it’s is more that we want it and can afford (or think we can) to buy it. There may be some analogies to high-end tool brands – or as was suggested – the high end brands come with more features – some of which we may not need – or need so infrequently to make the price differential prohibitive. At the other end of the spectrum – an unreliable low-end low cost tool may never be appropriate for commercial use – not just because of fears about OSHA compliance – but simply because a jobsite failure means loss of productivity. Even tools that come with so-called lifetime warranties – are of little value if the fail in the middle of a job where time is money. In some vision of an ideal world – we’d have an inventory of tools to select from to match the job perfectly. In the real world we make compromises based on price, features, longevity, serviceability and the type of work we do. We do match 12V cordless tools and 18V cordless tools to different applications and crews – and corded, pneumatic and heavier duty machinery to tasks requiring the extra power. Sometimes we guess wrong – and have tools that sit at the back of the shop gathering dust or on the auction block, other times the choices become the “tools” that let us practice our trade and make a living for ourselves and employees. And speaking about those 36V saws – I had originally thought that I’d never buy one until the Dewalt version was introduced to us for roof framing, and while they have not replaced all our corded saws – and are nowhere near up to gang-cutting, we now have six.

    • Brau says:

      +1 and to put it another way, don’t get caught in feature drool. Buy what you know you need. “Turbo, HD, Pro”, are all mostly used to convince you to pay more for a fancy paint job and useless gadgets.

      Oooh, a drill that cleans my gutters?!

      (on that vein I’d like to suggest ToolMonger run a poll on the dumbest tool features ever advertised).

  5. Rick Reimundez says:

    I think it’s been said in some way, but the key thing is knowing how you’re using something (in the context of this site, a tool).

    I believe Chuck alluded to this as well… If I know I’m unlikely to use a tool much more than a few times a year, but I’d rather not rent it those few times, I may decide to go with the cheapest option available. Knowing full well that I could pay a bit more and have it last twice as long.. But considering I’m unlikely to ever exceed it’s usable life during my ownership, that doesn’t bother me.

    If it’s something I know I’m going to get a lot of use out of, then I think quite differently and that’s when I shoot for the price/quality line. Because I know I’ll make good use of it, and it’s worth it to me to have something with a few more features potentially, and better qualities (lighter, lasts longer, easier to use, more reliable, etc.)

  6. Jerry says:

    Most mentioned how often a tool would be used. This is really a critical point in my choices. I find that I can get as many years of life with a cheap tool that I don’t use a lot as I get with an expensive tool that I use very regularly. If you don’t use it very often it’s easy to ignore the weight, comfort, noise, etc. of the lower cost option.

  7. LB says:

    And it is for this exact reason why I find myself in Harbor Freight Tools more often than Sears lately. The cheap orange painted bench grinder still turns, and the $15 corded drill still spins, granted it’s seldom used compared to the Porter Cable cordless.

  8. Mike47 says:

    I tend to zero in on a quality/feature target combination, then shop the hell out of internet sources to get my best price point. This blog has helped that process succeed for me many times. Another thing I have learned along the tool-shopping path is the hidden value in “reconditioned” or “refurbished” tools. Unlike first-sale products that are usually random-sampled for quality checks, the refurbs each get an individual thorough testing and inspection along with a factory warranty. The cost of a refurb is typically much lower than brand-new. I have a shop with lots of refurbs, and for me, they are a great bargain.

  9. ambush27 says:

    I’ve found cheap power tools to be very unreliable. I would no longer consider a power tool that is not from a reputable brand. As far as dishwashers go you can get a decent washer for free. A lot of people replace them just because they’re not stainless steel.

  10. rg says:

    Does a Rolex watch keep $5000 worth of time better than a Timex? Of course not.

    When I consider the difference in prices between cheap things and expensive ones, I try to ask myself, “I can buy this house-brand angle grinder for $20 on sale, with a 3-year warranty, or I can buy a similar Bosch angle grinder for $90, same specs and warranty. Is the $90 one four and a half times as good?”

    Usually the answer is, “no”. (Besides, I can buy four cheap grinders for the same price, if I wanted to have “backups”!).

    My experience has been that cheap goods are almost never as bad as they’re made out to be, and expensive ones are seldom as good as you expect.

    • Stan says:

      My Unisaw is definitely 10x better than the $200 I had. I have never regretted spending that much on one tool.

      • rg says:

        I don’t doubt that it is better, and if you’re satisfied, then that’s all that counts.

        I’m not saying my theory applies in 100% of cases, just that I’ve found it to be *generally* true — not universaly true.

    • Ambush27 says:

      Really? My $20 store brand grinder stripped out its gears after 1.5 years of very light use. The makita i paid $50 for years earlier and have used more is still working like new. I just bought my bosch for $45 and although i haven’t had it long enough to know i have little doubt it will last me a very long time.

  11. Pruitt says:

    Its a great consideration–that price/quality point–so long as ego doesn’t tip the balance.

    I recently had to replace my 14 year old chainsaw I bought when I lived in Tennessee. I knew I wanted a Stihl, but I also knew I now live in a Dallas suburb and needed to recognize that the “occasional use” line was my right option. I wanted the moderate line, but I swallowed some pride and bought a 32cc that is all I’ll need unless I actually leave the suburbs. It’s unlikely. I’m coming to terms with my little Stihl. Don’t call it cute.

    And the 12v DeWalt line I bought at Christmas is perfect. For a suburban homeowner who hung up his hammer for an indoor job over a decade ago. Maybe not as fulfilling, but it leaves money to buy braces for the kids.

  12. Gary Z says:

    I sell tools, and the one thing I tell folks is to consider how often you are going to use a tool and what is the application. I’ll use table saws as my example. For most of my customers a Jet table saw is a perfect choice versus buying a Powermatic or Laguna. Why pay the extra cash for the name or power you won’t need. I do try to steer them away from the small cheap table saws from HD because if it breaks parts are hard to find and they just aren’t as accurate without a lot of screwing around. Also size matters. The cheap HD saws are usually smaller and less powerful making it harder and sometimes unsafe to make certain cuts. I also believe in buying quality and only buying once. All of my major tools are at least 15 years old and work great.
    Chuck, as for the dishwasher or any other appliance, I always check Lowes or Home Depot and look for discontinued or scratch/dented models. You can save big bucks and get an upgraded model.

  13. pww says:

    As for the dishwasher, more than likely the problem is that dish soap no longer contains phosphates.

  14. ShopMonger says:

    RG sorry to disagree but watches are a bad example, because in many cases the expensive ones do keep better time, but your premise is right on… There are many times i see tools that are way more expensive than they need to be based on their branding, I will pick on a couple of them Dewalt and Festool. I am in no way bashing their quality, nor their functionality. I am pointing out that often there is option from other brands that will do the same job, and even sometimes, with the same accuracy for a smaller cost. Just as a note: before every freaks out, I use and own several dewalt tools and am looking at getting a festool tool soon. But, I try to be as Chuck says “color Blind” when it comes to tools, I don’t look at brands, I look at features, and quality, and feel…there is nothing worse than getting the “best tool” and then putting it in your hands and it just feels wrong, fro example the ps40 is a great impact driver, but it feels wrong in my hands, so i got the Dewalt because it feels better to me…..

    ShopMonger

  15. Randy says:

    I agree with the author when it comes to small power tools and appliances but there is one that I decided to go big one I wish I had gone bigger. When it was time to replace my table saw, I bought the second-largest table saw Sears sold at the time. I have a garage, it was not going to be moved and it has worked very well in the past few years. My compound mitre saw is where I wish I had gone bigger. For power drills, sanders and all that, I’m squarely in the middle of the road.

  16. A.Crush says:

    I’ve bought a lot of Skil tools, partly because they are designed/made by the Bosch Group, just branded as Skil. the 1-2 year warranty works well and takes care of any defects that might crop up. I also try to buy only on clearance or Black Friday sales so I have a quality product at a crazy good price. That’s the best way of doing it for me. I’m cheap, but only cheap enough to buy decent tools for cheap, not cheap enough to buy Harbor Fright (yes, Fright) power tools.

    I had a new, cheap angle grinder burn up within minutes of using it. It smoked and caught fire. That was my last experience with cheap power tools.

    I’ll buy Bosch stuff when it’s super cheap and too good of a deal to pass up, but otherwise, sticking with the consumer-grade stuff at discout prices is where I find the sweet spot to be at, for an individual.

  17. PutnamEco says:

    With dishwasher there is little comparison when comparing commercial to consumer machines. Commercial dishwashers are heavy duty, meant to last through years of heavy use, and generally are easy to repair, with replacement parts easy to come by and available for a long time. Consumer dishwashers would die a quick death were they exposed to commercial use. A commercial dishwasher will last a lifetime of what a homeowner will expose it to.

    Power tools, on the other hand, would seem to me to have been compromised to be marketable to a wider audience. No longer do I see a clear demarcation between commercial tools and homeowner/DIY tools. I could understand why the manufacturers do this to maximize their profits while cutting their expenses. I do feel however that the professional tool users suffers due to this. The tool offerings available today, in my opinion, are made just durable enough so the contractors don’t rebel at how quickly they wear out, while they are engineered down to a price were the DIY crowd will also considers them to be affordable.
    I think that many manufacturers are trying to hold their price line when it comes to inflation as well. Engineering their tools to be manufactured cheaper as the years go by. Most often “new and improved” means made cheaper and does not work as well as the original.
    It is most often the simplest tools that do the best jobs. How many “features” do you really need in a tool like a circular saw? Many features rarely improve the useability over a basic tool.

    • fred says:

      Amen

      Hard to find US-market tools that are of the same quaility/longevity/serviceablity of some of the older commercial (I’m thinking about some of our PC sanders and Porta-Planes that are still very much use) tools. As far as circular saw features – the electronic brake on my Super Sawcat – was handy when plunge cutting.

  18. Jim says:

    I’m not sure what the best term is, but I’ll refer to it as “frustration factor” and in my own experience that sometimes really trumps the other variables. I’m a diyer and weekend tool user with a generous but not unlimited discretionary budget. The tools are used to work on and improve our house. I have a range of tools from ryobi cordless with an upgrade to Li-Ion batteries (big diff), to a makita benchsaw, to a bosch sliding (before the cool one came out), and one Festool track saw. I thought Festool was ridiculous and crazily priced but it’s in a totally different league from the straight edge and porter cable circular saw that I used to use for cutting sheet goods and straightening boards. In my case, as part time user, the right tool reduces frustration and setup time. It’s not dollars in my pocket but it’s time saved and more fun when I work with them. Someday I’ll probably get around to getting a real tablesaw and say, “Why did I wait so long.” Bottomline, in my case certain tools are just game changers in how they are to work with.

    • rg says:

      I see there’s a wide range of experiences here.

      Sure, I concede I’ve had some cheapo items which didn’t work out very well, and I wished I’d spent more on better quality. But on the up-side, it was usually a very inexpensive, or even free lesson, given the liberal return policies of the stores I bought them at.

      So in the end, all it cost me was a bit of time or frustration, which I was prepared for, given the low purchase price.

      In the end, I’d say spend more money on better quality and features for tools which are “mission critical” and that you’ll be using a lot, and less on occasional or 1-shot use items.

      If you haven’t spent $1500 on that zircon-encrusted eavestrough laser alignment tool (with built-in WIFI), then that’s money you can still spend on a Dewalt cordless drill, or a decent bench vise (the Chinese ones are cast hollow steel), or tools that YOU use a lot.

      That’s the problem with money: you only get to spend it once.

  19. sander says:

    I’m strictly a hobbyist woodworker and general handyman. The tools I use the most are an 18V drill and a corded circ saw, mostly for cutting sheet stock. I originally had hosue-brand cordless drill and circ saw, but they wore out after regular use. I upgrade to a DeWalt cordless drill and a corded circular saw and am very satisfied with their performance, longevity and quality.

    The same applies for plumbing and painting tools. I found the MasterCraft line at Canadian Tire to be not up to my needs. I picked up a Benzomatic torch because I know it will light up every time.

    I’m willing to cheap out on tools that I don’t use a lot. Tools that I don’t use a lot include an impact driver, a recip saw, a jigsaw, and a rotary tool. In these cases I’ve been satisfied with using the house brand. I either purshased them for a particular job use them infrequently. If they quit during a job, it’s no DIY disaster.

  20. NipSip says:

    Look folks, HF is cheap Chinese crap and we all know it. There’s nothing wrong with that so long as it you take in stride.

    Put differently…cough up for the replacement plan. You will not regret it!…and it is still far cheaper than brand name.

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