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April 23, 2009, 7:16 p.m. EDT

If I Had a Jackhammer ...

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By Gwendolyn Bounds

Melody Raker recently rented a power washer to remove grime from her home's exterior and a dirt tamper to build a retaining wall next to her driveway. Her husband, a vending-machine repairman, has tried his hand at running a rental loader for moving dirt and rocks to build the couple a backyard pond.

"We're doing everything ourselves now," says Ms. Raker, a 56-year-old mother of five in Cincinnati. "We feel the pinch because they keep downsizing [my husband's] company and there are no raises or anything. You have to be a go-getter, and you have to figure it out."

Call it the new home economics. With more consumers looking for ways to trim household expenses, a growing number of people are dialing back their use of professional yard- and home-improvement services and renting or buying equipment to attempt more complex jobs solo. From log splitters and floor sanders to garden tillers, power washers and even small excavators, retailers and manufacturers report newfound interest and revenue growth coming from the do-it-yourself set.

Cincy Tool Rental Inc., a four-store Cincinnati-based chain that services many homeowners, says tool rentals are up 6% so far in 2009, including everything from a manual post-hole digger ($7 a day) to a Caterpillar loader ($200 a day). Sunbelt Rentals, a national tool rental chain that also operates within Lowe's /zigman2/quotes/205563664/composite LOW +3.14% Cos. stores, says it saw a 47% rise in March from a month earlier in online tool reservations. Such traffic "skews to the homeowner or do-it-yourself side," says Nathaniel Brookhouse, director of sales support and marketing for Sunbelt, a unit of Ashtead Group /zigman2/quotes/200232063/delayed UK:AHT +1.05% PLC.

At Home Depot /zigman2/quotes/208081807/composite HD +3.16% Inc.'s tool-rental division, revenue from log splitters alone rose 22% in the first three months of this year from a year earlier. The giant retailer says it also is seeing significant early-season strength in rentals of lawn and garden tools for aerating, seeding and dethatching, or removing dead material from lawns.

"Customers are saying they eliminated the landscapers and are doing it themselves," says Gary Lewis, Home Depot's product manager for tool rental.

To be sure, all these powerful tools can be a recipe for disaster for under-prepared first-time users. Despite her own DIY confidence, Ms. Raker of Cincinnati says the first time she tested a power washer on her driveway, "I about blew a hole in my blacktop."

Attempting a job yourself also could end up costing more in the end if you need to call in a professional to finish a botched job. For instance, DIY hardwood-floor refinishing is quite popular now, but can be a tricky job to get right, rental executives say. "I've heard many pros say they love when a novice tries things themselves because it ultimately just creates more work for them," says Home Depot's Mr. Lewis.

A Test of Wood-Splitting Tools
About the House

More Women Customers

While the do-it-yourself spirit often picks up when the economy is down, this time appears to be different. "People are starting to tackle things they haven't in the past," says John Karl, rental manager for Ace Hardware Corp., who notes a rise in customers trying everything from putting in new sidewalks to snaking out clogged drains. "The economy is a big factor of why."

Rental executives also say they are seeing more women as customers. "We've got more and more females coming in all the time. The equipment is real easy to operate. They are a big spender in the marketplace," says Chris Kelly, who runs the rental operations for Ace Hardware & Outdoor Center in Dixon, Ill.

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