Investor Alert

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

If I Had a Jackhammer ...

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 (NYS:LOW) 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 (LON:UK:AHT) PLC.

At Home Depot (NYS:HD) 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.

Some people who have lost their jobs have more time on their hands to take on big projects. Elizabeth Kelly of Wappingers Falls, N.Y., recently rented a heavy-duty rug-cleaning machine for $25 a day from Home Depot. Currently unemployed, Ms. Kelly had just evicted two tenants from a condo she owns and is currently living there now herself, in part to save money. She says the rugs were caked with dirt and vomit, but she didn't have funds to hire a professional cleaning service. "I'd never used [a rug cleaner] before...but it was easy to run," she says.

Easier-to-Use Machines

As the home-construction market struggles, overall tool rentals in North America have declined -- to $8.4 billion last year from $8.8 billion in 2007. But the do-it-yourself crowd is helping to offset the decline in demand from professionals, says Ken Hughes, vice president of communications for the American Rental Association, which represents equipment-rental companies. He notes a widespread trend of stores stocking smaller, easier-to-use machines that increasingly entice homeowners. "The machines have come down to meet the DIY level and the DIYers' confidence has come up to meet the equipment," says Mr. Hughes.

There are some signs that consumers' independent streak might last even after their financial fortunes turn around. For instance, manufacturers and retailers say sales of midprice to high-end home tools have been rising unexpectedly in many categories. Home Depot reports higher-than-normal sales of large tillers and tractors. And at MTD Products Inc. in Valley City, Ohio, sales of heavy-duty snowthrowers this winter rose almost 45%, while sales of gasoline-powered log splitters are up 5% to 10% so far this year; such purchases can cost $1,000 to $2,500 or more. Meanwhile, with U.S. consumers' appetite for vegetable gardening on the rise, and recent scares of salmonella outbreaks in certain foods, the market for garden cultivators has "exploded," says Jim Bednar, senior product marketing manager for MTD, which owns brands including Troy-Bilt, Cub Cadet and Yard Machines.

"What people are doing is investing," Mr. Bednar says. They are purchasing higher-end tools that they believe "will continue to help" recoup their overall losses after the economy recovers, he says.

Of all the hard-core tools finding their way into homeowners' hands, the most telling of the times is perhaps the wood splitter. Many consumers began turning to old-fashioned wood heat after last summer's rising fuel prices seemed to presage fierce winter heating bills. Shipments of wood stoves and fireplace inserts jumped 81% in 2008, according to the Hearth Patio & Barbecue Association. That triggered a run on firewood last summer and fall: Prices on a ready-to-burn cord of wood (about two full-size pickup truck loads) climbed to over $200 in many parts of the country and upward of $300 in high-demand spots like Maine.

Dennis Duda, a 65-year-old retired school psychologist, has been using a small splitting machine called the Mini Splitter to make firewood around his property in Phoenix, Md. The machine, made All American Log Splitters Inc., is powered either manually with a hand/foot pump or an air compressor. It's easy to use and doesn't take up much room in the garage, he says. "I see other people around and they wind up with these bills that are astronomical because they can't do anything themselves," he says.

Splitting Wood

Sales were up 35% in 2008 at logsplitter.com , making it the biggest year to date for the 10-year-old site. At Lowe's, receding fuel prices in recent months has done nothing to abate robust sales of splitters. And this year, sales of splitters are up 11% for Timberwolf Manufacturing Corp. in Rutland, Vt., which makes high-end models for homeowner and commercial use.

"If you are a person faced with a possible layoff, you aren't going to buy a boat, but you might buy a log splitter," says David Therrien, Timberwolf's chief executive.

Write to Gwendolyn Bounds at wendy.bounds@wsj.com

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