The 15 tools every homeowner should own (© Phil Boorman/Photodisc Red)


If you don't have a handyman in your family and don't have a clue where to begin when it comes to assembling a proper home-repair tool kit, there's good news: For $200, you can buy 90% of all the tools you'll ever need to repair and maintain your home. (Bing: Find more great ideas for Father's Day gifts)

Good tools purchased early in life can be a smart investment, says David Tenenbaum, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Home Repair and Maintenance."

"You can spend a little money on a tool or two with each job," he says. "That way, you gather the tools you'll need slowly and less painfully."

Of course, the sooner you purchase the basics, the longer you'll use them, hence the more cost-effective they become. The key is to buy only good tools from reputable, name-brand manufacturers.

"Quality matters," says Tenenbaum. "Good tools work and bad tools don't. It's basically as simple as that."

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Not just for men
And women, listen up: Having the right tool at the right time is equally important for you. Deb Zarek, co-owner of Mr. Handyman home services in Austin, Texas, assembled her own tool kit while living as a single adult.

"I think most women are really intimidated by power tools," she says. "They just don't know what to do with them or how they're supposed to work. That whole power thing is kind of scary."

That said, Zarek insists that sometimes a "handywoman" beats any available handyman when it comes to home repair.

"I think women are more aware of their surroundings and take a little bit more care to not damage things," she says. 

What's your home worth?

Some essentials, some nice-to-haves
The secret to a great tool kit? Selection. Of the thousands of tools available at your local hardware store, it takes only about a dozen to tackle most home-repair jobs, and only one of them plugs in.

Here are the tools our experts suggest as absolute musts for a lifetime of home improvements and repair. The first 15 items make up the absolute basics for a serviceable tool kit to last a lifetime — all for just under $200. That said, your handyman life can be made much easier with a few additions. Buy the last half-dozen items as needed.

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All prices reflect the least-expensive, good-quality products available at major home-improvement stores.

THE ESSENTIALS
1. Toolbox: $30

Let's start with something to fill, shall we? A good, usable toolbox can save as much time on a job as having the right tools inside. "A lot of people don't get one and their stuff is all over the place and it takes them a half-hour of frustration to get what they need for even the simplest job," says Tenenbaum. He prefers a soft canvas bag with lots of pockets that drapes over a five-gallon bucket. Rubber-bottom soft bags are a slightly heavier alternative.

2. Hammer: $15
Zarek prefers a steel-shaft version with a vibration-dampening rubber grip. Tenenbaum suggests a 16-ounce steel- or fiberglass-shaft hammer with a smooth (not checkered) head to avoid unnecessary marring. Choose a model with a straight or "rip" claw, not a curved claw; they're much more useful for demolition. "And sandpaper the face of the hammer once in a while so nails don't slip off," Tenenbaum adds.

3. Pry bar: $15
"A 12- to 15-inch pry bar is incredibly handy," says Tenenbaum. "There is one made of hexagonal steel that is infinitely superior to ones that are made of spring steel, which tend to bounce when you hammer them."

4. Vise grips: $10
Also known as locking pliers, vise-grips are the pit bull in your toolbox: Simply adjust the screw drive in the handle and clamp it on to anything that needs viselike stabilizing, typically metal or PVC pipes. When you're done, the lever in the opposite handle releases the jaws. Channel-lock pliers are a good second choice.

5. Needle-nose pliers: $8
The long, tapering, forged head that gives needle-nose pliers their name is particularly useful in electrical work where spaces can get tight. Get a pair with a wire-cutting blade near the hinge.

6. Screwdrivers (mixed set): $20
You'll save money and get the most use out of a good-quality mixed set that includes 1/4- and 3/8-inch flat heads and No. 1 and No. 2 Phillips head drivers. Magnetic heads come in handy, too. Tenenbaum advises against cordless electric screwdrivers; instead, he uses screwdriver bits with his corded electric drill, which provides more torque and never needs recharging.

7. Wire cutter/stripper: $10
Tenenbaum regrets the years he spent without this handy plierlike tool that scores and strips the casing off varying gauges of wires to speed electrical jobs. "I tried to strip wires with diagonal pliers for years, and it's so easy with wire strippers," he admits. "I don't know what I was thinking."

8. Tape measure (16-foot): $4
You'll thank yourself for getting a good-quality, easy-locking, 3/4-inch-wide model. The half-inchers just don't stay in place when extended; the one-inchers are overkill.

9. Electrical tester: $2
Forget the fancy gadgets with dials and displays: You only need the cheapie with two probes and a light to indicate that an electrical current is present. "Remember to test it in a working outlet each time before you use it to make sure it's still working," Tenenbaum warns. "Remember: If it's dead, you're dead."

10. Reversible drill with bit set: $40
This 3/8th-inch reversible drill is the only electrical tool that you absolutely, positively have to have. Although stores are filled with cordless varieties, stick with a corded model: They're lighter, cheaper and never run out of juice.

11. 1/2-inch steel chisel: $10
One of the most ancient tools is also essential as well. When you need a chisel (and you will), there's really no acceptable substitute. And forget the plastic- and wooden-handled varieties. "The expectation that you're going to go and find a mallet to hit your chisel is just ridiculous," says Tenenbaum. "You're going to reach for a hammer."

12. Utility knife: $4
Having a utility knife with replaceable blades comes in awfully handy, and again, when you need one there's really no substitute.

13. Handsaw: $15
If you invest in a circular saw, you may find few situations in which you'll need a handsaw. But Zarek says many power-averse folks will feel more comfortable with a short handsaw. A good choice is the 12-inch FatMax by Stanley; it's lighter and cuts straighter and faster than traditional handsaws.

14. 9-inch torpedo level: $9
These palm-size levels with the bubble that floats to center are essential to leveling everything from picture frames to kitchen cabinets. If you need to level something long, simply add a board to the level. And don't be tempted by the various laser levels on the market. "I was given one and I've never used it at all," says Tenenbaum. "I don't understand it. Bubbles are incredibly accurate."

15. Safety glasses: $6
There simply is no substitute for effective eye protection.

6 NICE-TO-HAVES
1. 7-1/4-inch circular saw: $80

Once your projects grow beyond a certain scale to include things like decks and fences, you won't hesitate to invest in a circular saw, which speeds up any project involving numerous cuts. This is also one of the most dangerous tools to own. Take extra care to keep kids and pets well away from your work site when operating a circular saw, never cut on an uneven or unstable surface, use protective eyewear and ALWAYS unplug the saw when not in use.

2. Electronic stud finder: $10
Looking for the studs behind your walls to support shelves or other fixtures? This electronic device will locate them for you quickly and accurately.

3. Carpenter's square: $6
Despite its name, a carpenter's square isn't square at all, but rather triangular in sort of a gun shape. It enables you to cut squarely when you use it to measure and mark a straight line at a right (90-degree) angle from any straight edge.

4. Random orbital sander: $55
At some point, you'll likely need to remove a finish or sand smooth a large surface (table, cabinet, etc.). This is just the tool. Its random motion sands evenly from rough to smooth with optimal control.

5. Staple gun: $17
A staple gun comes in handy for a variety of home projects that require fast tacking, such as upholstering.

6. Clamps: $2-$40
Tenenbaum admits clamps are as useful as they are problematic. "They all have different uses: Some of them are fast, some of them are strong, some of them are heavy, some of them are too long except when you need that length," he says. "But clamps are really handy because you can clamp something down while you work on it or glue it or fasten it. They're also good for personal safety when you're trying to cut something that's wandering all over the place."