How To Find Affordable Lumber

Most DIYers suffered severe sticker shock at lumber prices during the pandemic. Here are six tips to help you find affordable lumber.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone from DIYers to construction pros grappled with the unexpected skyrocketing price of lumber. Average lumber prices rose about 600 percent between April 2020 and May 2021.

A perfect storm of bad luck and poor timing created this problem. Demand in 2020 far outpaced supply as home-bound homeowners chose to make home improvements while historically low mortgage rates drove new home construction. With mills and lumber yards shut down early in the pandemic, the industry struggled to keep up with these demands.

Throw in a surge in the mountain pine beetle population that resulted in the loss of enough lumber to build more than 9 million homes, and it’s no wonder prices spiked!

Luckily, the lumber market recently settled down. Wholesale lumber prices have fallen steadily since their May 2021 peak, finally returning to their traditional range. But that price correction hasn’t yet hit retail customers. And with uncertainty over the Delta variant on the horizon, it’s impossible to predict how the market will go.

If you’re feeling the lumber price pinch, here are six tips to help you find discount lumber no matter what the future holds.

Shop Selectively

Most DIYers buy wood from independent lumber yards, big box home improvement centers and neighborhood hardware stores. Deciding where to shop means balancing convenience with cost.

Neighborhood stores almost always offer the highest prices. They simply don’t have the floor space to keep much wood in stock, and what they do have must be priced high to justify the space and labor needed to handle it. Unless you’re in a huge time crunch, you’re much better off going to a big box store or a lumber yard.

When it comes to cheap lumber, The Home Depot generally has a slight edge over Lowe’s. But not always! Store prices vary daily; one location may have a better price on 1x6s, while the other might have the edge in 1x4s.

Consider regional home improvement centers as well. While Menards’ daily price on lumber is usually higher than Lowe’s or The Home Depot, their frequent 11-percent rebate sales can make them competitive with any other retailer.

Lumber yards will frequently sell the most affordable lumber, but they may not be as conveniently located as the big home improvement centers. Also, there’s no single place to check all independent lumber yards’ pricing. You’ll have to contact them to find out their prices and decide whether it’s the best option for your particular project. But independent yards generally provide better customer service.

Create an Account

Most hardware stores or lumber yards will allow you to create a cash account. These aren’t credit lines, and will still require you to pay at the time of purchase, but they do come with a discount on purchases.

Big home improvement centers also have accounts, which are frequently handled at the “Pro Desk,” although you generally don’t need to be a licensed professional to open an account. Ask at your local store for details about their program.

There are two main advantages to this kind of account. First, there’s that discount. While it may not seem like huge savings, every little bit adds up over time. Second, the salespeople at that location will associate a name with your face, and that can have surprising benefits.

Cheerful lumber yard employee assists female customerSDI Productions/Getty Images

Get to Know Your Counter Salesperson

A home improvement store will have employees who stock wood, and sometimes you’ll find someone who oversees the lumber section. But the Pro Desk or lumberyard will have dedicated counter salespeople (often called “inside sales”).

If you explain your project to your salesperson, they can help you find the most affordable options. As you become a regular customer, that salesperson will get to know what you’re looking for. They might tip you off to an upcoming sale, help you out with some discount lumber prices, or guide your shopping with strategic material selection.

Strategic Material Selection

Take the time to think through your project and select material that will work without breaking the bank. Do you really need 3/4-inch plywood, or will 1/2-inch do the job? If you’re painting over 1×4 pine boards, they can be finger jointed rather than solid. You may even be able to use PVC trim and avoid wood altogether.

Of course, if you’re a woodworker and building a chest that you hope will be passed on as a family heirloom, then you can’t do this kind of quick swap solution. But by being strategic in your choices, you can save money without sacrificing essential quality.

Used/Reclaimed Lumber

You may have seen more lumber for sale on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. The quality of this lumber is all over the place. If you thought the bins at Lowe’s and The Home Depot could look picked over, they can seem like heaven compared to some of the messes we’ve seen in people’s garages!

And yet, there are some amazing deals on lumber out there. It’s just a roll of the dice — no different than any other purchase on one of these sites.

You can also reach out to a lumber yard or an employee of a remodeling or construction company. These companies generate a huge amount of waste lumber, and are sometimes willing to sell it or even give it away. The downside is, you’ll have to accept whatever they offer. Their whole motivation is getting it off the lot, and they won’t be interested in you cherry picking the best and leaving them with a pile of scrap.

Mill Your Own Boards

This is an especially useful tip if you’ll be picking over used or reclaimed economy lumber. Considering that budget boards often come with some defects. If you can reface damaged or dinged-up lumber, that can be a game changer.

If you use a significant amount of lumber, having a planer or jointer and band saw will let you give those rough boards new life. Combine this tactic with scouring sales sites and bargain-hunting, and you can keep your lumber costs well under control.

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Dan Stout
Dan Stout is a freelance writer and author based in Columbus, Ohio. Dan's non-fiction has appeared on numerous sites and in print, while his prize-winning fiction has been featured in publications such as Nature and The Saturday Evening Post. He is the author of The Carter Archives series of noir fantasy thrillers from DAW Books.