Is lumber the new gold? No, but lumber’s price increase has some homeowners feeling the pinch. According to Nasdaq data, between March 2020 and May 2021, lumber prices more than quintupled. That increased the cost to build an average single-family home by about $36,000 over the same period, according to an analysis by the National Association of Home Builders.
Skyrocketing lumber prices don’t just affect buyers of new-construction homes. They increase costs for major home improvement projects like additions, basement and attic refinishing, deck and fence construction, and roofing repairs or reroofing. And they hit hobbyists’ wallets too, pushing up material costs for projects like raised garden beds and furniture.
Fortunately, there are ways the lumber-seeking public can trim the cost of wood.
Tips & Strategies to Save Money on Lumber
Some of these strategies for saving money on wood reduce the cost of buying lumber for home improvement projects — whether it’s a major job like putting on a new roof or a smaller job like adding built-in storage. Others can control the cost of hobbies like gardening and woodworking.
1. Shop at Reuse Centers or Salvage Stores
Reuse centers and salvage stores have different product focuses. Reuse centers, like Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore outlets, sell a mix of new and gently used construction materials and finishes, including lumber products like plywood, two-by-fours, and trim. Salvage stores focus more on high-end or distinctive finished products that have seen gentle use, like hand-carved furniture and custom door frames.
But both types of outlets offer incredible values.
Nonprofit reuse centers benefit from steady streams of material donated by building contractors interested in the charitable tax deduction their leftover supplies can land them.
Salvage centers purchase or accept donated goods from demolition contractors, estate sellers, and the general public. They sell them in as-is condition — often for far less than comparable refurbished inventory you can find at an antique store.
2. Look for Reclaimed Wood or Spare Lumber Online
You can buy just about anything online these days, and lumber products are no exception. Start by searching your local Craigslist for “lumber” or a more specific term related to the type of wood product you need for your project, such as “2x4s,” “4x4s,” “doors,” or “wood trim.”
Carefully review listing photos to make sure the product is as described and of acceptable quality. Also ensure you understand the product pricing. Prices like “$1” probably mean the price per linear foot or piece than for the entire lot. It’s also common for listing thumbnails to display the price as free or omit pricing, even when the seller expects payment. If anything in the listing is unclear, contact the seller for clarification.
And be on guard for online marketplace scams. If you have the option, deal with reputable sellers like lumberyards and building contractors — both of which frequently use sites like Craigslist and eBay to offload lower-value lumber they can’t use right away. Unlike some unknown individual, they have a reputation to protect.
3. Source Directly From Demolition Sites (Legally)
“Legally” is the key word here. Regardless of its condition, a gutted house is still private property. You can’t just walk out with as many floorboards as you can carry.
Instead, contact the owner or demolition contractor and ask if they’re willing to part with salvaged wood. If you have time to look for suitable properties or know of one in your neighborhood, you can visit in person when workers are there and ask to speak to the owner or person in charge of the job. Worst-case scenario, they’ll tell you to get lost.
If you find someone willing to sell you extra lumber, be prepared to seal the deal immediately — and to pay cash. Contractors can take tax deductions on salvaged wood donations, so you have to make it worth their while. There’s a chance they’ll part with low-quality lumber they can’t sell or donate if you haul it off yourself. But don’t bank on it.
But don’t devote too much time to this strategy. Much of the spare and salvaged lumber on online marketplaces comes from renovated houses or building contractor inventories. Personally pounding the pavement can pay off, but searching online is typically more efficient.
4. Buy Spare Wood From High-Volume Users
If you need higher-quality lumber for woodworking or high-end carpentry, look to high-volume users like custom cabinetmakers and furniture-makers. These artisans produce lots of leftover wood — often in odd shapes and lengths but still potentially useful for DIY woodworkers willing to work with what they have.
5. Check the Used Wood Section of Your Local Big-Box Home Improvement Store
“Reclaimed” doesn’t always mean “affordable.” If it’s processed to the point of once again being a useful material for interior walls, flooring, or doors, it’s often more expensive than comparable new products.
But you should still check the used or reclaimed wood section of your local Home Depot and Lowes (or their websites). Reclaimed wood is particularly useful for projects you’re willing to spend a bit more on, like accent walls, custom doors, or custom furniture. And it’s likely cheaper at a big-box store than an antique store or home decor showroom.
6. Compare Lumberyard and Big-Box Store Pricing
It’s tempting to assume big-box home improvement stores always have the best prices. And they often do, especially compared to independently owned and operated hardware stores.
But lumber is a different animal. Even independently owned and operated lumberyards frequently have bigger inventories and better pricing than places like Home Depot and Lowe’s.
The difference is often starkest for rougher cuts. Recently, I was pleasantly surprised to find a small lumberyard in my neighborhood selling unfinished cedar two-by-fours and two-by-sixes — just what I needed to build two rough-and-ready raised garden beds — for about 30% less than the local Home Depot.
The lumberyard also had reclaimed railroad ties priced comparably to some I’d seen on Craigslist earlier that week. The big-boxes didn’t stock those at all.
7. Negotiate Future Pricing With Contractors
Read the fine print on a building contractor’s written estimate. The quoted price has an expiration date, often 30 days from the date of the estimate.
In normal times, when pricing for materials doesn’t fluctuate much, the contractor might not enforce that expiration date. They’ll honor the estimate months down the road. But in this more volatile lumber market, expect a price increase if you take your time making the decision. And don’t be surprised if the final project cost is a little higher than the estimate if lumber prices increase after the quote.
To protect yourself from future price increases for lumber (and other building materials), build fixed materials pricing into the first estimate by negotiating a clause that the contractor’s quoted price for materials won’t change once you accept the estimate.
The contractor is under no obligation to agree to that. But they might be open to the arrangement if there’s a chance lumber prices could fall between the estimate date and the date they buy the supplies for the job. It’s a real-world example of the risk-benefit calculation that plays out every day on commodities futures markets.
8. Work With Contractors Who Allow You to Supply Your Own Materials
A more efficient and reliable way to control lumber costs for larger projects you can’t or don’t want to take on yourself is to supply your own materials.
This strategy isn’t foolproof. Busy contractors often get volume or large-account discounts on materials like lumber, then mark up the price to roughly what the consumer would pay at a home improvement store.
But that markup is generally a flat percentage, essentially the profit margin the contractor is aiming for on the materials side. And contractors without ample storage often buy their materials as they need them, exposing clients to price increases. The sooner you purchase your own materials, the likelier you are to avoid paying more than expected in an inflationary environment.
9. Buy the Lowest Acceptable Grade or Type for Your Project
You don’t always need the best wood money can buy. Lumber quality or appearance (or both) isn’t crucial if you’re doing low-finish DIY woodworking or nonstructural outdoor builds.
If you’re buying from a lumberyard, compare pricing for quartersawn, rift-sawn, and flat-sawn wood. Quartersawn wood is more desirable. So it’s often more expensive than the same species and type of rift-sawn or flat-sawn wood.
If you’re looking for softwood lumber, which is more common in outdoor and structural applications, understand the difference between “common” and “appearance” softwood and how they grade each type.
Common softwood lumber grades range from 1 (attractive, easily finished lumber suitable for visible finished uses like shelving and paneling) to 5 (commodity wood with lots of visible defects suitable for hidden uses like sheathing and subflooring).
Lumber grades for appearance softwood lumber, which builders typically use in furniture and top flooring, range from A (no visible defects) to 2 (modest-size knots). Letter grades are for select wood, which is more attractive than common wood, which gets numerical grades.
If you’re looking for hardwood lumber, which is more common in woodworking and finished carpentry applications, you must keep track of a third set of grades. These grades are less subjective and refer to the minimum yield (amount of usable material) on one face. They range from “first and seconds” (FAS), with at least 83 1/3% yield, to #2A common, with at least 50% yield.
Industrial supplier network Thomas has much more detail on hardwood and softwood lumber grades and uses.
Species is also an important consideration. For example, poplar is a common hardwood for doors and trims because it’s relatively inexpensive — cheaper than maple and cherry, two other popular hardwoods — and takes stain well, allowing woodworkers to mimic more expensive finishes at a fraction of the cost.
10. Buy Odd Lengths (Shortboards) Where Feasible
If your project permits, look for shortboards — boards sawn shorter than the typical 6 or 8 feet — in your desired dimension. Lumberyards often have excess inventories of shortboards in common dimensions, such as two-by-fours, two-by-sixes, and four-by-fours.
Because they require more work to install and you can’t use them in structural applications, shortboards aren’t as sought-after as regular-length boards. Accordingly, they frequently sell at a significant discount.
11. Buy Directly From a Lumber Distributor or Wholesaler
Lumberyards and big-box stores don’t process raw lumber themselves. They might not even deal directly with the sawmills, processors, or millwork shops that do. They often rely on lumber distributors that either source directly from vendors that turn raw timber into ready-to-sell wood products or handle it in-house.
Many distributors sell to the general public. And some distributors, like Southern California’s Cherokee Wood Products, have in-house millwork shops that can fill orders for carved wood projects like custom molding. Use the Hardwood Distributor’s Association to find lumber distributors in your area, then check their websites or call to determine whether they sell directly to consumers.
Buying directly from a distributor won’t always save you money. You’ll still need to compare their pricing to the pricing at lumberyards and big home improvement stores, which sometimes sell lumber at a loss.
12. Jump on Sale Pricing for Finished Wood Products
If you’re in the market for finished wood products like flooring, trim, or doors, keep a close watch on local wholesalers and big-box retailers. Two or three times per year, they run clearance sales on these products, slashing prices by 10% to 20% or more for a week or two at a time. As long as you have a place to store your wood until your project begins, it’s an easy way to trim costs without going to great lengths.
13. Seek Out Volume Discounts
Familiarize yourself with minimum price thresholds for bulk-buying (volume) discounts at local home improvement retailers, lumberyards, and wholesalers.
They don’t usually advertise these thresholds publicly — though Home Depot makes no secret of its $1,500 volume discount minimum — but sales associates will often share the information when asked.
You may need to create an account or join a membership program to participate (Home Depot’s Pro Xtra program is free and open to consumers). This strategy only makes sense for bigger DIY projects — decks, fences, or home additions — or ongoing hobby activities.
14. Have a Plan for Leftover Lumber (or Plan Multiple Projects at Once)
Even well-planned woodworking and home improvement projects produce waste or leftover lumber. It’s better to buy too much than have to return to the store or schedule a second delivery midway through work.
If you’re a woodworking hobbyist, you have to tolerate a certain amount of wasted wood — odd-shaped ends and pieces you can’t reuse. But because you always have another woodworking project on deck, you can reliably reuse whole boards or lengths.
Reuse is a bit trickier for occasional DIYers. Not long ago, I destroyed three perfectly good leftover 8-foot two-by-fours after a few months of glaring at them every time I opened the garage. I failed to realize I could use them for an upcoming DIY project.
My mistake wasn’t particularly costly — about $10. But it was a real-world lesson in why planning pays, especially in an inflationary environment. The replacement two-by-fours cost twice as much as the originals, a hike I’d have avoided with better planning.
As you think ahead to future projects, use a lumber calculator to estimate what you’ll need and when. HomeAdvisor has a good one.
15. Price Out Cost-Effective Lumber Alternatives
If your project permits, do your due diligence on alternatives to traditional wood and lumber.
Vinyl siding is incrementally less expensive than wood siding, for example. Installed vinyl siding costs as little as $3 per square foot, according to HomeAdvisor. Compare that with Modernize’s estimate of $6.50 to $12 per square foot for traditional wood siding. Because you don’t have to repaint it, vinyl siding is also low maintenance.
Bamboo flooring is another easy way to save. Installed bamboo flooring costs 30% to 50% less than traditional hardwood, according to Floor Critics. To the untrained eye, bamboo looks like traditional hardwood, so most of your guests won’t know the difference.
16. Repurpose Wood Pallets
Although their intrinsic value has increased along with other lumber products, pallets remain plentiful. And depending on where you find them, they might not cost you anything out of pocket. Packaging Revolution advises DIYers to look for used pallets at bars and breweries, liquor stores, small retailers like pet stores, and even schools.
Pallets are versatile and easy to repurpose or upcycle into no-frills furnishings or storage structures like shelving, patio furniture, and garden beds. Homedit has dozens of pallet project ideas that would likely cost more with new lumber.
17. Use Cash Back Websites or Plugins to Shop for Lumber
Use cash back websites or browser plugins to reduce your final lumber costs. TopCashback and BeFrugal both up to 5% cash back on eligible Home Depot purchases, for example, and TopCashback pays up to 2% back on eligible Lowe’s purchases (though just 1% on lumber). Be sure to read the fine print on these offers before you shop, noting any restrictions or exclusions that could interfere with your plans.
These tips and tricks can reduce the lumber cost of your next home improvement job or DIY project. With lumber prices higher than they’ve been in recent memory, you’ll be glad you took advantage of them.
These cost-cutting strategies can’t work miracles, though. They can’t protect you from planning mistakes that lead to budget-busting cost overruns or prevent you from pursuing ill-conceived projects that may decrease your home’s resale value.
Avoiding those undesirable outcomes requires a different set of skills than simply finding better lumber deals. Fortunately, these are the same skills that will serve you well once you’ve purchased your lumber and gotten down to business: patience, thorough planning, attention to detail, and the all-important knack for measuring twice and cutting once.