9 Essential Tools for Apartment-Dwellers (and 6 That Are Kinda Useless)

Bitch Nation, I have lovely news. My little brother just moved in with me!

He’s almost a full decade younger than me, and is graduating college a semester early. His final task before graduation is completing an internship, and it just so happens that he was accepted at one in my city. He’s crashing for the summer and filling the house with all sorts of dangerous new ideas. (Sports jerseys can be wall decor. WHO KNEW?)

Little brothers, man!

As my whole being pulsates with prideful big sister vibes, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it was like to be twenty-one and living in a big city for the first time. If I could go back ten years, there’s so much I would tell myself to spare me time, heartache, and money. So if you notice a certain nostalgia creeping into my upcoming posts, that’s probably why!

I got tons of advice when I moved into my first apartment. Some friend or family member gifted me with the tiny toolbox I called Baby’s First Toolbox. It was the size of a slim binder and probably cost them $20.

And that $20 box of tools has saved me thousands of dollars over the last decade.

In the spirit of learning from the past and embracing the skills you need for the future, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite and least favorite tools for beginners. These tools assume you’re not super handy (yet), and that you have a very limited amount of both space and money.

Every one of the tools on the first half of this list can be purchased for less than $10, and they’re among the most ubiquitous finds at garage sales. Ask your parents and grandparents if they have extras they would give to you—because I’ve learned that part of being an adult is magically acquiring one new screwdriver every two years???

I don’t know what’s up with that. It’s like the tooth fairy, but even lamer.

Super duper useful tools

#9. Needle Nose Pliers

I use these all the time, especially on small household items like jewelry, Christmas tree lights, upholstery hardware, etc. Get the kind that have little grippy bits. They’re the ultimate multi-purpose instrument to manipulate small objects in small spaces.

#8. Level

I used to think I didn’t need levels. “I’m a graphic designer,” I told myself, “I can tell whether a line is straight or not!”

"I'm confident it's straight."

… Friends? I definitely cannot tell whether a line is straight or not. Which likely means you can’t either. Levels will help you make sure your pictures are hanging correctly. They can also help you address problems with sloping floors or unlevel cooktops.

Free tip: when you move into a new apartment, test the level of the stovetop before you start cooking on it. If it isn’t level, your precious food is going to be burnt in some places and undercooked in others. But you can usually wedge a piece of scrap wood (aka a shim) or fabric underneath one or two corners to correct the problem.

#7. Allen Wrench Set

Odds are high you’ll have to assemble at least a few pieces of furniture with Allen wrenches (also called Allen keys or hex keys). You can tell by the hexagonal hole in the heads of the screws. These pieces of furniture tend to be cheaply made (no judgment) and require frequent tightening to keep from becoming wobbly.

Problem is, the original hex keys are easy to lose. They’re also unlikely to be included with used furniture, or furniture inherited from friends and roommates. Son, I still own multiple pieces obtained from the curb. Nobody’s taping tiny ziplock baggies with spare Allen wrenches to the loveseat they put on the curb in the rain due to its being trash.

After clawing with frustration through the giant Nalgene bottle that holds all my spare hardware and coming up with only wrong sizes, I finally got a $9 Allen wrench set. I’ve gotten a ton of use out of it, and have loaned it out to friends on multiple occasions. I bring it with me any time I’m making a Craigslist purchase that might require disassembly.

And I frequently use it to tighten loosening joints and prevent that telltale Ikea Wobble. Because nobody knows your Ikea furniture is Ikea furniture if they don’t feel the Ikea Wobble!

#6. Superglue

Cyanoacrylate is known by several brand names: Gorilla Glue, Loctite, and Crazy/Krazy Glue. Whatever variation you prefer is fine, but most people know it as “superglue.” It can repair everything from glass and wood to shoes and clothing.

Our household has so many broken dishes you’d think we were larping Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Unfortunately, we are just clumsy folk. Kintsugi, the fine art of repairing broken pottery with molten gold, is sadly slightly outside of our price range. Which means that at least one third of my plates are held together with superglue. I think the slightly visible crack running down them is set to become its own hipster trend.

Just don’t stick it to your fingertips. The texture gives me nails-on-a-chalkboard goosebumps and the next forty-eight hours are low-key torture.

#5. Claw Hammer

A claw hammer is exactly what you picture when you envision a regular old hammer. One side is for smacking things, the other is for prying things.

In an apartment, you’ll mainly use it for hanging and removing pictures from you wall. You can also use it to pop stubborn furniture pieces into place, dislodge stuck things, pry off old staples, and help you complete simple craft projects.

Even if you only use it for hanging pictures, it’s worth it. Nothing screams “fledgling adult” like bare walls. (Also nothing screams “serial killer” like bare walls. Don’t have bare walls.)

#4. Combination Screwdriver

Most screws come in two varieties: Phillips, which looks like a plus sign, and flathead, which looks like a minus sign. A combination screwdriver has a reversible bit so that one tool can work with either kind of screw. The best ones are the double-sided kind, just because it makes it much harder to lose the extra bits.

Sometimes you might get instructions that call for drilling. If your screw is sharp enough, you can totally strong-arm it with a regular screwdriver. I always tighten my drilled screws by hand anyway because I have a super strong grip. #Humblebrag.

Sry but im to strnog. Also there are no tools sufficient to fix the Arrested Development house.

#3. Duct Tape

Duct tape is a miracle. It’s is one of the most useful inventions to come out of the World War II era technology boom. NASA has seen fit to include it onboard every space flight since the early 1960s. Consider that sending one pound of material into space costs tens of thousands of dollars, and you will understand the value of duct tape.

Duct tape can be used to repair or patch an endless number of items. It’s fantastic to have on-hand in an emergency. It can repair almost anything, at least for the time it’ll take to call a professional or get the tools you need for a more serious repair. And it’ll be your best friend any time you have to pack up boxes, either for moving or storage.

#2. Tape Measure

Tape measures are absolutely necessary tools while moving, acquiring furniture, and figuring out how to best use your space. Never get something without making sure it will fit through your door, up your staircase, and in its final location. (There are lots of cool, free, browser-based floor-planning apps you can use to help, BTW. They’re awesome, especially if you suck at visualizing.)

If you ever start doing DIY stuff more seriously/regularly, I’m hard-pressed to think of any projects that wouldn’t involve one. Our Home Depot keeps them sprinkled around the store with a much higher frequency than bathrooms.

You can also use it to unsuccessfully contest parking tickets! (FYI don’t park within 20 feet of an intersection in Somerville, Massachusetts.)

You don’t need a crazy long tape measure, or a durable metal—a cheap 20- or 25-foot plastic one will do. Even now that I live in a huge house with lots of outdoor space, I’ve never felt the need to upgrade. I use my tape measure so much that my husband has added it, along with my phone and my keys, to his running mental inventory of the location of my most essential possession. “Mister Kitty, have you seen my—“ “Phone is on the bathroom shelf, keys are on the back porch, tape measure is in the pocket of your painting hoodie.”


God bless that man. It’s like if a Tile became a sentient, beautiful man who also does all the dishes. Which would make a great movie. Hollywood, are you listening?

#1. Plunger

This is it. The #1 best tool for actual-factual apartment dwellers. Was there ever any doubt that it would involve poop?

Poop, as we all know, is the manifestation of all your sins trying to escape from your body. That’s why we hide it from the prying eyes of mankind. The toilet is the apex of our crafty apelike minds: a fully-automated shame disposal machine. (Yes I did go to Catholic school. Why do you ask?)

The interruption of this sacred cleansing ritual is utterly unacceptable. Is there any image more synonymous with dread than toilet water rising when you expect it to recede?


There are two ways to get a plunger: the easy way, and the hard way.

The easy way? Get one right now.

The hard way? Wait ’til you need one.

Make sure you keep your plunger in a somewhat visible or intuitive area of your bathroom. If you have friends or family visiting, don’t make them go through the humiliation of tiptoeing out (while simultaneously playing goalie with the bathroom door) to ask you where it is.

Bathrooms operate on the principles of restorative justice. You must allow people to try to repair the damage they have caused to the best of their abilities.

(This advice also extends to businesses. I still feel really bad about that one time I clogged the only toilet at a Build-A-Bear Workshop in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. But I was young, and I was new to drinking coffee, and there was no plunger in the bathroom, so I fled into the night like Jean Val-fucking-Jean. For nineteen winters, I served my time. In sweat I washed away my crime.)

Bonus: Cordless Drill <3

When my then-boyfriend got me a cordless drill for my birthday, I opened its sleek plastic case with all the gasping, questioning, and blubbering usually reserved for a ring box.

A drill is a bit much for most apartment dwellers. But if you’re interested in getting into more crafting, DIYing, and home repair, a drill is the first power tool in which I would invest. Just this week, I’ve used my drill to hang planters, repair a broken table, build the frame for a chicken coop, install shutters, make a decorative necklace holder, and replace an old doorknob.

Mostly I just want to say it’s the best gift I think I’ve ever received and to this day I find drills to be unspeakably romantic. Bookmark this page as “FOR VALENTINE’S DAY 2018.”

More of our unquestionable advice for living on your own:

Kiiiiinda totally useless tools

In general, I like tools that perform a wide variety of functions. I’m not a big fan of single-use anything, if it can be helped. I also think there are some tools whose historic usefulness has been vastly overstated—at least to the average apartment-dwelling young person.

I have inherited or bought all of the following tools at some point in my life. I’ve never thought that any of them were worth what I (or someone else) paid for them. In the interest of preventing you from wasting money on them, I’m going to tell you what’s passed wholly out of favor in my toolbox.

#6. Wrenches and Pliers

These aren’t useless to everyone—but they sure are useless to me, and probably to the average renter as well.

I can count the number of times I’ve used a wrench, slip-joint pliers, or similar tools upon one hand. The number of times I’ve gotten no results or outright regretted using them are just as numerous.

I’m not really a fan of amateur plumbing. Water is the #1 enemy of human dwellings. Your landlord should have a vested interest in getting an emergency plumber to you as quickly as humanly possible, as water is the fastest way to ruin their precious building. (Well, okay, not really—earthquakes and tornadoes are faster. Quiet, you sticklers.)

Trying to do your own plumbing repairs is extremely unwise. If you try to take a wrench to your leaky pipe, you’re just as likely to strip or further damage the plumbing as you are to repair it. The better tools to use in case of a leak are a bucket to hold the leaking water and a phone to call someone who knows what they’re doing.

#5. Stepladder

Overall, I’m not a big fan of tools that serve only one purpose—particularly when that purpose is infrequent.

If you own one stable chair, bench, or box, I really don’t see the need for a stepladder in an apartment. It just costs money and takes up space.

Rearrange your crap so that you don’t need daily access to cabinets you can’t reach. When you do need something from them, pull over a chair and remind yourself you just saved $50-$100 and four square feet of space.

#4. Utility Knife/Box Cutters

I own one of these because it came with my starter toolkit. I’ve used it… once. Regular old scissors, knives, or razor blades work perfectly well. These things are just toolbox clutter.

#3. Hand Saw

I had a little bit of wood to cut—simple straight cuts for minor things, like building guinea pig huts. Because I am a slave to their horrid little needs.


So I bought a manual hand saw, and I really wish I didn’t bother. Bugs Bunny makes it look so easy! But using a hand saw requires a tremendous amount of upper body strength. If you don’t apply enough pressure to the tool, the teeth can jump and stutter, increasing the risk of injury. It’s vital to have a vice, clamp, or some other mounted gripping instrument. So you already have to buy a second tool to make your first tool work. That’s a huge pet peeve for me.

If you have sporadic woodcutting needs, bring it to Home Depot, Lowe’s, or your local lumber yard and pay $1 to have it cut professionally. (I’ve never actually been charged for this, possibly due to my Girl in a Hardware Store Discount. As you have always suspected: feminism is a lie, women lead indolent lives of benevolent sexism.)

If you need to cut wood frequently, a handheld circular saw is my cheap-o preference.

#2. Flashlight

Flashlights used to be hella useful. They were an absolute necessity any time the power went out, and also very useful for checking out dark, cramped places such as underneath sinks. They held the coveted front-of-junk-drawer position in my household for many a year.

Yet, they’re not that useful anymore considering a flashlight’s functions are now built into a great number of smartphones. You’re far more likely to reach for your phone if you need one. You don’t have to buy AA batteries to go with it. And it often fits better when trying to see into tight spots.

#1. Stud Finder

Stud finder. Sure is good at locating tools.

A five-dollar bill and a fifty-dollar bill are different in so many ways. But burn both, and you’ll get an identical pile of ashes.

Consider that fact as you contemplate purchasing a stud finder.

Electronic or manual, stationary or moving, you can be sure it won’t fucking work. It doesn’t matter how you glide, slide, shake, retrace your steps, mark, or cry. Stud finders are notorious for giving false positives and negatives. I don’t like that in pregnancy tests, and I definitely don’t like it in construction tools.

The most foolproof method of stud finding is still to tap the wall and listen. The sound changes as you tap the empty space between the studs and the studs themselves. The pitch changes and the echoey, hollow sound vanishes. Congratulations, you found your stud and you did it for free.

If you doubt yourself, remember that humans have taught themselves echolocation. So you can find a freakin’ stud.

Bonus: Multitool

If I were going to be Cast Awayed, and I could only have one tool to aid me/anthropomorphize as my friend, it would be a multitool. But in all other instances, I wouldn’t want one.

A multitool is very useful for having lots of little tools tucked away inside itself. It’s like a Swiss Army Knife’s uber-cool cousin from the city. If you only have one thing, it’s the thing to have, because there are fifteen things inside that thing, Miss Thing.

BUT. I hate using them, and here’s why: they are not ergonomically designed to be nearly as useful/comfortable/effective as the full-size tool. And that makes them significantly less useful.

WILLLLSONNNN! ... doesn't have any tools.

I remember once being faced with a knot on a parcel that wouldn’t come undone. “I have my multitool!” exclaimed my lesbian theatre technician roommate, because sometimes we all must play to type. We stood around for two or three minutes hacking away at the thick twine with the multitool’s scissor and knife functions before someone had the initiative to go get real scissors.

So multitools: incredibly useful and incredibly useless.

Such are my recommendations! Everyone’s Baby’s First Toolbox looks different, so I’m curious to hear what tools you found essential for living in your first apartment. Fight for your favorite tool’s honor in the comments below!

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14 thoughts to “9 Essential Tools for Apartment-Dwellers (and 6 That Are Kinda Useless)”

  1. I am a fully functioning adult and I approve this post. You also need a toilet brush to go with the plunger if you don’t want your guest grossed out. You also need a multimeter to not electrocute yourself on the likely chance something stops turning on and you wanna see if you should touch it.

    1. All ideas here are/have been useful 2 me. I’d add extension cords and plug converters (2-prong to 3-prong); an ice
      pick (use wine cork over tip)
      can do some helpful things. And a utility knife is just a must for this
      girl. I’m very useful around my
      home: Like to keep screws tight but not stripped in light switch/electrical
      plug cover plates, etc.
      Finally, from opening packages to cutting glue gutters on geode river
      paintings/craft uses — my utility knife I can not now find — is priceless.
      You can tell I watched my grandad build and finish furniture, and craftsmen who skillfully refurbished & rebuilt 2 houses for my dad. Girls like to build stuff too.
      I’m looking forward to building PVC
      furniture for bedroom after Pandemic.
      Tables. Videos look like fun!

  2. What Lily said! And I’ll add to this list:

    1. A bucket. Because you never know when something’s going to leak, or your crawlspace floods, or something gross needs to be hauled somewhere.

    2. The holy trinity of cleaning supplies: a small vacuum, Clorox wipes, and Mr. Clean Magic Erasers. No matter how small your apartment is, it can get gross fast. And if you want your guests to keep visiting, you need to de-gross it.

    Of course, I also benefitted from Kitty’s Baby’s First Toolbox in that my first apartment was hers, so there’s that.

  3. Gotta strongly disagree about boxcutters. Invest $7 in a high-quality all-metal one – the kind with real metal blades that can be replaced after they get dull (not the plastic kind with a not-very-sharp blade built in that you have to junk after it gets dull). If you move frequently (um, what thrifty apartment dweller doesn’t move to avoid ridic jacking of rent?) this is clutch for unpacking from the cardboard boxes you scrounged from the wine shop around the corner. And you can cut apart a large box with ease if needed! Also, and this is a one-time tool, UHaul brand paper tape is the shit when it comes to closing up moving boxes. You can tear it with one hand and don’t need a crappy plastic dispenser!

  4. I agree with 99% of this post. I disagree on the flashlight, however. I want to save my phone’s battery (yes I realize using the flashlight feature doesn’t take up much) for emergency phone calls.

    1. Hmm, I think you’ve converted me. Plus if I’m crawling around in a duct or under a sink, I might not want to risk dropping my phone…

      1. I’d definitely support getting a headlamp from a camping supply store as the apartment flashlight. I think mine was in the $10-20 range, but it’s been *invaluable* for repairing the half-rotten particle board cabinets in our rental kitchen or going to our (unlit) tool/bike storage shed.

  5. 9 Essential Tools for Apartment-Dwelling Hominids (and 5 That Are Kiiiiinda Useless) Good article

  6. +1 on everything, but ESPECIALLY the plunger. Nothing like an embarrassing encounter with the roommate “Umm please don’t go into the bathroom right now…”

    Also anchor screws have totally saved my life especially when studs are inconveniently located in context to the room layout, these are great for supporting weight on drywall!

    1. That’s another reason why a drill was my bonus tool! I didn’t know about plastic anchors, and my TP holder screws had stripped out of the plaster, so we had to rest the roll on the floor until my dad came to visit, hahaha…

  7. I’m not gonna lie, I’ve borrowed my father’s studfinder at least a dozen times in the last couple years. They’re only useless until you want to put screws in the wall

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