Buying Versus Renting: Small Business Wars

You’ve seen them while you were out shopping; brightly lit signs advertising that you can rent appliances or electronic equipment. Weekly rentals, monthly rentals, rent to owns with 90 days, same as cash. Are they a value? Is it better to buy or rent? Join me as I retell tales of searching for, and finding, a reliable place to rent from, the pros and cons of renting versus buying, and a few horror stories along the way.

I was just getting my feet wet in cyberspace and learning the ropes when I acquired a new roommate. My computer, a rather sad and whiny creation bought more for its cheap price than its capabilities, had sufficed up until this point but, suddenly faced with a second user, it began to show its true colors. Sluggish and prone to glitches and mysterious reboots, it was notorious for eating data, much in the same fashion that the laundry always eats that second sock. I had dealt with it, though. After all, computers were only as intelligent as their users and I was pretty Neanderthal when it came to the world wide web.

My roommate was quick to convince me otherwise, however. Oh no…the computer was on its last legs. It shouldn’t do that. This was a sign of bad things to come. I soon felt like I was reliving some computerized version of “The Omen,” waiting for my monitor to suddenly declare itself the Anti-Christ (after all, it frequently spoke in tongues). Yes, I needed a new computer, but I didn’t have the money to rush out and buy a new one on a whim.

“Rent one,” she said, as if this were the answer to all my problems. I can remember looking at her, as if she had spawned a second head on her shoulders. Rent one? First off, that HAD to be expensive. Secondly, I didn’t have good credit. Third… I went on and on with a list of excuses that rivaled Santa Claus’ naughty and nice list. Yet, every time I came up with an excuse, she came up with an argument for it. In the end, I caved and agreed to go look.

Things would never be the same again…

I stepped through the door of one of the local rent-to-own stores and was instantly pounced upon by a young man who still reminds me of a car salesman; he was upbeat, good-looking and what was best described as hip. Televisions lined the walls and flickered with the latest music videos. Speakers, nearly as tall as I was, blasted out dance music and there was furniture, beds and appliances for as far as the eye could see. Wow. To say that I was stunned was an understatement.

In no time flat, he had me sitting down at a dining room table (that you could rent for as low as $15.00 a week) and filling out an application. It was simple stuff; name, address, phone. They needed a few work references and some personal references, all of which were easily written down. Information on the vehicle that I drove gave me a moment’s pause, but after a brief run out to get my papers from the glove box, I was able to add that on as well. I had chosen a computer for $19.99 a week and my roommate had decided to get her own, at the same price. We were informed that they had to check the references out, but would be delivering the computers 3 days later. Good deal.

Surprisingly, I discovered that they did contact all of my references, which surprised me. While I’d had many jobs ask for references in the past, they hadn’t gone to the depths of calling people in other states and asking them about whether or not they felt I was trustworthy and reliable. These guys did. Of course, in the same breath, my past employers didn’t try and convince my references to come in and rent something either, but these guys were taking every advantage of the term “by word of mouth,” even if they had to spread the word themselves.

Everything else checked out and, 3 days later, I was expectantly waiting for my computer to be delivered between the hours of 1 and 3pm. Only…there was no knock at my door. Five o’clock passed and then six and it began to creep up on seven, the time that the store closed. I’d called them enough times, by now, that they knew my voice by heart; each time, answering with a “it’s on its way.”

It was 8pm before they showed up on my doorstep but, again, they were so charming and efficient that I couldn’t be angry. I was completely understanding of how they were understaffed and how they hadn’t even taken a lunch break today. Obviously, there were a lot of people renting, other than myself. How selfish of me, to think otherwise.

One thing struck me as peculiar. Instead of the nice and shiny store room model that I’d seen, my new computer looked somewhat dingy. While I originally thought maybe this was something from storage, after the delivery men departed, I cleaned off my monitor with some window cleaner, only to discover it was sticky smoke residue. My roommate cleaned up that little misconception, when I called her at work, “Well, they aren’t brand new. You’re getting stuff that other people have rented before.”

Mind you, my little computer was costing me double what it would have cost me to buy a computer outright, but I realized I was paying for the luxury of doing it in weekly installments. I was willing to pay the extra price to have it in my home now, rather than waiting until I had saved up another grand. I must admit, however, that it left a rather bitter taste in my mouth, to discover that I was paying $2,000.00 for a computer that had been subjected to a lifetime of second-hand smoke, sticky fingers, and made an odd clicking noise when I went to eject a CD from the drive. I was soon to learn that he (I affectionately named my computer Thadeus), also suffered from a plethora of mental conditions that included, but were not limited to borderline personality, bi-polar disorder and paranoid schitzophrenia. No doubt, he blamed his motherboard, as all ungrateful children do.

On a good note, however, when something went amiss with my computer, I had but to call my local rent fellas and they would come and get the computer, take it away to a mysterious location, and bring it back to me in about 10 days time. This happened frequently and I began to worry that they thought I was abusing my new baby, yet they never made any accusations. When my speakers, keyboard or mouse malfunctioned, they would give me the option of coming in to get a replacement or waiting a few days till they could drop one off. Before long, I was visiting them more often than I was visiting my own mother.

Renting became an addiction of sorts. Every week, I would go in to pay my bill, and they would show me some great new product that I couldn’t live without. The giant home theater system with a 72 inch screen. A new washer and dryer. Stereos. DVD players. Anything you wanted could be rented for a low price and, quite often, they offered specials, where you could rent one item and then get the other for as low as five dollars a week. We soon had a house full of fabulous items and, even if we were paying about $500.00 a month for our goodies, it was worth it.

Of course, not everything was perfect. We had to overlook small things like a small crack in the bottom of the television screen or having to call for a replacement speaker on the stereo from time to time but, on the whole, it wasn’t too bad and we continued to remind ourselves that it would probably have taken us a couple of years to save up for all the stuff that we got to use, right now. Our families thought we were foolish, but we were the envy of our friends. After all, who wouldn’t want to come over and watch movies on a screen that rivaled a movie theater?

We rented for two years. When quality slipped even further with the company that we’d been dealing with, we shopped around and found another that was equally thrilled to take us on as customers. After all, finding people that rented as much as we did and reliably paid for our equipment was a rarity. We were highly prized and the rental company had no qualms about telling us this, usually followed by a “that’s why I thought we’d offer you THIS…”

In the end, I cringe to think about how much money that we did pay out (I’ve never tried to do that math), but I do know that the only item that we kept long enough to actually pay off was the washer and dryer. The computers didn’t keep up with our increased needs and we eventually purchased replacements, losing all the money that we had spent in towards our rental purchases. Paying $50.00 a week for the television was beyond our grasp when my roommate lost her job. In the end, most of our items were returned to the stores and we went on with our lives, a little older and a bit wiser.

Renting provides an excellent opportunity for people to bring a temporary replacement into their home or give it a try. In the long run, however, our experience with renting was that a great deal of the items were substandard, defective and/or damaged, or simply grossly overpriced. If we had been patient and exercised some restraint, saved our money and used a little willpower, I’m sure that we would have been able to purchase better quality items from the stores, and probably would have saved a great deal of money for extras.

If you do rent from a company, be sure to have them install and turn on whatever you rent, prior to their leaving. Always make sure that it works before they leave and, if it doesn’t, demand a replacement. Don’t let them talk you into waiting while they fix it (I learned this usually means taking your item and letting it sit in a back room for a week, till one of the guys in the store gets around to fiddling with it).

Make sure that everything is the quality that you want to pay for. If something doesn’t work right, is all dinged up and abused, or less than what you expected, don’t be afraid to tell them. Be firm; after all, if you do intend to rent this product for any period of time, you don’t want to pay double what you would for new, just to own something on its last legs.

If you run into financial difficulties, ask the company if they will put a hold on your items until you can get back on your feet, or if they will give you a credit, should you rent a similar object in the future. Quite often, they will allow you to transfer credits, but few will tell you about this fact and companies will often work with you, rather than risk losing you as a customer.

Just as in dealing with any other company, one must exercise restraint, moderation and good judgment. If you’re unfamiliar with the company, ask around and don’t be afraid to do just as they do; get references. Shopping wisely, whether you plan to buy outright or you prefer to rent to own, is always the best route to take.

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