Buy or Rent? You'd Be Surprised

When to Rent Instead of Buying
Say the phrase "owning vs. renting," and you're likely to find yourself in a debate between the merits of a mortgage and a landlord. But that's thinking small -- these days, almost anything you can buy, you can also rent.

This particularly makes sense when you're talking big-ticket party or home-improvement equipment, whether it's a big-screen TV, a steam carpet cleaner or a rototiller for your garden.

Renting appliances or consumer electronics is a $2.9 billion industry, Toon Vanbeck, a senior industry analyst for IBISWorld, told us in a phone interview. But depending on what your needs are -- and your income -- sometimes it can make better sense to rent. We decided to take a look at a few big-ticket items you could buy, but may decide to rent instead, if it's more cost-effective. When deciding whether to rent or buy a big-ticket appliance or tool, if often boils down to this: How often do you plan to use the item: once or twice a year, or repeatedly?

Big Screen TVs
Places like Rent-a-Center are a great places to start pricing out what it costs to rent a big-screen TV. They typically have good selections of major-brand models to choose from, and competitive prices, which usually include delivery, set-up (worth its weight in gold right there, in my book), and pick-up.

For example, one Los Angeles-area Rent-a-Center has a 65-inch Mitsubishi DLP that will cost you $180 per month to rent (you can rent it only by month). However, there's a $900 deposit attached -- fully refundable if you return the TV undamaged. But that's still a lot of dosh to dole out upfront.

If you can scrape up another $420, the set can be yours to take home -- Best Buy will sell you the same TV for $1,500. And if you qualify for the Best Buy credit card, you can finance that TV (or any TV worth $999 and up) with no interest for three years.

Because there's not an obvious cost savings attached to renting a big-screen TV over purchasing one, the decision then becomes one of what you want. Are you looking for the very latest in technology? Renting might make more sense. "The technology is changing so fast that when you buy one, there's an upgrade the next day," Vanbeck says. "If the latest technology is important to you, renting might make more sense, because you can always upgrade the next month."

Renting a unit is also a good way to "try before you buy," says Vanbeck.

On the other hand, renting also comes with a complex contract of rules that can add lots of hidden fees onto your set costs each month. And you'll be forever worried about damaging the unit, because that deposit will disappear if the TV isn't in the condition you received it when you return it. Dogs? Small children? They could cost you.

A 47-inch Phillips recently rented for $250 for the weekend. That includes pick-up, delivery and set-up, but there is also a $520 security deposit fee -- fully refundable, provided the TV makes it back in good shape. That means no dings, cracks, and certainly no beer.

The verdict: If I were so inclined to pay out the kind of money it would take to rent a big-screen TV for one glorious game, it would make more sense to just buy the unit outright. I'd still get the delivery and set-up included, along with some attractive financing ... and enjoy it all year long. Hey, the Oscars aren't far off, you know.

Home improvement tools
Got kids? Pets? White carpet? Buying a steam carpet cleaner may make sense -- if you have a huge house and more money than sense. Otherwise, it's cheaper to rent a steam cleaner at a hardware store or supermarket for 24 hours, although cleaning fluid is extra (you'll have to buy it separately if you own your unit anyway).

The best steam cleaners don't come cheap. You can buy a Rug Doctor for $595.95 plus $150 worth of cleaning product. Or on the installment plan, it will cost you $749.95 (plus the same cleaning fluid).

Since you can rent one for 24 hours for between $19.99 (at Ralph's with your Ralph's Club Card) to $27 at Orchard Supply Hardware (cleaning fluid is extra -- Orchard Supply sells 96 ounces for $18.99, more than enough to clean an entire house), it's clear that renting is the much cheaper option. If you shampoo your rugs once a month at a cost of even say $30 rental fee, you're still only looking at $360 per year versus nearly $600.

There are other options for buying, however. For example, a Hoover F7411-900 SteamVac Dual V Widepath Carpet Cleaner costs $187.57 to purchase. Will it do the same job as an industrial-strength carpet cleaner? Check out user comments on the Internet and decide for yourself. Here's a list of other, more affordable steam-cleaning vacuum options.

There are cons to renting a more industrial-strength unit. There is the cost of your time involved in going to the store and picking it up, hauling it to your car, and getting it into your house (and back to the store again when you're done. These things ain't light, you know). There's also the chance of renting a dud, which might not work as well as advertised, in addition to damaging your rugs further. Before renting, make sure to talk with the clerk at the store to pick the newest, least-used unit.

Gardening Tools
A rototiller is an obvious item to rent, as most of us only use one once or twice a year for gardening jobs. It can make the tedious and labor-intensive chore of breaking up the soil after a long winter much easier on your back. Most lumberyards rent them out, as does Home Depot, which will charge you between $50 and $75 per day, depending on the size of the model. You will pay more if you go through an independent lumberyard or tool rental company.

But if you have acreage, or if you garden seriously on a large plot of land, buying a rototiller might be easier on your budget as well, with more powerful models selling for $900.

Considering the costs of renting, the time constraints of your rental agreement, and the hassle of hauling it to and from your home, owning your own rototiller will save you money over the long run.

For example, say you have a large home garden, and rent a rototiller for three days, twice a year, to turn over the soil in the fall and spring. You can rent a smaller model at $50 a day -- totaling $300 for the year -- or you could buy this lightweight Craftsman model from Sears for $229. Apart from fuel, your costs end there, and you can get years of use out of the machine.

The Home Depot has a wide selection of other power tools available for rent. Check out the catalog here.
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