If you rent to own, you pay too
Considering a rent-to-own purchase? Consumer advocates
say you should reconsider.
"My advice in one word: don't," says Mark
Oleson, director of the Iowa State University Financial Counseling
Clinic. "The cost is extraordinary."
While rent-to-own stores offer convenience, no credit
check and no long-term commitment, consumer groups say the math
is the main reason to just say no. Rent-to-own customers commonly
pay two- to five-times retail, according to a survey by the U.S.
Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy organization.
"Consumers should be looking at the total cost
of purchasing rent-to-own, not just the low weekly or monthly payment,"
says James M. Lacko, economist for the
For a class demonstration last year, Oleson got an
estimate on a new computer from a local rental store: $32.99 a week
for two years. Total cost: $3,431.
Then he went to Staples and found a more powerful
model for $800. When Oleson did the math, he figured that a customer
could take advantage of the 18 percent annual percentage rate credit
line that Staples was offering, make the same payments as the rent-to-own
store required -- and have the computer paid off in seven months
for $845.25 Total savings: $2,586.
So why rent to own? "I can't think of a good
reason to do that," says Oleson.
But the industry is popular with consumers and produced
revenues of $5.2 billion in 2001, according to a survey by the Association
of Progressive Rental Organizations, a trade group that represents
about half the rent-to-own industry.
"People don't go to a rent-to-own [store] for
price," says Richard May, the organization's public affairs
director. "They go because there are uncertainties in their
The big appeal, May says, is that a rental contract
allows buyers to "keep their options open."
According to a survey by the FTC, 59 percent of customers
come from homes with an annual income of less than $25,000, while
73 percent have a high school education or less.
Because rent-to-own transactions are not treated as
credit -- technically consumers don't own the item until they have
made the last payment -- the fees that they pay over and above the
cost of the merchandise aren't regulated by usury laws. If they
were, consumer advocates argue, then consumers would see that they
were financing their purchases at triple digit rates.
"They don't understand how deep in debt this
puts them and for how long," says Tom Collens, vice president
of operations for the Consumer Credit Counseling Service.
But industry advocates counter that rental purchases
shouldn't be treated as sales because only 25 percent to 30 percent
of the transactions result in a sale. A survey by the FTC put the
number at 70 percent.
Presently, no federal legislation governs rent-to-own
transactions. An industry-backed bill currently under consideration
(H.B. 1701) is controversial because consumer groups fear it would
weaken rent-to-own regulations in some states.
How it works
Each year, 3 million consumers enter rent-to-own contracts, and
most are pleased with the arrangement. The FTC survey found that
75 percent of rent-to-own customers were happy with the experience.
Their No. 1 complaint: the cost.
With rent-to-own transactions, customers make weekly,
biweekly or monthly payments for their merchandise. The interval
is most often dictated by their paycheck, says May.
While companies don't check credit or ask for a deposit
or down payment, they will ask for several personal references and
check employment, says May. They will also check to see if a customer
has ever skipped out on a rent-to-own agreement in the past. The
skip rate is 1.5 percent, he says.
If you have your heart set on rent-to-own merchandise,
be sure to nail down the fine print. Exactly how much are the payments?
Does that include tax? Are there any add-on fees?
Find out exactly when payments are due, if there is
a grace period and what the late fees are. Some companies will personally
collect late payments -- a convenience or a hassle, depending on
your point of view. But often there is a charge for such personalized
service on top of the late fee.
In addition, find out if a late payment will void
the contract. If it does and you want to reinstate your rent-to-own
agreement and avoid losing the money paid thus far, what's the charge?
And if you decide you don't want the item any more, is there a return
Read the contract to discern who is responsible if
the merchandise is broken, lost or stolen. By law, the person who
owns the object -- in this case the store -- would be responsible
for it, says Margot F. Saunders, the managing attorney for the National
Consumer Law Center, a nonprofit law firm. But the rent-to-own contracts
she's seen shift the burden to the person renting the goods.
Stores often offer a damage waiver to protect the
consumer from liability for a few dollars extra per payment.
What if the merchandise is a lemon -- the computer
crashes, the washing machine floods or the VCR won't record? That,
says May, is the beauty of rent to own. Call the store, and they
will bring you a loaner while they repair the original merchandise.
If you expect new merchandise, get a promise in writing.
Such a request should be included in the contract, says May, and
the item should be delivered in the box with all the manuals and
As with any transaction, smart consumers read a contract
completely before they sign. If what you're reading is different
than what you are being told, remember the written word is what's
binding. Either have someone change the contract or shop elsewhere.
If you need things and don't want to go the rent-to-own route, you
have options. Instead of buying new merchandise right away, buy
yourself some time. If your credit cards are maxed out and your
savings account is empty, it pays to ask yourself, "How much
do I need that new TV?" says Oleson.
A better bet for consumers on a budget might be to
pay down a credit card and charge the merchandise.
But what if the item in question is a must-have, like
a refrigerator or a washing machine? At that point, Oleson says,
consumers might be better served financially to ask for a credit
limit extension, or see if they can qualify for an in-store credit
card with a department or discount store. Usually a 26 percent APR
credit line is ultimately cheaper than purchasing through a rent-to-own
And then there's the old standby that no one wants
to consider: saving. Put the rent-to-own payments in a piggy bank,
wait a few months and pay cash.
Dana Dratch is a freelance writer
based in Atlanta.
-- Posted: June 11, 2002