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Rent or own? The new sharing economy values access over ownership

To rent or own, that is the question posed by the burgeoning sharing economy. For a growing population engaged in this high-tech, low-cost 'collaborative economy,' access to cars, clothes, cuisine – or even a cat –  is better than ownership.

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The number of companies like hers muscling their way into the sharing market appears to be increasing exponentially. Although some first-movers like Zipcar and Airbnb have become international success stories, there is a plethora of smaller, unusual companies on the scene, among them: Done, for outsourcing chores; SnapGoods, for renting or borrowing goods in your network or neighborhood; Favortree (formerly NeighborGoods), for trading favors with neighbors; Kitchit, where you can find a chef to cook dinner in your home; Home Exchange, a global home-swapping site; thredUP, a marketplace for gently used children's clothing; and ReDigi, a marketplace for pre-owned digital music.

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Erica Swallow, director of community at the publishing start-up Contently and a contributor at Mashable and Forbes who writes about the sharing economy, says, "I like the fact that these businesses empower you to consume what you want and you're not pushed to own everything." Such as, say, your office. Rather than renting space and buying furniture for it, you could simply become part of a community like Loosecubes, a Brooklyn-based office-sharing group.

The idea for Loosecubes came to founder Campbell McKellar when the real estate market declined. She had been working in commercial real estate in New York City and noticed a lot of empty desks and a lot of people working in coffee shops. In 2010 she decided to pair up the two, matching freelancers with vacant offices. It's a model that fits with the basic tenets of the sharing economy: wasted assets put to use and resources conserved. "We always say if the lights are on at Loosecubes, they are off somewhere else," says Ms. McKellar.

All generations can share

Demographically, the sharing economy started with Gen-Y, mostly those in their 20s and early 30s who participated in it to save or earn money in response to the recession.

But there is a "cool factor," too, says Gansky: "If you're traveling to Chicago and your first reaction is to stay at a Hyatt, that's not cool. If your first reaction is to stay somewhere through Airbnb, you're clearly paying attention to trends."

Sharing and collaboration have spread to the consumption habits of Gen-X and baby boomers, too. Gansky herself, for instance, is 53.

Jamie Wong, founder of Vayable, a community marketplace for tours, activities, and experiences, says when she launched her company in 2011 she was sure it would be for young travelers, college-age and into their 20s. "But the majority of our users are actually in their 30s and 40s," she says. "We've had several seniors use it, and boomers are our fastest-growing traffic right now."

Kepa Askenasy, who rents out her Potrero Hill Garden Cabana – as it's listed on Airbnb – is 56. She has been renting out rooms on her San Francisco property since June 2010. "My first renter was 19, my second was 90; and that's when I thought, 'OK, I can do this.' It's been a huge mix of people, all ages," she says.

The dividends of sharing

The income it provides for many is significant. Ms. Swallow earned $8,000 last year renting out her New York City apartment on Airbnb during periods when she was traveling. Ms. Askenasy used the money she earned to pay for out-of-pocket medical expenses, the result of accidents. She couldn't do her work as an architect and lost income; now Airbnb revenue accounts for half her total earnings.

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