For people on the move, rental furniture is the way to go

Newlyweds sometimes rent furniture until they decide on permanent possessions; or not relishing rooms of orange-crate furniture, while they catch up financially after making the down payment on a house.

Airline pilots and company executives rent furniture while they are involved in training periods at away-from-home locations. Newly divorced people rent furniture while they try to sort out their lives and establish a new home. Athletes, politicians, and foreign diplomats rent furniture to establish an ''instant'' home away from home.

Ballplayers, entertainers, and other professional people who are on the move rent furniture and apartments because they prefer that to hotel living. Bill Leeper, like thousands of other college students, rented furniture for his near-campus apartment while attending a Midwestern university.

Currently, business is very good for the 500 or so showrooms around the country that offer rental furniture. It is estimated that half a million homes a year are now furnished by rental, and that the annual business volume is over $ 400 million. The Furniture Rental Association of America expects further growth of 12 percent to 15 percent during the l980s.

Much of this growth is the result of hard effort. In the course of the past decade or so, the furniture rental business has been striving to upgrade and upstyle itself.

''In the old days a lot of people thought they were getting Salvation Army furniture, and our image was pretty shoddy,'' says Leonard Senker, president of the association and head of Furniture Rentors of America, a firm located in Wilmington, Del., but with showrooms in seven states.

''We have made every effort to untarnish that image,'' Mr. Senker says, ''and most of our showrooms today are handsome and full of room settings that are designed to help people see how to put the things together. We have become very style conscious and often offer the latest things from the furniture markets, even before retail stores show them.''

Many of the showrooms offer a free decorating consulting service. When this is the case, the staff decorator sits down with clients and works from apartment plans or blueprints or goes directly to the residence to check out particular problems. They work out color schemes and choose furniture of the correct style, scale, and function. When the rental lease is for two years or more, some companies offer to have upholstered pieces custom-covered for the customer.

Mr. Senker says renting furniture is like renting a car. You can rent a Volkswagen or a Rolls-Royce and pay accordingly. Monthly rental fees for basic furnishings of a one-bedroom apartment can range from $35 to $60 in some Midwestern areas, up to $100 to $150 in larger cities. Typical clients tend to choose furniture in the upper medium price range in contemporary styles. ''We are offering a better type of furnishings and attracting a higher class of customer who, in turn, gives our furniture better care,'' Mr. Senker comments. ''I guess you would say we are gaining stature.''

Most companies charge by the piece, which means a customer may rent a table and some folding chairs or a convertible sofa or a single lamp. Or a client may completely furnish a room or a mansion. Actual cost depends on the quality and quantity of furnishings selected and the length of lease time.

Mr. Senker says most customers ask three questions in this order: ''How soon can you deliver it? Am I going to get exactly what I see in the showroom? How much will it cost?'' Delivery times range from immediately to two days. The customer pays delivery and pickup charges and an extra month's rental as security. He or she signs a lease agreement that states all the terms.

Although most companies offer a lease-purchase arrangement to clients, this association president says that less than 10 percent of renters elect to purchase the furniture they have leased. Most people consider rental furniture as only a temporary acquisition.

''With a short-term commitment, if I make a mistake, I won't be stuck with it forever,'' commented one customer in a New York showroom.

For that reason, Mr. Senker insists, ''we emphasize the service approach. We want to make it easy for people to be mobile, to move quickly, and then to gather an attractive sense of home about themselves, whether it is for a few months or a few years.

If any one item has grown greatly in demand in recent years, he says, it is the wall system consisting of shelves, cabinets, and drawers.

Different rental companies cater to different budgets and different needs, so a person considering rental possibilities should shop around and check out several showrooms. New York, like other large cities, has showrooms that offer unusually luxurious rental furnishings.

For instance, the Apartment Furniture Rental showroom in Manhattan caters to a sophisticated customer who is willing to pay for current high fashion, sumptuous seating pieces, and the gleam of high-style brass and chrome and glass. It offers complete room settings that display new brass beds, bamboo and rattan furniture, party groups, lush overscaled sofas, and the latest in accessories. Customers, said manager Bill Bollen, are often willing to pay up to customers, he concedes, may be in a class by themselves.

One of the biggest customers for rental furnishings are major corporations that are, more and more, equipping apartments for the temporary use of their own executive personnel and trainees. California and the fast-growing Sunbelt areas are, as might be expected, doing the largest rental business today.

There are several well-known rental chains, including Aaron Rents, headquartered in Atlanta, Ga., Cort Furniture Rental Corporation in Fairfax, Va. , and Alco Furniture Rental in Parma Heights, Ohio. Breuners Rents Furniture is a large California rental firm. For a listing of several hundred rental showrooms around the country, call toll-free, 800-For-Rent, or write to the Furniture Rental Association of America, 444 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Ill. 60611. Consumer tips for renting furniture

If you plan to rent furniture, here are some pertinent ''watch-fors.''

* Check your rental agreement carefully to see that its terms agree with your expectations and budget. Make sure what the total rental expenses will be, including possible insurance coverage, and exact pickup and delivery costs. Know when monthly payments are expected to be paid.

* Does the length of the lease (three or four months is the usual minimum lease period) meet your needs, and is there a penalty for termination before the agreed time?

* Are there exchange privileges and what are the costs? Exchange costs should be borne by the rental company if the furniture is not wearing well or has structural defects, but by the rental client if different styles or pieces are requested.

* Make sure there is a guaranteed time of delivery and pickup in order to avoid unnecessary days in hotels or motels.

* Get in writing the company's assurance that the furniture you receive will be identical to that seen in the showroom and that its quality will be ''equal to or better than'' the showroom examples.

* Check the company's policy on security deposits and get it in writing. Often such a deposit consists of one month's rent and is returned to the customer from five to seven days after the rented items have been returned.

* If you make long-distance rental arrangements, try to deal with a national company that has showrooms in your current area as well as your destination area , in order to see exactly what you will be getting.

* If you have an unresolved complaint, inform the rental company headquarters , the rental association, and your local Better Business Bureau.

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