Americans can rent (almost) anything

Not being much of a gardener, I quickly ran into trouble with the rented tiller. Instead of plowing up our garden plot, it pranced over the surface of the ground, making barely a dent and pulling me along behind it.

I got it turned around before it hit the garage, eyed my target, and headed back. Again it barely nicked the ground, and headed for the house. Finally, after several more runs, I learned what no one in our neighborhood organization's tool-rental program had told me: to hold the tiller in place until it digs in, then go forward.

But as I finished turning over the soil, I reveled at having avoided some hard spadework.

A growing number of Americans apparently are having similar feelings about saving themselves work - and purchase expenses - by renting.

The equipment-rental industry has doubled its business since 1975, according to the American Rental Association (ARA).

A big part of the business is the rental of heavy-construction or business equipment. But a growing segment of rentals involves personal items - some traditional ones, like costumes and tools; some not so traditional, like tug-of-war ropes, dog kennels (for when relatives arrive with their dog), log splitters, water-bed pumps (for emptying the water), and metal detectors (for locating lost keys and rings).

Why are Americans renting more? Smaller houses with less storage space and the high cost of purchases, especially difficult during a recession, are probably two big reasons, says C. A. Siegfried Jr., executive director of the ARA.

According to ARA surveys, gross revenues from equipment rental in the United States increased from $2.5 billion in 1975 to $5.8 billion in 1980. They dropped to $5.3 billion in 1981 due largely to a decline in construction-equipment rentals. But consumer rentals increased about 10 percent in 1981, Mr. Siegfried says.

The overall decline in rental revenue may have continued during 1982. Figures have not yet been compiled. (The ARA figures include some sales revenue from stores that both rent and sell.)

A Department of Commerce official in Atlanta confirms a ''big trend'' in the growth of the rental business in the US. And the department confirms the decreasing size of American homes. The median size declined from a recent peak of 1,655 square feet in 1978 to 1,550 in 1981.

But smaller storage space is not the reason Marnie McMurry rented two dozen place settings for an Atlanta neighborhood gourment-club dinner at her home recently.

''All you have to do is rinse them and put them back (in their box). That's a fantastic deal,'' she says. She paid about $15 for the rental. It saved her time , and solved the problem most families would face - not owning that many place settings.

Most personal rentals are short-term. Jim Vaseff's rental is an exception.

He rented scaffolding in August 1981 to help him rehabilitate his 1908 home here. He had no idea he'd still be renting it today. ''By now, we probably could have bought the stuff several times over,'' says his wife, Heather.

But a full-time job and a lot of work still needed on the house means the scaffolding will probably be rented until sometime this summer. Even so, the family will easily come out ahead, despite the $40 monthly rental fee, because of the increased value of the house due to their work, he says.

At a recent convention here of the American Rental Associaton, everything from heavy equipment to gorilla costumes, tents, high-pressure water-spray paint strippers, electric punch bowls, and jogging treadmills was on display.

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