Americans discover a new way to save: co-ownership

The auction was several hours old when the log splitter that interested Frank Ward finally came to the block. As the new owner of a small wood lot, he reckoned the splitter would be a worthwhile acquisition if he could get it for the ''right price.'' Then he learned that his nearest neighbor in this neck of the Maine woods had similar thoughts.

The resulting competition threatened to drive the price above anything either would look on as reasonable. That's when Mr. Ward's neighbor hastily suggested they might ''split the splitter'' - share in the investment, in other words. He wouldn't need it for more than an hour or two at a time on maybe half a dozen occasions a year, and ''neither will you,'' he reasoned.

His logic held the day and they got that splitter for an almost embarrassingly low $20. Buoyed by that first success, they subsequently went halves on a concrete mixer and an attachment that converts a chain saw into a lumber mill. The arrangement has worked so well that in the future they may add to the list of shared labor-saving equipment that is only infrequently used.

Apparently thousands of people around the nation are doing the same sort of thing, and the trend is gathering steam. There's even a name for it - ''partnering'' - coined by Lois Rosenthal, a columnist on consumer affairs for the Cincinnati Enquirer. ''We all own things we don't use for 360 days of the year but which are absolutely indispensable on the other five,'' she says. An extension ladder (who cleans out the roof gutters more than once a year?) is the sort of item crying out to be owned on a shared basis, she says. But it doesn't end there.

People are now sharing in the cost and upkeep of everything from bulldozers to bantam hens. Autos, airplanes, cameras, kitchen appliances, ladders, lawn mowers, even clothing, jewelry, and works of art, are now bought in partnership with others. Housing is shared. So are cooking chores by people living in separate houses. There seems no end to it all. As Ms. Rosenthal puts it: ''There's a whole world of partnering out there that most of us never dreamed existed.''

She stumbled onto ''partnering'' when a letter from a reader told her of a house-sharing deal between two brothers. The home was large enough that each family's bedrooms and bathroom facilities were totally separate, but kitchen and living rooms were shared.

The interview that followed that letter ''changed my life,'' Ms. Rosenthal says. Ideas planted in her mind that summer evening by Dick Asimus subsequently took her all over the country interviewing people who share homes, ''and everything else under the sun.'' One thing led to another and another. Two years later, what had started out as a single idea for a column became enough ideas for a book: ''Partnering: A Guide to Co-owning Anything From Homes to Home Computers'' (Writer's Digest Books).

Shared ownership has existed for centuries, but not until the late '70s, Ms. Rosenthal finds, did it become a significant part of Middle America. A poor economy spurred what might otherwise have taken much longer to come about.

''Middle America has long been taught that if you work hard you can eventually get most anything. But that's no longer possible. We now often have to settle for less or get the best on a shared basis,'' she contends.

Sharing a home may not suit you. But, as Ms. Rosenthal says, ''if every appliance that hums, whirs, or wheezes is gobbling up dollars you would rather spend on the theater or dinner and a movie on the weekends, buying appliances in partnership with others is a good solution.''

These are just some of the examples that fill her book:

Several men who live in the same neighborhood and work in the same city avoided the need to invest in second cars by pooling resources and buying a single station wagon that could handle their commuter needs.

A group of upper-echelon executives with no financial restraints nevertheless felt it important to save energy by car pooling. They invested in a plushly appointed van and immediately discovered that the quality of their commuting experience had jumped several notches at only moderate cost to each individual. Driving duties were rotated, which meant that most of the time a co-owner could relax in comfort and read, if he wished, as each seat was equipped with airplane-type lighting.

A woman, never satisfied with the job that average home floor polishers could do, found others in her neighborhood who felt the same way. So they pooled resources and bought a commercial polisher that does an admirable job for everyone involved. The last one to use it stores it until the next owner needs it.

A similar arrangement exists with a group of neighbors who invested in a good-quality riding mower. ''Who mows a lawn more than once a week?'' was the rationale behind this combined purchase. A basic rule governing its use: The machine must be clean and with a tank full of gas when handed on to the next user.

Four executives at the same company bought a chain saw in tandem to help keep their wooded lots in shape. No one alone used a saw often enough to warrant investing in one. On the other hand, rental costs, even for occasional use, readily exceed the cost and maintenance of a cooperatively owned machine.

As each one lives in a different part of the city, they make the office the central pickup point. The ground rules of their partnership call for a clean machine but an empty gas tank at changeover, as they consider it unwise to transport gasoline long distances in the trunk of a car.

Three businesswomen all the same dress size share in the ownership of 15 suits, which they rotate in batches of five. Naturally they don't work at the same office. The effect is to triple the wardrobe at no extra cost.

Neighboring gardeners pulled down the intervening fence and developed a large vegetable garden that feeds both families. Now when one of them is away for any length of time he does not have to fear that the plants are going unwatered in searing heat or that the cucumber will have invaded the tomato cages during his absence. Produce is split down the middle. So are seed, fertilizer, and other upkeep costs.

For similar reasons of convenience, neighbors also run backyard egg-producing enterprises.

When three Denver neighbors with adjoining yards invested in a trampoline, the children involved learned valuable lessons in sharing when they were required to draw up the ground rules for its use.

The examples continue almost ad infinitum. As Ms. Rosenthal puts it, virtually nothing exists that some people cannot readily share. Very few people have the temperament to own many items cooperatively, and somewhat more would find it difficult to share ownership of anything with anyone outside the immediate family. But a majority of people will find it acceptable, as well as economically beneficial, to own at least a few things in cooperation with others , she firmly believes.

The need is to recognize what we can comfortably share and who we can happily share it with. In the Rosenthal book, there are tests, and questions you can ask yourself, which will point the way. In her research, Ms. Rosenthal found the reasons that some partnerships succeeded while others failed. Many who foundered initially apparently learned from their mistakes and went on to operate very successul partnerships.

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