Buyer beware, consumer attorney says

Most rent-to-own operations are legitimate. However, buyers must shop carefully, says Robert Hobbs at the National Consumer Law Center. A telephone survey of Boston-area stores showed rental rates for a 19-inch color television ranged from $18.95 to $50 a month. The total cost to buy spanned from $594 to $1,008 (with rental periods from 12 to 24 months) for an equivalent set that could be purchased for $400 at Sears, Roebuck & Co.

One dealer's Yellow Pages ad read ''free delivery,'' but the saleswoman said a $15 ''paper work and installation fee'' would be charged.

There is a tendency to represent used TV sets as new, Mr. Hobbs alleges. Most dealers contacted would not promise that the TV set would be new when rented. If renting to those who intend to buy, some stores may rent a used TV or rent a new one and then charge full price for it when the renter uses the purchase option. Only one store contacted offered to take back the used rental televison after a year of renting and promised a new television, at half price.

Mr. Hobbs warns that consumers should be sure all oral offers are also in the contract.

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