When apps help consumers rent from each other

10 Apr, 2013

Whether it is houses, cars, luxury clothing or sports equipment, more consumers are opting to rent, borrow or lease than buy, and a range of new apps are helping them do it online.

In the last two years, more than half of Americans surveyed said they had rented items they would have purchased in the past, according to a poll about buying habits commissioned by solar panel rental company Sunrun.

The trend toward renting was highest in people 55 years and older, the poll of 2,252 Americans found.

"There's a return to simplicity, a return to cutting down on waste and being a little bit smarter about how you spend your money and what you buy," Sunrun co-founder Lynn Jurich said.

Getaround, which is available for iPhone users and on the web, is a free car-sharing app that allows users to rent vehicles from other people. Users can find nearby cars, reserve them and unlock them with the app. Another free app called RelayRides provides a similar service.

For consumers interested in ride-sharing, SideCar and Lyft, both available for iPhone and Android, help people hitch rides for a fee. The service can be less expensive than taxis and gives riders an opportunity to meet new people.

The apps use social networks, such as Facebook, to show the identity of the user and provider, and any mutual associations, to make people feel more comfortable doing business with strangers online, said Arun Sundararajan, a professor at New York University's Stern School of Business and an expert on digital economics.

"Relationships and ties that exist in the real world are now available to marketplaces to take advantage of. They don't have to build trust from scratch to get people to participate," he said.

On DogVacay, an iPhone and web app that helps vacationing pet owners find temporary care for their dog, identities are verified via Facebook and telephone interviews.

Car-sharing apps such as Getaround provide insurance coverage for both the car owner and driver for liability, collision and theft. Airbnb, an app for private rental accommodations, offers property owners up to a $1 million insurance guarantee.

While a downturn in the economy and a return to simplicity may be fueling the trend and the apps that support it, Sundararajan believes demand will continue, even if the economy bounces back strongly.

"In many ways, it's just as much about getting access to greater variety and quality," he said.