Fresh out of college and hired for a seasonal job 1,200 miles from home, Nick Anderson thought it best to rent an unfurnished condominium rather than buy a place. So it made sense to him to rent much of his furniture as well.
But rather than merely making do, Mr. Anderson chose to live comfortably and stylishly. For his living room, he rented a sofa and love seat in black leather, and glass cocktail and end tables to go with his own black lamps, a 50-inch-screen television and stereo. He also is renting an octagonal dining room table with glass top and brass base, four brass chairs with fabric seats, an oak bedroom suite for his guest room and an oak dresser for his bedroom.
"Not bad for a guy doing the job," Mr. Anderson said, grinning. No, not bad at all -- and fairly typical of what renters will find in the hundreds of furniture rental showrooms across the country that do $700 million worth of business annually. But today's typical rental furniture is a far cry from that of a decade ago.
"Ten years ago to have a leather couch to rent, it would have been hilarious. Things were mostly Herculon plaid, Formica dinette tables, all basic packages," said Ken Lampert, district general manager at Cort Furniture Rental Corp. in Orlando. Cort has 92 stores nationwide, including one in Baltimore on Calvert Street near the Inner Harbor.
Even this basic furniture was an improvement over what was offered through the 1940s, '50s and '60s. Carl F. Barron, who opened the nation's first furniture leasing store in 1939 in Cambridge, Mass., described the early furniture as "primitive."
"It was all new, but it was quite low in quality, basic pieces only," said Mr. Barron, 73. The sofas and chairs had wooden arms, and occasional tables had laminated or plastic tops.
In the last 10 to 15 years, the rental market has grown to include high-quality, stylish pieces that rival those in retail showrooms. In fact, buyers from both retail and rental markets rub shoulders at the furniture industry's buying shows, particularly the spring and fall shows in High Point, N.C.
Now the most elegant of tastes can be satisfied with offerings of leather, fine hardwoods like oak and cherry and name brands like Lane, Selig and Bassett. Styles range from traditional to contemporary, including Queen Anne, Chippendale and the popular Southwest look with earth-colored fabrics in geometric designs, and whitewashed pecan tables and cabinets.
Some showrooms provide accessories as well, such as silk flower arrangements, graphic artwork, kitchen furnishings, rugs, linens in designer colors and vacuum cleaners.
One upscale showroom in Washington, D.C., rents fine antiques and furnishings such as wash stands, Oriental rugs, French linens and brass candlesticks. Acquired through dealers, at auction and from private sources, the antiques bring higher prices than traditional furnishings, said Michelle Peno, manager of Antiques and Contemporary Leasing Inc. She said the store has had leasing contracts from $300 to $8,000 a month.
Who pays such prices when less expensive furniture is available? Maureen Reagan, interior designer Bob Waldron, Marilyn Quayle -- people who entertain or are used to a high standard of living and who need furniture for a short term. Other customers include foreign dignitaries, ambassadors, corporate leaders and movie studios. Ms. Peno said real estate brokers will spend from $2,000 to $8,000 to furnish a large model home.
Economy packages start at much less. At Aaron Rents Furniture, for example, the cost is by the piece, so the price can vary depending on the styles the customer selects. Aaron Rents Furniture has 170 showrooms across the country, including one in Towson and one in Woodlawn.
Tom Levitt, president of the Furniture Rental Association of America, to which more than 500 showrooms belong, said the furniture offered by the firms has improved because those in the industry have learned what customers want.
For customers who are unsure about putting styles and colors together, a number of showrooms have interior designers on staff who help with selections at no cost to the customer. But one service stores generally do not provide is rental for just a day or two.