For Rent: The good Life

Middle-class America is finding ways to borrow rather than buy that designer handbag, luxury yacht and other trappings of wealth

March 22, 2006|By DAN THANH DANG | DAN THANH DANG,SUN REPORTER

Scott Greatorex cannot wait to sail the Chesapeake Bay in his new 25-foot luxury yacht with gorgeous teak paneling, two cabins, a galley, a flat-screen TV and enough nautical gadgets to man the vessel alone if he so desired.

He can already picture overnight stays and strolls with his family along Main Street stores this spring since the Wind Orchid also happens to be docked on an enviable piece of real estate on Spa Creek near the heart of historic Annapolis.

To do it on his own, it would cost $180,000 just to buy the same Catalina sailboat, plus thousands more in maintenance, slip fees, insurance and other costs -- making such a luxurious hobby far out of reach for a 49-year-old manager at NASA. Since Greatorex isn't expecting to luck into loads of extra cash any time soon, he did the next best thing to make his dream real.

Think of it as temporary ownership, an increasingly popular way of putting the trappings of the wealthy in the hands of those who aren't. Cars, resorts, even trendy designer handbags can now be rented for a fraction of the cost of buying them outright.

Greatorex, for example, pays WindPath Sailing a $1,000 initiation fee, $2,500 damage deposit and $575 a month in a fractional ownership program that gives him use of the boat seven times a month all year long.

"This deal is ideal, really," says Greatorex, who lives in Reston, Va. "In real life, you have a paycheck, you pay the bills, you provide for the family and make it last day by day until you're scrimping by the end of the month. Buying a new boat, even a used boat, was just too expensive. This gives you access to a lifestyle that you probably couldn't afford on your own."

Middle-class Americans have long traded up, stretching limited incomes to seek a higher standard of living, aspiring to better cars, clothing, home furnishings and other goods. But instead of breaking the bank to drive a Bentley, carry a Gucci handbag or even sail a yacht, consumers have found an easier, briefer way to gain entry to the sort of lifestyle once known only to the rich and famous.

"This is luxury by the ounce, not by the pound," says James B. Twitchell, a consumer expert who wrote Living It Up: Our Love Affair with Luxury. "It's luxe lite or fly-by-luxury. One of the interesting things about this new kind of mass luxe is that almost anyone can get their hands on it."

A lust for luxury

Fueled by a flood of information out there about the rich and famous -- everyone knows what Diddy drives or whom Paris Hilton wears -- Americans have developed a taste for luxury goods.

In the U.S. alone, luxury is a $400 billion market, according to the Luxury Marketing Council, which represents some 500 of the world's most prominent luxury brands.

No longer content to just ogle celebrities and their extravagances, consumers want a piece of that excess. And new businesses are more than happy to capitalize by democratizing luxury for the masses, through fractional ownership, rental programs or sales of used premium goods.

After years of buying and receiving designer clothing and accessories as the wife of former Ravens center Wally Williams, Dewan Smith-Williams decided she could only keep and wear so much. So the 36-year-old Finksburg resident decided to put her slightly used luxuries back on the market, opening LaJeans Boutique, a consignment shop in Fells Point. Open since November, the boutique offers customers to-die-for labels like Prada, Armani and Ferragamo, collected from consignors. (The jeans part is an on-site Fashion Institute of Technology designer who customizes and embellishes designer denims.)

Next month, the boutique will launch a new service that allows frugal fashionistas to rent designer handbags for a $35 membership fee and subsequent rental fees based on the price of the purse.

"Not everyone can spend $1,200 on a green Versace bag," Smith-Williams says. "That's two months of day care. It's ridiculous. But everyone wants to look good and feel good. I wanted to make glamour and luxury within reach at a price that anyone can afford."

Jon Jones had a similar thought when he opened WindPath in Annapolis. The 42-year-old Army lieutenant colonel from Davidsonville, who is retiring from the military soon, has owned a few boats in his lifetime and knew that the cost of buying and maintaining a boat is a huge commitment. WindPath brings eight people together through a fractional ownership program that allows each member a guaranteed amount of time per month to enjoy the boat while Jones takes care of all the time-consuming, hard stuff about boating -- the oil changes, fueling and cleaning.

"It's a sacrifice for a middle-class person," says Jones, who owns the Wind Orchid sailboat. "Most boat owners are lucky if they can get out once or twice a month. That's a lot of money to invest in buying a boat you won't be able to use every weekend because of work or family obligations."

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