Saving

May I Rent Your Lawn Mower? Sharing Meets Web 2.0

photo: Kelly Sims

Punsri Abeywickrema needed a wheelbarrow to redo his backyard but he didn’t want to buy one. The first weekend he worked on the yard, he borrowed a neighbor’s wheelbarrow. The second weekend, he felt bad asking to use it again, so he rented one from a local store.

“I thought this might be a problem across society,” he says. “There were many wheelbarrows in the vicinity just sitting idle, but that feel-bad factor prevents us from asking for favors.” Abeywickrema has software experience from working at PayPal, LinkedIn, and online gaming company Zynga, so he created Rentalic.com, a website that facilitates the renting of goods between neighbors.

As he explains it, “anything you have sitting idle in your house, you can list on the site and have the power to determine how much you want to charge for it. A security deposit protects the owner and ensures that it gets returned on time.” Rentalic also verifies that the borrower has sufficient funds and generates a secret code, which the owner uses to validate the transaction either online or by calling a 1-800 number.

The concept of sharing resources with friends or neighbors is nothing new, but now dozens of websites offer a scalable platform for renting or sharing goods across a community. For instance, if you need a wheelbarrow like Abeywickrema did or you wanted a kayak for the weekend, you could rent or borrow one from sites like Rentalic, ShareSomeSugar.com, Zilok.com, or NeighborGoods.net.

If you need a car, you might log onto a car sharing site and find a vehicle from down the street (or if you needed a parking spot for your own car, you could try ParkCirca.com). Want an inexpensive place to crash on vacation? Consider AirBnB.com or Roomarama.com. There are even niche sharing sites like StudioShare.org that cater to professionals looking to share equipment or studio space.

The recession and environmental concerns about waste have certainly helped fuel the growth of sharing and sharing platforms, but Lisa Gansky, a serial entrepreneur and author of The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing, says it’s also an outgrowth of technology. “We’ve built this magnificent infrastructure,” she says, “where we can access the people, the teams, the tools, pretty much wherever they are in the world and pay for just what we use.”

But how do we know we’re getting exactly what we paid for?

Gansky says it’s unusual for transactions to go sour. “In general, people are being generous and well-behaved,” she says.

As sharing communities grow beyond just “friends of friends,” rating and review systems can help maintain a transparent market and put users at ease. Still, sometimes those reviews are tainted by other factors. According to Andreas Randow, founder of StudioShare and owner of The Sharing Authority, “the biggest problems with sharing platforms at the moment is that people rate the actual item no matter what they did.” For instance, if someone borrows a camera that is exactly as described but isn’t right for the job they wanted to do, they might blame the camera, not mentioning that the transaction went smoothly and the camera might be perfectly good for other projects.

It costs money not just to buy things but also to store or maintain them, so sharing sites allow borrowers to avoid those costs altogether — and owners to recoup some of those costs by renting out their unused items.

Just how much money can you earn from that unused kayak or air conditioning unit sitting in your garage?

That depends. Abeywickrema says Rentaholic currently has the highest concentration of users around San Francisco and other urban areas. Owners set their own price, but if there’s no one in your area looking to borrow your item, the price doesn’t really matter. Seasonality is another factor. For instance, Rentaholic gets lots of requests for snow chains in the wintertime and camping gear in the summer.

But money isn’t the only reason people participate in these communities. According to Abeywickrema, “it gives you an excuse to meet your neighbors. It’s an ice-breaker with the guy down the street that you would never meet otherwise. I get a couple of emails every now and then saying ‘I ended up making a friend in the process.’”

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers business and lifestyle topics.