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June 23, 2013

Drivers with empty pockets turn to tire rentals

When the tires on their Dodge Caravan had worn so thin that the steel belts were showing through, Don and Florence Cherry couldn’t afford to buy a new set.

So they decided to rent instead.

The Rich Square, N.C., couple last September agreed to pay Rent-N-Roll $54.60 a month for 18 months in exchange for four basic Hankook tires. Over the life of the deal, that works out to $982, almost triple what the radials would have cost at Wal-Mart.

“I know you have to pay a lot more this way,” said Florence Cherry, a 57-year-old nurse who drives the 15-year-old van when her husband, a Vietnam veteran, isn’t using it to get to his job as a prison guard. “But we didn’t really have a choice.”

Socked by soaring tire prices and short on funds, growing numbers of Americans are renting the rubber to keep their cars rolling.

Rent-to-own tire shops are among the newest arrivals to a sprawling alternative financial sector focused on the nation’s economic underclass. Like payday lenders, pawn shops and Buy Here Pay Here used-car lots, tire rental businesses provide ready credit to consumers who can’t get a loan anywhere else. But that access doesn’t come cheap.

Customers pay huge premiums for their tires, sometimes four times above retail. Those who miss payments may find their car on cinder blocks, stripped of their tires by dealers who aggressively repossess. Tire rental contracts are so ironclad that even a bankruptcy filing can’t make them go away.

Still, with payments as low as $14 a week, rent-to-own — long the province of sofa sets and flat-screen TVs — is proving irresistible for consumers desperate for safe transportation.

It’s also a booming business for specialized tire and wheel dealers that have become beneficiaries of a struggling U.S. economy. Fast-expanding chains with names like Rent-a-Wheel and EZ Rims 4 Rent that got their start selling high-end rims to car enthusiasts have discovered a lucrative market selling tires on time.

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