Skeptical Shopper: Sites Help Neighbors Rent Equipment

When I moved into my current house, I inherited a 15-foot-tall apple tree. Having free fruit was nice, but I needed a tall ladder to pick the crop. So I bought one--and a year later, the tree died.

Today, before buying a ladder, I'd check Zilok.com, a site that matches people who need an item with people or businesses that offer it for rent. Zilok lists the items by area, along with price, conditions, and availability. A map indicates how close the owner is to you.

Available goods range from tools to electronics to cars (mostly in Europe, where insurance issues have been worked out) to party supplies such as popcorn ma­­chines. Other rentable items included a Batman costume in Bakersfield, California, for $10 a day and a camping tent in Holly Springs, North Carolina, for $3 a day. And a tall ladder was listed for $28 a day less than 2 miles from my home.

Built-In Protections

To prevent fraud, both renters and owners of items for rent must register with Zilok, providing their name, address, phone number, and e-mail address. The item owner sets the terms, including length of use; Zilok recommends charging a deposit. "Money makes it virtuous," says service cofounder Gary Cige. By using Zilok, you enter into a contract, but the site advises both parties to sign a formal document, too, and it provides sample contracts for this purpose. Zilok takes a commission on each transaction.

The renter meets the owner and can inspect the rental item. The owner explains exactly how to use the item, reducing the likelihood of damage to it.

Zilok also relies on evaluations to protect users. After the rental is complete, the site asks for evaluations of the owner, the renter, and the item itself.

If you don't want to pay a commission, consider using a less formal "collaborative consumption" site like NeighborhoodGoods.net or ShareSomeSugar.com. And compare conventional rental prices before committing to a site like Zilok. I found a nearby rental company that charged less for a tall ladder than did the person offering one on Zilok.

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