How to Make Money When Economy Is Failing

rent-my-life-fe03
Jake Stangel for Newsweek

There’s a strange woman in our shower.

She and her boyfriend arrived late last night, and she’s slipped into our bathroom, which adjoins the office where my wife, Laura, and I are working. We can hear her flossing.

“Did you meet them?” Laura whispers. “Are they nice?”

I don’t know if they’re nice—but does it matter? They’re paying $135 to stay with us!

Meanwhile, I’m waiting for a nurse named Amy to return my electric sander. She paid me $4 to rent it for a day and said she’d be back this morning.

I’ve got lots of other deals cooking, too: $5 to rent my 4-year-old’s bike; $150 for a weeklong rental of our 1992 Saab. I’m renting my old guitar to the tune of $50 a month.

This is huge. The fact that complete strangers are willing to pay me to rent my belongings-—the fact that I can make money from stuff I wasn’t using anyway—is a breakthrough discovery on par with penicillin, the second law of thermodynamics, or the Snuggie.

Did I mention I’m making money from renting stuff I wasn’t using anyway? And that I can continue to cash in, again and again, on the same stuff? Take our backyard deck and barbecue. I’m charging a group of people $18 to use it while I’m not even home. I’ll be away meeting someone who’s renting our dog for $3 an hour.

Call me a rentrepreneur, one of the growing ranks of Americans who, in a postbinge economy, are finding creative ways to make a quick buck by hiring out their personal belongings. The movement is being fueled by a slew of new startups catering to what some are calling “collaborative consumption.” There are now sites to connect people who want to rent out their cars, couches, personal services, dinosaur costumes or clay-pigeon launchers ($12 per day on Zilok.com). For renters, the sites offer goods and services for a relative bargain (weekly rates for a rental car where I live in Berkeley, Calif., can be twice what I charged). More than that, they’re a chance to bypass corporate America at a time when corporate America is in the dog house. Why endure the long waits, high prices, and surly staff at your big-box tool-rental counter when you can pick up Rob Baedeker’s electric sander for a song—and go home with a smile?

There’s a virtue in this business, too, part of a postrecession shift from a throw-away society to a new economy of reuse. My customers might be in the 99 percent, but they’re not broke or unemployed. Same goes for my fellow rentrepreneurs. Yet after witnessing the fallout from a half-century-long frenzy of conspicuous consumption, a whole generation of us is now reexamining the long-forgotten “waste not” maxim exemplified by the sugar-packet-saving thriftiness of our grandparents. I can almost hear my Depression-hardened Nana speaking to me from the grave: “You’ve got all this crap lying around, man. Put it to use!”

And the cash does come in handy. My wife and I, both writers and editors, make a decent income for now, but why not make a little extra scratch on the side for our daughter’s college savings, or a remote-control pool shark? (I can always recoup the money by renting the shark out later.)

I kick off my experiment with our most prized possession: an old camping trailer we park on the side yard of our (rented) three-bedroom bungalow. Lots of memories in there—and lots of potential for income. I create an account at Airbnb.com, a San Francisco–based company that matches travelers with hosts. I list our trailer for $45 a night.

Almost immediately, I get a request from a user named “Lee N.” His picture shows a thin, 40-ish, goateed man wearing those sunglasses that darken as it gets brighter. In our exchanges, “Lee” signs his name “Ron.”

I call him up. “Is it Ron, or Lee?”

“Oh! My name is Ronald Lee,” he says. “I answer to either.”

It’s a known fact that all serial killers have three names, and Lee is the most common middle name. But after a few minutes chatting with Ron/Lee, I get a good vibe.

However, by the time Ron/Lee and I talk, I’ve already received another offer from a guy named Etan B., who has three positive reviews and whose profile says he “likes tech startups and food!” I accept Etan’s offer, and I chalk up $184 in the “plus” column. (Airbnb takes a 3 percent cut and mails me a check once he arrives at my house.)

I want to keep Ron/Lee on the hook, though, so I ask if he’d be interested in sleeping on an air mattress in our office for a discount rate? He offers $25 a night for four nights.

Bringing my total rental income to $284.

Then I remember that we don’t have an air mattress—my wife gave it away when we bought the trailer. So I borrow one from my friend John. He doesn’t ask why I need it, and I don’t tell. (Is it ethical to rent out a mattress I borrowed from my friend? For $100 dollars, I am willing to table the question.)

Ron/Lee arrives on a Thursday evening. Before he’s in the door, his arm is extended, five $20 bills in hand, like a super-cooperative mugging victim. In real life, Ron/Lee looks much younger than he does in his photo (he’s 35). He’s in town to attend a computer-programming camp. He’s wearing those five-finger neoprene shoes and describes himself as “kind of a weird neo-hippie.” But it turns out he’s not weird at all—he’s delightful! A couple days later, after Ron/Lee brings my daughter some robot stickers from his computer camp, my wife, Laura, will hold her hand on her heart and whisper to me, “He’s so sweet.”

Ron/Lee is away from our house during most of his stay, deep into what he calls a “coding sprint,” but when we do see him, he is courteous, intelligent, and kind.

Etan arrives the day after Ron/Lee. He’s also a model guest. He’s just moved here to work as a customer-service rep?.?.?.?at Airbnb! (The company is growing rapidly. Last year at this time, it had 18 employees; there are now more than 200). Etan has already started his job, and he works the 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift. We barely see him, but he leaves Greek yogurts in our fridge and tells us to help ourselves, which I do, sharing a blueberry-flavored Chobani with my daughter.

Once you’ve rented out extra space in your home, everything starts to look like a dormant cash cow. I put more of my stuff up for rent on Craigslist and on a few peer-to-peer rental sites: Zilok.com, Rentalic.com, and SnapGoods.com. I post my daughter’s red wagon, my wife’s Vitamix blender, and my landlord’s weed whacker (the moral code I follow on these items—which aren’t technically “mine”—is “what they don’t know won’t hurt them.” I think it comes from Socrates).

I put a flier up in our neighborhood with the headline, “Need a weed whacker?” and then a list of my tools and other items for rent. I also announce my available services via email, Twitter, Facebook, and a blog post. Some things I’m good at: listening, keeping old people company, life coaching.

A woman named Bridget emails me to say she hates mailing packages. “I’d pay through the nose,” she writes. We agree to a fee of $20 dollars for mailing two boxes.

Which brings my total to $304.

Make that $454. That night, I rent my car for $150 to a woman living in France who’s coming to San Francisco for some kind of art show. Her name is Hillary, and she explains she’d rather rent a car—especially a car with some character, like our old Saab—from an individual than through a car company (“they always hit you with extra fees,” she says). I drop the car at the airport, leaving the key hidden in the wheel well. She texts me the next day to say everything went sans problème.

Late one night, I’m drinking wine and surfing the Internet in the living room. A key turns in the front door, and Ron/Lee enters. He sits down to take off his five-finger shoes, and we talk about his day—he’s thinking big, connecting open-source code with the nonhierarchical politics of Occupy Wall Street.

Ron is an early adopter of a system that many predict will one day be ubiquitous: this new society of sharing. He is intoxicated by its possibilities. He might also be a little bit literally intoxicated, too. But that’s OK. So am I.

After I go to bed, I hear him playing my guitar. He’s got a soothing voice.

Which gives me an idea. I find a woman named Rachel who wants to rent my guitar for her husband, Josh. Though Josh earns a good income working in investment management, Rachel thinks it’d be wiser to rent a guitar for two weeks to see if he’s serious about playing before shelling out a couple hundred bucks for a new instrument.

We agree to $25 bucks for a half month, and I drop it off at their house.

I mention to my wife that I’ve put her new Vitamix blender up for rent on Rentalic.com, a new site that calls itself a “person-to-person rental marketplace,” which not only helps people make—or save—money, but also helps the environment. Regardless, my wife is not cool with that. I apologize, but leave the ad online, using the “ask forgiveness instead of permission” system of ethics. That, I believe, comes from Confucius.

Then I have an epiphany: I’ve been overlooking one of our biggest rentable assets, which is idling right under our noses: our border collie, Clementine. Surely there’s a dog lover out there who can’t afford the full-time commitment (or who’s been forbidden to own one by some kind of court order?).

I put an ad on Craigslist:

Rent my dog!—$3 (berkeley)

Sweet 7-year-old Border Collie available for leisure/companionship. Take her for a walk: a great way to strike up conversations with strangers and perhaps meet someone special? Throw the ball with her for an hour and you’ll both be reinvigorated.

This is a real offer. $3 an hour OBO.

The next day I get an email from a woman named Jude Bell. “What a brilliant idea? [sic]” she writes. She is a kind-sounding 60-year-old financial analyst working at UC Berkeley. She says she “can’t get enough of dogs” and that her landlord won’t let her have one.

It is at this moment I realize I am a true genius: I’ve just discovered a way for people to pay me to walk my dog.

Jude and I arrange to meet on campus during her lunch hour, and Jude takes Clementine to a nearby soccer field and plays fetch while I hang around, to make sure Clemmy doesn’t get dognapped.

Jude points out a couple of her co-workers, who are leaning on a nearby chain-link fence, giving me the stink eye. Jude says her colleagues said this all sounded like a “Ponzi scheme.” (I’m not sure what a dog-renting Ponzi scheme would look like, but I get their skepticism.)

By the time I arrive home, there’s a $3 credit in my PayPal account, along with a message from Jude: “I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun for $3! I thoroughly enjoyed every moment.” (Mental note: I definitely undercharged her).

The woman in our shower—her name is Megan—turns out to be friendly and considerate. So is her boyfriend, Mason. They’re from Portland, Ore.: he’s 23 and an editor at a sustainable-business website; she’s 28 and is an unemployed elementary-school teacher. They booked our trailer for three days through Airbnb.com, adding another $131 to my haul.

When Megan and Mason depart, they leave a nice note in the trailer, along with a subway ticket with $6.85 left on it.

I add that amount to my total, bringing my two-week windfall to $654.85.

Extra income is one of the big draws of “collaborative consumption.” But the movement’s evangelists point to a few other conditions that make our time ripe for an economy of sharing: the global financial crisis has catalyzed a new mindset of resourcefulness. There’s widespread awareness of the environmental consequences of throwaway consumption; re-use (and hence rental) is gaining traction. Social media is more pervasive, and serves as a convenient credibility check (many sites require renters to log in through Facebook, as a guard against false identities).

Collaborative consumption advocates also talk a lot about the modern longing for community. About the fact that we have unprecedented access to information, yet we barely know our neighbors.

In their book What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers write that the movement is enabling people not only to realize the benefits of access to things (versus ownership), but also to “make new friends; and become active citizens once again.”

This actually makes sense. Just ask my daughter, who has started looking forward to each new guest, calling them our “new friends.”

Me, I’m planning to blow my $654.85 wad on an “apology” vacation with my wife, to make up for trying to rent her fancy blender. (I’ve actually still left the post online, but please don’t tell her. I think when she sees we can make money from it instead of just letting it idle, she’ll come around.)

P.S. If you’re interested in renting a great blender at an incredible price, shoot me an email. The dog’s included, too.

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