What do Senator-elect S.I. Hayakawa, D.C. City Councilman Marion Barry, sportcasters Warner Wolf and Klaus Wagner, a member of President Ford's cabinet, and several of the Washington Bullets have in common?
According to Alan Burfoot and Tammy Berube - who should know - they've all rented furniture at one time or another or, in the case of Sen. Hayakawa, plan to. Burfoot is an assistant manager with Certified Leasing Company, while Berube is D.C. showroom manager for Cort (formerly Allstate) Furniture Rental. Both Cort and Certified, which have several showrooms in the metropolitan area, claim to be the area's largest furniture rental company.
Every year thousands of people who are in Washington for a limited time, and who manage to arrange a short-term apartment lease turn to one of the area's furniture rental companies.However, furniture renters are just as likely to rent for a variety of other reasons. Some are newly wed, newly separated or people who apparently have no permanent commitment to furniture.
In addition, a change of administration is good news for the rental business. Tonya Rash, an account executive with Cort says, "I can see it now. I'm a Southerner and I went into shock when I moved up here three years ago from Raleigh (N.C.). I was paying $179/month for a luxury two-bedroom apartment. Here lots of furnished apartments are either unavailable or they're dumps." Burfoot agrees with Rash. "The Carter people went through a period where they were astonished. Now they're starting to look around and come in."
A much smaller, more exclusive and more expensive company is Antique and Contemporary Leasing of Georgetown, founded in 1974 by interior designer Leezee Porter. Porter says she became interested in the rental business because "I didn't see why rental furniture had to be the sort of stuff that leaves one less than enthusiastic about going home at night." Porter says she's gearing her business to incoming members of Congress and their staffs.
Some renters are referred by big apartment complexes like Capitol Park and the Watergate, which lease unfurnished apartments and send their tenants to pick out furniture. The rent on the furniture may be included with the apartment rent.
Renting furniture is one solution for someone who's in town for a short or indefinite period or who doesn't want to accumulate furniture, and doesn't mind picking and choosing from a selection that is likely to include lots of shiny vinyl and laminated plastic.
Items at Cort and Certified showrooms are individually priced. A beige canvas chair for $5 per month an etagere for $6, a ginger jar lamp for $2 all sound inexpensive.
So how do these items add up to several hundred dollars for a six-month or year's rental?
Part of the answer lies in the concept of rental packages. Cort and Certified offer basic groupings of furniture which vary according to price and type-of furniture.
Cort's cheapest package for a one-bedroom apartment rents for $35/month. It includes a living room set (sofa, chair, two end tables, a coffee table, two lamps), a dining room set (a table and four chairs), a bedroom set (dresser, mirror, nighstand, lamp and single or double bed). Certified's bottom-of-the-line $35 package is similar. Both companies also offer a $20/month package for efficiency apartments.
Customers also have the option to - in the language of the companies' brochures - "mix and match." If you don't like the "sophisticate" sofa you can substitute one from the "fiesta group," but mixing pieces is generally more expensive. After a year you can buy the furniture.
A customer who rents a basic $35 package from Cort or Certified will pay about $513 for a year, $350 for 6 months. Anything less than a year's rental is more expensive because of additional monthly service charges. Cort imposes a 20% service charge for a 6-8 month rental and a 40% charge for 3-5 months.
Where did all the $513 come from?
For openers, the $35 package really rents for $42.75 a month at Cort, including tax and something called a waiver or insurance fee, which purportedly frees the customer from liability for things like damage by flood. That, plus a refundable security deposit equal to a month's rent and a $30 roundtrip delivery fee makes what once seemed a good deal considerably less attractive.
Cort and Certified customers must also sign a lease that states that the company must be given 30 days written notice before picking up the furniture. Certified's lease contains a provision whereby the company may at any time enter an apartment and inspect the furniture.
Both companies leases contain waiver clauses which apply to military and diplomatic personnel and state that upon written proof of transfer, a customer is liable for only one month's rent, which generally means that the company simply keeps the security deposit.
Is the furniture new? One Cort showroom manager says, "It's all in nearly new condition. We say it's pre-leased but refurbished. We don't say 'used' because it has a bad sound to it."
Tammy Berube of Cort says, "We do have a lot of new furniture but it doesn't usually go out on short term leases."
Certified's D.C. manager Les Adams says that all his merchandise is new. According to Adams, Certified sells its used merchandise to an affiliated compnay, B&O Salvage.
Cort is owned by Mohasco Industries, a corporation whose holdings include Mohawk Carpet, Stratford furniture, Monarch Furniture and Barcalounger. According to Tonya Rash, "A lot of our furniture comes from our parent company (Mohasco) in Amsterdam, N.Y. Someone up there likes something and ships it down to us and says 'Rent it.'"
Both companies offer a purchase option after a year's rental. A Cort customer must buy the entire package, not just individusl pieces. Payment must be made in full within 30 days. Certified customers can buy individual items and continue making monthly payments.
How do prices on individual items of rental furniture - which may be used - compare with similar or identical new items available at retail stores?
Les Adams claims, "Item per item, you can't buy furniture cheaper than through us." According to Adams, retail stores offering merchandise comparable to Certified include Levitz, Hub, Marlow and Montgomery Ward.
But, says Adams, "I think our furniture is constructed better than retail (merchandise) because it's got to be more durable."
It's impossible to make exact comparisons between rental furniture and apparently similar items in retail stores because of differences in manufacturer, color, covering and quality of construction. However, certain rough comparisons are possible for objects which serve similar purposes.
Most of Cort's and Certified's lamps rent for $2/month which means that a year's rent on a ginger-jar lamp would be $24. (All figures reflect base prices on individual items for a twelve month rental only and do not include service charge, delivery, insurance fees and tax.)
Lamps Unlimited recently had a sale on small table lamps, including ginger jar style. They cost $10.98 each, tax not included.
Cort rents a contemporary chrome and canvas chair for $5/month or $60/year. Marlow recently advertised a similar chair for $37. Cort also rents a Bentwood rocker for $8/month or $60/year. Pier I recently had a sale on Bentwood rockers for $59.88 each.
Certified rents plastic parsons tables for $1.50/pair or $18/year. Similar tables retail for $5.95 each at Hechinger's, which periodically marks them down to $4.44 each.
Reaction to rental experiences varies. Nancy Purvis, assistant director of women's activities for the National Rifle Association is renting furniture for a year. "The company has been very helpful, I've rented very nice things," she says.
Mary Lynn Hallmark, a legal secretary, remembers her furniture renting experience with distaste. "I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. The cost was exhorbitant. And the furniture I saw in the showroom was one thing, but the stuff they delivered was quite another. I assumed that 'rent with option to buy' meant the furniture would be new, but mine was in pretty bad condition."
There is another alternative. John Mathewson, 29, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics decided against renting furniture. "The first summer I was here I went to garage sales. For $70 I bought a queen-size mattress, box spring and frame, a chair and ottoman, two end tables, a coffee table, a dresser, a lamp and two prints of Paris, all of which I later sold to a friend for the same price."