"Oh, I checked every place in town, and they were outrageous," says Shannon Kelly. "It would be anywhere from $4 to $500, and I just don't have that right now."
Kelly had just walked into Rent N Roll, a rent-to-own tire store in Ocala, Fla. She was looking to rent a set of tires for her truck. Tire rental stores like this one have been around for a while, but until recently, most of their customers rented fancy rims. These days, it's becoming more common for the stores to rent simple tires to people who don't have the cash to buy tires outright.
Customers like Kelly can walk out of the store with a new set of tires for about $30 — and a promise to make lots more payments in the future. In the long run, some renters wind up paying twice as much for their tires as they would have paid if they'd bought them outright.
Lots of factors have driven more people to rent tires. Tighter credit means fewer people using credit cards to buy tires. Stagnant wages and high unemployment make it hard for many people to come up with enough cash to buy new tires. The price of rubber went up a while ago.
And, in 2009, the U.S. imposed a tariff on Chinese tires as part of a trade fight. That drove up the price not only of imported Chinese tires, but also of other tires, which no longer had to compete with the cheap Chinese imports. By the time the tariff was removed last October, the price of imported tires had risen roughly 40 percent. And that rippled all through the tire market.
Even if tire prices start to come back down, the tire rental business isn't going anywhere.
"I understand that I'll probably end up paying a lot," says Lyn Warren, a manager at McDonald's, who just signed up to rent brand new tires for his 2000 Honda. "But right now, I need the tires."
Correction June 21, 2013
In the audio of this story, we incorrectly refer to a Cadillac 300. The car is actually a Chrysler 300.