Apr 3, 2013 · 3 minutes

A new online survey commissioned by home solar company Sunrun indicates that “disownership” is on the rise in America, with a majority of respondents saying they have rented, leased, or borrowed the sorts of items people traditionally own in the last two years.

The Harris Interactive survey of 2,252 adults, which wasn’t based on a probability sample, found that 52 percent of Americans have leased or borrowed items instead of buying them in the last two years, and 83 percent said they would rent, lease, or borrow items instead of buying them if they could do so easily.

The survey also found that 24 percent of respondents are more likely to engage in “disownership” now than five years ago. Furthermore, 49 percent said they plan to “disown” traditionally-owned items in the next two years. The leading reasons given for doing so were to save money (53 percent) and to cut down on storage and/or maintenance (39 percent).

Sunrun, which pays for and maintains solar panels for homes so that families can switch to clean energy, commissioned the survey because it believes that the movement towards “disownership” and the “access economy” represents a cultural shift – but there has so far been scant statistical verification of the trend.

“This is a new way of doing things that really reflects today’s economy and how people have been through one of the biggest downturns since the Great Depression, and they have a different way of viewing items and consumer goods,” says Sunrun spokesperson Susan Wise. The trend, she says, is “only going to grow from here.”

The results of the survey appear to back up that claim. Sunrun contends that the survey shows that “disownership” is not confined only to the young and hip Airbnb users of America’s coasts. In fact, 24 percent of respondents aged 55 years or over reported being much or somewhat more likely to rent, lease, or borrow items traditionally owned today than five years ago. Meanwhile, 52 percent of respondents aged between 45 and 54 said they had rented, leased, or borrowed these types of items in the last two years.

The “access economy” is also active in non-coastal parts of the US. Half of the respondents from the South said they plan to rent, lease or borrow traditionally-owned items in the next two years, along with 46 percent of those in the Midwest.

“Disownership is the new normal,” concludes Wise. “It’s not a passing trend.”

The items most commonly reported to be rented, leased, or borrowed instead of buying or owning them included vacation houses or rooms (52 percent), heavy equipment tools such as tractors and bulldozers (50 percent), books and textbooks (41 percent), household tools such as lawnmowers and leaf blowers (26 percent), and cars or trucks (25 percent).

Sunrun’s survey builds on similar claims about the rise of the “sharing economy” from other parts of the tech industry. Sunrun says the sharing economy is a subset of the broader “access economy,” which encompasses not just peer-to-peer marketplaces such as Airbnb and TaskRabbit, but also short-term rental services such as Zipcar and RentTheRunway.com.

Forbes recently estimated that the sharing economy will put $3.5 billion into people’s wallets this year, with growth exceeding 25 percent. The magazine also pointed out that the share of new cars bought by Americans aged 18 to 34 dropped from 16 percent in 2007 to 12 percent in 2002, according to Edmunds.com chief economist Lacey Plache.

At January’s PandoMonthly in San Francisco, Airbnb founder and CEO Brian Chesky told Sarah Lacy that we are only at Day Two in the sharing economy, which he said is a natural follow on to the mass production era that was ushered in by the Industrial Revolution. “The sharing economy is a form of trade,” Chesky said. “It’s an economy that just brings people together.”

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]