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Have You Joined the Sharing Economy?

Geoff Williams

What they told you in kindergarten is true: It's good to share. It's particularly good for the economy and can be helpful for consumers.

As you probably noticed, many companies have a business model dependent on people sharing consumer goods. Their websites match people who have a commodity and want to share it with others for a price. In the old days -- a few years ago -- we might have called this renting. But "sharing" has taken off, probably because it sounds much friendlier and more fun, and renting makes you think of contracts and hidden fees. Who doesn't like to share?

These days, you can share just about anything. You can find people willing to share their car with you or their time (for a price, of course).

Why has sharing taken off? "I think that it's a combination of frugality and being environmentally friendly," says Karl Petrick, assistant professor of economics at Western New England University in Springfield, Massachusetts. He adds that the Great Recession may have ended in 2009, "but we still feel it, with 10.5 million unemployed and around the same number underemployed, poor job prospects for everyone from new college graduates on down, and levels of income inequality that this country hasn't seen since the 1920s. That'll kind of impose frugality on you, and the sharing economy is one aspect of that."

[Read: How to Find the Best Parts of the Sharing Economy.]

That said, the sharing economy started before the recession. "The sharing economy started to develop at about mid-2000s not by accident, but actually due to new technologies and the Internet, which allows better contact and communication -- extremely important in the case of sharing," says Maria Petrescu, assistant professor of marketing at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Petrescu says another reason the sharing economy has taken root is because younger generations have changed when it comes to thinking about "ownership versus access." The environment is another factor, she says, and consumers are becoming more trusting.

"The young generation raised in the social media era is much more inclined toward collaboration," Petrescu says.

So if you're wondering what sharing services are out there, here are five examples.

Airbnb.com. Through this site, you can share your home for a rate you determine. Visitors can come when you're away, or they can stay in a spare room while you're there. Airbnb receives 3 percent of the rate you charge, and the company charges guests a 6 to 12 percent service fee when they make a reservation.

There have been some hiccups for the homeowner. The "Today" show recently featured a host who let someone rent his home while he was out of town, and when he returned, he found the place trashed (Airbnb paid the damages). There have also been questions about zoning and protests from some cities because Airbnb guests don't pay hotel taxes, although that's starting to change in places like San Francisco. The New York state attorney general has been fighting the company in court to get more regulation. But in general, this is a popular site in the sharing economy, with 34,000 homes currently participating.

[Read: What You Should Know Before Becoming a Landlord .]

Airbnb is hardly the only business that allows people to rent out rooms or their homes. Others include roomorama.com, bedycasa.com, VRBO.com and wimdu.com.

TaskRabbit.com. Here, you rent (sorry, share) somebody's time. Do you have errands or chores you can't accomplish or extra time on your hands? You can post a task on the site, such as picking up dry cleaning, and list the price you'll pay or solicit bids. And if you want to make some money and don't mind submitting to a background check, you can search for errands in your area. The service is available in 18 U.S. cities and London.

DogVacay.com. Through this site, you share your home with a dog (or share your dog with a homeowner). Rates begin at $25 a night and include pet insurance and daily photo updates. The idea is that instead of leaving your furry friend in a kennel while you're traveling, you can leave your dog at somebody's house, where he or she will hopefully be treated like one of the family. The service is available throughout most of the country and Canada.

And if DogVacay.com is the best-known name in this business, Rover.com is nipping at its heels.

Sidecar. With sidecar (www.side.cr), you share your car and your driving skills. Basically, you're a taxi. You'll have to get a background check and be fully vetted before you're allowed to drive, but, of course, the same can't be said for the riders. All rides are GPS-tracked, however, and the website promises that it has "many additional features in place to help maintain your safety and security."

You set the price. As Sidecar's website says, "Have a sweet car? Charge higher prices." Not surprisingly, taxi commissions in some cities haven't taken kindly to the competition and have argued for more regulation. And in some states, there have been questions about whether the service is even legal. But last year, the California Public Utilities Commission unanimously voted to legalize ride-sharing services, which was seen as a major coup for companies like this.

[See: 10 Unexpected Costs of Driving.]

So far, the service is available in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Long Beach, California, Seattle, Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C. But it's not the only player in the ride-sharing business. Others include taximagic.com, lyft.com and instantcab.com.

Pley.com. This company is often described as "Netflix for Legos." If your child loves Legos but you don't want to buy every Lego set available, you could simply order a set from time to time. After your child plays with the toys for a few days or indefinitely, you send them back (where they'll be sanitized before they are sent to a new family) and get a new set. More than 15,000 families have bought Pley subscriptions, which range from $15 to $39 a month, depending on the size of Lego sets you want.

The company eventually plans to rent out other toys and playthings, which is smart. Because sooner or later, there will be competition from other toy-sharing companies. But currently, Pley.com seems to be the only game in town.

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