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Rent or Buy a Water Softener: Which Is Right for You?

Published May 24, 2023
Written by Eric Smith
Rent or Buy a Water Softener: Which Is Right for You?

Team Austin’s Master Tradesman busts rental companies’ manufactured myths.

Water softener rental is a thing of the past-or at least, it should be. What makes rental such an appealing option, anyway? Why shouldn’t you rent your water softener? Get answers to these questions and more by reading our Q&A session below.

Q: How did water softener rental even become a thing?

Great question! So glad you asked. Water softeners are the only plumbing appliance people rent as opposed to buying. There’s got to be a reason why, so let’s think critically about it.

The popularity of soft water really started gaining traction in the mid-’80s, before consumer financing for home services became the norm. You may remember that interest rates were burgeoning well past 10% at the time, sometimes even surpassing 15% or 20%. Also, water softeners were not a retro-fit item. Wisconsin homeowners, especially those who’d just had a house newly built, had a heck of a time justifying the additional purchase.

The thing is, manufacturing and installation weren’t cheap, either. When you look at other home appliances back then, water softener installs were comparatively expensive-for the company performing them. They had a surplus of this new technology, but no good way to market it.

So the manufacturers hatched a plan to make their product look so non-committal that everyone would go for it, because why not? They offered the appliance for pennies a day and got customers hooked in the meantime. By renting out their water softeners, these companies were able to cover equipment costs in the short-term and actually profit in the long-term. Thus began soft water’s slow transformation from a rare luxury to a commonplace necessity in the eyes of the public.

Q: Why does renting soft water seem like a good idea today?

Reason #1: Little-to-no cost upfront.

“Upfront” is the key word here. Most rental companies on the market in Southeastern Wisconsin charge only for installation, which is typically between $600 and $900 (hey, it beats the purchase price). Some even rent their water softeners out for no money down, if you can believe it. If you’re thinking that sounds too good to be true, you’re right: there’s a catch. We’ll get to that soon.

Reason #2: No maintenance expenses.

Rather than coming out of the renter’s pocket, maintenance is on the owner of the equipment (that is, the water softener installation company). Well, that’s technically true. They’re certainly hoping to get it out of your pockets over time…and then some.

The deal looks pretty good from the surface. From West Bend to Waukesha, to Oconomowoc and everywhere in between, soft water rentals seem to cap out at $40 per month, and many are as low as $20/mo. But for discussion’s sake, let’s assume the median price of $30. If such is your case, then you’re only paying a dollar a day for a totally hassle-free, soft-water experience!


Q: What do the soft water companies gain from renting their product out so cheap?

For the water softener company, it’s simple math. Once you sign their rental agreement, they can rest pretty well assured that they’ll end up having their cake and eating it, too.

Sure, you only need one water softener. But in 15 years’ time (roughly the lifespan of a rented water softener), you will have paid in full for at least two of them. If, by any chance, you’re planning to stay in your current home for the next 30-ish years, then make that three or four water softeners.

After the install fee-which, as previously stated, they typically charge upfront-the water softener company recoups all equipment, materials, and labor in just the first few years of rental income. And after recouping their initial investment (with interest, by the way), you become an annuity. It’s free money every month for them, for the next 10+ years.

By the way, remember what we said about “no maintenance expenses”? Water softeners almost never actually require repairs. On the occasion that they do, it’s a very minor outlay for the company to pay. Any money you happen to save here will represent but a tiny fraction of your total interest payments.

The Insidiousness of Rent-to-own Water Softener Installations

Over time, the word “rent” has gained its fair share of negative connotations. From an equity standpoint, people today are more or less aware that they’re getting nothing in return for their rentals. That awareness is a good thing for consumers to have.

In keeping up with the metagame, water softening companies have started to spin their offer as a “rent-to-own” proposition. Why don’t you just take it home and see how you like it? Of course, most people quickly realize that they prefer life with soft water to life without it. That’s the classic puppy-dog close-meaning the sale was as good as closed before you had even made up your mind; you just didn’t know it yet.

Here’s how “renting to own” actually works. The water softening company will collect your payments over about three years, this time without interest, before presenting you the option of buying out of the agreement. If you buy out now, the company makes an instant profit. If you don’t, they still win by continuing to collect payments in excess of the principal. It’s ideal for them if these payments go on indefinitely.

In cases where they can combine their installation fee with a high-interest, in-house financing program, the soft water company has truly achieved minimum risk with a high probability of maximum return.

Smart Money Doesn’t Rent Water Softeners-It Buys!

Little money down plus a dollar a day doesn’t seem all that bad if what you get for it is a lifetime of soft water. Still, the math doesn’t lie. Think of it this way. Even at a very high interest rate of eight percent, you can realistically finance a water softener to own it after five years of $30 monthly payments. The average water softener in our market lasts about 15 years. Knowing that, you’ll realize that after financing, the following 10 years of soft water are yours for free.

It makes sense that one would wish to avoid that level of interest in this day and age-but the alternative usually looks something like 15 years of rental. That ends up being far more expensive. We recommend either paying cash or, if that’s not possible, financing a zero-percent or fixed-rate water softener, which we provide to our customers all the time.

Fact: We sell our water softeners for less money than any rental.

Austin Plumbing, Heating & Air is made up of master tradesmen who’ve worked with industry leaders in plumbing and HVAC financing for more than eight decades. Financing options for water softeners as well as iron curtain filters are available as soon as you need them. It’s easy to apply, and it’s a better investment than renting. For rent free soft water- Call Austin Plumbing, Heating & Air today at 262-367-3808. Or book an appointment online.

About The Author: Eric Smith
Eric Smith is a 3rd generation State of Wisconsin Master Plumber, Water Well Pump Installer, Plumbing Contractor, Water Well Contractor, HVAC Contractor and Water Treatment Expert and the owner of Austin Plumbing, Heating & Air.