By Amy Feldman

By Amy E. Feldman

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – How many monthly payments is that doggie in the window?

A San Diego couple was horrified after bringing home the Bichon Frise puppy they thought they’d bought through a financing plan at a pet shop to realize that all they were doing was leasing the pet for $95 per month for 27 months – after which they’d have the option to buy the dog outright for another $187 or terminate the lease for a final $95 payment and give the dog back. If, however, they ended the arrangement early, they’d be liable for penalties and fees.

Um, sounds illegal, no? Actually, no.

While the pet shop admits it needs to do a better job of educating its customers on the arrangement (because who actually reads those silly papers before signing anyway), assuming that the couple wasn’t deceived, there’s nothing illegal about a rent-to-own plan, even ones that involve a big final buyout, and even one that requires you give it back at the end if you can’t pay the buyout.

There are actually benefits to this type of plan if it involves technology or vehicles, which you can give back at the end of the term and upgrade to later models. There are legal pitfalls – if the actual owner loses ownership through foreclosure or bankruptcy, your payments might not transfer to a share of ownership.

So, investigate the lessor before plunking down money. And investigate dog shelters where you can get your choice of puppy for free that you don’t ever have to return.