Finding the right job-or any job at all-can be tough these days.   Then there's the falling ax of downsizing. What to do? You might think about joining the growing number of people who are buying franchise businesses. Peter Birkeland, a local consultant and author of Franchising Dreams, sees more and more would-be entrepreneurs and career changers going that route, especially "those who want a business on their own but don't want to build it from scratch."

Fast-food chains are the "Big Macs" of the business, making up a third of all franchises. But you can also find hotel, car rental, and cleaning services companies, among many others.   Here's a closer look at some of the top national franchises and a few locally based chains of note-as well as the start-up costs for each.

Largest U.S. Franchises
(by number)

1. McDonald's Corp.
2. Yum Brands (KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell)
3. 7-Eleven

4. Cendant Corp.
(hotels, rental cars, real estate, travel)

5. Subway
Source: International Franchise Association

Five Fastest-Growing U.S. Franchises
(by number of new units, 2004 to 2005)

Start-up Costs
1. Subway
$70,000 to $220,000
2. Pizza Hut
$1.1 million to $1.7 million
3. Quiznos Sub
$71,700 to $251,100

4. Jan-Pro Franchising Int'l
(commercial cleaning)

$3,300 to $49,900

5. Curves
(women's fitness/weight-loss centers)

$38,400 to $53,500
Source: Entrepreneur Magazine


Chicago-Based Franchises
  Oberweis Ice Cream and Dairy Store
Franchise fee: $32,000 to $40,000
Total start-up costs: $497,000 to $756,000
Requires a minimum net worth of $750,000-one-third in liquid capital
Franchise fee: $45,000
Total start-up costs: $610,750 to $1.2 million
Requires at least $200,000 in personal wealth
  Ace Hardware
Franchise fee: none ($5,000 application fee; $5,000 initial ownership stock investment)
Total start-up costs: $650,000 to $1 million
Requires $150,000 liquid capital
Source: Oberweis, McDonald's, Ace Hardware