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The Dark Side of Leasing: What Car Buyers Should Know

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Leasing a car can be the right decision in some cases. You can enjoy driving a new car without putting down a large sum of money or slide behind the wheel of a used car with little investment.

The average lease payment in 2016 was $120 less than an average finance payment on a new car, according to a 2017 report from Edmunds, a car-comparison and research site. For large pickup trucks, the savings were even higher: $206.

Lease contracts also require less commitment because they last an average 36 months, while finance agreements average 69 months, Edmunds reports.

What you need to know about leasing a car

For drivers who are unlikely to exceed a contract’s mileage cap and will take good care of the vehicle, leasing can be a good option.

A growing number of Americans are leasing instead of purchasing, according to the 2017 Manheim Used Car Report. A record-breaking 4.4 million new leases originated in 2016, according to the Atlanta-based provider of vehicle remarketing services. (Edmunds puts that number at 4.3 million, but either way, it’s a new high.) Leases also exceed 30 percent of the new vehicle market for the first time ever in 2016, Edmunds reports.

But there’s a dark side to leasing. Autos were the number one subject of consumer complaints in 2016, according to the Consumer Complaint Survey Report conducted by Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and the North American Consumer Protection Investigators (NACPI). The report cited multiple complaints about leasing, including used-car leasing.

“It seems like more and more people are not wanting to fork out lots of money for a new car, which makes sense. But it’s very shocking to see a growing number of people lease used cars when they don’t have protection,” says Amber Capoun, president of NACPI.

While the cheaper price tag on a used car lease can be enticing, consumers leasing older cars may lose protection if it is no longer covered by a warranty, says Mark Anderson, a consumer protection attorney at Anderson, Ogilvie & Brewer in San Francisco.

Must-know facts about leasing

If you are considering leasing a car, watch out for these six pitfalls.

1. Credit score hit

When you lease a car, a credit inquiry is conducted, just like when applying for a car loan. Your credit score will fall slightly, but it can be rebuilt by making timely payments.A lease payment may be less per month than a finance payment, but missing a payment or ending your lease early can further reduce your credit. If you don’t have a strong credit history, you may need a co-signer. However, both you and your co-signer should be aware that late payments can damage both credit scores.

2. High interest rates

At first glance, the interest rate — the amount you pay for borrowing the lease company’s money while you drive their car — may appear lower than the annual percentage rate (APR) you would pay to finance a vehicle. That is because the rate is expressed in the leasing agreement as the “money factor” and is a very small number, like 0.0022. To calculate your lease’s APR, multiple the money factor by 2,400, which would be 5.28% APR.

The interest rates on used cars are usually even higher, since the vehicle value at the end of the lease is difficult to predict. Don’t forget to multiply that low “money factor” to figure out your interest rate. It could make all the difference in your ability to afford leasing a car. Good credit will help you get a better interest rate.

3. Lack of consumer protection

An older car with higher mileage may have exceeded its warranty by the time you lease it, which means you are responsible for repairs that would have been covered under a warranty on a newer car, or a car with lower mileage.

The Consumer Leasing Act requires lessors to disclose certain information, including conditions for early termination, the lessor’s standards for wear and tear, and all fees and taxes before a lease is signed, but a company can take advantage of you if you are unprepared. Consumer protections and lemon laws differ state to state, Capoun says, and can leave drivers on the hook for costly repairs. While all lease agreements allow
for normal wear and tear, contracts vary greatly.

“You are the one who’s responsible if your car breaks down, so it’s very important to read the fine print before signing a lease and know what’s included in the contract,” Capoun says.

Consumers should also be wary of third-party “extended warranty” offers, which Anderson says are far more reliable than automakers in providing services and repairs.

“Lemon law applies to leases, but it won’t protect you if you don’t fulfill your payments. You’ll get hit by some steep fees,” Anderson says. “And people often forget leasing doesn’t mean you own the car. If you miss a payment and the car gets repossessed, you don’t have any rights.”

4. Hidden costs

Anything from a small scratch to ending your lease early could result in a hefty fee. The acquisition and delivery fees (which both range from $300 for compact cars to $900 for luxury vehicles) are some of the largest, and unexpected, expenses.

Upon returning your car, be prepared for the car to be looked over with scrutiny. The dealership wants the car returned in “salable” condition so it can be sold or leased to someone new at its highest value. Any damage or changes detract from that value, and you can be fined. If you want to make alterations to your car, they should not be permanent. You also will be responsible for the majority of the maintenance and repair costs, which add up the longer you lease.

Even leasing new cars can be dangerous, says Stacey Nix, a 52-year-old mother of three in Valdosta, Ga. Nix and her husband once leased a car, but say they never will again after being stuck with extra costs for exceeding the mileage limits stipulated in the leasing contract.

“I felt we were misled and not told all the facts,” she says.

Exceed that mileage limit — even by a mile — and you’ll be hit with another fee. Be sure to know exactly how many annual miles your contract allows, usually 15,000 miles or less, and keep an eye on your odometer. Mileage fees typically range from 15 cents to 30 cents per mile, depending on the vehicle.

5. Lack of equity

Over time you will likely end up paying more than the vehicle is worth, but you haven’t gained any equity toward buying a new vehicle. At the end of a lease, you do not own the vehicle, which means you cannot sell it and take advantage of its residual value and profit off the vehicle. Despite higher monthly costs, when you purchase a vehicle, its cash value is yours to do with it as you wish.

6. Pricey, and limited, exit options

Ending your lease early can result in having to pay anything from a fine to the remaining balance on your lease. No one can predict the future, so it is important to know your exit options, and how much each will cost, before signing your contract.

One exit option is buying the car outright. Each lease has different payoff or buyout options, some of which can be negotiated, but each car’s value varies so it is difficult to predict just how much your car will be worth. You also can trade in your car for one with a cheaper lease, but you will have to pay penalties and fees for ending the other lease early. Finding someone to take over your lease is another option, but yet again, you won’t avoid fees.

Tips for protecting yourself from a bad lease

1. Consider all of your options

Is leasing really for you? Once you sign a contract, you’re bound to that agreement. If you don’t think you will exceed the mileage allowance, damage the car, and have to end the lease early, and don’t mind not building equity, then leasing might be the right decision. The Federal Trade Commission has guidelines to help you decide whether you should finance or lease a car.

2. Remember the old school rules

Taking a car to a mechanic you trust first can prevent you from driving off the lot with a car full of problems. Asking about warranties and what is and isn’t covered by the dealership or the manufacturer can even save you legal trouble, Anderson says.

3. Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate

Everything from the overall price to aesthetic changes to a car can be negotiated. Good credit could give you the edge: Lessees had an average FICO Score of 716, eight points higher than new vehicle buyers, according to the Manheim survey. Other smaller fees, like document-processing fees to service fees, can be negotiated if you’re willing to put in the effort. Negotiations also can help save you money in unpredictable situations like accidents or terminating a lease early. Finally, never forget to ask about any leasing specials.

4. Understand your contract, down to the nitty-gritty

Leave with a copy of your lease so you always have the official contract to reference and can hold your lessor accountable to the agreement. You also can use the Consumer Leasing Act’s examination checklist to ensure all of the proper details are disclosed during a lease signing.

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Martha Michael
Martha Michael |

Martha Michael is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Martha here

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