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The Dark Side of Leasing: What Car Buyers Should Know

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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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.

Advertiser Disclosure: The card offers that appear on this site are from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all card companies or all card offers available in the marketplace.

Martha Michael
Martha Michael |

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

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This Woman Fell Into a Used Car Loan Trap — Now She’s Fighting Back

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Mary McDuffie Morton, 31, was sued by an auto financing company after she stopped making payments on a used car that had mechanical issues. Now the mother of four, who said she was misled by the company, is fighting their claims in court.

This story is Part I of a MagnifyMoney investigation into the risky business of subprime auto lending. Read Part II here.

In the summer of 2013, Mary McDuffie Morton, 31, needed money to buy a car. At the time, the recently divorced mother of four had a poor credit history. So she was excited to hear she could get a subprime loan at a used auto dealership in Bronx, N.Y.

“It [seemed] too good to be true,” Mary recalls. “As long you have a job, you’re approved. It’s like wow, OK, I’m guaranteed approval.”

Nationwide, customers like Mary owe more than a quarter-billion dollars in high-interest, high-risk subprime auto loans. A recent report by Moody’s Investors Service found that Santander Consumer USA Holdings Inc., a major originator of subprime auto loans, has been slacking when it comes to verifying the income reported by loan applicants, according to Bloomberg. This can make it easier for car buyers to take on more debt than they can afford to repay.

But big banks aren’t the biggest problem in auto lending. About three-fourths of subprime auto loans do not originate in banks or credit unions. Instead, they are often signed at car lots like the one in Bronx, N.Y., where Mary was lured by the promise of easy credit.

In many cases, those customers are taken for a ride by predatory dealerships and finance companies alike.

“Their main job is not to care for you. It’s to care for their pocketbook, and that’s all they’re there for,” says Remar Sutton, a former car dealer turned consumer advocate.

“How many of you have seen the ads that say, ‘No credit, bad credit, no worries, we’re the credit fixer’? That is not why those ads are running. Those ads are running because they know if you think you have bad credit, you will pay anything for a car, and they’ll knock a home run on you,” warns Sutton.

That’s what happened to Mary. To buy a used 2003 GMC Envoy XL, the dealer told her she needed to first borrow roughly $7,000.

“The dealership told me they were going to shop around for lenders for me – and they were going to call one and get back to me,” Mary says.

The dealer selected Dependable Credit Corp. of Yonkers, N.Y. The interest rate on Mary’s loan was a whopping 24.9% – just one-tenth of a point below the threshold of criminal usury in New York State.

Mary signed the contract, despite an interest rate so high that it was nearly illegal.

“I was scared that if I didn’t go along with that deal, I wouldn’t get a car, ” she says.

The Secret Bonus

Like many lenders that work with auto dealers, to get business from dealers, Dependable offers them a secret bonus. It’s called a “Dealer Reserve Advance,” and it can add an extra two points of interest to the consumer’s loan. The dealer keeps 70% of it as a reward for making the referral to the finance company.

“When you go into that dealership, do you think they’re going to point you in the direction of a cheap loan? Of course not. They’re going to send you to the finance source that will pay them cash up front on the loan,” says Sutton.

Dependable executives did not respond to multiple requests for an interview or comment.

On its website, the finance company claims it does business with 250 used car dealers in seven states – Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and New York – and has financed more than $200 million in loans.

“They’re in hundreds of dealerships because they’re making millions of dollars, because people who are poor, people who are worried about their credit, are being taken advantage of by that business,” says Sutton, a co-founder of FoolProof, a nonprofit website devoted to consumer education.

Mary said the vehicle she purchased had mechanical problems that the dealer refused to fix. Sensing that she was being cheated, the former Bronx resident refused to make loan payments until she received a title proving she owned the car.

“They sold me a lemon,” complains Mary. “I knew that the deal was just a big scam.”

A Long Fight in Court

Dependable repossessed the Envoy when Mary’s payments were five weeks delinquent. By the time she received the title, the car was gone – and she was thousands of dollars in debt.

According to records obtained by MagnifyMoney, the finance company sold the vehicle to an undisclosed owner for $4,200 – a price that was $5,000 less than what Mary paid just four months earlier.

Then Dependable sued her in Bronx County Civil Court for a bill packed with extra charges. The tally includes nearly $1,200 in repairs by Westchester Auto Center and more than $1,700 in storage fees charged by Saw Mill River Realty.

The three businesses are located at the same address. State records show that all three share the same chief executive.

Dependable continues to charge Mary 24.9% interest on a loan for a car it repossessed and sold to someone else three years ago. Last year, the company told the court Mary owes nearly $11,000.

“Unfortunately, most places that want to make you a subprime loan simply want to make more money on you,” says Sutton.

With the help of a legal aid group, Mary is countersuing. She alleges she was cheated through deception and illegal business practices by the finance company and the dealer.

In a counterclaim filed by Mary’s attorney, Shanna Tallarico with the New York Legal Assistance Group, in October 2016, Mary claims that the dealer also required her to trade in her 2004 Cadillac CTS in order to purchase the used Envoy.  The dealership agreed to give her just $1,900 for the vehicle, citing “a significant problem with the Cadillac’s engine,” according to Mary’s counterclaim. Days later, she claims the dealership listed that same Cadillac for sale for $9,999.

Efforts to reach the dealer for comment were unsuccessful. Mary’s case is still pending, Tallarico says.

“I felt like I had just thrown money in the garbage,” says Mary. “The whole experience was a waste of money.”

How to Buy a Used Car Without Being Cheated

Shop for financing before you look for a vehicle: The subprime interest rate a credit union can offer may be half of what a car dealer charges you. Don’t assume that your poor credit history means you won’t have a shot at getting a loan from a reputable lender. It’s perfectly fine to get your own financing outside of a dealer — and, as our story shows, it’s often much more affordable. To make matters better, if you come in with a verified offer from another lender, the dealer has an incentive to try to beat their offer.

Check your credit score yourself: Don’t take a dealer’s word on it when it comes to your credit. Your score may be good enough to qualify for a better rate on a loan elsewhere, but the dealer may not want you to know that. You can check your credit score on a number of sites for free, including the Discover Scorecard. And again, if you shop around for rates before you go to the dealer, you will know exactly what rates you deserve — and when they are offering you a bad deal.

Buy a car that works: Bring a mechanic or a knowledgeable friend to check it out before you decide. You can also check the vehicle’s background by getting a vehicle history report through resources such as the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, CARFAX, and AutoCheck.

Buy a car you can afford: If a dealer makes promises, be sure to get it in writing. Go in with a firm idea of what kind of car you want and how much you can afford to pay.

And slow down: Never sign a contract in a hurry. Dealers may be friendly, but they’re not really your friend. To double check a dealer’s reputability, check out their reviews and rating on the Better Business Bureau website.

Additional reporting by Mandi Woodruff

Advertiser Disclosure: The card offers that appear on this site are from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all card companies or all card offers available in the marketplace.

Mark Lagerkvist
Mark Lagerkvist |

Mark Lagerkvist is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Mark here

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