11 Things to Know Before You Lease a Car

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Nearly one quarter of new cars in America are sold under lease agreement, and low monthly payments entice buyers who want to drive new cars, but don’t want to deal with a large cash outlay.

Lessees don’t build equity in their vehicle, but for the right person, a lease can be a good option. These are things you need to know before you consider a lease.

1. The best way to think about a lease

It’s best to think of a lease as a pay for use contract. A lease allows you to pay for the depreciation you put onto a vehicle at a reasonable interest rate. You get to drive and depreciate a vehicle for a certain period of time then you can walk away.

Due to higher markups, higher interest rates and additional fees, leasing tends to be an unfavorable financing mechanism, but if you don’t care about owning the car, a lease may be a good option for you.

As a lessee, you will drive the car during its most rapid depreciation phase, so in the long run, continuously leasing a vehicle is the most expensive way to drive, but if you always want to drive a new car, leasing can be a low hassle way to make that happen.

2. Leasing affects your credit score

Taking on a lease affects your credit the same way that taking on a car loan affects your credit. Applying for a lease triggers a credit inquiry on your report, which has a small adverse effect on your credit score. Taking on a lease increases credit utilization which also adversely affects your credit score. Over time your credit utilization will fall, and timely payment history will cause your score to increase again.

Leases are considered installment loans, and having a high utilization rate on installment loans does not have as much of an adverse effect on your credit score as having high utilization on credit cards or other forms of revolving credit. As with any form of credit, late or skipped lease payments drag down your score

Further Reading: Credit Score Guide

3. Leasing terminology

Manufacturers and salespeople shroud leasing in complex jargon. To understand the terms of your lease, these are the definitions you need to know.

  • Capitalized Cost: The price of the vehicle. This could be MSRP (Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price), or it could be reduced based on your negotiations.
  • Capital Cost Reduction: This is a down payment. The most favorable leases (for those who don’t intend to purchase at the end of the lease) should not include a capital cost reduction unless it’s an incentive.
  • Residual Value: This is the estimated value of the car at the end of the lease. The higher this price is relative to the capitalized cost, the more favorable it is to lease a car. Cars.com keeps a database of residual values on file that you can use to understand if you’re getting a fair residual value.
  • Factor, Money Factor or Rate: This is the interest rate of your loan, but it’s not expressed as an annual percentage rate. The number expressed needs to be multiplied by 2.4 to get to an APR. For example a 1.35 money factor is a 3.24% interest rate. LeaseHackr.com keeps an up to date list of “official” factors (column entitled MF) that you can use in negotiations. Interest rates on leases range from 2-3 times as high as interest rates on traditional car loans, but it is possible to negotiate this rate.

4. You can negotiate a lease

Unlike car loans, leases come from car manufacturers rather than banks. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to negotiate a lease. Anyone who intends to lease should try to drive down the capitalized cost, and people with good credit should also look to reduce or even eliminate the money factor. Small fees like documents fees, tire fees and more can be waived completely if you take the time to negotiate.

Even if a dealership advertises a “Manufacturer’s Leasing Special”, you should negotiate the terms of the lease. Salespeople depend on getting you to drive away in a new car, so consumers hold upper hand in negotiations.

5. No money down

One advantage of leasing a vehicle is that it shifts depreciation risk from the customer to the manufacturer. A down payment (or a capital cost reduction) shifts the risk back onto the customer. In a lease, a down payment is a form of pre-payment. If you terminate the lease before the end of the lease period (if your car is totaled or stolen), you lose the benefit that the down payment purchased. Putting no money down is an important strategy for keeping the lease in the lessee’s favor.

6. Extra insurance costs

Leasing yields lower monthly payments compared to buying using traditional financing, but some of the monthly cash flow advantage is lost by increased insurance costs. To protect themselves financially, lessees should purchase “Gap Insurance” in addition to traditional car insurance.

Gap insurance covers the difference between the actual cash value and the amount owed on a lease. As soon as a lessee drives the car off the lot, the car is worth less than the lessee owes on their lease. If a car is totaled or stolen during a lease period, you need to be able to buyout the lease early, and gap insurance allows you to do that. Gap insurance should be purchased through a traditional insurer, and adds anywhere from 3-10% to the traditional cost of insurance.

7. Fees, fees, fees

Every lessee runs into at least three substantial fees during the course of their lease. The first fee is an acquisition fee (alternatively called a financing fee). This fee is not a down payment, but it runs anywhere from $500 for basic compact cars to nearly $1,000 for luxury vehicles.

Dealerships also charge a $300-$900 Delivery Charge which covers the cost of the vehicle being delivered to the dealership lot. Lessees need to be prepared to pay this fee upfront, but some companies try to sneak a second delivery fee into the contracts. The second delivery fee can be negotiated to zero.

The last fee every lessee will encounter is either a disposition fee or a purchase option fee. These fees run between $300-$400 depending on which option you choose. When a lease ends, you will pay a fee to the dealership unless you negotiate it away at the outset.

In addition to these larger fees, many lessees will run into mileage overage fees which range from $.15 per mile for basic vehicles to $.30 for luxury vehicles. Most people drive more than their lease allows, and these extra miles cause additional depreciation on the vehicle. Since a lease is a “pay for what you use agreement”, it’s fair to pay for those extra miles. Of course you can avoid overage fees by limiting the amount you drive or by purchasing the car at the end of the lease.

You should negotiate smaller fees like advertising fees, tire fees, document fees, vehicle preparation fees down to zero.

8. Repairs required

Lessees bear the financial burden of repairs and maintenance on their leased vehicles. Some dealerships offer free tire rotation and oil changes, but the lessee has to pay for other maintenance. New cars shouldn’t require much maintenance, but accidents, chipped paint and broken windshields need to be paid for, and longer lessees may need to buy new tires while they own the vehicles

9. Exit options

Turning in a leased vehicle early is akin to defaulting on a car loan. Your credit will take a hit, and you will still owe money. However, it is possible to “sublet” your car through websites like SwapALease and LeaseTrader.

If your lease is about to end, you’ll have to decide whether or not to purchase the car or return it. If you want to buy the vehicle, you may be able to negotiate the buyout price. If you have the cash on hand to pay for the vehicle, and the purchase price is lower than an equivalent used car, you can purchase the vehicle outright and sell it for instant equity. If you have to obtain financing, the additional fees may erase any favorable pricing you obtained.

If the vehicle is worth less than the purchase price at the end of your lease, you should probably walk away from the vehicle or attempt some strong negotiations. Of course, the beauty of a lease is that the termination of the lease means that you can hand the keys back to the dealer and move on. 

10. Consider leasing if…

Anyone with midterm vehicle needs (only needing a vehicle for a few years) may find that a lease is a good value and a good fit for their lifestyle. Likewise, anyone who loves driving new cars and doesn’t mind having a monthly payment may enjoy leasing long term.

Continuously leasing vehicles is more expensive than “driving a vehicle into the ground,” but many people don’t mind that they get what they pay for.  People who enjoy driving newer, fancier cars may find that leasing can be a reasonable lifestyle, especially if they can easily afford the payment.

11. Avoid leasing if… 

Avoid leasing if you’re trying to drive as inexpensively as possible. The low monthly payments are enticing, but leasing is the most expensive way to drive in the long run. Leasing has high interest rates and high fees. If you can’t afford the monthly payments associated with owning a new car, consider buying used or choosing a basic model. Both of these methods end up being cheaper than leasing.

If you drive a lot, or if you frequently drive in poor conditions, you’re a bad candidate for leasing. The additional depreciation may mean that you’re left paying extra fees at the end of your lease. Additionally, anyone seeking to own a vehicle should pursue paying cash or taking out a traditional loan rather than leasing.

If you decide to purchase your vehicle instead of leasing it, it is best practice to get pre-approved for your auto loan before heading over to the dealership. [Disclosure: LendingTree is the parent company of MagnifyMoney.]We recommend starting with LendingTree. There are hundreds of lenders on this platform. After filling out your application, you will be able to see real interest rates and approval information at once.

Keep in mind, some lenders will do a hard pull on your credit and this is normal within the auto lending space. Multiple hard pulls only count as one pull, so it is smart to have all your hard pulls done at once, which LendingTree’s tool can do for you.

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Hannah Rounds
Hannah Rounds |

Hannah Rounds is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Hannah here

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