When you ask, “Should I lease a car?” you likely hear one of two words: "Do" or "Don't.’
That makes it difficult to decipher the pros and cons of leasing a vehicle. The answer to the question, like many financial decisions, depends on a host of individual details including price, terms, driving record, insurance history and more.
Misinformation and even some long-held biases on the pros and cons of leasing add to the confusion. But leasing a car makes sense for many people.
Are you among them?
The best way to judge is to understand the pros and cons of leasing a car, how leasing a car works and what insider tips for leasing a car might help you get the best deal.
Here are some of the particulars you might consider:
What Is a Car Lease?
You'll often hear car leasing likened to apartment leasing. There are plentiful similarities. When you lease a car or an apartment, you lease the property for a specific amount of time. You and the property owner have a mutual understanding that the assets will be returned in good condition.
Yet there are significant differences between leasing a car and leasing property or even other equipment. Many car lease agreements last two to three years and often allow you to purchase the car at the end of the term. Car lease agreements limit the number of miles the vehicle can be driven annually, generally between 12,000 to 15,000 miles. Those that exceed the agreed upon mileage are often responsible for paying 10 to 25 cents per mile. You may be able to increase the number of miles you can drive without a per-mile penalty, but the cost can be steep.1
How to Lease a Car
On the surface, it's easy to understand how leasing a car works.
Review car dealership websites. Then call or visit the dealership. That's how you'll find lease specials and selections.
One major difference between shopping for a traditional car loan and a lease is what you'd focus your energy on. With a traditional purchase, getting the lowest sale price is typically the goal, as that price, combined with the annual percentage rate (APR) of your loan’s interest as well as taxes on the vehicle, will be spread out over the course of a multi-year loan When leasing, your energy is better spent trying to determine the lowest possible payment, including all taxes and fees,2 since the term of the lease is typically shorter than a car loan term.
Shop at different dealerships before you select a car to lease, just as you would if you bought a car.
One tip: Don't forget to ask for all lease terms, from each dealership, in writing so that you can compare all fees, prices and terms.
Why Do People Lease Cars?
Some people choose to lease a car because it allows them to drive higher-end cars for a more affordable monthly payment. Plus, a two- to three-year car lease allows drivers to easily and frequently upgrade their rides.
Of course, not everyone leases because they want luxury wheels. Lower down payments, warranties, and free routine maintenance are among the benefits lease customers often receive.
Another bonus is that depreciation of the car is deducted from the total lease cost you pay. And some who end their lease find the car is more highly valued than predicted. That may entitle the lease owner to a payout or credit.3 An easy way to determine if you might be entitled to a payout or credit would be to evaluate your vehicle's value online and compare that value to your payoff amount. If your car is worth more than your payoff, you may want to discuss this issue with the dealership, to find out if you may be due some cash.
Many dealerships also offer leases for used cars. Those are usually certified preowned (CPO) cars. Those cars are generally newer, have low mileage and were inspected and repaired or refurbished.
What Are Some of the Downside of Car Leases?
The obvious downside to leasing a car is that you don't own the car at the end of the lease. That means you don't have a trade-in if you decide to purchase a car. Those that routinely lease cars over many years may pay more money than they would if they had initially bought the car.
Another thing to consider: You can break an auto lease, but it will likely cost you a hefty fee. Yes, you can sign a long-term lease, but that may negate the monetary benefits of leasing instead of buying a car. That’s because leasing typically costs you more than what you might have taken out in a long-term car loan. You’ll want to do the math to figure out if the numbers work in your favor to sign a long-term lease.
Should I Buy My Leased Car?
Just as you consider many factors when you lease a car, you need to analyze the costs and benefits of buying the car at the end of the lease.
First, do you like the car? Do you enjoy driving it and does it suit your needs?
That may seem like a funny question but consider your lifestyle. If you leased a small, compact car so you can easily maneuver through traffic, for example, and are moving to a rural area where you may need a vehicle that has sturdier road handling capabilities, you may find the compact car unsuitable for your new location. On the other hand, you may not want to drive a large SUV if you are moving to a congested urban area.
Are you happy with the car's performance?
Do you find gas mileage is reasonable?
Is the car always in the shop for warranty work? Analyze how much the car's upkeep will cost you if you do buy it.
If you decide the leased car is the one you want to buy, look at the residual value. How much is the car worth and how much would you pay to get out of your lease before it expires?4
There are various strategies to save money when buying your leased car, including financing through your bank or working directly with the lender (the creditor that owns the car). If you decide to buy the leased car, explore all options.
As with most personal financial decisions, the pros and cons of leasing a car come down to a host of individual factors. Analyze your needs and budget and then shop to make sure you make the right decision for you.