Leasing vs. Buying a Car: 10 Ways to Decide Which Option Is Right for You

leasing vs. buying a car

Is it better to buy or lease a car? You might think you know the answer. After all, conventional wisdom says that in the battle of leasing versus buying a car, the second option is more cost-effective.

“There’s a problem, in my opinion, that a lot of people are buying cars who would probably be better served by leasing them,” said Matt Jones, senior consumer advice editor for Edmunds. “And there are people leasing cars who might be better served buying them.”

That’s why one of the first steps to buy a car is to figure out whether you should buy a car at all. Here are some key considerations to decide whether it’s wiser to lease or buy a car.

Leasing vs. buying a car: 5 signs you should lease

1. You want to drive the latest and greatest

If you’re weighing leasing versus buying a car and know you’d prefer to drive a car less than three years old, consider leasing.

Most car leases last three years. When your lease ends, you can trade in your car and easily trade up for a newer model or a different car altogether.

So if you find yourself itching to trade in your car after a year or two, leasing can be a smart way to get the new wheels you want.

Such people should “absolutely not buy a car,” said Jones. “They should lease a car because it’s going to save them a lot of money and make them less subject to being upside-down” — or owing more on the car loan than the car is worth.

You might prefer a new car because it’s reliable and you hate dealing with maintenance hassles. If you opt for three-year leases, your major repairs are almost always covered under warranty.

Perhaps you’re a business professional or a cool kid with an image to maintain. “There’s a group of people here who, no matter what, they want to show the world that they’ve got a couple bucks in their pocket — whether it’s for their work or their social circle,” Jones said.

Whatever the reason you prefer a new car, if you’re going to be switching cars every few years, a lease is the more cost-effective option.

2. You’re looking to lower upfront and monthly costs

Another sign leasing could be the right choice for you is “if you don’t have a lot of money or you don’t want to spend a lot of money on a car,” according to Jones.

You’ll face some initial costs with a lease, but they’ll be significantly lower than the upfront costs of buying a similar car. Expect a few limited charges like sales taxes and a deposit.

A cost comparison by Edmunds for an average midsize sedan, for example, puts a lessee’s drive-off fees at $1,154. The average down payment to buy a similar car is $4,105 — nearly $3,000 more.

It’s not just upfront costs that are lower, either. Monthly costs also are lower with a lease compared to auto loan payments for the same car. The average midsize sedan costs $295 a month to lease, according to Edmunds’ analysis. The same car has an average monthly loan payment of $400.

Recent figures from Experian put the average lease on a brand-new car a bit higher: $414, $92 less than the $506 average auto loan payment.

3. You want predictable maintenance costs

“If you want to limit your costs and keep them predictable, a lease can give you that,” Jones said.

Common advice is to lease a vehicle for three years, the length of a typical warranty for a new car. This warranty will cover major repairs and mechanical issues.

“Then you don’t have to worry about things that go wrong, which are generally going to be covered under that lease warranty,” said Jones.

You’ll still have some maintenance costs, such as oil changes and tire rotations, but those fees are both predictable and affordable. If you can’t afford to fit surprise repair costs into your budget, this benefit can be huge.

4. You have great credit

Whether you plan to lease or buy a car, your credit will matter. However, if you’re counting on leasing your way to lower monthly car payments, you’ll need a solid credit history.

What’s a good credit score to lease a car? You’ll get the best rates with a score of 740 or higher, and most leasing offices will require a score of at least 680 for approval. If your credit score falls below that number but is above 620, you might face rejection or higher costs if you’re approved for a lease.

5. You want to keep your options open

Lastly, you’ll have more flexibility when leasing versus buying.

“I recommend leasing for people who are saying, ‘Hey, I don’t know exactly what my world is going to look like in three years,’” Jones said. You can “leave just a little bit of flexibility by going with a lease, in case something happens.”

For example, your transportation needs might change drastically in the near future. Jones gave an example of a recently married couple who bought a four-passenger car and then got pregnant. Suddenly, their car wasn’t cutting it, and they needed a vehicle with more space to match their expanding family.

If they’d opted for a lease, switching out cars would’ve been an easier and less costly process than trading in the car they owned for a bigger model.

On the other hand, if you fall in love with your leased car, you can turn your lease into a purchase.

“But you can’t do it the other way around,” Jones pointed out. “If you purchase a car and all of the sudden say, ‘Oh my gosh, my $400 payment is really heavy — can I make it $200?’ That’s not going to happen.”

Lease or buy a car: 5 reasons to buy

1. You plan to keep your car for 5 or more years

Car buyers are holding on to their cars longer, according to a report from automotive research firm IHS Markit. Drivers own new models for an average of 79 months (about 6.6 years) and keep used cars for 66 months (5.5 years).

If you’re the type of person who likes to hold on to your car purchases for a while, owning could be a smart choice for you.

“If a person buys a car [and] pays it off after the average loan term of six years, theoretically you’ll have five years of payment-free ownership,” Jones said. “That’s the promised land — having a car you don’t have to pay for.”

Revisiting Edmunds’ cost comparison, here’s how the costs break down over six years:

Car option Total cost over six years
Leasing over six years with two three-year leases $23,476
Buying a new car after paying off a five-year loan, with one year payment-free (after deducting current auto equity) $18,417
Buying a used car after paying off a five-year loan, with one year payment-free (after deducting current auto equity) $15,570

When you combine the auto equity accrued with payment-free years, buying is almost always the more cost-effective choice in the long term.

2. You can afford to sink some cash into your car

Buying a car requires more cash on hand.

You’ll typically need to make a down payment of 10 to 20 percent, for instance. On the average new car price of $34,861, per Kelley Blue Book’s latest report, a typical down payment can easily top $7,000.

Then there are the monthly loan payments, which average $506, per Experian.

If you can afford these costs, buying a car can save you more in the long term compared to leasing. Opt to buy a used car, and the savings scales will tip even further in your favor. Just make sure you choose a well-maintained, quality car and consider getting it inspected before purchase to avoid ending up with a lemon.

Shelling out more now might feel spendy, but it will match the value and use you can expect from the car.

3. You want your payments to build auto equity

Another important fact to remember is that while monthly auto loan payments for a car you’ve bought likely will be higher than lease payments, those costs are building equity in your car. At the end of your payments, you’ll own your car.

A five-year-old car will depreciate 63 percent, on average, so you’ll be able to get about 40 percent of its MSRP. After paying a five-year car loan for a $25,000 car, for example, you’ll have no more car payments — plus an asset worth $9,250.

However, you also run the risk that your car’s value will depreciate faster than you pay off the loan. If that happens, you’re “underwater” or “upside-down” on your car loan. Putting down a down payment of 20 to 30 percent can prevent this outcome, and gap insurance provides further protection.

The bottom line: Lessees will never get any of their monthly payments back. But car buyers can sell a car after paying off a loan and get a portion of their money back.

4. You can handle (and save for) car maintenance and repairs

Of course, owning a car comes with costs — even when you own it outright.

“You have to consider, what is your tolerance for dealing with the downsides of owning a car?” Jones said.

You’ll likely own your car past the warranty expiry — at which point you’re responsible for paying for repairs and tuneups. And older cars might need more repairs.

“It doesn’t matter how good the car is; every car will need some maintenance at that point,” Jones added.

Car owners willing to deal with ongoing maintenance costs and hassles, however, will reap the rewards. Once you own your car and are payment-free, maintenance and repairs will be your only direct vehicle costs. And “the maintenance cost will invariably be less than a lease payment,” Jones said.

“With a $200 lease payment, that’s $2,400 over the course of a year,” he continued. “Most people will not put $2,400 … of maintenance into their car in one year. So in the long run, it actually works out being cheaper.”

As a car owner, you can (and should) save a bit each month toward paying for car repairs and maintenance. If you can bake these costs into your budget or use your emergency fund to cover them, it’ll soften the impact.

5. You’re rough on your vehicles

When it comes to leasing versus buying a car, buying has one more advantage: You won’t get charged for driving your car too much or for every ding, scratch, or spill.

With a lease, you’ll face a hard limit on your mileage, usually 36,000 over three years. When the lease is up, you’ll pay an extra $.15 to $.25 for every mile over that limit on your lease. You’ll stay under that limit with a daily commute of 46 miles or less round trip.

However, if you have a longer commute or like to take weekend road trips, you easily could rack up more than 36,000 miles in a year. If that sounds more like your lifestyle, buying might be the better choice.

Lessees also will be charged for any damage beyond “normal wear and tear.” Expect to pay extra for stained or soiled seats and interiors, fixing dings or dents, and even replacing tires. If you’re accident-prone or tend to drive on rough roads, you might prefer to own your car so you can pay for these fixes on your own terms.

So when you consider leasing versus buying a car, what’s the right answer? Only you can know for sure, and it will come down to which option offers you the most value.

While buying a car can be a more cost-effective long-term option, leasing offers convenience and simplicity. As you consider the value you can get and how each option might fit into your lifestyle, you’ll arrive at the best choice for you.

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