(1) You owe the bank or leasing company for damage beyond “normal wear and tear” and excess mileage. The danger here is because many people return their car to the dealership after the lease expires without getting signed, written verification of what damage exists on the car and what mileage is on the odometer. Return lease cars commonly sit on the car dealer’s lot for weeks or even months before the bank or leasing company gets around to picking the car up to send it through the auction. Anybody might be driving that lease car in the interim. It could be an employee of the dealership. A returned lease car with a full tank of gas can be a big temptation. In many dealerships the accounting for returned lease cars is very sloppy. Remember, the car does not below to the dealership, but to the bank or leasing company. The dealer doesn’t even have insurance on this car. The insurance may even still be in your name. A return lease car can easily be stolen and no one would even notice. I have heard many horror stories of customers who received bills from their leasing company weeks after returning their lease car for thousands of dollars in damage and excess mileage that they say they were not responsible for. Your only protection is to be sure that a representative of the dealership fills out, with you, a complete return lease inspection form which notes all damage, the estimated cost of repair and the mileage. As an extra precaution, I recommend taking pictures of your lease return car to have on hand in case you're blamed for damage that occurs after you turn it in.
(2) A lease ad with a large down payment and short term. Most lease ads you see on TV or read in the newspaper have a large down payment hidden in the fine print. A down payment of $4,000 is typical. Ironically one of the biggest reasons people lease cars is to avoid laying out more cash. Dealers do this because a cash down payment on a lease is “leveraged” compared to a down payment on a purchase. A $4,000 down payment on a lease will reduce the monthly payment much more than on a purchase. Also, watch out for shorter lease terms such as 24 months compared to 36 or 48 which are normal. Remember, when buying a car, your monthly payments are paying for the “whole car”. When leasing, you are only paying for a small part of the car…the time you use it. A 24 month lease requires less of a down payment to lower the monthly payment than a 36 month lease or 48 month lease. You can actually lease a car for “zero dollars per month” if you put up a large enough down payment. The banks call this a “one-pay lease”. All you are doing is making all of your lease payment up front and, to a lesser extent; this is what you’re doing when a dealer sneaks in a large lease down payment in the fine print.
(3) Low mileage allowance. Be sure you know exactly how many miles are allowed in your lease contract. By restricting the number of miles you are allowed, the dealer can quote a lower monthly payment. I’ve seen lease ads with as low as a 7,500 annual mileage allowance and a 25 cent per mile penalty. Most people drive a lot more miles than this. If you missed this in the fine print and are a fairly typical driver who puts 15,000 miles a year on your car, you would get a surprise bill from the leasing company of $5,625 at the end of a 36 month lease!
(4) The Lease Disposal Fee. It would almost be funny if it weren’t so deceptive. The bank is charging you an extra fee for leasing you the car and then hitting you again for taking the car back. They certainly incur a cost for doing the lease and for taking the lease back, but his is called business overhead expense and should be included in their price which is your lease payment. The motive behind all of this, of course, is the same motive behind the dealer fee…it allows the “illusion” of a lower price than you are actually paying.
(5) Higher Insurance Costs. Typically you are required by the bank or leasing company to carry more insurance on their lease car than you might normally buy if you purchased your car. Furthermore, the cost of the insurance is simply higher on lease cars. That may be because insurance companies know that people are not as careful driving a lease car [belonging to the bank] than they are their own car.
(6) Higher Credit Requirements. Another reason dealers advertise lease payments is that most of those who respond to the ad cannot qualify to lease a car and the dealer then tries to sell them the same car. Of course the payments are much higher, but the dealer accomplished his purpose…”he got you in the door”. If you have a Beacon score below 720, which most people do, you can forget about leasing that car for advertised payment. You may be able to lease it at a higher payment if you have a 680+ Beacon, but many people don’t and cannot lease a car at all.
(7) You mighty not get the Electric Vehicle Tax Credit. The IRS offers a tax incentive to buy an electric or hybrid car (this limited to a certain number of vehicles, so please check ahead to see if the electric or hybrid vehicle qualifies). If you lease a hybrid instead of buying, the tax incentive does not go to you; it goes to the leasing company because they are the legal owner of the car. The leasing company may pass this along to you in the form of a lower leaser payment, but maybe not. Make sure to ask your dealer if the savings are being passed along to you if you're leasing an electrified vehicle.
(8) No Tax Advantage to Leasing. This is not really a “booby trap” but a lot of people lease cars thinking they can write of the lease payment faster than they can depreciate a car if they buy it. This is not so. Check with your accountant.
The only real advantage I see to leasing over buying is protecting yourself against, or even taking advantage of, unexpected depreciation of the vehicle. When a bank or leasing company establishes a lease payment for a particular model car, the single biggest variable is what that car is going to be worth at the end of the lease. They can’t know and they have to guess. If they guess high and the car is worth a lot less at the end of the lease, you have no obligation and the bank suffers a big loss when they sell it at the auction. This happens more often than you might think. If you had bought the car, you would be the one to worry about the expectedly low trade-in value when you bought your next car. On the other hand if the bank guesses that the value of your lease car is lower than what the market value really is, you have an option to purchase that car at this low price. Even if you don’t want to keep the car, you can buy the car at this below market option price, sell it to the dealer for the true higher value, and pocket the difference.