Go Back Go Ahead

By the time most people come to the end of a vehicle lease, they don't remember what they agreed to two or three years earlier. Don't procrastinate until the last minute. Instead, learn as much about the end-of-lease process as you can.
      Weeks before the return date, read your lease carefully. You'll avoid unwelcome surprises--such as discovering you owe money for wear and tear to the car and extra mileage. For instance, on a three-year lease your free mileage allowance may be 45,000 miles. After that, each additional mile costs a rate specified in your lease. Say you expect to return the car at 48,000 miles, and your lease says you'll owe 15 cents for each mile more than 45,000 miles--you'll be billed $450.

Your car's inspection
It's harder to estimate what, if anything, you may owe for your car's wear and tear, now called wear and use. Look at your lease for items considered your repair or replacement responsibility. These may include deep scratches, dents, torn carpets, mismatched paint, broken grilles, mismatched tires, and inoperative power accessories.
      Several weeks before your lease is up, the leasing company may send you a booklet defining wear and use obligations and expectations. Read it to see if your car's "dings" qualify as probable repairs. Some items, such as superficial scratches, may classify as normal wear and use. You then can choose to make necessary repairs before or after the inspection. Or, if you're not sure it counts as your responsibility, you might forego making a repair and risk being charged later.
      Before the return date you'll probably hear from the car dealership where you leased your car as well as from the leasing company that sends your monthly statement. They'll undoubtedly encourage you to have your car inspected early. Inspections typically take less than 30 minutes, usually at the dealership. Some leasing companies, though, use outside inspection firms that, conveniently, send an inspector to your home or business.
      Dean Hoyt of Hiller Ford, Inc. in Franklin, Wis., says, "We call our customers at 120, 90, and 60 days in advance of the end of their lease. In addition to helping them understand the process, we're often able to offer them attractive new programs which they may be eligible for." (See the sidebar, "Check Out Your Credit Union's Lease Program," for information about credit union finance options that likely are even more attractive.)
      If you have the car inspected, then return it early, you may save excess mileage charges. You also may save money if you lease another car and return the first car early: As a continuing customer, your last monthly payment may be reduced or absorbed into the new lease agreement.

Disposal fee
This is where you can be hit with the biggest surprise. Leasing companies often charge a one-time, end-of-lease fee to "dispose" of the car. If your lease has a disposal fee, the leasing company likely will bill you for it after you return the car. Disposition fees typically range between $200 and $500, but can be more.
      Many lease companies never charge disposition fees. If you finance your car on your own, though, your lender may charge this fee.

Lease extensions
Say you decide to buy or lease a new car from the same dealership where you'll return your leased car. What if the car you want hasn't come in to the dealership and your lease is up? Don't assume the dealer can extend your lease. That decision lies with the leasing company, such as Nissan Motor Acceptance Corp., not the local Nissan dealer.
      As a repeat customer you may be able to extend your lease at least 10 days, sometimes up to 6 months. If you're waiting for a new car, ask the leasing company to extend your mileage allowance, too, so you won't have to pay for extra miles while you wait.

End-of-lease options
This is another area most consumers don't fully understand. If you have a good credit history with your lease company, it may send you a letter preapproving you for a new lease, weeks before your current lease is up. It's not hard to figure that they'd like to continue doing business with you. But you do have other options.
      You have the option of buying the current leased vehicle outright or trading it for another car. You also can turn it back in to the leasing company and walk away with nothing else: Remember, you're taking the car to a local dealership, but you're returning it to the national leasing company.
      You also may have another option. Ken Rastberger, of John Elway Toyota in Englewood, Colo., says, "We let people know that it may be a good idea to sell the car if there is enough residual (equity) in it. If you have a residual of $10,000 in the car, and the car is worth $12,000, you may be able to sell it and make $2,000." Before using this strategy, check with your leasing company to make sure you can under your lease agreement.
      Before your lease ends, learn all you can about the end-of-lease process. Talk to the return lease specialist where you plan to return the car--it doesn't have to be the same dealership where you leased it. Because leasing is done in combination with a local dealership and a national leasing company, you may want to contact each end-of-lease department for answers to your questions.
      When you return your leased car to the dealer, you'll have several end-of-lease papers to sign. This terminates your responsibility. Make sure you receive a copy of the federal odometer receipt and a report of the vehicle's condition.
      If you've done your homework, by the time you get to this step, the return of your leased car should be a snap.

your credit union is member-friendly and can help you save money.
      If you leased through a dealership, once you get close to lease-end you'll be encouraged to lease or purchase another car through the same source. But don't let a salesperson walk you down that one-option financing path. It may or may not be your best option.

Mike Duey, president/chief executive officer of Power Tech Federal Credit Union in Vancouver, Wash., says, "Before you agree to financing through the dealership, at the very least, ask for a conditional agreement subject to approval and review by your credit union." That's good advice for any lease or dealer-finance arrangement.
      If you're in the market for another car, it pays to check your credit union's lease programs, if available. Wading through lease-end options can be confusing. Duey points out, "When you add in all the costs related to leases, consumers don't always understand the actual cost to lease the car. We help consumers through the details of leasing because our programs are set up as full disclosure."

Take advantage of credit union lease programs
Many consumers don't realize that credit unions typically treat lease-like programs (unlike car dealership conventional leases) as loans. "That means when you go through your credit union, you'll usually avoid paying disposition fees, security deposits, prepayment penalties, acquisition fees, and early termination fees," says Michael Hammond, business and product development manager at Shell Employees Federal Credit Union in Houston. And, a simple-interest credit union loan complies with Truth-in-Lending regulations.
      Another reason to check your credit union first: The commissioned salesperson at the car dealership likely doesn't have your best interests at heart, but the staff at your member-owned credit union does.

What to know about your leased car's residual value According to Duey, nationwide less than 3% of consumers keep the vehicle at lease-end. So, for those who are going to lease or buy another car, it's important to understand how much residual value they have in their leased car. "Residual value is the key to knowing how well you're going to come out of the transaction financially," Hammond notes. At the beginning of your lease, the leasing company estimates residual value--what your car will be worth at the end of the lease.
      The difficulty lies in the fact that your car's actual value may not reflect the residual value stated in your contract. "At the outset of the lease, dealers often entice customers by offering lower monthly payments and higher residuals," says Hammond, "but the higher residual value may be more than the marketplace can bear when you go to trade or sell."
      So what can you do? First, realize you don't have to keep the car until the end of the lease. Start shopping early to see what you can gain if you sell or trade it. Smart customers know some cars will have a better residual value than others. If you didn't consider this when you took out the lease, it's not too late to learn how well your car holds its residual value--before you decide to lease another, newer car of the same make and model.
      Next, evaluate the market by looking at as much historical data as you can find. Go to your library and compare the stated residual value in your contract with the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) official used-car guide and the Kelley Blue Book to see what your car actually sells for now.
      Then take your car to a dealership specializing in lease-end purchases. If the residual on your car is $10,000 and the dealer offers you $11,000, that's a trade-in opportunity. "But be careful;" says Hammond, "every state has different laws. You may be entitled to making more money by trading it or selling it before the end of your lease, but remember, you don't own the car, so read the fine print of your contract before making a financial commitment."
      Here's an example: Say your lease agreement has a lease-end purchase charge of 10%. If you sell your car and realize 10% more than the residual value, you may have to pay the 10% back to the leasing company. In this case, it wouldn't make sense to sell the car at lease-end.
      In addition to helping you with straight information and financing, many credit unions have access to fleet-buying services. One important advantage of fleet buying is that you'll end up with a reasonable capitalized cost, or price. "The best of both worlds is, you buy the vehicle at the best price, and you finance it at the credit union," Duey says.
      At lease-end, if you're considering leasing or buying another car, it pays to check your credit union first. The credit union's full-disclosure policy, combined with fewer fees or lower fees, will save you money and help you understand this tricky transaction.

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