Are you the type of person who wants a new car every three or four years? If so, leasing can be a cost-effective alternative to buying. Today, about 26% of new cars are leased rather than purchased. The average monthly payment for a leased car is $460, but the costs don’t stop there. If you’re thinking about leasing a new vehicle, here’s what you need to know about how leases work and what you can expect to pay. 

Key Takeaways

  • About 26% of new cars are leased today.
  • Lease payments are generally less expensive than financing payments on a new car.
  • The average car lease payment is $460 per month, and the average lease term is 36 months.
  • Leases also may require down payments, plus acquisition fees up front.
  • You face additional fees when you return the car at the end of the lease.

How Car Leases Work

When you lease a car, you aren’t the owner; you are simply borrowing the car for a set term and paying a fee to use it. 

The agreement that you’ll sign outlines the length of the lease, your monthly payments, the maximum number of miles you can drive per year, and other terms. When the lease ends, you’ll typically have the option of purchasing the vehicle or simply returning it. If you return the car, the dealer will expect it to be in good shape. If it has any damage beyond the expected wear and tear, you’ll have to pay more money to cover it. 

Leasing might be better than buying for some drivers, for several reasons: 

  • You can drive a newer vehicle. By leasing instead of buying, you can usually drive a newer car than you would be able to afford otherwise. With the latest model, you can enjoy the latest convenience and safety features. For some status-conscious drivers, a new car is a matter of prestige. For others, their work may require one.
  • You don’t have to worry about maintenance. Since leased cars are generally new, you’re unlikely to face costly repairs, just routine maintenance, such as oil changes. Your lease term likely will end well before the car needs major work or new tires. Some leases also cover maintenance costs as part of the contract.
  • You’ll likely have a lower payment. Your payments typically will be less than they would be if you purchased the same vehicle with a car loan. The average monthly payment for a financed car is $576, or $116 higher than the average monthly payment for a leased vehicle. 

7 Costs to Expect When You Lease a Car

The monthly payment isn’t the only expense that you’ll have when you lease a car. Leases can also involve these costs and fees: 

1. Down Payment

Dealerships often will require you to make a down payment to lease a car. The down payment, sometimes known as a capitalized cost reduction, can vary based on your location, the dealer, the value of the car that you’re leasing, and any promotions that are in effect. Typically, the amount can range anywhere from $0 to several thousand dollars.

2. Monthly Payments

Your monthly payment is the fee that you pay for using the car. Payments are based on the car’s value and expected depreciation during your lease term. You can reduce the monthly payment by making a larger down payment or trading in a vehicle. 

You usually have to make your first monthly payment on the day when you sign the lease agreement. That payment is in addition to the down payment. 

3. Acquisition Fee

Most dealers will charge an acquisition fee, also known as a bank fee or an administrative fee. It is supposed to cover the dealer’s paperwork and related costs, and it usually runs from $395 to $895.

4. Money Factor

The money factor is essentially the interest rate on the lease, but it’s expressed in a decimal format. Dealers will use your credit score to determine your rate. The better your credit, the lower the money factor rate should be. 

To convert a money factor to a conventional interest rate, multiply it by 2,400. For example, if the money factor is 0.0015, then you would multiply it by 2,400 and get an interest rate of 3.6%.

5. Return Fee

The return fee—also known as a disposition fee—comes at the end of your lease term when you bring the vehicle back to the dealership. It pays to clean and repair the vehicle to prepare it for sale. The return fee is usually about $350. 

6. Extra Mileage Charges

Lease agreements include an annual mileage maximum, such as 12,000 to 15,000 miles per year. If you return your vehicle at the end of the lease with more miles than the annual maximum allowed, then you’ll have to pay extra mileage charges. 

Extra mileage charges can be significant. Depending on the type of car that you leased, they can range from 10 cents to 25 cents per mile.

For example, let’s say you leased a car with an annual mileage maximum of 12,000 miles and a three-year term. After your lease ends, you return the car with 40,000 miles—4,000 over the agreed-upon limit. If your contract states that you’ll be charged 20 cents per mile over the limit, then you will have to pay $800 in extra mileage charges. 

7. Wear-and-Tear Expenses

While some wear and tear is expected to occur during your lease, excessive damage will cost you. If you return the car with dents, scratches, stains to the upholstery, worn tires, and/or cracked glass, or if you didn’t follow the vehicle’s maintenance schedule, then the dealer can charge you excess wear-and-tear fees. 

Depending on your state of residence, you may have to pay the full cost of any repairs, or there may be a cap on how much the dealer can legally charge you.

Leasing a Car: The Bottom Line

Depending on how many miles you drive each year and your budget, leasing a car may be a good option for you. Just like buying a new car, it pays to comparison shop among dealers and to know that terms may be negotiable. Before signing a lease agreement, review the different fees and restrictions carefully to avoid a costly surprise later.