Although the choice between leasing or buying a car has plenty of financial implications, money isn’t the only factor that goes into this decision. In fact, this choice is often based on a person’s tolerance for risk, and how often they prefer to switch cars. 

If you want to own a car outright — and to enjoy some time without a dreaded car payment — buying a car is the obvious choice. If you don’t care about car ownership, leasing a car is more prevalent than some drivers realize. 

According to Experian’s Q4 2020 State of the Auto Finance Market study, 26.45% of all new vehicles were leased last year with Hondas and Toyotas being the most popular car makers. Leasing a car can also mean a more affordable monthly payment, depending on your scenario.

Before deciding whether to purchase or lease a car, think about your finances and your lifestyle. This guide can help you decide what to consider before buying or leasing a car, along with the pros and cons of either option.

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How Does Buying a Car Work?

You can purchase a car outright if you have the cash, yet most consumers use auto loan financing to facilitate their purchase. In fact, the same Experian report found that 81.12% of new vehicles were purchased with a car loan last year, and 34.59% of used vehicles were purchased through financing. 

Car Financing Today

The prevalence of financing has to do with the high cost of cars and trucks, and especially new vehicles. Experian revealed that consumers purchasing a new car financed an average of $35,228 in 2020, compared to $33,255 in 2019. That brings the average new car payment to $576 in Q4 of last year — a new record high. 

The fact consumers are borrowing higher amounts also leads to new car loans with significantly longer terms. In fact, 42.13% of new car loans were for 61 to 72 months in Q4 of 2020, and 30.21% opted for loans that last 73 to 84 months. A very small percentage (1.41%) even opted for auto loan terms longer than that. 

Whatever payment route you decide on, there are several ways to purchase a car. You can buy your new ride from an auto dealership, but can also opt for a private sale or an auction purchase. If you don’t have the cash to pay for your car outright, you can see if you qualify for in-house dealer financing or look for a third-party auto loan.

You can use marketplaces to compare auto loan rates for new and used cars. For example, a few marketplaces we recommend are Auto Approve, AUTOPAY, myAutoloan, or RateGenius. These sites can help you find the lowest auto loan rate you qualify for.

How to Find the Best Car Purchase Deals

Thanks to technology, finding the best car purchase deal is easier than ever. Consider these tips as you look for a new or used car to buy:

  • Decide on the type of vehicle that fits your lifestyle. Consider the type of vehicle you want the most. If you have a family in tow, you might consider a minivan or an SUV for the extra space. If you want fuel economy, consider a smaller, fuel-efficient car or even an electric model. According to Experian, more than 55% of new vehicles purchased in the last quarter of 2020 were SUVs. 
  • Determine how much car you can afford. Make sure cars you’re considering come with a monthly payment that fits in your budget. An auto loan calculator can help you determine the monthly payment for cars in your price range. 
  • Look for new and used cars in your area using Autotrader. Once you decide on the type of vehicle you plan to purchase, search for options using Autotrader. This website lets you compare pricing, and features and upgrades among new and used cars.
  • Gauge new or used car pricing using Kelley Blue Book. Once you’re serious about a specific car make and model, it’s helpful to know its fair market value. Kelley Blue Book lets you enter a car model and its features, and tells you the average value you should expect to pay with a dealership or through a private sale. 
  • Research auto insurance requirements. See how much car insurance costs for the vehicle. You can visit any online national insurer, like Progressive, to get a quote.
  • Line up your own auto financing (if required). Finally, keep in mind that you don’t have to use dealership financing to buy a car. You can get a quote for an auto loan online then head to the dealership to negotiate for the best possible deal. 

How Does Leasing a Car Work?

When leasing a car, you’re borrowing it for a specific term. You won’t build any equity in the vehicle at all, but you’re generally off the hook for repairs during your lease term since the car is most likely under warranty. 

Although leasing comes with downsides, it’s still a popular option for people who want to drive a new car most of the time. Leasing lets you get into a new car, drive it for a few years, and then upgrade to a new lease and start the process all over again. You’ll never have to worry about selling a car so you can move on to a newer one, nor worry about having negative equity in your trade-in.

According to Experian, the average lease term worked out to a little over 36 months (36.46 months) in Q4 of 2020. Meanwhile, the average monthly payment for leases was $460 per month. 

How to Find the Best Car Lease Deals

If you’ve decided to lease a vehicle instead of buying one, you’ll want to start your search at major car dealerships that offer new vehicles. Here are some tips that can help you find the best lease deal.

  • Decide on the type of vehicle you want to lease. Compare car options you might be interested in leasing. Do you want to lease a luxury car you can’t necessarily afford to purchase outright? Do you need a reliable car to get to work?
  • Search for lease deals online. Once you know the type of car you want to lease, check the websites of local dealerships in your area. Most will have lease deals prominently displayed on their websites so you can search and compare with ease.
  • Look for the lowest possible monthly payment. Since leasing means you never own the vehicle, your main goal should be finding the lowest monthly payment you can. Also make sure the lease timeline is ideal for your needs, whether you want to lease for a year, 24 months, or longer.
  • Consider the down payment. Check down payment requirements for leases, keeping in mind that luxury leases often require a down payment of several thousand dollars upfront. This down payment might lower the monthly payment on your lease, but you won’t really “get” anything for it in return.

Pros and Cons of Buying vs. Leasing a Car

Buying a Car Leasing a Car
Advantages Build equity with each monthly paymentEventually own your car outrightDrive as many miles as you wantAccessorize or change your car at any timeSell or upgrade at any time Potentially lower monthly payments compared to buyingNever be “underwater” on a car loanChance to drive a new car every few yearsLess responsibility for repairsMight get approved for a lease with imperfect credit
Disadvantages New cars depreciate rapidlyMonthly payments are higher on average compared to leasesInterest rates can be high depending on your credit scoreResponsible for all maintenance and repairs (beyond warranty period) Not building equity in the vehicleMileage limits determine how much you can driveExtra responsibility for vehicle damageLeases aren’t always easy to get out of, if needed

Pros and Cons of Buying a Car

Buying a car can be a better option, if you plan on keeping a car for multiple years. That’s because driving for several years lets you build equity in a vehicle, which you can use for trade-in value down the line. 

If you keep your car long enough, you could even own it outright and enjoy not having a car payment for as long as you can. Meanwhile, owning a car also means you can drive your car as many miles as you want and deck it out with the latest accessories.

Just remember that owning a car means you’re responsible for maintenance and repairs, at least, once your warranty period expires. 

Who Should Buy a Car?

  • Consumers with excellent credit who can get the best auto loan rates
  • People who plan to drive a vehicle for at least three to four years
  • Drivers who want total control of their vehicle, including mileage
  • People who want to build equity with each monthly payment they make

Pros and Cons of Leasing a Car

Leasing a car can be a better choice if you love regularly driving a new car. It might be an option for those who want to avoid having negative equity in a car or going through the hassle of selling an older vehicle.

Since leasing typically requires a lower monthly payment, you might be able to afford a lease for a car with more equipment or upgrades than you could with a new car purchase. Just remember that leasing means you never really own the car, and you’ll always have a car payment.

Leasing also comes with mileage limits that can be cumbersome depending on how much you drive, and you won’t be able to accessorize your car in any permanent way.

Who Should Lease a Car?

  • People who enjoy driving a new car every few years
  • Drivers who want the lowest monthly payment for the best car they can afford
  • People who don’t care about building equity in a car
  • Anyone who wants a car that’s always covered under warranty

Questions to Ask When Deciding Between Buying vs. Leasing a Car

If your primary objective is saving money over the long-term, then buy a car and drive it into the ground! Conversely, you can also drive a new or used car until the repair costs signal that it’s time to upgrade. 

If you prefer driving a new car all of the time, leasing is easily the better choice. This is especially true if you’re not bothered by having a car payment, indefinitely.

Before buying or leasing a car, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How long do I want to keep my next vehicle?
  • Do I want a lower monthly payment or the chance to build equity?
  • What’s my budget?
  • How much do I drive, and can I live with mileage limits on a lease?
  • How is my credit score? What’s the best auto loan rate I can get?
  • How will buying or leasing affect my auto insurance rates?

When it comes to buying or leasing a car, there is no “right” or “wrong” answer that applies to everyone. Consider the pros and cons of either option, and do what’s best for your lifestyle and your finances. At the end of the day, your goal should be lining up reliable transportation for a price you can afford.