The Lease of My Worries

A few years ago, I was shopping for a new car to replace my older, dilapidated vehicle. Like many Americans, I was simply looking for a reliable commuter to get me to and from school. At the time, a lease was a viable option for me. I didn’t travel very far, and I didn’t intend on modifying the vehicle. Plus the lower monthly payment was very enticing.  Fast forward 29 months later, things have changed quite a bit. This vehicle no longer fit my needs, and a lease was no longer a very good option for my lifestyle and travel habits. If you’ve ever had to return a lease, you’ll know the pain of the process. If you aren’t familiar with it, here are a few tips to save you some trouble, and a lot of money.

When returning a leased vehicle, there is an entire ritual that takes place. It may vary from company to company, but one thing remains constant; you will need to pay additional fees. In many cases including mine, there is a stipulation that if you do not “buy out” the car, you need to pay an additional $400 disposition fee. You also pay a fee for every mile you go over your allotted (and very limited) overall mileage. You’ll pay for dings and dents, tires, brakes, cracks, rips, tears, the list goes on. Some of these are inevitable, but a lot can be avoided.

The Exterior

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Layer of dirt from condensation and outdoor parking.

The outside of your car is the first thing people see. Keeping the exterior looking new is a key way to keep your lease return costs down. I live in an apartment with outdoor parking. I cannot garage my car at home or work. This leaves my car in a vulnerable state. Not only does the paint get battered with UV rays constantly, but I often find my car covered in a layer of dirt.

When the temperatures come down at night, the moisture in the air condenses onto the exterior of my car and leaves it glazed in water droplets. As the winds blow, dirt and debris gets blow around and sticks to the film of water on the car. When the water eventually evaporates, the dirt stays put. Of course, this cycle happens every 24 hours. This layer of dirt builds up and stays on the car’s paint and any time you touch the car, it scratches your car and can sometimes scratch rather deep, damaging the car’s paint. If you do not have a garage for your car, consider using a car cover to protect your car when it is unused. They’ll protect the car from dirt, moisture and the bleaching rays sun.

The Interior

The interior of the car is where you spend the most time in your car. Regardless of how nice your exterior may look, if your interior is in rough shape, it may cost you at lease return time.

To keep the interior looking as new as possible there are a few things you can do. Unfortunately for me, some of these things I’ve only discovered in hindsight, so learn from my mistakes!

Fading

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Example of fading from sun exposure.

First things first, the sun doesn’t just damage your exterior. Unless you have tinted windows, the UV rays can slowly, almost imperceptibly, fade your interior and eventually cause the materials to fade and crack over time. There are a few ways you can avoid this problem. First, you can get sun shades to help block out the harmful UV rays while your car is parked outdoors. It also helps keep the temperatures down on a sunny day, making it more comfortable when returning to your car. Fading can happen on your dashboard, seats, carpets, and virtually anywhere the sun can shine. Another thing you can do is tint your windows. However, tints can be very expensive and cannot be transferred to your new vehicle, and can sometimes also result in fees upon return. Luckily there are low-cost and easily removable DIY tint kits available on the market. These have come a long way over the years and are easier than ever to install and remove when it’s time to turn in your wheels.

Staining

Unless you’ve got some fancy leather seats, chances are you’ve got cloth or fabric upholstery. These materials are stain-magnets. As a result many people try to avoid eating or drinking beverages in their cars to prevent spills and stains. However, if you wear the most popular lower-body garment in the world, AKA jeans, you’ll also have problems with staining from that also. An easy way to prevent any and all types of stains is to get some sort of seat cushion or seat cover to protect the upholstery from staining. Plus, it helps against fading also.

Drivers seat, jeans stains.

Drivers seat, jeans stains.

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Passenger seat, limited seat-time, minimal staining.

Carpet Floor Mats

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All-weather floor mats keep your car’s floor boards clean.

Most cars, whether you buy they or lease them, will come with carpet floor mats. Typically the cost of the floor mats is already calculated into the price of the vehicle. I personally prefer heavy duty all-season floor mats and these are available by the manufacturer. However, they are expensive! I paid over $200 for a set of all-weather floor mats for my leased vehicle. I kept the carpet floor mats in a safe spot so I can put them back in when I return the car. The good news is, there are a variety of different, quality aftermarket floor mats out there. From rugged all-weather rubber floor mats to comfortable carpet floor mats, to custom fitted, model specific liners. No surprise, these options are a bargain compared to the cost of the factory floor mats and work just as well, if not better. Keeping the floor boards and original floor mats clean and new will help maintain that brand-new look you need when returning your lease.

Smells

After driving my car for a few years, I’ve noticed some odd smells coming from my AC vents. When taking the car in for a check up, it turns out that the AC evaporator was getting moldy, which results in a foul-smelly odor being blown into the cabin. This is apparently a common occurrence for many cars. The service center wanted $150 to clean the evaporator and replace the cabin air filter. That’s a huge price to pay for a minor fix. The easier way, of course, is to simply buy some air fresheners. These will usually eliminate the bad smells. To go in and actually fix the problem, you can easily search the web for how to clean your evaporator and replace your air filter. It cost me just under $20 and about 20 minutes of my time. That’s a lot better than $150 to pay someone to do the same thing. Though I’ve never heard of anyone getting charged a fee for bad smells, it definitely doesn’t hurt to have the car smelling nice to offset any doubts that the car has been mistreated.

Final Thoughts

Leasing a car can be a good way to get into a car. It’s a great option for some, and unrealistic for others. For those who do lease, it’s important to understand the subtle intricacies of leasing a vehicle. This was my first, and probably last, time leasing a vehicle. Looking back, there were a few things I could’ve done to save me some money down the road. It can become a costly experience for unsuspecting first-time lessees, but luckily there are plenty of options and alternatives to keep the vehicle in top shape and lease return costs low.

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