Is Your Leased Car Actually a Gold Mine?

Soaring used car prices are yielding deals for lease-holders

Woman sitting in front seat of car leaning out window grabbing keys from someone else
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When Anthony Asuncion of Princeton, New Jersey leased a 2020 Nissan Leaf in February 2021, he had no intention of making a profit. 

But after paying $160 a month to drive the car through December, Asuncion found that his car had increased in value dramatically, and was now worth far more than its residual value—the amount that Asuncion could buy it for from the leasing company, per the terms of his contract. In fact, he had the right to buy the car for $20,995, but it was actually worth $25,375. He chose to sell it and pocketed $4,380, which was more than enough to cover the monthly payments he’d made. 

“I wasn’t expecting to make money,” Asuncion said in a social media direct message. “I thought I would actually lose a bit if I returned the car because of my mileage and wear.” 

What Asuncion hadn’t counted on is that the used car market has been turned on its head by the pandemic. As of June, used car prices were up 53% since February 2020, according to the Consumer Price Index report released this week. The price spike has completely reversed the normal logic of car leasing, which is that, when you lease, you’re paying the leasing company for the depreciation—the amount of value the car loses over the time you’re driving it. Depreciation is calculated as a percentage of the Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price (MSRP).

“For some reason, no one ever considered that cars could actually hold their value or even appreciate,” said Pat Ryan, CEO of auto market website CoPilot. 

Key Takeaways

  • With a lower car supply due to computer chip shortages, used car prices have spiked by 53% since before the pandemic.
  • Many lease-holders are finding that their car is actually worth more now than its residual value, per their contract.
  • You can make money off your leased car if you can sell it for more than its residual value, either through the lessor or by buying and selling the car on your own.

Because car manufacturing has been hobbled by a shortage of computer chips, vehicles are in short supply. Prices of used cars have risen so much that in many cases, individual vehicles are worth more than they were a few years ago, despite all the wear and tear. 

In fact, the typical car leased in 2019 was worth $7,208 more than its residual value as of February 2022—a 33% increase, according to a recent analysis by car data site Edmunds. Certain vehicles did even better, with the Ford Mustang being the best among mainstream options. It saw a 68%, or $11,852, increase. If you’re a lease-holder, you have a unique opportunity, experts say.  

How To Make Money on Your Leased Car

People with pre-pandemic leases coming due are in a great position, but there are a few things to keep in mind, said Ronald Montoya, senior consumer advice editor at Edmunds.

“If you did get the lease before the pandemic, this was a situation that nobody could foresee,” Montoya said. “I've definitely seen or heard of dealerships that are making more aggressive offers and a lot of people being surprised that they didn't know their car was worth that much.”

When a car lease is due, the person leasing the car has a number of options, including extending it, trading it in for another lease, buying the vehicle at the residual value price, or selling it to a third party through the lease company. It should be fairly straightforward to figure out if you can make money this way, Montoya said: Look at the residual value on your lease, and compare it to the estimated value of your car. Sources for pricing information include Edmunds, other car valuation websites, and online tools such as CoPilot’s pricing research app.

Many leases are structured so that you can arrange to have another dealer or a private buyer purchase the car at the residual value price, allowing you to pocket the difference. However, the lessor usually gets to decide whether to approve these transactions, and Montoya said leasing arms of major automakers are sometimes now denying third-party sales. With vehicles becoming increasingly valuable and in short supply, they want their own dealers to get them, according to Montoya.

“Manufacturers are getting really aggressive about keeping the ownership of the vehicle in their bucket, so to speak,” said Grant Feek, CEO of Tred, an online peer-to-peer car marketplace.

One way around this restriction is to call several local dealers of the same car manufacturer as the model you’re turning in, Ryan said, and negotiate with them armed with pricing information you’ve researched.

DIY Purchase and Sale

Even without the option of a third-party sale, lease-holders can take matters into their own hands by buying the car themselves and then reselling it. Ryan advised shopping around for the best deal, rather than taking the first offer given.

Be sure to research your state’s taxes on car buying and selling, advised Montoya. Taxes could eat into any profits you make in the deal.

For the most part, dealers’ high demand for cars works in the favor of lease-holders, who often get favorable offers, sometimes unsolicited. 

For example, after Asuncion leased his next car, a 2022 Kia Niro, he received an online offer he “couldn’t refuse.” After just five months, he flipped it and ended up with a check for $5,822, well in excess of the monthly payments he’d made.

Both deals have built on Asuncion’s appreciation for leasing, which he favored even before the pandemic as an easy way to get a new car. “I wouldn’t have imagined a world where MSRP was a good deal but here we are.”

Have a question, comment, or story to share? You can reach Diccon at dhyatt@thebalance.com.

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