To Buy or Not to Buy: Exploring the Leasing Option

Automobile leasing has grown in popularity over the past decade, but many people still hesitate to enter into a lease. This may be because there are so many factors to consider that it seems easier to buy a vehicle. Under the right circumstances, however, leas­ing an automobile can save you considerable money, and even taxes. No one can tell you which option is better without knowing your particular situation, but these factors may impact your decision.

How Does Leasing Work?

When you lease an automobile, you only pay for the portion of it that you use, or the amount by which it depreciates. Many people hesitate because, at the end of the lease, they don’t own anything. But, that’s exactly why lease payments are lower than loan payments. You’re not buying the leftover value in the car—you’re buying only what you use.

A lease payment consists of a deprecia­tion charge and a finance charge. The finance charge is much like the interest you would pay on a car loan. The depreciation charge is determined by dividing the value of the car that you use by the number of months in the lease. Without considering the tax effects, the short-term cost of leasing compared to buying is about the same. This assumes that you sell your car after the loan is paid off for its full market value. But as you well know, this is often not the case, especially if the car is used as a trade-in. If you are apt to keep your car for 10 years, then buying may be your best option. What about the tax effects? Ultimately, the tax cost of leasing versus buying may be about the same. However, the timing of when you get the deductions can be greatly impacted by your decision.

Claiming Tax Deductions on Leases

Because you do not own a car that you lease, you are not allowed to depreciate it. You can, however, deduct at least some of the cost of operating a car leased primarily for busi­ness purposes. Keep in mind that you are only allowed to deduct the business portion of the costs of a lease if the car is also used for personal purposes, such as commuting.

You have two options for figuring your deductible ex­pense on a business vehicle that is leased for more than 30 days: the standard mile­age rate allowance or actual expenses method. The stan­dard mileage rate allowance is easier to calculate, but it may provide less tax relief than the actual expenses method if you do not drive a lot of miles or if your car is relatively ex­pensive.

The standard mileage al­lowance is a cents-per-mile allowance that takes the place of deductions for lease payments; vehicle registration fees; and the expenditures on gas, oil, insurance, maintenance, and repairs. The standard mileage allowance rate for business use of a car—leased or owned—is 54.5 cents a mile in 2018. To figure out your deduction, simply multiply the rate by the number of miles driven.

The actual expenses method generally al­lows you to deduct all out-of-pocket expenses for operating your car for business, from lease payments to repair costs. If the car you have leased has fair market value in excess of the luxury vehicle threshold according to the IRS, your deduction is reduced by a so-called “inclusion amount,” which is added to your gross income. This additional sum brings your deduction roughly in line with the deprecia­tion you would have been able to claim as the car’s owner.

Inclusion amount tables in IRS Publication 463 can help you determine the inclusion amount that applies in your case. Because the inclusion amounts increase from year to year in the course of a lease, you may want to consider taking out a lease with a term of no more than two years.

Any advance payments on the lease must be deducted over the entire lease period. If you take out a lease with an option to buy, you can deduct the payments if the arrangement is set up as a lease. If, however, the arrange­ment amounts to a purchase agreement, the payments are not deductible.

Leases—Hidden Traps

Despite the limits on deductions for luxury vehicles, the available tax breaks for business owners are generous enough to make leasing an attractive alternative to buying—especially if you want to change cars frequently. Before you sign on the dotted line, consider the po­tential pitfalls involved in leasing:

Mileage limits: All leases have mileage limits, usually 12,000 or 15,000 miles. If it’s probable that you’ll rack up more miles, you could face costly penalties. Try to negotiate the mileage limit up in exchange for higher lease payments. Or, buy the car.

Open-end leases: In an open-end lease, the residual value is re-determined at the end of the lease. If the residual value is lower than initially projected, you have to make up the difference. Closed-end leases avoid this problem, but your payments may be higher.

Early termination: When leasing, be sure to keep the car for the entire lease period. Penalties for early termination are severe and are usually difficult to get out of. If you’re not sure how long you’ll keep the car, consider a shorter lease term or purchase it.

While laws require dealers to disclose more information on leases, key information can be buried in the fine print or omitted com­pletely, like the interest rate that you are being charged. Be sure you completely understand the terms before signing on the dotted line. Leasing your next automobile can either make a lot of sense, or it can be a big mistake. Your tax professional can help you consider all of the factors and make the right choice.