Consumers shopping for a new set of wheels are increasingly choosing to lease, rather than to own, their cars.
The boom in leasing is being driven in part by fierce competition for buyers, lower monthly rates for leases and a hot used car market, experts said.
But some in the industry are concerned that with the rise of leasing, manufacturers and lenders are assuming more of the financial risk.
Dealers in Sonoma County are seeing more drivers who like to change up their high-end cars every few years and early adopters who want to keep up with the latest advances in electric vehicles.
At Silveira Buick GMC, the volume of leases has doubled in the last year, said co-owner Scott Silveira.
"People are asking about leases, because they're aware," Silveira said. "They see the payments manufacturers are advertising on TV or in print. You can get a lot of vehicle with just a little out of their pocket."
Nationwide, leases accounted for a record 27.5 percent of all new vehicles financed during the first quarter, up from 24.4 percent in the same period a year ago, according to Experian Automotive, which tracks data on auto sales. Just four years ago, less than 17 percent of new cars were financed through leases.
So, why do monthly payments for leases look so small?
Those monthly payments typically cover the car's depreciation and interest, but cars haven't been depreciating very much. Since used cars have been in demand and selling for higher prices, the leased cars are expected to sell for good amounts when the lease period — typically two to three years — is up. The higher the resale value at the end of the lease, the lower the monthly payment. That leaves a market where the monthly payment to lease is often cheaper than the monthly payment to buy the same vehicle.
"The manufacturers are really, really pushing for it," said Roberto Galvez, general sales manager for Henry Curtis Ford. "Obviously to them there's a benefit of having them come back two or three years down the road. And one of the ways they're accomplishing that is with absurdly low rates."
Bryan Eddinger, owner of Adrenaline Zone, a Santa Rosa sporting goods store, wanted to buy a BMW Z4 convertible for his business. He decided to lease, which gave him a chance to try it out before committing.
"It wound up being more affordable that way," Eddinger said. "Instead of car payments of $600 or $700 a month, it wound up being about half of that.
"I can see why people are leasing, because if you are short on cash, you can get a nicer car for a short period of time," Eddinger said.
Walking into a dealership, many buyers are taken in by the lower monthly cost of leasing, especially when they can't or don't want to make a large downpayment.
But there are other costs to consider. Consumers should know in advance what it will cost to purchase the car at the end of the lease. There are also fees to consider, such as title and registration fees, or an "acquisition fee" which may be charged if a customer buys a car at the end of the lease. Interest rates also vary from one deal to the next.