Looking for a good car lease deal? Get ready to hunt a bit harder than you did a few years ago, as lease payments are edging up at a faster clip than many loan payments.
Sure, qualified buyers can still find a lease at $199 or less a month on select models. But read the fine print, as some deals won't be as good as they were a few years ago.
Leasing is "not going to be quite the value that it was before," said Charlie Chesbrough, senior economist at Cox Automotive, which includes the Kelley Blue Book and AutoTrader sites.
"Rising interest rates do impact the type of incentives manufacturers are able to provide," Chesbrough said.
On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve announced a quarter-point rate hike, once again driving up the cost of borrowing for consumers, business owners and automakers. It is the third rate hike in 2018 -- following five other hikes since late 2015.
The latest move puts the federal funds rate in a range of 2 percent to 2.25 percent.
Another rate hike is anticipated in December. Some experts forecast three more rate hikes in 2019, as well, and possibly one more rate hike in 2020.
Overall, new car buyers increasingly are running into the headwinds created by higher interest rates, pricier new SUVs and trucks, and an escalating trade war that is bringing new rounds of tariffs that will likely boost car and truck prices.
Car companies have been pricing higher interest rates — as well as falling used car prices — into lease deals, too.
The average lease payment has risen by $76 a month — or 19 percent — in the past four years, according to data from Cox Automotive.
In July, the average lease payment was $474 a month — up from $398 a month in July 2014.
By contrast, the average new vehicle loan payment edged up $43 a month — or 8.6 percent — in four years. The average new loan payment was $539 a month in July.
Finding a good lease deal
Make no mistake, automakers would still want to offer attractive lease deals on new model introductions to get those cars or SUVs on the road.
Highly competitive segments — such as big trucks and small SUVs — are likely to continue to offer some good lease deals, too.
Experts at Edmunds.com pointed out a favorable lease deal on a 2019 Ram 1500 Big Horn, Lone Star Crew Cab, 4X2 5'7 box for $249 a month for 36 months with $3,999 due at signing.
Another fairly good deal, according to experts: A $189 monthly lease for 36 months — with $2,964 due at signing — on a 2018 Nissan Rogue S AWD with splash guards, floor mats and cargo area protector.
Yet the Federal Reserve's efforts to steadily boost interest rates has driven several auto brands to significantly raise prices on lease deals for mid- and full-size cars, as well as pickups and SUVs, according to Wantalease.com.
The Volkswagen Jetta, for example, had one of the more notable price increases on a lease. The Jetta offered a lease around $248 a month in August — up 17 percent in the past month, according to Wantalease.
The Nissan Pathfinder had a lease for around $382 a month in August — up nearly 23 percent in a month.
Wantalease calculates what it calls an effective lease payment by taking into account any down payment that might be required, as well as the monthly payment. If you need $3,600 for a down payment, for example, your real cost goes up essentially by $100 a month on a 36-month lease. The idea is to offer an apples-to-apples comparison.
Consumers need to remember, of course, that the best lease deals — as well as the best car loan rates — are reserved for those with higher credit scores.
If one plans to buy or lease a car in the months ahead, it's wise to take extra care with your credit score by paying off some debt and making sure all bills are paid on time.
Deals will only be worse for those with so-so or bad credit.
Why to read the fine print
As rates edge higher, it's likely that consumers will still see eye-catching ads for lease deals. But the fine print of those deals could require higher down payments than in the past, said Scot Hall, executive vice president for Wantalease.com.
Several automakers have made it clear that they are reducing incentives on lease deals, he said.
Hall pointed to two lease deals that allow for 10,000 miles a year — not the 12,000 or 15,000 annual mileage that some might expect.
Hall referred to an attractive offer for a 2018 Acura MDX SH-AWD with a $419 a month lease for 36 months and $3,299 due at signing. The manufacturer's suggested retail price is $47,195. The lease allows for 10,000 miles a year.
And he pointed to a 2018 Chevrolet Volt LT $269 a month lease for 39 months with $3,369 due at signing. The MSRP is $33,220. The lease deal is for 10,000 miles a year.
Higher interest rates "are going to effect every vehicle — whether it's financed or leased," Hall said.
The days of $150 a month or lower lease deals on a wide range of vehicles are ending, according to Ivan Drury, senior analyst for Edmunds.com.
"It's unfortunate for the customer because the mindset is 'I'm looking for a cheap lease,'" Drury said. "Is this now as cheap as my family phone plan? No."
Consumers with 36-month leases that end now easily could pay $40 or so more each month to lease a new vehicle, Drury said.
And if you spot a super low-monthly payment for a lease, make sure to watch out for the fine print. Is the deal for 24 months, not 36 months? If annual mileage is capped at 10,000, how much will you be charged for those extra miles?
Granted, some consumers are paying more each month because they want to buy a more expensive vehicle this time around, say a compact SUV instead of a sedan.
But the Fed's shift to higher rates also comes into play.
Rate hikes effects on borrowers
Consumers are paying higher rates for credit cards, home equity lines of credit and adjustable rate mortgages, as well as car loans.
Since the Fed started moving rates off rock-bottom lows, the average credit card rate has jumped to 17.32 percent from 15.78 percent, according to Bankrate.com.
Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for Bankrate.com, said he's expecting the average five-year car loan rate to hit 5.5 percent a year from now.
McBride said auto loan rates offered by banks and credit unions have been restrained to a degree by the competition among lenders in that market.
But those same forces aren't at play when it comes to leasing. Car companies need to take into account higher interest rates — as well as a tsunami of cars coming off lease and depressing used car prices.
Automakers, of course, need to try to predict what a car would be worth in three years after a lease deal. Going forward, if off-lease cars end up being worth less than in the past, the lease price would need to be higher on newly leased cars.
Leasing has been running at high levels for a few years — around 30 percent of new vehicle sales. More typically, leasing levels have run in the 15 percent to 20 percent range.
As those cars come off lease, the used vehicle inventory has grown, creating better deals on newer used cars. But that trend has also driven down residual values for leased vehicles.
Many consumers who generally would take out a car loan decided they could have a nicer, more expensive new car if they'd lease that vehicle. A year or so ago, they were looking at an average lease per month of $400, compared with something in the low $500 range for an auto loan for an SUV or crossover.
To be sure, Chesbrough noted that some of the bump up in lease payments in the past few years reflects the consumer's willingness to buy a better equipped, more expensive SUV.
The risk, of course, is that consumers may be less willing to buy pricier SUVs and cars as monthly lease payments go up.
"We're in a very interesting time right now in the vehicle market," Chesbrough said.
In the past, some consumers have been able to game the system and wait it out for a better deal. But experts say that seems unlikely at this point, given the overall health of the economy and the trend for rising rates.