Always be sure to ask how to get out of a car lease before you get in one

Car keys on lease papers

Here is the key question every consumer should ask before leasing a car:

What happens if I want to get rid of the car before fulfilling the term of the lease?

That is to say, if your lease is for 36 months and you need or want to get rid of the vehicle in 28 months, do you have a way out?

Short of parking the car in your bank's parking lot and walking away -- a truly bad idea -- there is no simple way to terminate an auto lease early.

You can negotiate a return with the leasing agency, but that can cost thousands in penalties and fees.

That's why, unless you have a very clear understanding of exactly how many months you want to drive the vehicle, you should finance rather than lease.

But let's face it, stuff happens and life situations change.

Even if you were sure when you signed the lease that it was exactly what you needed, you can suddenly find yourself in a car that no longer fulfills your requirements or that you can't afford. Yet you may still have months or years left on your lease.

What can you do?

The best time to determine the answer to that question is before you sign the lease.

I was on the phone recently with John Sternal of LeaseTrader.com, a service specializing in matching people who want to assume short-term leases with those who want out of leases with time left to go.

Our conversation drifted to early lease termination. He said that all leasing companies aren't created equal. Some are much more user-friendly than others.

This is true whether you want to sell your leased car to a third party or transfer the lease.

A few leasing companies don't allow customers to do either. When you are in a jam is exactly the wrong time to discover your leasing company won't cut you any slack.

So when considering a lease, make it a point to ask if the lease can be transferred without penalty, as well as what the leasing company's policy is on selling the car to a third party if you need to terminate early.

Have the agent you are working with point out the areas on the contract applying to penalty-free transfers and third-party sales.

Don't let yourself get stuck if your life situation changes.

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