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This bumper scratch resulted in a $180 wear and tear charge. Before you lease a vehicle, you should ask about the specific return requirements for your lease, as there are variations among the car makers.Philippe Devos/The Globe and Mail

It seemed recklessly easy. My wife came home and, somewhere mixed among recounting of the banalities of her day, she casually mentioned that she'd traded in her Honda Accord coupe and leased something better suited to the family we were trying to start.

For someone like me, who was still deciding which complex algorithm to use to sort through the models and financing options for the vehicles we were considering, this seemed as ill-advised as betting our future on 32 black. A few days later, we were handed the keys to a brand-new Honda CR-V and – for almost no money down, nearly zero interest and a promise to make an easy monthly payment and drive fewer than 96,000 kilometres – we had entered into our first-ever lease.

Four years, 93,476 kilometres, one 18-month-old, one rear-end fender-bender, a chipped windshield and parking dings to each of the four corners later, it was time to hand the keys back, and suffer payback for the ease of entering into a lease: our first lease return, with the requisite vehicle inspection and arbitrary "excess wear and tear" charges.

After getting the fender-bender damage repaired through insurance, and a half-price detailing job inside and out, our end-of-lease inspection left us with an invoice for $1,980.08. We were charged for a chipped windshield, a scuff to the front bumper and tires that didn't match the specifications of the originals. But, they didn't care about the rusting scratches on the rims, the touched-up stone-chips on the hood or the ding on the passenger door.

Haggling twice on the phone with Honda convinced them to accept our out-of-spec replacement tires and drop the $1,084.80 charge for replacements. A wear-and-tear credit for leasing another Honda saved us another $452, leaving a final bill of $443.28.

These are lease-return tips gleaned from among the things we did, and should have done, according to auto-industry professionals.

  • Ask about the specific return requirements for your lease, as there are variations among the car makers. Some leases only require a visual inspection of the car before it’s returned. Others demand a test drive, receipts for maintenance such as oil and filter changes, and more. Don’t trust the dealer to know. Most leases are between you and the car maker, so it’s best to ask the dealer for the number of the car maker’s leasing department, and get the info from the source.
  • Ask about lease-damage insurance and consider whether it’s right for you. Many leases have an option that allows you to prepay a fixed fee, usually about $1,000-$1,500 so you don’t have to worry about penalties for paint scrapes, stone chips and other minor cosmetic damage. It can save you money and hassle if your car spends a lot of time parked on the street, or in public lots where it’s hard to avoid such dings.
  • Ask the dealer and the maker of your current car about any loyalty incentives. Many dealers and manufacturers offer rebates, preferred financing rates, damage credits and other perks for leasing another car with them, instead of their competitors.
  • Ask about the maintenance schedule for the vehicle you’re choosing, and the fee for each service. Over the course of a typical lease, your car will require several oil changes, and probably a fresh set of filters and belts. It may also need an engine tune-up, a brake job and more. You’re responsible for the maintenance of the car during the lease, and a vehicle with demanding maintenance requirements can add considerably to the costs.
  • Choose an easy-to-clean upholstery in a neutral colour, such as grey and tan, that will hide stains for which you’ll be charged
  • Ask the dealer to throw in some touch-up paint, to quickly repair minor chips and scratches.
  • Drive off the lot in your brand-new vehicle, and head straight to your favourite auto-supply shop for some protection. Floor mats are a must. But if you have kids, or pets, or you’re as messy as either, you’ll need seat covers and more.
  • While you’re at the auto shop, check your new tires. Car makers can save a few bucks by scrimping on rubber. If yours are from the bargain bin, consider getting new ones now and keep the original duds for the end of lease, when you’ll be charged if the tires don’t have enough tread left. Also, some companies will not accept winter tires on a return vehicle, or will only accept them in winter.
  • Keep track of all the original keys, and the owner’s manual. You’ll need these at the end of the lease.
  • You’re responsible for the upkeep of the vehicle, which means you have to stick to the maintenance schedule. It doesn’t mean you have to pay dealer service prices. Some service tasks, such as changing the air filter, can be easy enough for anyone to do. For tasks beyond your skills, any certified mechanic is acceptable, but keep records and receipts for the lease return.
  • Defensive driving isn’t enough. Consider defensive parking. That spot near the mall entrance is going to see a lot of other cars coming and going while you’re shopping, and that’s a lot more chances at damage. A lonely spot at the back is less risky. If street parking is your only option, hug the curb, pull your mirror in, and find the spot next to the fire hydrant gap where at least one end of the car won’t have another pulling up to it.
  • Don’t delay dealing with mechanical or manufacturing defects, however minor, so you don’t miss the warranty period.
  • Body damage that makes the car unsafe, or risks growing worse (think rust, or windshield chips) should also be fixed as soon as possible. But if it’s minor cosmetic damage you can live with, wait as long as you can. A door costs the same to repaint, whether it’s for the first scratch or more that come later, and body work is less expensive when done all at once. If it’s an insurance repair, most policies allow up to a year to make the repair.
  • If you’re close to the maximum kilometres, go see your dealer. They might take the lease off you early at a favourable rate in order to get you into a new car.
  • If you’re worried that a long road trip will put you over the maximum kilometres, consider putting those kilometres on a rental car instead. But do the math. The excess kilometre charge on your lease is often less expensive than a rental.
  • If you have any damage to repair that’s covered by insurance, get that done before the end-of-lease inspection. The body shop may be able to make other fixes under the claim.
  • Consider having your vehicle professionally cleaned inside and out before the return inspection. Deep discounts are often available through Groupon and other online coupon companies.
  • Book the vehicle inspection as early as the lease-return rules allow, so you have lots of time to deal with any issues.
  • Some lease returns are transparent. Others less so. Insist on seeing a copy of the inspection report, go over each item thoroughly with the lease department and ask what it takes to resolve each issue. Then, get a few quotes to decide if it’s cheaper to have it repaired yourself, or pay the charge.
  • If the tires are deemed to have excess wear, you’ll be charged for four brand-new ones. Go to a used-car dealer instead, and buy a pre-loved set with enough life left in them.
  • If you changed the tires during the lease, there could be a replacement charge if they don’t match the exact specifications of the originals. Take this up with the lease department, as they’ll often relent if replacement tires have higher specifications than the originals or are within an acceptable range. They’ll only accept the original rims though, so don’t change those.
  • If there’s minor damage to repair, avoid costly auto-body shops, and look for detailers and automobile refurbishers that do paintless dent removal and specialize in touch-ups rather than full repainting for minor scrapes and scuffs. A used car dealer can tell you where to go.

See our gallery of Philippe Devos' Honda and what wear-and-tear damage they had to pay for here: Related contentIn pictures: The lease of your worries