Big-city dwellers ask: Should I rent or buy a car?

Sara Stewart, Special to CNNPublished 4th August 2020
(CNN) — With no end in sight to pandemic lockdowns, an increasing number of cooped-up, big-city dwellers are feeling the lure of the open road. After all, if you can Zoom from anywhere, why not do it from everywhere?
Choices abound, from car-share services such as Zipcar to traditional rentals to ownership. Eventually, the question becomes: Should you keep renting a car or take the plunge and lease or buy as the pandemic plays out?
For one or two weekend getaways over a couple months, renting may seem the most logical course. For more frequent road trippers, though, buying might make more sense.

The experts weigh in

For many people who live in densely packed cities such as New York City, San Francisco, Chicago and Toronto with strong public transportation systems and nightmare street traffic, it used to be an easier decision. But as with so many things, the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown new wrinkles into the personal calculus.
Having a car to yourself and your family now has a personal safety component that wasn't there before. But which way to go?
People who don't have cars need to decide if they should rent or own.
People who don't have cars need to decide if they should rent or own.
Getty Images
To help weigh the options, CNN Travel enlisted Consumer Reports' Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at the Auto Test Center.
"I would absolutely encourage people to run the numbers," she says. "It depends on the frequency with which you're going to travel. If you're going every weekend, you may lean toward ownership."
She estimates a typical rental to be somewhere between $75 and $150 a day -- "that goes up the nicer the car." Buying a used car, taking a $20,000 price tag at a six-year, 2%-interest loan, would cost a buyer around $295 a month, she says.
But you'll need to consider several additional factors if you go that way.
"Car ownership isn't just the price of the car," she says. "There's insurance, maintenance and in a city environment, parking is at a premium, so you're going to pay for that, in many cases." Plus, she points out, there's the time investment of having to sell the car when you're done with it.
Stockburger points potential car owners to a recent Consumer Reports list compiled with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, targeted at younger drivers. "It's a tailored list of safe, reliable, high-performing vehicles," she says. "Even though we developed it with teens in mind, it's a great list for anybody."

Team buy

Zachary Thacher, owner of the boutique digital agency, was a New Yorker who took the plunge into ownership before the pandemic -- and saw the move pay off for him when things shut down. An adventurer who frequently made weekend trips, he'd gone from using Zipcar for in-city errands, and occasionally renting, to leasing and then buying a 2016 BMW.
"I used SwapALease, a marketplace where you can find people who are trying to offload their leases, and then you apply to be approved as the new lease holder," he says. "I highly recommend it. I took over this guy's lease, I didn't have to pay the initial down payment, and he had one year left, which gave me a year to try it."
At the end of the year, he negotiated a purchase. Thacher says renting didn't make sense for him in the long run.
"If you want to go away for longer than three or four nights, it really gets expensive," he says. Rentals, which could run $150 for a day trip, often seemed prohibitively expensive.
"But if you own the car, you're kind of motivated, because you've invested in it, and you want to maximize your investment," he says.
Rental cars are convenient, with no long-term commitment.
Rental cars are convenient, with no long-term commitment.
Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Team rent

Many people, though, will find rentals are still the most financially sensible, not to mention lowest-stress, solution during the uncertainty of the pandemic.
"My vote would be to rent," says Stockburger. "It gives you the option to pick a car that suits your needs for whatever the trip might be, without all the stuff that comes with car ownership. I absolutely encourage people to run those numbers."
Peter Dangerfield, a publicity executive at Universal Pictures who's also based in New York, can attest that car ownership sometimes isn't worth the hassle. In the course of a three-year lease, he found he was mostly using his car to run errands in the city, and paying around $900 a month, all told.
Even during the lockdown -- and at home enough to be able to utilize alternate-side street parking -- he says he wouldn't lease again.
"I'd still rather just rent a car when I want to use one," Dangerfield says. "It isn't that big a pain. You show up, it takes 10 minutes, you get a car." Plus, no worries about parking, or making sure you're using it enough to justify ownership.
Finally, sticking with renting is also a commitment to the urban environment you live in.
Many cities have shut down streets during the pandemic to maximize personal spacing. "I think most cities would discourage ownership," says Stockburger, "because they want you on mass transit, and they don't want the emissions."
Ultimately, it's a calculation that will be slightly different for everyone. At least one thing's certain: Given the current state of affairs, you've got all the time in the world to sit down and do the math.