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Some three years ago, US carmakers leased about 3.3 million vehicles, just over 23% of US sales to individual buyers.

The business was good. Cars were holding their values and carmakers expected to sell them at a tidy profit when leases ended in two or three years. Cars were still popular, making up half of the nation's sales, reports AP.

In 2014 Infiniti, for example, leased more than 28,000 Q50 luxury sedans for as little as $329 per month in a growing US market. The leases accounted for more than three-quarters of Q50 sales.

Now they're reported to be coming back to haunt the carmaker.

Like many companies that increased sales with “sweet” leases during the past few years, Nissan's luxury brand now faces a hefty supply of nice, low-mileage used cars at a time when most people want SUVs.

Coming to a halt

For the US auto industry about 3.5 million vehicles will come off lease this year, after three million returned last year, according to Automotive Lease Guide. These are huge numbers when you consider that leasing all but came to a halt during the Great Recession about a decade ago.

The numbers signal three shifts in the market:

  • lease deals are starting to wane as many companies cut back to control the used car supply;
  • great late-model used cars can be acvquired for a bargain price; and
  • competition from used cars is likely to push down the price of new ones.

Since the lightly-used cars are entering a market that favors trucks and SUVs, the prices will fall, says Jim Lentz, Toyota's CEO in North America.

"It's more difficult to get rid of them," he says. "You're going to have very attractive certified used passenger car payments relative to new passenger cars."

As US carbuyer tastes have shifted to SUVs and demand for cars faded, car sales are now about 38% of the market. As a result, used-vehicle prices tumbled 7% during March compared with a year ago, according to an NADA Guides index. The organization expects them to fall 6% for the full year.

Downward track for leasing

Data collected by Kelley Blue Book shows leasing dropped to under 30% of sales in April 2017 after three years of increases.

Toyota started to reduce leasing in 2015. General Motors cut sales to rental car companies last year to control the used car supply, chief financial officer Chuck Stevens said.

Now GM is reallocating incentive spending away from leases toward conventional financing, as new-car sales are expected to back off slightly from last year's record 17.5 million.

Eric Lyman, lead analyst for Automotive Lease Guide, advises consumers now is a good time to lease a car, before leasing cuts become more widespread. Although he expects the number of vehicles leased this year to stay flat, payments are likely to rise as automakers offer less generous terms.

But it will be difficult for automakers to stick to a strategy of raising lease costs unless they all go along. For example, if Honda leases a midsize Accord for $229 per month, Toyota will have to match the price on the Camry, the Accord's prime competitor, Lyman said.

AP reports Jake Winfield, a maths teacher in Phoenix, as a self-considered beneficiary of the car oversupply. Late last year he bought a 2015 Accord with under 15,000 miles that he believes started life as a lease. He paid just under $20,000 for the certified pre-owned car with aluminum wheels and a moon roof that stickered around $25,000 when new. It was inspected and comes with a warranty. "I was able to get a higher-end car by buying used than by buying new, with my budget," Winfield said.

Ongoing growth trend of off-lease cars

Infiniti likely will take a big depreciation hit on three-year-old Q50s coming back as used this year. An all-wheel-drive premium model with about 36,000 miles on it was listed on Autotrader.com this week for under $24,000. It originally was priced at around $40,000. Nissan says it has plans to manage the influx of Q50s.

Lyman predicts used car prices as a percentage of original sticker price will fall for at least the next three years. The number of cars coming off leases each year will grow through at least 2020, when ALG expects more than 4.1 million lease cars to be returned.

The off-lease cars are attracting even customers with the high credit scores, according to Experian. A decade ago, roughly 49% of prime credit buyers bought used. That's now up to almost 55%.

Lower used-car prices also can reduce new-car prices because buyers won't get as much money when they trade cars in, according to Lyman.

In two or three years, the price of popular used SUVs could fall too, because they're now being leased in large numbers, Lyman says. It may take four years or so, but prices eventually will stabilize as automakers cut new-car production and reduce leasing.

Still, some dealers who sell used cars are skeptical of the falling price forecasts. Paul Ritchie, who runs a Honda dealership in Hagerstown, Maryland, says he and other dealers he recently met with haven't seen a big decline. "We just don't think it's going to drop that much," he says. "Most of the dealers in our group are looking to buy used cars."